At some point, every graduate student in history has to read Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross – a large-scale quantitative study of American slavery. I’ve read a lot of history books and I’ve never known another book which provokes such visceral dislike from graduate students as Time on the Cross. They rightly insist that the psychological element of slavery is too important to simply gloss over with massive data banks. Furthemore, the statistics and conclusions that Fogel and Engerman used were, in spots, questionable. For example, using one planter’s record book, the authors argued that each slave was only whipped something like 7.2 times per year and so slavery wasn’t as brutal as its conventional image. As if one severe whipping in an entire lifetime wouldn’t be bad enough. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Read Time on the Cross for yourself – it’s an interesting read, but do so with a critical eye. But in all fairness the data bank used in this book is a truly indespensable historical treasure trove. Time on the Cross  is also one of very few books that I know of which actually inspired a book-length rebuttal from another scholar. I wrote this “classic” review for a class taught by my friend Richard Starnes. That week another student read and reviewed Time on the Cross and I did the same for Herbert Gutman’s equally important Slavery and the Numbers Game.

I’ve not been posting much lately, but over the past three or four weeks, I’ve read Eugene D. Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. I’ve not made time to read every day, but considering it’s length and density, Genovese is not something you read quickly unless you are highly motivated. Nevertheless, I hope to finish it tomorrow morning and have a review read for my loyal reader(s) in the next few days. It’s one of the most important and entertaining books ever written on slavery and I only hope I can do it justice. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this older review.

Herbert G. Gutman. Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975.

When first published, Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s Time on the Cross (2 Vols., 1974) attracted an unusually high amount of attention from the popular media, much of it positive. Time on the Cross presented mounds of numerical evidence compiled from various archives and interpreted through large-scale quantitative analysis. The authors insisted that the traditional view of American slavery was incorrect: slaves worked hard and experienced social mobility, masters supported the creation of strong slave families, and bondsmen internalized the “protestant work ethic.” In fact, American slavery is a story “achievement under adversity” (5). Perhaps the key to the book’s popular critical acclaim lies in the second volume, where Fogel and Engerman present their evidence and complicated mathematical formulas. The authors used a second volume full of complicated formulas so that few could understand, much less criticize their work. Time on the Cross turned out to be a beautiful but flimsy house of cards.

While the evidence seemed impenetrable, Herbert G. Gutman published his own book-length rebuttal of Time on the Cross and nailed Fogel and Engerman to this proverbial cross. Gutman found that the authors’ evidence was non-representative, badly misinterpreted, and deeply flawed. He challenged Fogel and Engerman’s contention that slaves were seldom whipped, that owners encouraged the creation of stable families, and that slaves embraced the protestant work ethic and Victorian sexual mores. Gutman also asserted the authors ignored many important facets of slavery. For example, Fogel and Engerman looked at probate records and invoices from slave sales in New Orleans and found that slave couples moved west together with their owners. Thus, the interstate slave trade related to the opening of the west did not destroy black families. Gutman found this evidence incomplete because Fogel and Engerman did not account for the fact that slave’s spouses were not always owned by the same master. Furthermore, the authors of Time on the Cross did not consider adult parents, extended family, friends, and neighbors left behind when determining whether or not the slave trade disrupted slave families and communities. After looking at these factors, Gutman created his own statistical models and thereby convincingly refuted Fogel and Engerman. This is only one example. Throughout the book, Gutman systematically attacked the authors’ evidence and mathematical formulas. Gutman, however, saved the crusher for his conclusion: Fogel and Engerman asked the wrong questions and used the same conceptual framework of U. B. Philips, Kenneth Stampp, and Stanley Elkins. Instead of asking how slaves helped shape their world, these historians reduced slaves to cogs in a machine who only reacted to external stimuli. While Fogel and Engerman touted their work as path breaking, Gutman found it pitifully outdated.

Gutman’s book is a very careful and convincing analysis of a very provocative book. He has no problem with cliometrics per se, but found Fogel and Engerman’s conceptual approach inadequate. Although Gutman’s mathematical abbreviations for the authors’ names and book title (“E+F” and “T/C”) give the book a sarcastic tone, Slavery and the Numbers Game is an excellent primer for graduate students wishing to use quantitative analysis in theses and dissertations. By showing how easily numbers can be twisted, Gutman demonstrates the pitfalls surrounding quantitative analysis and gives a stern warning for any young academic looking to pursue that path. Moreover, Gutman reminds us that the questions a historian asks are just as important as their conclusions. Unfortunately, Slavery and the Numbers Game did not receive the same popular audience as Time on the Cross. Although they did not intend to, the picture of slavery and postwar black society that Fogel and Engerman depict comes off as declensionist. By getting their facts and approach wrong, hinting that in some ways slavery was better than freedom, and adopting the “blame the victim” (176) approach, Fogel and Engerman have given ammunition to unreconstructed southerners who still use this book to defend the Old South.


Edmund S. Morgan. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975.

It might be tempting for some 21st century Americans to view slavery as something of a historical aberration. Americans who today look to the “Founding Fathers” for historical guidance to modern problems frequently ignore the specter of slavery. It is just easier to ignore, rather than account for, the fact that Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, and many other revolutionary individuals who likewise espoused the republican ideals of freedom and equality still owned slaves, thereby depriving other men of the freedom they held in such high esteem. There’s a certain quality – prehaps best described as squeamishness – that often accompanies discussion of American slavery. In fact, some people would just as soon not talk about it, like it’s a dirty little secret or something. Rather backing away from the “American Paradox,” historian Edmund S. Morgan uses it for inspiration and the product is one of the most profound books that I’ve ever read. Morgan bluntly states that “[t]he rise of liberty and equality in America…[were] accompanied by the rise of slavery.” He goes on to suggest that “[t]o a large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor.” And furthermore, Morgan has no patience for people who would prefer to ignore this inconvenient reality of American history, “This paradox is American, and it behooves Americans to understand it if they would understand themselves.”

Morgan contends that people need to look no further than the state of Virginia to find resolution to this burning paradox and perhaps learn a little bit more about the spine-chillingly insidious origins of the most cherished of American values – freedom.

Virginia was the largest of the United States, in territory, in population, in influence – and also in slaveholding. Virginians owned more than 40 percent of the all the slaves in the new nation. It was Virginia slaves who grew most of the tobacco that helped to buy American independence. And Virginia furnished the country’s most eloquent spokesmen for freedom and equality. Virginia adopted the first state constitution with a bill of rights. A Virginian commanded the Continental Army that won independence. Virginians drafted not only the Declaration of Independence but also the United States Constitution of 1787 and the first ten amendments to it. And Americans elected Virginians to the presidency of the United States under that constitution for thirty-two out of the first thirty-six years of its existence. They were all slaveholders.

These historical truths are right there in black and white for all to see and will make every freedom-loving American cringe. But if you think these facts about early United States history hurt, Morgan’s ultimate conclusions will probably leave you a bit sick to your stomach.

In order to accept Morgan’s thesis – that the rise of freedom in the United States ultimately rested on the institution of slavery – you have to accept the postulate that because Virginia had so many slaves and simultaneously produced so many great early American leaders that a study of the origins of that state will lead you to an understanding of the American Paradox. Many studies of colonial America fall into two categories: New England or Chesapeake (some books combine the two). Morgan is clearly in the Chesapeake category, but there are a number of fine studies on New England that are just as important as American Slavery, American Freedom. Both regions took very different but important paths, and I think it’s safe to argue that both helped form what eventually became known as American freedom. But thankfully for Morgan, a carefully worded introduction and a strong conclusion help him overcome any weaknesses he suffers by making sweeping arguments about the United States by focusing on Virginia and essentially ignoring the other twelve colonies. If you decide to give this book a shot, put aside any reservations you have concerning the Virginia postulate and just enjoy the book.

This is a book that is not easily or succinctly summarized becauseit is very subtle at times and it relies heavily on narrative – I’ll try to do it in around 2,500 words. (If you are reading this book for a college course, I urge you not to plagiarize my review. If you do, I swear I’ll find out, hunt you down, and punch you in the face.) Overall, the book reads as a history of early Virginia. In fact, the first few chapters deals with the era of exploration, English thought on the merits and purposes of colonization, and some of the first efforts to establish a colony in North America. Aside needing a place to send dissenters, many English philosophers felt that colonization would mostly benefit the poor. It would eliminate those individuals who did not work from England and allow them to have land and work in America. With fewer poor in England, there would be less pressure on the government to deal with poverty. Furthermore, the English felt that a benevolent approach towards peaceful Indians would allow them to Christianize the native population. Investors felt sure that British North America would produce the kind of immediate influx wealth that the Spanish enjoyed from Central and South America. With the labor of the English poor and the Indians, and investors footing the bill in hopes of finding riches, colonizers had a blueprint for Utopia.

We all know that this did not happen. “Misunderstandings” with the Indians led to war, aristocrats refused to work, people starved, and investors lost money while searching for natural resources to make them rich. Eventually, and against the wishes of the crown and colonization advocates, tobacco took hold and became a valuable staple crop. Over the course of the 17th century, rich Englishmen bought up tidewater land and began cultivating tobacco, despite the staggeringly high death rate. Planters needed labor and there were two pools of available labor. African slaves, who were enslaved for live, were very expensive investments. Indentured servants from England, usually poor men, were much more affordable although their terms of service (which also paid for their passage) typically lasted seven years. After their service was complete, they were free and could purchase land of their own. With the death rate so high, it made sense to bring more indentured servants to Virginia than slaves. Who would want to purchase an expensive slave who was probably going to die in the first year anyway? In the first few years of the tobacco boom, fortunes were made. While the price soon dropped, it was still possible for a planter to make a great deal of money from the tobacco trade. Because the death rate was high and time was money, labor became the most valuable resource in the young colony. And it soon became exploited – planters had no choice but to push their workers extremely hard in order to get their crops in the ground before their servants dropped dead of disease. Moreover, with such a high death rate (it’s hard to put numbers on exactly what the rate was, but it was well over half), life was cheapened in Virginia. Cheap life and exploited labor certainly laid some groundwork for the system that eventually typified America slavery, once such an institution became viable.

Eventually, the death rate levelled off and Virginia settled down. Tobacco prices generally stabilized. While it was no longer possible to get rich quick, the crop was still enormously profitable. And not just for the planters. Taxes on the plant were relatively high and government officials benefits from this fleecing, with the king getting his fair share. Now that indentured servants were not dying off and were living long enough to become freemen, these Virginians, especially those who did not want to face the Indians on the frontier, found that the best lands were already taken. Some rented farms, while others roamed the countryside. With a heavy tax burden and a rapidly increasing number of unemployed, homeless, and armed young men, Virginia found itself on the brink of a demographic crisis. What to do about these discontented lowlifes who drank too much, did not work, and stole from their neighbors? Eventually, a man named Nathaniel Bacon decided to use this homeless rabble to wage war on Native Americans who lingered on the fringe of the tidewater region. Problem was that the governor, William Berkeley, would not grant Bacon a military commission. To make a long story short, Bacon became the leader of these discontented men who not only raided Indians but also waged a civil war in Virginia and the rebels burned Jamestown to the ground. Eventually Bacon died of dysentery and the rebellion lost steam.

Rather than being a footnote of colonial history (as it typically is portrayed in textbooks), Bacon’s Rebellion is the centerpiece of Morgan’s story. While Morgan does not argue that Bacon’s Rebellion caused planters to consciously begin importing slaves so that there will be fewer poor whites roaming the countryside looking for trouble, he does insist that this happened unconsciously in the years following the Rebellion. The primary reason for the rise of slavery was economic. After the death rate stabilized, it made financial sense to just buy a person for life rather than for seven years. Fewer indentured servants meant that there were fewer poor whites who had completed their terms of services but could not afford to buy land. There were certainly vast numbers of white families that were not fabulously wealthy, but the numbers of desperately poor whites dropped precipitously. This eased the demographic crisis in Virginia and helped society stabilize more than any single factor.

Morgan also reminds us that racism should not be taken for granted as something that people just do. Racism has to be learned. Morgan believes that racism in Virginia can first be found directed against Indians, but it fully flowered against African slaves. Slavery demanded labor to coerced, and so the brutality of extracting labor – which had always been difficult in Virginia to begin with – increased. It seemed easier for Virginians to extract labor more harshly from an alien race. Eventually, the House of Burgesses lumped all non-whites together and outlawed certain racial mixing (particularly sexual) and thus codified racism. Racial animosity put up a wall between poor whites and black slaves and thus unified all whites together in their supposed superiority – what historians, scholars, and writers have term the Proto-Dorian Convention, an insidious concept that lingered far too long into the 20th century.

While race was unifying white Virginians, a new populist strain arose in Virginia society and politics. There are many reasons for this shift and Morgan found that the colony opened its suffrage laws to include most whites, the yeomanry increased in size and prosperity, and whites of all social classes began to believe that they all had the same best interests. Land ownership proved to be a great unifier. Moreover, by the 18th century, people in Virginia accepted that place as their home, rather than England. While they still considered themselves Englishmen, they had no intentions of returning to England with the spoils they had earned as planters in Virginia. Wealthy men began building fine homes, a sign of a permanent ruling class. To be sure, the ultrawealthy still governed Virginia, but they could not do so without the support of the small men. It helped that they all depended on a single staple crop for their financial success- whatever was best for tobacco prices was best for the colony as a whole.

By the final chapter, Morgan has painted a picture of a colony that was socially stable, profitable, and racially unified. But he asks how these same people who owned slaves came to espouse the republican virtues of freedom and equality. He offers a few partial explanations, some of which are more convincing than others. But his big argument lies not so much in Virginia, but in European political theory. Most of 17th and 18th century political philosophers who espoused republicanism felt that a republican government could only be successful if the poor were dealt with. You couldn’t simply give power to the mass of humanity at the bottom of the social scale because they would reduce society to depravity. Some suggested mandatory workhouses and most agreed that making the poor work was the best way to deal with this unsavory group of society. Some political philosophers – “not so much royalists as…the men who drew their inspiration out of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth and out of the revolution that sent James II packing” – stopped short of suggesting that England’s poor simply be enslaved, but some prominent thinkers in England did, in fact, suggest outright enslavement of the poor to safeguard society. If those who were capable of destroying a republic were simply made to work, than freedom could flourish for those responsible enough to handle it.

This leads us to Morgan’s knock-out punch (or finishing move, for all you wrestling fans). The popularity of republicanism in Virginia – and thus the foundations of equality that the United States Constitution rests upon – can be traced directly to the institution of slavery. You see, in Virginia the poor were already slaves. Morgan writes, “It did not necessarily follow that because of those dangers [of giving the poor political power] the poor must be enslaved. But  it did follow that the keepers of republican liberty must be wary of extending a share of it to men who were incapable of defending it and might become a means for destroying it. If the poor were already enslaved, would it not be wise to keep them so? Virginia, in spite of her abundant lands, had already encountered a rebellion of the unenslaved poor in 1676 [Bacon’s Rebellion]. Since then she had gradually replaced her free labor force with slaves and by 1776 she enjoyed the situation that…[leading political philosophers] had wished to achieve…”

And so, there it was. Slavery begat freedom in America. Morgan pushes the reader to understand:

The most ardent American republicans were Virginians, and their ardor was not unrelated to their power over the men and women they held in bondage. In the republican way of thinking as Americans inherited it from England, slavery occupied a critical, if ambiguous, position: it was the primary evil that men sought to avoid for a society as a whole by curbing monarchs and establishing republics. But it was a solution to one of society’s most serious problems, the problem of the poor. Virginians could outdo English republicans as well as New England ones, partly because they had solved the problem: they had achieved a society in which most of the poor were enslaved.

Virginians understood that this presented a paradox. But there were far more comfortable holding the slaves in bondage than emancipating them and threatening the new American republic. And then Morgan, throws out the last, and perhaps most cringe inducing explanation.

One wonders if it [this paradox] might not have been taken more seriously if Virginia’s slaves had belonged to the same race as their masters. The fact that they did not made it easier for Virginians to use slavery as a flying buttress for freedom. The English had come to view their poor almost as an alien race, with inbred traits of character that justified plans for their enslavement or incarceration in workhouses. Almost, but not quite…Anyone could tell black from white, even if black was actually brown or red. And as the number of poor white Virginians diminished, the vicious traits of the of character attributed by Englishmen to their poor could in Virginia appear to be the exclusive heritage of blacks. They were ungrateful, irresponsible, lazy, and dishonest. “A Negroe can’t be honest,” said Landon Carter and filled his diary with complaints of the congential laziness and ingratitude of black men.

Could it be that the racist stereotypes of our society find their origins in American freedom? Is this possible? If you read Morgan’s book, you’ll be convinced that this is indeed the case. And if you aren’t sick to the your stomach and if you don’t question everything you thought you knew about America, then you might fall into the category of those Americans who would just as soon ignore the horrifying ghost slavery in American history than accept the grim reality of the American past. Morgan closes with unsettling questions: “Was the vision of a nation of equals flawed at the source by contempt for both the poor and the black? Is America still colonial Virginia writ large?”

It is unpopular in today’s political climate to insist that the America has such a weak moral foundation. But ignoring these upsetting questions won’t make them go away or make them less relevant to the inequalities of the 21st century.

Yes, I know it’s been a month since I posted anything here on my lonely little blog. I do have valid excuses. Over the past month, I had to focus on studying for the GRE rather than reading. I took the test today and I am happy to report that I did well enough so that I’ll never have to take that the GRE ever again. With the deck cleared and another layoff looming, I can turn my full attention to my reading list. I am almost done with Edmund S. Morgan’s masterful American Slavery, American Freedom (in fact, I hope to finish it in the next few days and post a review by next week). Up next on the list is Eugene D. Genovese’s classic Roll, Jordan, Roll, a tome on slavery that is still ranks among the most important books on the subject nearly forty years after its publication. I hope that, with the GRE out of the way, I can use this blog more regularly. So stay tuned.

For now, you’ll have to be content with another of my so-called “classic” reviews, this one a 1200-word review that I churned out when I was a graduate student. I just reread it and while I thought it was better when I first wrote it than I do now, it’s not half bad. And for the record, if you think you might be interested in George Rogers’ book on Charleston and do not consider yourself an academic, I do recommend it. It’s a thin volume, it reads well, and there is a lot of interesting information here about the history of a city that I love. And if you’ve ever been to Charleston, you probably love it too.

George C. Rogers, Jr. Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys. 2d ed. Columbia, S. C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1980.

During the colonial era, Charleston was among the most important, richest, and cosmopolitan cities in British North America. Around 1820, however, the city began a slow decline into provincialism which today remains a hallmark of the so-called “Holy City.” In 1969, George C. Rogers, Jr. published the thin but masterful, Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys. Each of Rogers’ chapters follows a specific theme: economics, openness, sensuousness, the mind of the city, the drive to join the union, and finally, succession. Rogers argues that economic growth, geography, and mercantilism made Charleston extremely rich and cosmopolitan. For this reason, Charlestonians gladly supported joining the union after the American Revolution. By 1860, Charleston had become a closed city marked by ancestor worship, racial tension, and extreme provincialism which led to city becoming a hotbed of secession. Historians in the twenty-first century will likely criticize Rogers. Essentially the book is about white elite males, with little attention paid to slaves, women, and the lower classes. Despite such criticism, Rogers’ book is excellent based on the historiographic paradigm of the late 1960s, and his work provides an excellent overview of the rise and fall of Charleston between 1720 and 1820. More than anything else, however, the book provides a template for present day historians to understand the city of Charleston during its golden age.

Rogers begins with an examination of the economic base of the city. He cites the numerous advantages Charleston possessed during the eighteenth century. Geography played a major role in the rise of the city; not only did it exist in a central location on the South Carolina coast, but the presence of nearby rice and indigo plantations benefited the burgeoning economy. In addition, trade winds sent London ships to various Caribbean islands, then to Charleston, where the ships then sailed to eastern ports before returning to Britain. In this mercantilist economy, a wide variety of professions flourished in the city including trade, shipping, law, retail, and most importantly, slave trading. Charleston experienced economic development during the various colonial wars and through piracy thereby allowing merchants to become incredibly rich. Because of this growth, many different peoples came to the New World through Charleston, and some put down roots, creating a true cultural melting pot. Nevertheless, so many different people entering such a hot and humid city created many public health emergencies. Fires, hurricanes, and disease made life in the young city perilous, but it also created a city open to new ideas including literature, the arts, and political theory. Trade profits also helped build some of the finest homes in America, many of which still stand proudly two centuries later. Members of the Pinckney family were among the most important leaders that South Carolina produced between 1720 and 1820. Thanks to elitist intermarrying in the city, the Pinckneys and their progenitors became rich, powerful, and influential in early American politics. Although there were some divided loyalties in this clan, many of the Pinckneys supported the Federalist Party and two even signed the United States Constitution.

Around 1820, the city began a long decline from which it has never fully recovered. Along with the rise of the backcountry and the placement of the state capital in Columbia (the only place in the state hotter than Charleston), the rise of massive cotton plantations in the black belt and the emergence of other port cities damaged Charleston commerce. After Denmark Vesey’s failed slave rebellion, the fear of servile insurrection became pathological among whites in the city, leading to a closed society. The thriving Charleston Library Society never recovered from the American Revolution, and after 1820, many elites openly questioned the value of education. Rather than looking to the future, which Charleston clearly did not have, citizens began to exalt their past and began a long tradition of ancestor worship that is still very common today. The arts community in Charleston, also in full decline after 1820, began producing works that romanticized the city’s history and produced portraits of Sergeant Jasper and other Revolutionary heroes. By 1860, the city was so inward looking that it spearheaded the southern drive for secession.

The material not covered in this book is reflective of the historiographic changes of the past forty years. Although Rogers does discuss the development of the Gullah language and other aspect of black culture in lowcountry South Carolina, African peoples remain largely silent in the narrative. Women, likewise, are also shadowy figures in the book. In the past forty years, historians have widened their focus to include the margins of society and, in this light, Rogers’ books seems somewhat dated. Consider, however, Rogers’ rich descriptions of Charleston homes which includes a thorough examination of food, architecture, and even slave quarters. Using these descriptions – which Rogers’ based largely on probate records, paintings,  travel accounts, and even recipes – a historian using material culture analysis could augment scholarly understanding of race, class, and gender in this era. For example, slave quarters in the city were often in close proximity to the master’s house. Could examining these structures reveal in the influence of African architecture on Europeans, or vice versa? Do the races living so close together have any effect on gender roles?  Possible questions inspired by material culture are legion.

This book could prove very foundational in Atlantic World studies because Rogers discusses many of the different groups that migrated to Charleston during the colonial period and even analyzes the importance of the individuals who sent their sons to England academies. Not only did this create many different accents in Charleston (all preludes to the southern drawl), but this movement across the Atlantic created a bustling heterogeneous urban center. No group that migrated to Charleston was ever the same after spending time in the Holy City. Blacks created Gullah, European peoples borrowed from each other, and Native Americans became involved in the booming mercantile economy. England, also, was never the same after the founding of Charleston. Not only did Charleston become obscenely wealthy, but London merchants fattened up in the process.

There are other examples that demonstrate the book’s use for Atlantic world historians. Consider these two sentences: “Tastes were as diverse in origin and delightful in results as were [the] sounds [of the city]. The ingredients of the South Carolina diet came from the entire Atlantic and Mediterranean world: Jordan almonds, port, Madeira, sherry, lemons and oranges from Spain, champagne, curaçao, and grenadine syrups – benne seeds from Sierra Leone.”Not only are these items coming to Charleston, but rice, indigo, and other Carolina products were also going to these far off places. Furthermore, the ways in which migrant groups settled certainly influenced the culture of the city. French Huguenots, for instance, continued to speak French well into the nineteenth century and created an ethnic pocket for themselves. Many wills, titles and deeds in the city archives were, indeed, written in French.

The academic climate in which Rogers wrote played in an instrumental part of shaping the content of this book. This paradigm only allowed the author to discuss, primarily, rich white men and their role in creating Charleston society. But the things that Rogers simply described for the benefit of his audience (housing, food, the arts, and religion) indicate the enduring value of this book. Because so many different groups travelled to Charleston during the Atlantic era, it is a place that historians cannot refuse to ignore, and the book presents a roadmap that many historians have used, and many more should consider.

David Hackett Fischer. Washington’s Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

If a history professor offers a course in American Military History, standard fare at just about any college or university of any size throughout the country, that instructor can expect the class to fill up very quickly – perhaps on the first day of registration. If that course is on the Civil War, expect the course to close in thirty minutes. Much of the programming on the History Channel that actually tries to pass for history is military oriented. If you go to Barnes and Noble and look in the history section (always an anxiety inducing experience for me), you’ll notice that military history is overrepresented because it sells better than, say, social or political history. An interested observer will typically (but not always) find that the consumers of such history are overwhelmingly male. The reason for the popularity of military history among men is pretty obvious – until very recently men have dominated the military and  war is considered by many to be a subject that is inherently masculine. You know, testosterone, rifles, and cannons – it makes perfect sense. Beyond the shadow of gender bias, the exalted place of the United States military in the American psyche, the natural drama of combat, the sheer historical power of war, and other subtle factors make Americans crave military history. You’ll find among a fair number of academic historians, however, a bit of snobbery towards studying the seemingly endless details of military history (for example, there are huge tomes written just on portions of the Battle of Gettysburg). Not just the wide popularity of military history, but some scholars feel that military history lacks the intellectual and methodological rigor of some of the more theoretically based subfields of history. Military history is still dominated by very traditional historians – I’m still waiting on the Marxist or the postmodern interpretation of the Battle of Cowpens. Instead of reevaluating evidence using new or exciting methodologies, these guys argue with each other over small points on battlefield maps, fighting over which is the most important or who was the best general. It’s not that this somehow not legitimate, it’s just that it is, well, played out. We all know how Gettysburg and Iwo Jima ended – what more needs to be said about it? While war is very important to history, historians today write about how war influences society (and visa versa) rather than studying the mind numbing details of important battles.

David Hackett Fischer reminds us in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington’s Crossing that the details of battles and the decisions of generals have far-reaching reverberations beyond boring military history volumes. Most importantly, however, Fischer’s book is a true tour de force because it captured the shocking importance of contingency in history, “in the sense of people making choices, and choices making a difference in the world.” More than simple human choice, Washington’s Crossing makes it convincingly clear that it’s often the small things that matter. While this is certainly true in history in a general sense, it is especially true in military history. For example, the world we know today might not be possible if the roads near Trenton, New Jersey had not been so muddy when Cornwallis attacked Washington’s army in January of 1777 because it slowed down the British Army and allowed the Americans ample time to harass their enemy and prepare a good defense. After reading this book, it dawned on me how unpredictable history is and how much the details really matter. Sometimes historians throw stories into their books to use as charming anecdotes. Fischer tells us that during the Battle of Trenton, James Monroe was struck by a “muskett ball which severed an artery.” Troops carried the future president from the field, but Monroe was loosing blood rapidly and facing certain death if a doctor could not be found with all possible haste. As it happened, however, a New Jersey physician, one Dr. Riker, happened to volunteer the night before the battle and fell in with in Monroe’s company. Riker rushed to Monroe’s side, clamped the artery, and saved the commander’s life. Riker’s quick decision to join the fighting at the last-minute is thereby surprisingly signficant when you consider Monroe’s lasting importance in tracing the course of American foreign relations.

Fischer does not harp on this and other small details or try to explain their significance in a dramatic kind of way. Rather, he is more subtle and lets the narrative make the point that the complex web of contingency is a major driving force in shaping the past. The question of agency (the power of individuals to change society) versus structure (the power of society to control individuals) is one of the eternal questions that is posed to first year graduate students (it was even the theme of one of my comprehensive exam questions). There are a number of really good books that argue that structure is far more important, but Fischer’s book is the most convincing monograph that I’ve ever read that argues in favor individual agency. As alluded to above, it certainly helps that this is a military history book – battles and wars, by their very nature, often hinge on the smallest of details. And this fact highlights a weakness in Fischer’s argument (the importance of contingency is basically his thesis). It’s not always so simple to apply these principles to other subfields of history, but Fischer clearly intends his book to a clarion call for other historians to build their narratives in a similar fashion. I think there is a ton of potential here, but it remains to be seen if Washington’s Crossing will inaugurate a new historiographic paradigm that stresses the overarching importance of contingency in history. There are a number of books that stress the agency of subaltern individuals and groups (women and African Americans, for example), but very few that really delve into important historical nuances quite like this book. It’s a great approach, especially for Fischer’s subject, and other historians would do well to try to ask how small decisions individuals make alter history outside of military operations.

There are also a number of details and diversions in this book that will add to the general readership’s understanding of the Revolutionary War. In grade school, all American children learn that when Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night of 1776 and attacked Trenton the next morning, the Americans fought German soldiers, the Hessians. While many children erroneously learn that the Germans were sleeping off a drunk that morning, we don’t really learn anything in school about who the Hessians actually were. They remain shadowy figures to most modern Americans, just more mercenaries looking for treasure in the New World. Instead, Fischer uncovers one of the largest and best armies in the entire world (for a country its size) with excellent leadership and highly trained soldiers. We meet the soldiers and the leaders and find that the Hessians were in fact very decent people – and 23% of them decided to stay and make America their home after the war. Fischer also takes the time to teach us more about the British Army, although there are fewer revelations in that area. It became clear, though, that the Britain clearly had one of the finest fighting forces on the planet with excellent commanders and, combined with the Hessians, they presented a formidable opponent for the American Army.

After being driven from Long Island and New York City in the Fall of 1776, the war looked to be over. British generals would simply use their superior army to defeat the small and green American forces. Something major needed to happen or the American rebellion would crumble before the end of the year. After the daring expedition across the Delaware River, Washington learned through his success in New Jersey that a general engagement with the enemy was out of the question and he could instead attack strongly in small places and harass the enemy with minimum risk. Washington’s decisions, and those of the people around him, transformed the war. It would not be about fighting in the open with honor and valor, but instead became simply about winning because this was a fight over independence. Those who waged it felt it rose above the specter of politics. Valor be damned – independence or tyranny was at stake. Because the Americans had so much territory at their disposal (they could keep retreating forever it seemed) and the correct strategy of avoiding a large-scale stand-off, the British found that subduing their opponent would not be possible without extraordinary measures. Thus, decisions from individuals like Washington, Howe, and Cornwallis take on great importance. When combined with the agency of individuals in the volunteer armies (on both sides), we fully grasp the importance of contingency in history.

The irony is that Fischer’s earlier work, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York, 1989), ignored contingency and stressed the importance of culture over individuals. I must admit that I’ve never actually read Albion’s Seed, but I’ve read enough reviews and talked to enough people who have read it to feel like I already know the book pretty well. Basically, he’s argued that cultural artifacts from Britain have, in large measure, shaped American culture and American history. Many people have called that book “deterministic,” which is like the kiss of death for a historian. That means the scholar is ignoring nuance and instead is looking at the past with a kind of tunnel vision. While many people liked this book, Fischer received some harsh criticism from his colleagues over Albion’s Seed. In some ways, I think that Washington’s Crossing is a pointed response to his critics to show that he was indeed a versatile historian and that he could write a different kind of book.

Whatever his motivations, we should congratulate Fischer for giving American readers a riveting historical monograph that is accessible, entertaining, and educating while simultaneously being a major historiographic achievement that will keep historians talking for decades. As long as they don’t pigeon-hole this great book as a masculine snooze fest about battles – because it is much more than that. In the end, it’s a great book about people who made tough choices and, in certain ways, the world we know today is the consequence of their actions.

At some point over the past two years, I cancelled the virus protection on both my laptop and my desktop computers. I won’t get into the reasons why because it involved a disagreement with another person whom I vowed I would never use this blog to defame. Antivirus software is a lot like insurance – you buy it hoping you never have to use it and if you go without it for a long time and don’t need it, complacency sets in. But if you get caught without it, you really wish you had it. Just like living without insurance for your heath, home, or auto, eventually you will pay the price for not having some kind of virus protection for your PC. For the past six months or so, I have been meaning to purchase TrendMicro, Norton, or some other brand of security software, but I haven’t had any viruses for a long time and it’s easy to put off paying $50 a year for a service you haven’t needed in a while. When my streak of good luck ended on Thursday night, I was, shall we say, less than pleased. I was blaming everybody I could think of for this turn of events: the aforementioned individual I will not defame, the punk who wrote the virus, and even the antivirus software companies for charging so much for their service. When I woke up on Friday and I realized that my system really took a hit and I would have to go through the great hassle of  formatting my hard drive and reinstalling Windows and all my software I became very irritable. I was snapping at everybody for everything – all over something that was really my fault.

This annoyance with the computer virus was magnified when you consider that I haven’t really felt like myself the past few weeks. I try to be very open about the fact that in the past few years I’ve dealt with moderate depression. Those of you who are close to me know why, and it’s something of an understatement to say I’ve had my difficulties since 2008. Over the past six months, I’ve done a lot to transform myself and this has dramatically improved my mental state. I have improved the stress level of my day-to-day life, I’ve started eating right and exercising, and I make it a point to do things that will keep my mind sharp (ie: reading scholarly monographs, writing in my blog) for the day my exile ends and I return to academia. For the past few months, I had been feeling really good and even went off of my antidepressants. On May 7th, however, I was temporarily laid off from my job at the Furman University Dining Hall because they need less help during the summer. Financially, it’s not easy, but at least I am drawing unemployment. But I’ve found that without the structure of having to get up in the morning and go to a job, the wheels fall off. I sleep too much, become lazy, and eventually depressed. Thankfully, I go back to work in a week to work during Furman’s robust camps and conferences schedule. Relief from the lack of structure is on the way, but that’s really not the issue if you’re thinking big picture. The fact is that I am not where I want to be in life – which is back in school pursuing my academic career. There are days when getting where I want to be seems so far away that it be should be measured in light years. 

There a few steps I need to take. Obviously, I have to reapply to graduate school, which involves filling out forms, sending out writing samples, writing personal statements, have transcripts mailed, and visiting schools and professors. But the first thing I need to do is take the GRE. This week I scheduled the exam for July 20 (at 1 p.m.) and the stress has become visceral. Basically the GRE is like an advanced version of the SAT that you have to take in order to be admitted to just about any graduate program. I have studied and memorized close to 500 relevant vocabulary words to address my weaknesses on the verbal section. But the math section is another matter entirely. I sat down on Saturday afternoon and cracked open the GRE prep book and turned the math section. An hour later, I felt overwhelmed and was near tears. It’s been 9 years since I took the GRE, 13 years since I’ve taken any math class, and 16 years since I’ve had any algebra (a key skill set on the GRE). I have long since forgotten how to execute most of the quantitative problems on the test. I became angry and was snapping at people (my poor mama) and acting like a complete jackass. Suddenly I had decided that I wasn’t going to be able to do well enough on the GRE to get into a good graduate program and so I would be stuck cooking pizzas for the rest of my life. Combine that with my frustration and lashing out over the computer virus and I was really in rare form. Does this sound silly to you?

I guess we all get like that from time to time and, clearly, I needed a break. I went and exercised, which included walking two miles briskly and running one. It cleared my mind and helped me to realize that perspective might be the most important thing to have when you are dealing with a rough patch in your life. In reality, the GRE is just one small hoop I have to jump through on the way to getting a Ph. D. I might not be a math whiz, but I’m not stupid either. Yes, I’ll be able to become proficient enough to score moderately well on the math section. Furthermore, most history programs look at the verbal score more than the math – so why was I acting like a jerk over something that doesn’t really matter all that much in the big picture? Because I lacked perspective. I didn’t lose anything on my computer. Nothing. So why was I letting a computer virus make me an ass when I really only had myself to blame? Again, no perspective. It’s not that big of a deal. Don’t take yourself so seriously, Chris. Geez.

What’s more, I have much to be excited about. I am doing SO much better than I was this time last year. While getting what I want out of life is not yet in my grasp, I am much closer than I was twelve months ago. In early June of 2010, I had just completed my MA, and pretty much crawled across the finish line, lucky to have finished in one piece. Since then, I’ve published a peer-reviewed article, which will go along way when it comes to grad school applications. Furthermore, I have completely cleaned up my diet, gotten in better shape (always a work in progress), and lost in excess of 80 pounds. This has probably added 20 to 30 years to my life. I feel better physically than I’ve ever felt. If a year ago, you’d told me that I’d even be capable of jogging a mile I would told you that you were crazy. The strides I have made concerning my health really can’t be measured and I’m very proud of what I have done. While my personal life still has really messy and confusing moments, quite frankly I am so much better in that area than a year ago that it’s really hard to describe in words.

Perspective – it’s a wonderful thing. It can turn you from a gloomy and depressed malcontent to hopeful, confident, and downright effervescent individual.

Now, if only I could do something about the Cubs. But, hey, I’m not a miracle worker.

Jon Butler. Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

When I was writing a review of Jon Butler’s Awash in the Sea of Faith in graduate school in the winter of 2009, I went through several drafts. At one point, I had an opening sentence that went something like this: “If revisionism were a religion, Jon Butler would be the chief priest.” I eventually settled on something else (I recycled that review for my latest classic review in case you are interested in reading it), but Awash in a Sea of Faith really left an impression on me and I most admired Butler’s in-your-face style of revisionism that took no prisoners and challenged the reader to seriously reconsider the past. With that in mind, I started reading Becoming America with certain expectations. In this later book, Butler argued that changes in British North America between 1680 and 1770 constituted a revolution and thus “shaped the Revolution of 1776, including the social and political upheaval unleashed by independence.” Butler was quick to point out that these changes did not cause the American Revolution, but asserted that changes “created a new society with a distinctive economy, politics, secular life, and religion.” Moreover, other “more subtle and more difficult to elicit” historical changes “created a new public and even private culture, simultaneously willful, materialistic as well as idealistic, driven toward authority and mastery.” Butler cites five broad areas of American life that experienced change and thus rendered the society of the British mainland “modern”: ethnic and national diversity, the emergence of a dynamic domestic and international economy, a political system that foreshadowed modern participatory democracy, the development of a materialistic culture, and religious pluralism. Butler provided a chapter on each of these topics and then a final chapter where he summed things up. There is a lot of useful information in this book that is mercifully short – just under 250 pages. If you are looking for revisionism on the scale of Butler’s other work, you will be sorely disappointed. While I cannot speak for the author, I think that Butler’s goals were less revisionist and more synthetic – that is gathering up decades worth of historical writing and synthesizing it all in one narrative to therefore give historians a jumping off point for future inquiry. Butler does a heroic job of sorting through years of research and writing from scholarly journals, monographs, dissertations, and essay collections and presenting the information in a cogent and readable format. Gordon Wood called this book a tour de force. I, on the other hand, found the book rather bland and disappointing – sort of like going to a fancy restaurant and ordering an expensive steak that turns out to overcooked and underseasoned.

I think much of the problem lies with Butler’s synthetic approach. It is clear to me that the book was intended to pull together a vast array of historical research. While I am by no means an expert on the era in question, I have read a number of the very articles and books that Butler drew from. Take, for example, Butler’s first chapter entitled “Peoples.” Here Butler gives a broad overview (too broad in my opinion) of the various groups in America in 1680 and those that arrived over the course of the next 90 years. Historians have written a great deal about this very subject. Scholars have also endlessly debated what effect economic changes had on the colonies and if they were indeed signs of an emerging capitalist economy. Likewise, academics have produced volumes of material on colonial politics and religion. Material culture analysis has emerged over the past few decades and become an interesting field of inquiry for historians with have anthropological impulses. In short, what Butler’s chapters have in common is that they are all synthetic historiographic overviews that find their origins in the research of other historians (let me clear – there is nothing necessarily wrong with doing this). The problem I find here is that Butler did not put forth any section of the book (save his conclusion) that was uniquely “his,” methodologically or conceptually. Or, put another way, Butler did not set his own research agenda and so the whole book feels forced to me. I don’t feel the passion from Butler that I felt when I read Awash in a Sea of Faith. Instead, what we have here is a sometimes dry and tedious monograph that helps iron out a few historiographic wrinkles, but doesn’t open up any new or exciting doors for the field. Moreover, Butler’s thesis hinges on the five elements that went into making Colonial America “modern.” The author did not actually define what he meant by the term modern (if this book had been a doctoral dissertation, he would have been made to define that important word if he wanted to graduate). Are these five elements – ethnic diversity, dynamic economies, materialism, religious pluralism, and participatory politics – the only indicators of a “modern” society? Or are they even recognized as such by some kind of historiographic consensus? Modernity means many different things to many different scholars – Butler’s modernity is not the same thing that a scholar of the industrial revolution would write about. Overall, I think Butler is convincing that in the 90 years between 1680 and 1770 British North America was transformed by the factors he described, but I think he simultaneously oversells and undersells his hand at the same time. There are five generally well-argued chapters that do seem forced and yet at the same time I wanted new evaluation of evidence that offered something groundbreaking like Butler’s earlier book. The result is that Becoming America is both heavy-handed and sadly disjointed.

There are still more objections to raise to some of Butler’s specific points. I’ll discuss one of them. In Chapter One, Butler takes time to discuss different European immigrants to North America in all of their ethnic diversity: Germans, English, Scots, Irish, French, and Jews. He discusses various Indian tribes broadly and, if nothing else, acknowledges their great diversity even if he doesn’t really give them the treatment they deserve. And Butler discusses people who were forced to immigrate from Africa to be slaves in North America. He contends that “after 1700 and down to the American Revolution, Africans constituted the largest group of arrivals in the colonies and outstripped all European immigrants combined.” To discuss a half-dozen or so groups of various European immigrants and then to lump all Africans into one group is absolutely infuriating because Butler knows better. While he does mention a few of different African tribes in one sentence, he mostly talks about African immigrants so monolithically that you would think they were all basically the same if you didn’t know any better. The continent of  Africa was (and is) extraordinarily diverse. Furthermore, the regions of Africa that supplied slaves to North America were ethnically diverse. There was an emerging historical literature on this subject when Butler published Becoming America eleven years ago. Later, in the chapter on religion, Butler finally acknowledges the diversity of African in a sort of off-handed way when describing an African “spiritual holocaust.” In a way, this acknowledgement of African diversity came so quickly, I wondered if he wasn’t throwing it in there because of negative comments from peer-reviewers. More clearly acknowledging the diversity of African slaves in America would allow Butler to explain that underlying the experience of slavery were conditions that made human bondage even more difficult because of uniquely African cultural considerations. For example, slaves were often grouped in slave ships or on plantations with people from other ethnic groups. It’s one thing to be a black slave in the South in 1750 – quite another if you consider some of the people on the plantation where you are forced to work might not even speak the same language you do or, worse yet, might come from a tribe that was recently at war with your own. In addition to African political hatred, cultural and religious differences abounded among slaves. When you consider that, it understandable that a pan-black identity took at least a hundred years to develop among slaves in the South and the forced mingling of these often hostile groups could help explain why blacks experienced Butler’s spiritual “holocaust.” Little cohesion would certainly not lend to the survival of religious systems. If you are interested in this topic, the best book on the subject that I’ve read is Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill, 1998). Be warned that this is a good book, but it is very difficult reading in places (especially the introduction).

I have to remind myself to be very cautious to not be overly critical towards Butler – I always try to be even-handed when I write these things. Butler is a really great historian and much of what we know about American religious history has dramatically changed because of his research and writing. I was hoping that Butler could catch lightning in a bottle and do that the same with Becoming America that he did with Awash in a Sea of Faith, but he fell short. Nevertheless, I have to admit that Butler’s efforts simply to synthesize and potentially redirect a vast array of research is something that few historians could have accomplished much better. Perhaps  my misgivings with Becoming America have more to do with the business of synthesis than with this book specifically. I certainly hope so and I will remember Butler for his brilliant revisionism in Awash in a Sea of Faith rather than this courageous but otherwise disappointing effort.

Normally I post my “classic” reviews randomly. I usually just want to post something on my blog and I go through my old files until I hit on one that I feel like sharing. There is actually a specific reason I’m posting my old (and upon rereading it, rather uninspired) review of Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith. I am currently reading Butler’s Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776 (2000) and I can’t help but be astonished at stark differences of the two books – Awash in a Sea of Faith is in-your-face revisionism that makes the reader reconsider everything they think they know about America’s religious origins. It is truly a masterpiece and is on most comprehensive exam reading lists throughout the country. Becoming America, which I will likely review for this blog in the next week or so, is very readable and broadly appealing, but quite dull when compared to the other book. I’m not done with Becoming America just yet, so I had better hold off judgment for now. But so far, I think I’m going to be disappointed with Becoming America if I choose to tease out these comparisons.

You’ll have a few days to wait to see what I end up doing with my review of Becoming America, but until then I hope you enjoy this review of Awash in a Sea of Faith that I wrote for Richard Starnes’ course on Nineteenth Century America. I highly recommend the book to anybody interested in America’s religious origins – a topic that always seems relevant to 21st century political and social discourse in the USA.

Jon Butler. Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith is nothing if not provocative. In a carefully framed study, Butler effectively lays to rest any historiographical assumptions that American religious history has been a story of declension. Where historians and laymen have seen Puritan New England as the high point of American religiosity that later declined after 1700, Butler finds that between the founding of British North America and the Civil War, American religious history is a story of ascension. Although Awash in a Sea of Faith is perhaps designed as a wake-up call to those who suggest that American was founded as a ‘Christian nation’ and call for a return to a mythic past, the book is also a historiographic revelation. Perhaps the most important piece of Butler’s work is his definition of religion: “[a] belief in and resort to superhuman powers, sometimes beings, that determine the course of natural and human events” (pg. 3). For Butler, religion transcends organized religious bodies and their various theologies. Religion can include witchcraft, the occult, astrology, and a host of other ideas. These various religious beliefs, as Butler defines them, had deep roots in Europe and still remain with us today. This definition allows him to seriously look at links between the occult and Christianity in a meaningful way.

Butler finds that by 1700, the survival of American Christianity was in grave danger. There were simply too many different religious beliefs and groups in British North America. Declension seemed inevitable. There were some early religious successes, the most important being a systematic “spiritual holocaust” (pp. 129-30) that quashed religious systems from Africa. While minimizing the importance of the Great Awakening, Butler stresses that the successful establishment of Anglican and Congregational denominations before 1776 proved critical in maintaining Christianity in the colonies. This success, Butler insists rested on the coercive power of religion, a theme he frequently returns to throughout the text. While the Revolution threatened religions, they would thrive in the antebellum period. Various religions such as Methodism, Mormonism, slave belief systems, and spiritualism displayed syncretic tendencies that made their radical elements more mainstream but still ensured religious heterogeneity. Finally, disestablishment of state religion, the ratification of the First Amendment, and the increasingly bureaucratization of various denominations, led to and protected the polyglot of voluntary religious organizations that typified the nation on the eve of the Civil War. 

Butler’s definition of religion is sufficiently inclusive enough to allow him to undertake such a vast study. Discussions of the occult, dreams, magic, and Dissenters make it clear that early America was extraordinarily diverse beyond innumerable Christian sects. The title of the book perfectly captures the religious reality of early America: turbulent, incredibly vast, and seemingly headed for disaster. Furthermore, the subtitle indicates the outcome of this turbulent diversity: America ultimately became Christianized, but never in a homogenous or monolithic sense. Butler’s definition, while it allows spectacular analytical possibilities, also presents problems because of its inclusiveness. Any omissions of important groups or religions become glaring. For example, the role of Native American belief systems in shaping American religion, as Butler defines it, is almost entirely neglected. Any work dealing with the period before 1815 must give due perspective to the Amerindian influence on both white and black society.

All reservations aside, Awash in a Sea of Faith succeeds in posing as many questions as it answers. Butler’s book, unlike any other recent monograph, sets an agenda for the study of American religion. On a fundamental level, Butler forces historians rethink just what constitutes ‘religion.’ No less important, by turning out focus away from Puritan New England in favor of the complex religious diversity in early America, historians will find that Butler’s ascension thesis offers a great amount of opportunity for further historical inquiry.