What We're Talking About: A MAHG Reading Roundup 3

BySarah Morgan Smith
On July 9, 2019

Every summer, TeachingAmericanHistory brings together scholars and teachers from around the nation to our campus in Ashland to enjoy week-long seminars on focused topics in American history and government. These courses can be taken for graduate credit, or simply for your personal enrichment — some participants describe the experience as an “intellectual retreat” where they can enjoy both conversation and collegiality.

If you aren’t able to join us in person this summer, we hope you’ll consider joining us in spirit by checking out some of the myriad texts we’ll be discussing. If you’re reading along, we invite you to join the conversation using #TAHreading to share your thoughts!


The American Revolution: A History, by Gordon S. Wood (Modern Library, 2003).

Clocking in at fewer than 200 pages, Gordon Wood’s short history of the American Revolution is essential reading for anyone interested in learning more about the birth of the United States. Amateur and professional historians alike will find something new and useful in this concise and precise rendering of the Revolution’s origins, battles, and social and political aftermath. For example, did you know that although only nine colleges existed in America by 1776, sixteen more were established over the course of the next twenty-five years? I didn’t. This fact alone reveals something true and beautiful about the uniqueness of America and Americans. A new nation founded on the principles of self-government, unlike all other nations that had ever existed in the history mankind, requires citizens be educated in those principles. Without this education, citizens will not be able to maintain their democratic republic through succeeding generations, and the success of the American experiment in self-government will fade out over time. Wood’s narrative not only stresses the importance of that education, but contributes to it in a much-needed way. All this and much more comes through in Wood’s brief yet brilliant rendering of the American Revolution, without ever collapsing into ‘history lite.’ It is a delightful little book that is a great pleasure to read. See more of what we’ll be reading on the class syllabus.

David Hadley and David F. Krugler, THE RISE OF MODERN AMERICA

David Hadley: I’d like to recommend an essay that we’ll be using an excerpt from Randolph Bourne’s The State. It is a fascinating consideration of the effect of war on a democratic society. Perhaps most famous for Bourne’s observation that “War is the health of the state,” Bourne wrote during World War I to explain the contradiction between the U.S. goal of making the world safe for democracy and the increasingly restrictive policies of the U.S. government at home amid the rising tide of anti-German sentiment. Differing from many progressives of the time, including his former teacher John Dewey, Bourne argued that the war could not be made to serve progressive ends; the war had its own logic, and while the power of the government might increase in ways the progressives approved, ultimately the war increased the symbolic power of the state in ways previously unknown in the American experience.  The elevation of the state as the symbol of the nation, Bourne feared, could damage American democratic traditions.

Bourne died in the 1918-19 influenza pandemic while still refining “The State”, leaving an incomplete but still deeply considered and provocative essay behind him. One need not agree with all of his arguments or observations (as I do not) to find in it important questions about the meaning and potential implications of the United States’ rise as a global military superpower. See more of what we’ll be reading on the class syllabus.

Cara Rogers and Sarah Morgan Smith, COLONIAL AMERICA

Cara Rogers: When I teach the history of the Puritans and slavery, I use four primary texts that the National Humanities Center conveniently placed side-by-side in a combined document. Students read an antislavery pamphlet by Samuel Sewall (who was the only Salem Witch Trial judge to publically apologize for that affair), the counter-attack from proslavery Puritan John Saffin, a rebuttal by Sewall, and finally the compromise position taken by Rev. Cotton Mather. The Sewall and Saffin arguments are presented on the same pages, in two columns, so that students can easily see how Saffin attempted to rebut Sewall’s antislavery positions point-by-point. Because these Puritan writers were attempting to persuade their readers by utilizing stories from the Bible, students who are familiar with Christianity will quickly be able to engage with the relative strengths and weaknesses of the pro- and antislavery sides. I also encourage students to come to their own conclusions regarding whether or not Christian scripture approves, condones or condemns owning slaves, and this approach has led to robust classroom debates that both help students to understand the perspectives of the 1700s and to recognize the ways in which the Puritans’ arguments still resonate today.

Sarah Morgan Smith: Among the things that I like best about this class is the chance to highlight the connection between the ideas undergirding the seventeenth century English revolutions and the later American Revolution. Focusing some attention on colonial understandings of the overthrow of the Stuarts (first in the 1640s and then again in 1689) helps remind us that Jefferson, Adams and the rest were part of a much longer tradition of political resistance theorizing that had deep theological roots. We’ll be reading some of the 17th century texts directly, but we’ll also take a quick peek forward into the 18th century with Jonathan Mayhew’s classic Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers. Mayhew preached the sermon on the 100th anniversary of the execution of Charles I, and he uses stirring theological arguments to remind his auditors that those who threaten their liberties are not only their enemies, but also the enemies of God, who ordained government for the good of humankind. He draws his rationale for political resistance not merely from the need for self-preservation, but from a deep sense of piety. See more of what we’’ll be reading on the class syllabus.


Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980)

During Week 3, I am teaching Religion in American History and Politics, which, in general, surveys encounters between conventional religious beliefs and institutions (Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, etc.) in American political life.  But there’s another way of thinking about “religion” in American political history that is equally important but not always conceived of as religious: the practice of sacralizing and ritualizing elements of American culture and civic identity; what Robert Bellah labeled civil religion.  It is civil religion that gives Americans a collective sense of transcendence about what it means to be “American.”  To the extent that we treat our national symbols, heroes, and “holy days” with reverence and awe, we are participating in the rites of American civil religion.  

Charles Reagan Wilson’s classic, Baptized in Blood, gives us a deep dive into the ways southern culture following Appomattox shaped and solidified its own distinct civil religion. A body of sacred myths—fueled by evangelical revivalism—provided a foundation for postbellum southerners to explain the meaning of the Civil War to themselves in ways that both softened the trauma of defeat and allowed them to suppress the moral difficulties of its origins in slavery.  This “religion of the Lost Cause” gave the south a distinctive (and distinctively religious) character and system of values that still has resonance to this day.  In an age of outrage over kneeling at the national anthem and rising demands to remove Confederate monuments, Wilson’s nearly forty-year-old guide to civil religion’s power is as relevant and helpful as ever.  See more of what we’ll be reading on the class syllabus.

Mack Mariani and Sarah Burns, THE CONGRESS

Mack Mariani: I can think of no better source for a study of Congress than The Founder’s Constitution. Essentially this text provides the original source material that the Founders’ drew upon when crafting and debating the U.S. Constitution. The material is organized around each clause of the Constitution, so you can get a sense of the ideas, history and arguments of the Founders that went into each particular provision.

We have one reading that comes directly from The Founder’s Constitution, which is a section of Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention on the debate over apportionment. Students can access the entire Founders’ Constitution online or they can also get bound paperbacks of the five volumes for a reasonable price from Liberty Fund.

Reading Madison’s Notes on the Convention helps one understand why so many people revere the Founders.  The Founders were extraordinarily well read and thoughtful about the decisions they were making.  They drew heavily on history and political philosophy, applying lessons from these sources to the problems of the day.  The depth and complexity of the Founders’ arguments is something to marvel at, particularly when placed in contrast to the comparatively low quality of the arguments and debates that seem to dominate contemporary politics. Madison’s Notes also give us a sense of the Founders as politicians and the fact that the Constitution can be viewed as a product of compromises made by politicians who were very aware of the interests that they served. 

Sarah Burns: I would also add Herbert Storing’s excellent (and short!) book called What the Antifederalists Were For. Although The Federalist Papers always gets top billing, having some knowledge about the Antifederalists will enrich one’s appreciation of the period and the depth of the dialogue among the Founders. Storing is an expert in the Antifederalists, having compiled their works into a collection. See more of what we’ll be reading on the class syllabus.


Lucas Morel: Two readings for the course on the “History and Literature of the Civil War” focus on how Americans should remember the Civil War. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who delivered  the “Memorial Day Speech” (May 30, 1884), and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who offered the “Dedication of the Main Monuments at Gettysburg” (October 3, 1889) were veterans of the War, both having fought for the Union side but coming to opposing opinions on the significance of that cataclysmic event for later generations of Americans. Their reflections upon the meaning of dying for one’s country and the importance of the American experiment in self-government raise similar questions about our current debates over Confederate monuments and  institutions named after slaveholders, as well as the ongoing debate over “the Lost Cause.” Why is the cause of the Civil War still a debated subject, and how could this inform current discussions over the justice of slavery reparations?

Kathy Pfieffer: The questions Lucas raises have an interesting parallel in post Civil War literature, particularly in popular short stories that tried to shape the legacy of slavery.  On the one hand, the tales in Legends of the Old Plantation, written by Joel Chandler Harris (a white Southerner) tended to romanticize antebellum plantation life with nostalgic depictions of the kindly, genial Uncle Remus and his whimsical stories about Bre’r Fox and Bre’r Rabbit. In Harris’s fiction, everything was better before the War. Harris’s idealized vision was later reinforced through the Disney adaptation Song of the South, where beloved old Uncle Remus was so happy he broke into song — “Zip-A-Dee-Doo Dah.” By contrast, when African-American writer Charles Chesnutt crafted his Conjure Tales, he set the former slave character Uncle Julius firmly within the context of Reconstruction, with all of its broken promises. While Uncle Julius’s storytelling is masked in the quaint dialect and clever turns of phrase that characterized the tales of Uncle Remus, the stories themselves depict brutal violence and family separation, testifying to deep despair.  Chesnutt’s vision challenges us to consider whose voices, and whose stories, are amplified, and asks what is lost when we silence, diminish, or suppress the painful parts of our history. See more of what we’ll be reading on the class syllabus.


Core Documents Collection: Women's Voices in Religion in American History and Politics

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