Monthly Archives: January 2013

Historical Praise, Historical Put-Down

Kaminksy Cover ImageI was browsing earlier this week in the very fun collection The Founders on the Founders, edited by John Kaminski. If you ever wanted to know what various founding fathers said about themselves or the other founders, this is the place to look.

I was checking to see what other people had to see about John Jay, and I appreciated that many people had good things to say. Most impressively, John Adams really appreciated Jay. When they were negotiating the Treaty of Paris with England to end the Revolutionary War, Jay and Adams shared a common vision, strategy, and effort. John wrote to Abigail:

Mr. Jay has been my only Consolation. In him I have found a Friend to his Country, without Alloy. I shall never forget him, nor cease to love him, while I live. (April 16, 1783)

Several months later, again to Abigail, Adams wrote:

Mr. Jay has been my Comforter. We have compared Notes, and they agree. I love him so well that I know not what I should do in Europe without him. …He is a virtuous and religious Man. He has a Conscience, and has been persecuted, accordingly, as all conscientious Men are. (September 4, 1783)

Not everyone was impressed. Many European diplomats thought they could get to him through flattery and gifts. (Of course, they invariably failed.)

Most insulting, though, came from someone Jay had worked with on the Federalist Papers, James Madison. After party divisions had separated them for many years, an elderly Madison complained to Jared Sparks:

[Jay] “had two strong traits of character, suspicion and religious bigotry.” (April 1830)

In the early republic, that was a pretty serious insult–perhaps especially since Jay had passed away the previous year.

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Celebrating Ben Franklin’s Birthday

Last Friday I had an unusual experience–the chance to celebrate Ben Franklin’s birthday in Philadelphia.

Franklin was born in January 1706 in Boston, but of course he’s most associated with Philadelphia. Every year, the city celebrates Franklin’s life.

This year I was able to attend due to the generosity of Paul Kerry and his affiliated research center. It was quite an experience.

The day’s theme was built around the idea of Franklin as a diplomat.

The morning began with two lectures on Franklin’s diplomacy, held at the American Philosophical Society, which Franklin had helped found. Bruce Kuklick of the University of Pennsylvania suggested that Franklin’s diplomacy blended two streams: idealistic, republican values of openness and diplomacy as serving the entire nation on one-hand and a soft realism that looked to national self-interest. Kuklick suggested that the nation stumbled in the twentieth century when idealistic aims in diplomacy overshadowed and blinded the country to realistic interests. Kuklick handled the past-to-present connections with a pretty deft touch, I thought.

The other lecture was delivered by a scholar of contemporary foreign relations, Edward Turzanski, who drew a few small principles from Franklin’s life before launching into a much more concerted focus on present global realities.

My first observation was that, strangely, the other two significant diplomats from the Revolutionary War–John Adams and John Jay–didn’t get much recognition.

My second was that it’s very difficult to move from historical reflection to contemporary application. Most of the questions from the non-scholarly audience seemed to center around “What would Ben Franklin have thought about this or that contemporary event?” For many, Franklin seemed disconnected from his historical time and place and could offer support for whatever the questioner happened to like in the present.

After the seminar, participants were invited to a procession from the Society to lay a wreath on Franklin’s grave. As an historian, I’ve often read of parades in the streets of Philadelphia–I can now claim to have marched in one. (I was hoping for a session of 13 toasts, which could be reproduced in the newspaper, but was disappointed.) At the grave, we were also introduced to the Franklin reenactor, who would also feature in the rest of the program.

After the procession, we were able to attend a luncheon. The Franklin Society invited former ambassador Jon Huntsman to deliver a key-note address. The talk was rather forgettable, since it still carried traces of all of Huntsman’s stock lines from his recent presidential campaign.

Still, it was an enjoyable day since I got to interact with several scholars and was also able to see Paul Kerry’s recent collection of essays Benjamin Franklin’s Intellectual World. This volume contains essays by Michael Zuckerman, Carla Mulford, Simon Newman, and Lorraine Pangle, among others. It looks to be a great reflection on intellectual currents in the founding era.

Further, it pushed me to think more about connections of past and present and how to communicate this to people who might want to brandish Franklin or any of the other founders as a talisman for a preferred policy.

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Christianity and the Founding

We’re apparently hitting a spate of blog entries about historical books. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since history remains tied to reading and to books.

In America today there remains quite a bit of a debate about the religious character of the American Founding.  This has been an on-going interest of mine and one that has inspired my investigation of the Federalist Party.

It turns out there’s a lot of complexity on this issue. Nuance is required. You can’t give a single, easily digestible answer.

So, is there a way of wading into that complexity? One historian who has done an admirable job is John Fea of Messiah College. John has published a great primer entitled Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. I’ve taught the book in my U.S. history survey course, and I look forward to doing so again. Students have responded well to it. The book is well worth the read, and I highly recommend it.

The Journal of Church and State asked me to write a formal review of the book. They have now given me Advance Access permission to share it. Please follow this link to read the review.

Then, if you want to keep up with John, you can follow his engaging blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

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John Turner and Brigham Young

John Turner, although now living in a religious studies department, is an outstanding historian of American Religion. I’ve previously taught his book on Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ.

John has a new biography of Brigham Young out. (And, speaking of what to read, it’s currently on my nightstand for on-going reading.) It’s been getting great reviews. I hope I’ll have an opportunity to teach it soon.

To whet your appetite, let me pass along a lecture Turner gave this fall at Baylor. The video is here (if that’s not specific enough, select “Lectures” and then Turner’s lecture). I hope you find it as engaging as I did.

John also blogs at The Anxious Bench.

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What to Read in 2013

I saw this a week ago, but it’s still good advice. Ross Douthat makes a suggestion as to what to read in the new year. He counsels:

So use the year wisely, faithful reader. For a little while, at least, let gridlock take care of itself, shake yourself free of the toils of partisanship, and let your mind rove more widely and freely than the onslaught of 2014 and 2016 coverage will allow.

Douthat makes the suggestion to read differently in 3 ways:

1. Read those whose opinions you don’t share.

2. Read broadly on a geographic level. Here, I’m particularly interested in checking out Douthat’s suggestion of paying attention to Walter Kirn. After living in New Jersey, I’m convinced that Douthat is absolutely right that “Even in our supposedly globalized world, place still shapes perspective…”

3. Read those who are marginal to the conversation and exist outside of the Left/Right divide.

As for me, I plan to read up on more foreign policy, paying especial attention to Walter Russell Mead’s blog the Via Meadia and the articles and books Andrew Bacevich.

What do you plan to read in the coming year?

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We’re Back…And We’ve Moved HERE!

It’s good to be back. Now that the Christmas-New Year’s-Notre Dame loss in the National Championship Game haze has cleared, I’m back at work. Work has also calmed down enough to be able to blog.

Immediately after I started blogging at another site, my friend Chris insisted that I should start out right, with a WordPress account. After a quick survey of those in the know, I determined he was right. Rather than invest more time into Blogger, I decided to jump to WordPress. The look is different, but the title is the same: historicalconversations.wordpress.com.

I realize that “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” This move comes not from double-mindedness but from the desire to get the platform right before going any farther.

So, update your pages and your links. I’ll be devoting my time to this WordPress site from now on. And, we’ll aim not to confuse anyone (too much) going forward.

Let’s see what 2013 holds!

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