Daniel Rodgers on As a City on a Hill

Rodgers“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” John Winthrop warned his fellow Puritans at New England’s founding in 1630. More than three centuries later, Ronald Reagan remade that passage into a timeless celebration of American promise. How were Winthrop’s long-forgotten words reinvented as a central statement of American identity and exceptionalism? In As a City on a Hill, leading American intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers tells the surprising story of one of the most celebrated documents in the canon of the American idea. In doing so, he brings to life the ideas Winthrop’s text carried in its own time and the sharply different yearnings that have been attributed to it since.

How did you come to write this book? 

Like many book projects, this one began when with a sense of surprise. “We shall be as a city on a hill” has been part of the core rhetoric of American nationalism since the 1980s when Ronald Reagan began using it as a signature phrase in his speeches. In modern times, it is virtually impossible to discuss the “American creed” and the main themes in American civic culture without it. Like other teachers of American history, I had taught the Puritan text from which Reagan had taken the phrase to hundreds of students. “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop had titled his “lay sermon” in 1630. Here I said, with the confidence of repeating a rock-solid certainty, lay the origins of the idea of special, world-historical destiny that had propelled American history from its very beginnings.

But I was wrong. The closer I looked at the text that speechwriters, op-ed contributors, preachers, historians, political scientists, and so many others thought they knew so well, the more I began to realize that the story of Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” held a string of surprises. Rather than running as a continuous thread through American history, Winthrop’s text had almost immediately dropped out of sight where it stayed, unread and unimportant, for generations. When historians and social commenters revived it two and a half centuries after its writing, they did so in the act of making it into a radically different document than it had been at its origins. Winthrop had placed a plea for charity and intense mutual obligations, not greatness, at the heart of his “Model.” How had this core meaning been lost? How had Winthrop’s sense of the acute vulnerability of his project been replaced by confidence that the United States had a unique and unstoppable mission to be a model to the world? How had this story of forgetting and remembering, erasure and revision, reuse and contention actually unfold? It was when these puzzles began to accumulate in my mind that I realized this book about the continuous reshaping of the past needed to be written.

What exactly did John Winthrop mean by “a city on a hill,” then?

The chasm between Winthrop’s use of those words and what they were claimed to mean when his “Model of Christian Charity” burst into public notice in the mid twentieth century is immense. On the eve of the Puritan settlement of New England, Winthrop meant the phrase “we shall be as a city on a hill” as a warning. As he used the words, a “city on a hill” was a city exposed to the “eyes of all people;” it was a place of high conspicuousness. To live there was to live under the critical scrutiny of a God who might, in a moment, make it a “story and a byword through the world.” There was nothing comforting about it.

At its best and most demanding, Winthrop’s “Model” had urged, the mission of the Puritan project in America was to realize a mutual “charity” deeper than any modern society had yet achieved. It was to be a community where the temptations of unrestrained commerce and self-interest would be held in check by an ethic of love and mutuality. He and his fellow New Englanders fell short of that ideal, as the book’s sketches of some of the early New England recipients of Puritan public charity show. But Winthrop’s “city on a hill” promised, nonetheless, a radically different future than capitalist America was to realize.

When Winthrop’s phrase was reinjected into politics at the end of the twentieth century, it stood not for mutual love and obligation, not for the rules of fair lending and public responsibility for the poor, but for the cornucopia of goods and liberties that the United States was destined by history to spread to the rest of the world. It stood for the uniqueness of the United States among all other nations. It radiated the power of modern American capitalism. It reassured Americans in a globalizing world that their mission was timeless. How had a warning morphed into a conviction of enduring greatness?  How had a vision of a charitable society been reimagined as a celebration of American material abundance? How could a phrase be refilled with such radically different contents and yet, in the end, be made to appear as if it had been a stable foundation stone of the American “idea” from the beginning?  In the task of tracing that story across four centuries, in and beyond the United States, has been the challenge and the exhilaration of the book’s writing.

Many historians spell out powerful straight-line stories of America. You have said that you are more interested in the unexpected that lies, half-hidden, beneath the overly familiar stories we tell about our past.

All good history writing needs to hold both those impulses in play, but the past is often very different than the version that has been straightened out and encapsulated in public memory. Winthrop and his contemporaries were not the Founders of America as our linearized historical narratives routinely describe them. At the outset, they were English folk in flight from their worldly, commercial, and libertine culture. They had to be made post facto into founders of a nation they never envisioned. The “city on a hill” phrase did not have a continuous presence in American political rhetoric, as we conventionally assume; and it was in no way unique to Americans. You’ll find far more references to the phrase among the founders of Liberia (for good reason; they knew the world’s first black republic was going to be the object of intense critical scrutiny) than among the eighteenth-century founders of the United States (who rarely used it all). Although we conventionally describe a sense of uniquely high moral responsibility for the world as distinctive to Americans, it was not exceptional to them; they shared that sentiment with the peoples of almost all the great powers at the turn of the twentieth century. We associate the American sense of mission with the enduring force of the Protestant heritage in the American past. But among many contemporary evangelical Protestants the relationship of the “city on a hill” phrase to the nation of the United States is much more vexed and troubled than straight-line history imagines it.  

Part of the challenge of writing history is a willingness to take seriously these elements of strangeness, these crooked, disorienting departures from the expected and to follow them to the surprises toward which they lead. The other part is to puzzle out the processes by which this never-linear history, so full of close calls and contingencies, gets ironed out in the stories we tell about ourselves: how, under the pressures of nationalism, our history is made into something easier to swallow and more reassuring to live with.

Is the story of Winthrop’s sermon unique or are there similar examples of the invention of foundational documents in American history?

 No other text that we now think to be as fundamental to our statement of who we are went missing for as many centuries as John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity.” But many of the symbols of modern nationalism are much more recent than we imagine, and the meanings Americans have invested in them have changed almost as remarkably as in the case of Winthrop’s text. The Declaration of Independence is a critically important example. The Declaration that we know now, with its promise of equal rights and liberties to all, wasn’t a foundational document in its own time. At many July 4 ceremonies in the generation after 1776, those opening lines of the Declaration were not read at all. As the Declaration’s preamble began to be revived, contests over its meanings revived as well. The Declaration didn’t begin to be imagined as carrying a fundamental criticism of slavery until abolitionists read it again with a radically new moral urgency in the 1840s. It wasn’t imagined to carry the fully panoply of human rights that we now associate with it until the mid-twentieth century. It was a document continuously remade by those who used it. Those struggles and those reworkings—not the document itself—form our national story.  

John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon, written in a moment of high anxiety, eclipsed by hundreds of other patriotic texts as the nation took shape, its core theme of mutuality forgotten and misremembered and the rest embraced as if it had been part of the unitary American consciousness from the beginning, is a story of the same sort. Its story is a history of struggles to remake and remember a civic culture. We live within these struggles now and within some of the terms that Winthrop himself wrestled with. As they are reminded of that, I hope readers will see themselves—as well as an unexpected America—in this book’s pages.

Daniel T. Rodgers is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Age of Fracture, winner of the Bancroft Prize; Atlantic Crossings; Contested Truths; and The Work Ethic in Industrial America. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Helena Rosenblatt on The Lost History of Liberalism

Lost History LiberalismThe Lost History of Liberalism challenges our most basic assumptions about a political creed that has become a rallying cry—and a term of derision—in today’s increasingly divided public square. Taking readers from ancient Rome to today, Helena Rosenblatt traces the evolution of the words “liberal” and “liberalism,” revealing the heated debates that have taken place over their meaning. This book sets the record straight on a core tenet of today’s political conversation and lays the foundations for a more constructive discussion about the future of liberal democracy. 

What led you to write this book?

 I became interested in the history of political thought in college and my interest grew in graduate school.  My PhD dissertation, which became my first book, was on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I wrote my second book on Benjamin Constant. Both these thinkers had a huge influence on liberalism, Rousseau as a kind of gadfly, and Constant as a founder. In the course of my work, I became aware of a curious fact: despite the importance of liberalism to our history and current politics, no comprehensive history of liberalism had been written in a surprisingly long time. So I began thinking about writing such a history myself.

I set to work, but soon confronted a series of perplexing questions and contradictions. In one way or another, they all involved defining liberalism. Why was it, I wondered, that liberalism means one thing in Europe and something else in the United States? Why do some people speak of a “classical liberalism” that they say is more authentic than today’s? Why are there so many different “founders” of liberalism? Some call Machiavelli a founder, while others speak of John Locke, or even Jesus Christ.  How can they all be founders of liberalism when they are so radically different? While pondering these and other questions, I couldn’t help noticing that liberalism was often called a “slippery,” “elusive,” or “vague” concept in the books and articles that I read. All of it led me to ask a deceptively simple question: what is liberalism? And how do you write a history of liberalism when you don’t know what it is? After struggling for some time, the smoke cleared and I fell upon a new approach.

What is original about your approach to the history of liberalism?

I made it my mission to let the past speak for itself. In my book, I trace the history of the words “liberal” and “liberalism” over the course of history, starting with classical Rome—when the word “liberal” existed, but not yet “liberalism”—and ending today. What did “liberal” mean to the people who used the term two thousand years ago and how did that meaning change over time? When was the word “liberalism” coined, why was it coined, and what did it mean to the people who used it? When was the first “liberal party” formed and what did it stand for? These are the sorts of questions my book asks and seeks to answer. And my approach leads to a number of surprising findings.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?

 It is hard to summarize the many interesting discoveries I made. One concerns liberalism’s origins. We tend to think of liberalism as an age-old and venerable “Anglo-American” tradition with roots stretching deep into English history. Some trace its origins as far back as the Magna Carta. From England, liberalism is said to have spread and slowly gained acceptance until it was transported to America in the eighteenth century. There its principles were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. During the 19th century, liberalism continued its steady and inexorable progress until it became the dominant doctrine of the West.

This is a nice story, but it’s inaccurate. “Liberalism,” as a word and cluster of concepts, emerged in France in the wake of the French Revolution, not before. Its first theorists were Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël, not John Locke. For most of the nineteenth century, liberalism was widely seen as a French doctrine and closely associated with France’s successive revolutions (1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871). The Encyclopaedia Americana of 1831 did not contain an entry on “liberalism,” and the article on “liberal” explained that its political meaning came from France. Only half a century later was liberalism given an entry in the American Cyclopaedia of Political Science and, even then, it was a translation of a French article equating liberalism with the “principles of 89.” During the closing years of the nineteenth century, “liberalism” remained a rare word in the language of American politics and, when it was used, was sometimes spelled “liberale,” or rendered in italics, to indicate its foreignness. The word “liberalism” only gained currency in America’s political vocabulary in the early twentieth century and the idea of an “Anglo-American liberal tradition” half a century later.

What is the relationship between liberalism and democracy?

A common mistake we make today is to use the expression “liberal democracy” unproblematically, as if “liberalism” and “democracy” go together naturally. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably as if they were synonyms. However, for the first one hundred years of their history, most liberals were hostile to democracy, which they associated with chaos and mob rule. Certainly, the founders of liberalism were not democrats. Although he believed in popular sovereignty, Benjamin Constant insisted that it be limited and advocated stiff property requirements for voting and office holding. Madame de Staël championed the “government of the best,” which she distinguished from democracy.

To Constant, de Staël, and many other liberals, the French Revolution proved that the public was utterly unprepared for political rights. People were ignorant, irrational and prone to violence. Under popular pressure, the rule of law had been suspended, “enemies of the people” guillotined, and rights trampled upon. Napoleon’s despotic rule, repeatedly legitimized by plebiscite, only confirmed the liberals’ apprehensions about democracy.  They watched with horror as demagogues and dictators manipulated voters by appealing to their lowest instincts. It was obvious to them that the masses lacked the judgement necessary to know their true interests, and even less those of their country. Liberals accepted democracy very late and even then they thought hard about ways to contain it.  They pondered methods to “enlighten” and “educate” democracy and make it safe. 

What is the relationship between liberalism and socialism?

The relationship between liberalism and socialism is often described as antagonistic, but this is untrue. Again, the question has a lot to do with definitions, since “socialism” has always been a contested and evolving cluster of ideas. At first, the word “socialist” simply described someone who felt sympathy for the poor. Three more revolutions, in 1830, 1848, 1871, and the dislocations and hardships brought to the poor by the Industrial Revolution, caused many liberals to become increasingly receptive to socialist ideas. By the early twentieth century, some began calling themselves “liberal socialists.” In 1909, the future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, championed what he referred to as a “socialistic” form of liberalism dedicated to improving the lives of the “left-out millions.” A leading British liberal weekly declared that “we are all Socialists in that sense.”

It was World War II and the fear of totalitarianism that caused the rift between liberalism and socialism with which we are now familiar. First published in 1944, the bestseller, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, warned that the “social liberalism” toward which Britain and America were headed would inevitably lead to totalitarianism. Such anxieties caused other prominent Cold War liberals increasingly to distinguish themselves from socialists.

How is your book relevant today?

As an historian, I tend to think that getting history right is important in its own right. But I also think that history can lend critical perspective on the present. It can tell us about the challenges people in the past faced, the options they had, and the choices they made. Today it is clear that liberalism is facing crisis. Alarming statistics indicate that people around the world are losing confidence in liberal democracy. Populism is on the rise, American hegemony in decline. And it is not just that liberalism is being attacked by enemies or losing adherents. Liberals are divided among themselves. Some say that they have lost sight of their essential values. Some are beginning to ask what liberalism’s essential values really are. One way of answering this question is to turn to the history of liberalism. That is what my book does.

Helena Rosenblatt is professor of history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her many books include Liberal Values: Benjamin Constant and the Politics of Religion and Thinking with Rousseau: From Machiavelli to Schmitt. She lives in New York City.

Sara Blair on How the Other Half Looks

BlairNew York City’s Lower East Side, long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half,” was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. Sara Blair takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from this critical site of encounter, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures. How the Other Half Looks reveals how the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of looking—and looking back—that have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity.

How have representations of the Lower East Side changed since the mid-nineteenth century?

In surprising and powerful ways, they haven’t. A set of complex associations—with vice, poverty, raw energy, the threat of the alien and the unassimilated—have continued to swirl around New York’s historical ghetto through its many lives and afterlives, well into our own moment. Over time, these associations have drawn image-makers and writers there to experiment with new visual technologies, new perspectives, and new media. In a real way, the Lower East Side and its received image have helped shape modern practices of seeing and imaging—not just the other way around.

What do recent representations of the Lower East Side tell us about our cultural moment?

They remind us how much cultural work we do to continue imagining the project of America, what it means to be or become an American and to have a collective future. In the 2016 Harry Potter franchise film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, for example, the unfolding of Magic as a contest between nativism and progressive aspirations (one that’s all too familiar to us IRL) depends on the Lower East Side as a space defined both by its threat to a “pure” citizenry and its promise of a more robust and dynamic nation. In a very different mode, the award-winning 2014 documentary Chasing Ice draws on images of the Lower East Side both to make real the unprecedented effects of climate change—and to hold out hope for its reversal. However unexpectedly, images of the Lower East Side continue to be a resource for apprehending the way we live now, bringing America’s histories and possible futures into view.

How did you approach the research for this book?  What surprised you?

I began this project by trying to answer a broader question: how did the Lower East Side become both a key subject of representation and a powerful force in shaping practices of representation? The problem of seeing that space—of making sense of its staggering density, heterogeneity, and energies—challenged image-makers, writers, journalists, guardians of public order, and everyday citizens alike to test new visual technologies, whose cultural uses came to reflect on-the-ground encounters with the world of the tenements and the streets. As I worked my way through a host of archives—of everyday photographs, print media, literary projects and more—what surprised me most was the range of practices that turn out to have been shaped by encounter with the Lower East Side, from the emergence of photography as an art form and the rise of the U.S. film industry to efforts to revive print culture in digital contexts. On all these and more, the Lower East Side has left its own indelible mark.

Are there instances of images that represent the Lower East Side shaping the site itself?

By all means. Early photographs of New York’s ghetto and tenements, made by Jacob Riis in the 1880s, not only codified uses of the camera as an agency of social seeing. They drove projects of slum clearance and social reform that shaped the built environment of New York’s downtown as well as hugely influential ideas about the city, its modernity, and its citizens. By the mid-1930s, in the grip of the Depression, photographers who had themselves been children of the ghetto were experimenting with new ways to represent its complex histories, using them as a vantage point to look critically at the American success narrative. Their work helped photography reinvent itself as a postwar art form—alongside the attention of urban planners who would undertake to redesign the tenement landscape in service of twentieth-century urbanism as a master plan. From lurid accounts of Bowery poverty and as-if “documentary” images of nuclear strike on the U.S., the iconography of the Lower East Side has remained vitally available, and it has continued to enter into the material life and lived experience of that generative place.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope they’ll think differently about the Lower East Side, as a place of entry not just for historical newcomers to the United States but for understanding how we’ve come to view and imagine this rich, ongoing, incomplete experiment we call America. As my mother said (to my delight) when she browsed the book, this isn’t just about Jews. It’s about the way history lives and continues to shape our lives in images, and how we might learn to look back more acutely at that history, at a time when we urgently need to learn from it.

Sara Blair is the Patricia S. Yaeger Collegiate Professor of English and a faculty associate in the Department of American Culture and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century and Trauma and Documentary Photography of the FSA.

Sebastian Edwards on American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court, and the Battle over Gold

EdwardsThe American economy is strong in large part because nobody believes that America would ever default on its debt. Yet in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt did just that, when in a bid to pull the country out of depression, he depreciated the U.S. dollar in relation to gold, effectively annulling all debt contracts. American Default is the story of this forgotten chapter in America’s history. At a time when several major economies never approached the brink of default or devaluing or recalling currencies, American Default is a timely account of a little-known yet drastic experiment with these policies, the inevitable backlash, and the ultimate result.

Americans believe that the Federal government has never defaulted on its debt. Yet in your book, you tell the story of a massive debt restructuring that happened only eight decades ago, in 1933. A debt restructuring that changed contracts unilaterally and retroactively, and imposed losses of 61% on investors. Why do you think that this episode is so little known?

This is a case of “collective amnesia.” Americans think of themselves as law-abiding citizens. We think of the United States as a country where institutions work and where contracts are sacred; a country where the rule of law prevails at all times. Reneging on contracts is not something this nation does. And, certainly, we don’t change contracts retroactively. It is something that “banana republics” do. And when they do it, we scold them and denounce them. We also demand compensation for damages.

When the Supreme Court heard the gold clause cases in 1935, most analysts thought that these were among the most important cases ever considered by the Court. Today, however, they are not even taught in most law schools. We have forgotten the episode because it is convenient, because it helps us maintain the view we have about our nation: a nation that always pays its debts. But, as I show in this book, this is not the case.

Your book is about the annulment of the gold clauses in 1933, and the Supreme Court decisions that ruled that it was legal to change debt contracts retroactively. What were the gold clauses, exactly? And what was their role?

Historically, most long-term debt contracts in the United States were written in terms of gold. That is, the borrower committed himself to paying back an amount of gold (or gold equivalent) equal to the amount borrowed, plus interest. This practice started during the Civil War to protect lenders from possible inflation.

In 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the U.S. off the gold standard, all public debt included the gold clause. In addition, most railway and public utility bonds had gold clauses, as did most mortgages. Overall, debt equivalent to approximately 120% of GDP was subject to these escalation riders. That is a huge number. To put things in perspective, it is about twice as large as the debt that Argentina restructured unilaterally in 2002.

You write that the abrogation of the gold clauses was closely related to the abandonment of the gold standard in 1933.

In 1933, President Roosevelt thought that the U.S. could benefit from devaluing the dollar with respect to gold. This had been done by the United Kingdom in September 1931, and it appeared to be helping the UK get out of the depression. However, FDR was told by his advisers that the gold clauses stood in the way of a devaluation. With the gold clauses in place, a devaluation of the USD would immediately trigger an increase in debts by the same amount as the devaluation. This would bankrupt almost every railway company, and many other businesses. It would also be extremely costly for the government. It was at this point that FDR decided to abrogate the gold clauses. The actual annulment took place on June 5, 1933.

When emerging countries, such as Argentina, devalue their currency and restructure their debts, we often brand them as “populists.” Was there a populist element in FDR’s decision to abandon the gold standard and abrogate the gold clauses?

One of the main issues in 1933 was how to raise agricultural prices, which had declined by almost 70% since 1919. After the 1932 election there was a large bloc of populists, pro-agrarian members in Congress. The better known one was Senator Huey Long, but there were others. Two very influential ones were Senator Elmer Thomas from Oklahoma, and Senator Burton Wheeler from Montana. They were “inflationists,” and believed that getting off gold would help increase commodity prices. To a large extent the devaluation of the dollar—from $20.67 to $35 per ounce of gold—was to placate this group of “populist” lawmakers. Wheeler was also an isolationist. In Philip Roth novel The Plot against America, Wheeler is a fictional vice president, and aviator Charles Lindbergh is the president.

There are still some people who believe that getting off gold was a mistake. Was it necessary? Did it work? Should the U.S. go back to gold?

Most economic historians—including Milton Friedman and Ben Bernanke—agree that one of the main consequences of devaluing the dollar in 1934 was that the country received a huge inflow of gold. This additional gold was monetized by the Federal Reserve. As a consequence, there was a large increase in credit. This triggered a recovery, and helped reduce unemployment. A key question, which I address in the book, is whether it was possible, at the time, to put in place an expansionary monetary policy and still maintain some form of a gold-based standard. This is a controversial issue; British economist John Maynard Keynes believed that it was possible; many modern economists believe that it was not.

You argue in the book that at the time most economists were perplexed and didn’t know how to face the Great Depression. Apparently they didn’t understand the effects of fluctuating exchange rates.

In the 1930s the economic analysis of currency values and currency adjustments was in its infancy. Some well-known economists, such as Yale’s Irving Fisher, were very critical of the gold standard, and suggested pegging the value of the dollar to a basket of commodities. Other, including Princeton’s Edwin Kemmerer and Chicago’s Jacob Viner, were convinced that, in spite of some shortcomings, the gold standard was the best available monetary system. In the book I tell the story of how these two groups for FDR’s ear. I discuss who said what and how the President reacted to their advice.

You write that in 1933 George F. Warren was the most influential economist in the world. However, today almost no one knows his name. Who was he, and why was he so important?

George F. Warren was a professor of agricultural economics at Cornell, and a friend of Henry Morgenthau Jr.

Morgenthau was a neighbor and friend of President Roosevelt, who eventually became Secretary of the Treasury. In 1931, Warren published a book titled Prices, where he argued that agricultural prices were related in a one-to-one fashion to the price of gold. If the price of the metal increased through a devaluation of the USD, the price of wheat, corn, cotton, eggs and so on would increase immediately and by the same amount. Starting in July 1933, Warren became Roosevelt’s main economic adviser. In October the president put in place a “gold buying program” based on Warren’s theories. Every morning FDR would determine an arbitrary price at which the government bought small amounts of gold. The president’s expectation was that agricultural prices would follow in short order. But that didn’t happen; the program did not work as expected. John Maynard Keynes criticized it strongly, and in January 1934 the program was abandoned. In the book I discuss, in great detail, Warren’s theories and I compare them to those of other prominent economists, including Irving Fisher’s.

You devote quite some time to the cases argued in front of the Supreme Court. What can you tell us about them?

At the time, the Court was deeply divided. There was a conservative bloc led by Justice James Clark McReynolds, and a liberal bloc that included Justices Brandeis and Cardozo. Charles Evans Hughes, the Chief Justice, was often the swing vote. The cases were fascinating for several reasons; first, the Administration used a “necessity” argument to support the Joint Resolution that abrogated the gold clauses. This argument is very similar—in fact, almost identical—to the argument used recently by countries such as Argentina when restructured their debts unilaterally. Second, the government made very sophisticated economic arguments; in order to support them, it included a number of charts and diagrams in its briefs. Third, the rulings were very convoluted and controversial. In the case involving public debt (a Liberty Bond, to be more precise), the Court ruled that Congress had exceeded its power, and that the abrogation was thus unconstitutional. However, the Court said, there were no damages involved. That is, the government had violated the Constitution, but didn’t have to compensate bond holder for losses.

In modern times, countries that default and/or restructure their debts unilaterally pay a cost. Generally speaking, they have great difficulties accessing the capital markets. However, this was not the case for the U.S. What do you think are the reasons for this?

I discuss this issue in great detail in the book. Milton Friedman argued that by expropriating property rights the abrogation had severe negative effects on the U.S. economy. It negatively affected investment. I combed the data and didn’t find significant dislocations or signs of distress in the weeks and months following the Supreme Court rulings. In the final chapters of the book I give a possible explanation for this. I point out why the U.S. case is so different from recent default episodes, including Argentina and Greece.

Sebastian Edwards is the Henry Ford II Professor of International Economics at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Toxic Aid: Economic Collapse and Recovery in Tanzania and Left Behind: Latin America and the False Promise of Populism. He lives in Los Angeles.

David Vogel on California Greenin’

VogelOver the course of its 150-year history, California has successfully protected its scenic wilderness areas, restricted coastal oil drilling, regulated automobile emissions, preserved coastal access, improved energy efficiency, and, most recently, addressed global climate change. How has this state, more than any other, enacted so many innovative and stringent environmental regulations over such a long period of time? The first comprehensive look at California’s history of environmental leadership, California Greenin’ shows why the Golden State has been at the forefront in setting new environmental standards, often leading the rest of the nation. As environmental policy debates continue to grow more heated, California Greenin’ demonstrates that the Golden State’s impressive record of environmental accomplishments holds lessons not just for the country but for the world.

Why did you decide to focus your book on California?

Much has been written on every aspect of California’s environmental history. Books have been written on the state’s forests and wilderness areas, cars and air pollution in Los Angeles, oil drilling in southern California, the protection of the coast and the San Francisco Bay Area and, most recently, the state’s regulations to improve energy efficiency and stem the risks of global climate change. But no one had ever sought to answer what struck me as a central question, namely why has California long been the nation’s “greenest” state? I wrote this book to answer that question.

What are some important examples of California’s environmental leadership?

California enacted the world’s first emissions controls on automobiles and established the nation’s first coastal protection authority. Yosemite was the first protected wilderness in the United States and by 1890 three of nation’s four national parks were located in the state. California issued the nation’s first energy efficiency standards for appliances and buildings. Its greenhouse gas reduction targets are the most ambitious in the United States. Half of the nation’s rooftop solar installations are in California.

How do you account for the state’s long record of environmental innovation?

It traces back to California’s geography. The “Golden State” has an unusually beautiful natural environment. Its coastal area encompasses the best weather in the United States. It has a long and scenic coastline, miles of sand beaches, and inland there are the granite formations, rivers, lakes and valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The state’s forests contain the spectacular redwoods and sequoias, the largest and oldest living species on the planet. But every aspect of this attractive environment has been continually threatened by rapid economic development and population growth. It is in response to these threats that Californians have mobilized to protect the environmental amenities that they valued.

What is the “California effect?”

The “California effect” refers to the impact California has had in strengthening environmental protection outside its borders. The most important example is automotive emissions standards These were first introduced in California and then subsequently adopted by the federal government. Virtually all of the important innovations in emissions controls, such unleaded gasoline and the two-way catalytic convertor, originated in California and were then nationally mandated. California’s innovative greenhouse gas emission standards for vehicles were subsequently adopted by the Obama Administration. Significantly, California is the only state permitted by the federal government to issue its own automotive regulations. Other states then have the option of adapting California’s more stringent standards and several states have chosen to do so.

What most surprised you in writing this book?

I was most struck by the role business has played in supporting environmental protection. Business has been traditionally viewed as the main opponent of stronger environmental standards. But in the case of California influential business interests have often actively backed stronger regulations  For example, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Southern Pacific Railroad lobbied to protect the sequoias in the Sierra Nevada mountains, while during the mid 20th century, the Los Angeles real estate community led the political struggle to reduce air pollution. Southern California’s shoreline property developers were the main opponents of coastal oil drilling. California’s renewable energy industry and clean tech investors have benefited from and been strong supporters of the state’s climate change initiatives. In sum, many business interests have recognized the economic benefits of placing the state on a greener growth trajectory.   

What practical lessons can other states learn from California?

The United States is a federal system in which states can play important policy roles. They have enormous potential to improve environmental quality. What other states can also learn from California is that regulations are more likely to be supported if they directly improve the quality of life of local communities, provide economic as well as environmental benefits, receive some business 6backing, and are administrated by competent public authorities. California’s example of regulatory leadership can and hopefully should be followed by other states.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book? 

That protecting the environment and growing economically can go hand in hand. Since the 1860s California has consistently enacted the nation’s most stringent, comprehensive and innovative environmental standards and its economy is now the sixth largest in the worlds. Had it not made such vigorous efforts to protect its fragile natural environment, California would now be a much less desirable place to visit, to live to work, and to invest. California’s economy has benefited substantially from its environmental regulations. This can be true for all states as well.

David Vogel is professor emeritus in the Haas School of Business and the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. His many books include The Politics of Precaution and The Market for Virtue.

Julian Zelizer on The Presidency of Barack Obama

ZelizerBarack Obama’s election as the first African American president seemed to usher in a new era, and he took office in 2009 with great expectations. But by his second term, Republicans controlled Congress, and, after the 2016 presidential election, Obama’s legacy and the health of the Democratic Party itself appeared in doubt. In The Presidency of Barack Obama, Julian Zelizer gathers leading American historians to put President Obama and his administration into political and historical context. Engaging and deeply informed, The Presidency of Barack Obama is a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand Obama and the uncertain aftermath of his presidency.

What was your vision for this book? What kind of story are you trying to tell?

My goal with this book is to provide an original account of the Barack Obama that places his presidency in broader historical context. Rather than grading or ranking the president, my hope is to bring together the nation’s finest historians to analyze the different key issues of his presidency and connect them to a longer trajectory of political history. Some of the issues that we examined had to do with health care, inequality, partisan polarization, energy, international relations, and race.

How did you approach compiling the essays that make up this book? What criteria did you use when choosing contributors?

The key criteria was to find historians who are comfortable writing for the general public and who are interested in the presidency—without necessarily thinking of the president as the center of their analysis. I wanted smart historians who can figure out how to connect the presidency to other elements of society—ranging from the news media to race relations to national security institutions.

What do you see as the future of Obama’s legacy?

Legacies change over time. There will be more appreciation of aspects of his presidency that are today considered less significant, but which in time will be understood to have a big impact. Our authors, for instance, reveal some of the policy accomplishments in areas like the environment and the economy that were underappreciated during the time he was in the White House.  In other ways, we will see how some parts of the presidency that at the time were considered “transformative” or “path-breaking”—such as his policies on counterterrorism—were in fact extensions and continuations of political developments from the era.

How did the political landscape of the country change during Obama’s tenure?

While we obtained many new government programs, from climate change, to ACA, to the Iran Nuclear Deal, we also saw the hardening of a new generation of conservatism who were more rightward in their policies and more aggressive, if not ruthless, in their political practices. Some of his biggest victories, such as the Affordable Care Act, pushed the Republican Party even further to the right and inspired them to be even more radical in their approach to legislative obstruction.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope that they will have a better sense of where this presidency came from, some of the accomplishments that we saw during these eight years, and some of the ways that Obama was limited by the political and institutional context within which he governed. I want readers to get outside the world of journalistic accounts and come away understanding how Obama’s presidency was a product of the post-1960s era in political history.

Julian E. Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a CNN Political Analyst. He is the author and editor of eighteen books on American political history, has written hundreds of op-eds, and appears regularly on television as a news commentator.

Nancy Woloch: The roots of International Women’s Day

WolochInternational Women’s Day has roots on the left. The idea for such a day arose among socialist women in the US and Europe early in the 20th century. A New York City women’s socialist meeting of 1909 endorsed the plan. So did the International Socialist Women’s Conference that met in Copenhagen in August 1910 as part of the larger Internationalist Socialist Congress. The hundred delegates from seventeen nations who attended the women’s conference shaped a demanding agenda. In what manner would socialist women support woman suffrage? Might they join forces with “bourgeois” feminists to accept restricted forms of enfranchisement, as urged by British delegates? Or did the socialist campaign for woman suffrage involve “the political emancipation of the female sex for the proletarian class-struggle,” as claimed by German delegates? The Germans won that point. In other areas, the women delegates found more unity. Denouncing militarism, they spoke for peace. They urged international labor standards for women workers, such the 8-hour day, limits on child labor, and paid support for pregnant workers and new mothers. Finally, they endorsed a day of activism around the globe to promote women’s emancipation, a counterpart to the May Day marches of socialists. “[W]omen of all nationalities have to organize a special Woman’s Day, which in first line has to promote woman suffrage propaganda,” wrote German socialist Clara Zetkin and her comrades. “This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole woman question according to the socialist conception of social things.” As of 1913, socialist women chose March 8th as the date for International Women’s Day.  

Women activists of the 1960s in Chicago revived the socialist strategy to promote women’s emancipation. Adopted by the United Nations in 1975, International Women’s Day now sponsors less politicized and more broadly inclusive goals; proponents celebrate facets of women’s achievement and champion action to achieve gender equity. Over the decades, on March 8 of each year, events around the globe underscore common themes such as equal rights, women and peace, and opposition to violence against women. In the recent words of the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, the celebration of International Women’s Day seeks “to overcome entrenched prejudice, support engagement and activism, and promote gender equity and women’s empowerment.”

Workplace rights are key issues for advocates of International Women’s Day, just as they were for defenders of labor standards a century ago. The growth of labor standards—such as maximum-hour laws and minimum wage laws—is the subject of my book, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s. With global roots and global impact, labor standards remain vital for women workers today. Women constitute almost half the workforce of the world and half of migrant workers, often the least protected of employees. Current concerns include the minimum wage, overtime pay, paid family leave, workplace safety, and opposition to sexual harassment. Labor organizers worldwide focus on job segregation, the gender wage gap, and the need for policies to integrate work and family. Celebrants of International Women’s Day share such goals and seek to uphold labor standards around the globe.

 

Nancy Woloch teaches history at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author of A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s–1990s.

Sources
Report of the socialist party delegation and proceedings of the International socialist congress at Copenhagen, 1910 (Chicago: H.G. Adair, 1910), pp. 19-23.
Temma Kaplan, “On the Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day,” Feminist Studies 11, no. 1 (Spring, 1985), pp. 163-171.
Nancy Woloch, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

Exploring the Black Experience through Politics

The election of the United States’ first Black president may have heralded a new era in American politics, but not in the way many people expected. Looking back, what actually changed with that election, and what had been set in motion long before? This Black History Month, we look back on Obama’s presidency and its aftermath in the context of what happened before—and after. Whatever your interpretation of that particular story, Black voters and Black leaders have been central figures in American politics for centuries.

Of course, American politics don’t start or end with the president or the major parties. Black Americans have a robust history of grassroots political movements. This list of PUP books highlights not only Black leadership and participation in presidential and major party politics, but also the birth of Black Power amid localized racial and class politics.

Barack Obama’s election as the first African American president seemed to usher in a new era, and he took office in 2009 with great expectations. But by his second term, Republicans controlled Congress, and, after the 2016 presidential election, Obama’s legacy and the health of the Democratic Party itself appeared in doubt. In The Presidency of Barack Obama, Julian Zelizer gathers leading American historians to put President Obama and his administration into political and historical context.

Engaging and deeply informed, The Presidency of Barack Obama is a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand Obama and the uncertain aftermath of his presidency.

Few transformations in American politics have been as important as the integration of African Americans into the Democratic Party and the Republican embrace of racial policy conservatism. The story of this partisan realignment on race is often told as one in which political elites—such as Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater—set in motion a dramatic and sudden reshuffling of party positioning on racial issues during the 1960s. Racial Realignment instead argues that top party leaders were actually among the last to move, and that their choices were dictated by changes that had already occurred beneath them. Drawing upon rich data sources and original historical research, Eric Schickler shows that the two parties’ transformation on civil rights took place gradually over decades.

Presenting original ideas about political change, Racial Realignment sheds new light on twentieth and twenty-first century racial politics.

As the birthplace of the Black Panthers and a nationwide tax revolt, California embodied a crucial motif of the postwar United States: the rise of suburbs and the decline of cities, a process in which black and white histories inextricably joined. American Babylon tells this story through Oakland and its nearby suburbs, tracing both the history of civil rights and black power politics as well as the history of suburbanization and home-owner politics. Robert Self shows that racial inequities in both New Deal and Great Society liberalism precipitated local struggles over land, jobs, taxes, and race within postwar metropolitan development. Black power and the tax revolt evolved together, in tension.

Using the East Bay as a starting point, Robert Self gives us a richly detailed, engaging narrative that uniquely integrates the most important racial liberation struggles and class politics of postwar America.

Covering more than four decades of American social and political history, The Loneliness of the Black Republican examines the ideas and actions of black Republican activists, officials, and politicians, from the era of the New Deal to Ronald Reagan’s presidential ascent in 1980. Their unique stories reveal African Americans fighting for an alternative economic and civil rights movement—even as the Republican Party appeared increasingly hostile to that very idea. Black party members attempted to influence the direction of conservatism—not to destroy it, but rather to expand the ideology to include black needs and interests.

The Loneliness of the Black Republican provides a new understanding of the interaction between African Americans and the Republican Party, and the seemingly incongruous intersection of civil rights and American conservatism.

A.G. Hopkins on American Empire: A Global History

American Empire by A. G. Hopkins is a panoramic work of scholarship that presents a bold new global perspective on the history of the United States. Drawing on his expertise in economic history and the imperial histories of Britain and Europe, A. G. Hopkins takes readers from the colonial era to today to show how, far from diverging, the United States and Western Europe followed similar trajectories throughout this long period, and how America’s dependency on Britain and Europe extended much later into the nineteenth century than previously understood. American Empire goes beyond the myth of American exceptionalism to place the United States within the wider context of the global historical forces that shaped the Western empires and the world. Read on to learn more about how A.G. Hopkins turns American exceptionalism on its head.

How did you come to write a book on the United States?

The question is more penetrating than readers might think because I had spent the greater part of my career working on the history of subjects far removed from the national history of the United States. But it so happened that I arrived in the United States to take up a permanent university position in 2001 a few hours before the events of 9/11. The animated debate over the role of the United States as a global power that followed caught my attention because it raised the issue of whether the US was an empire. When the United States decided to invade Iraq in 2003, I found myself involved in an unplanned commitment to identify the prime movers of US foreign policy.

So, your book is really an extended examination of US international policy?

Not really. Iraq was the starting point but the destination has turned out to be both different and distant. I had to undertake so much preparatory work in what, for me, was a new field of study that it was not until about 2012 that I was ready to produce a manuscript. By then, the United States had withdrawn from Iraq and attention had shifted elsewhere. By that time, too, my reading had followed a trail that led in two directions: one took me back through the twentieth and nineteenth centuries to the history of colonial America; the other led me to place the evolution of the United States in a wider, non-national setting.

How did you fit national and global history together?

There was no point in trying to rewrite the history of the United States: that task had long been in the hands of many fine historians who had spent their careers studying the subject. The only prospect I had of contributing to such a well-established subject was by looking at it from the outside in, instead of from the inside out, while also trying to absorb elements of the national story that fitted my purpose. The resulting study has brought together several decades of accumulated knowledge from three diverse fields of history. My interest in globalization has supplied the broad analytical context; my work on Western empires has suggested how imperial expansion transmitted globalizing impulses; my research on the indigenous history of former colonial states, especially those in Africa, has given me an awareness of how different the world looks when viewed from the other side of the frontier.

Yes, but how does this work in practice?

The argument, put simply, is that the history of the United States, from colonial times to the present day, conforms to three phases of globalization. Each phase can be understood by relating it to the history of Western empires, which were the principal agents of globalization from the seventeenth century to the second half of the twentieth century. One phase culminated in the great crises of the military-fiscal state in late eighteenth century, which produced the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the implosion of the Spanish Empire. A second phase, which was bound up with the rise of nation states and industrialization, fueled the dramatic partition of the world at the close of the nineteenth century. A third phase, which developed after World War II, ushered in decolonization and the post-colonial world order we know today.

Does this interpretation alter the way we understand US history?

I think it offers a different emphasis on some familiar themes. The Revolution, for example, can be seen as part of a wider fiscal crisis that engulfed much of the Western world. The familiar national story that dominates the period after 1783 can be recast to allow for continuing foreign, and especially British, influence. Similarly, the Civil War was an example of a familiar episode in the history of newly decolonized states: how to turn a state in to a nation. The period after 1865 was one of reconstruction and nation-building, as it was elsewhere, notably in Germany and Italy. The era of high imperialism that followed included the United States too. The war with Spain in 1898 that led to United States to establish a formal insular empire was an expression of forces that applied to expansive imperial powers elsewhere.

But what happened after 1898?

That is a particularly astute question because at that point the existing literature changes and so does the emphasis of my argument. The literature on the period before 1898 is voluminous beyond measure, and I need to be familiar with it to develop my argument that the United States continued to be dependent on outside forces after 1783. After 1898, the US had clearly attained effective independence and I have no need to engage with the national story to the same degree. Instead, I need to reconstruct the history of the principal islands, Hawai’i, the Philippines, Puerto Rico (and Cuba, as an example of a protectorate). The big problem here is that, after the war with Spain, historians return to the national story and ignore the empire the war created. The last comprehensive study of the management of the colonial empire was published in 1962. Work of high quality has been completed on individual islands since then but has not yet been pulled together.

Is this where your knowledge of African history becomes helpful?

I hope so. Of course, knowledge of the indigenous history of another set of Western colonies is not directly relevant because the facts are different, but it is helpful in providing a perspective other than the one seen from Washington. An imperial standpoint from outside the US is also valuable because it suggests how the history of the US empire fits that of the other Western empires. The principles and techniques of colonial rule were the same; so was the trajectory. The US empire rose and fell in harmony with the other imperial states.

But many commentators claim that the US created an empire after 1945.

Yes, indeed. But the claim rests on a very general definition of ‘empire’ that makes it synonymous with powerful states. After 1945, the United Sates was a great power but it was not an empire. Comparisons with Rome, accordingly, are anachronistic. I use the term to refer to territorial control, which characterized the Western empires before World War II and was essential to the type of integration that suited the needs of the period from about 1750 to 1950. Under conditions of post-colonial globalization that followed, territorial empires were neither necessary not feasible. The world economy changed; concepts of human rights grew in influence. To the extent that the invasion of Iraq was intended to remake the Middle East, it was a colonial venture that destined to fail. The age of great empires had passed

What readership do you have in mind?

The book should appeal to historians of the United States, who are becoming increasingly sympathetic to global perspectives. It should also attract historians of other Western empires, who have left the study of the US empire to historians of the United States, who have bypassed it. Beyond these two groups, the argument should interest specialists in international relations and policy-makers who recognize that knowledge of the past is vital to an understanding of the present. Ibn Khaldun put it well more than six centuries ago, when he argued that history was a practical art needed for the “acquisition of excellence in ruling.”

HopkinsA. G. Hopkins is Emeritus Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History at the University of Cambridge and former Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Global History: Interactions between the Universal and the Local; Globalization in World History; British Imperialism, 1688–2015; and An Economic History of West Africa. He lives in Cambridge, England.

Exploring the Black Experience through the Arts

Black Americans’ work in the arts has long been both prominent and under-recognized. Black artists’ expressions of their experiences are some of the most iconic artifacts of American history. This Black History Month, we explore Black resistance through visual art, literature, and other art forms, and we highlight the central role of Black artists and Black art in American aesthetics and culture.

These books from PUP’s catalog focus on an iconic historical engraving, an award-winning immigrant writer, Black literature under surveillance, an important contemporary visual artist, and the poetry of loss, memory, and the natural world.

One of the most iconic images of slavery is a schematic wood engraving depicting the human cargo hold of a slave ship. First published by British abolitionists in 1788, it exposed this widespread commercial practice for what it really was–shocking, immoral, barbaric, unimaginable. Printed as handbills and broadsides, the image Cheryl Finley has termed the “slave ship icon” was easily reproduced, and by the end of the eighteenth century it was circulating by the tens of thousands around the Atlantic rim. Committed to Memory provides the first in-depth look at how this artifact of the fight against slavery became an enduring symbol of black resistance, identity, and remembrance.

Beautifully illustrated, Committed to Memory features works from around the world, taking readers from the United States and England to West Africa and the Caribbean. It shows how contemporary black artists and their allies have used this iconic eighteenth-century engraving to reflect on the trauma of slavery and come to terms with its legacy.

“Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”—Create Dangerously

In this deeply personal book, the celebrated Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat reflects on art and exile, examining what it means to be an immigrant artist from a country in crisis. Inspired by Albert Camus’ lecture, “Create Dangerously,” and combining memoir and essay, Danticat tells the stories of artists, including herself, who create despite, or because of, the horrors that drove them from their homelands and that continue to haunt them. Danticat also suggests that the aftermaths of natural disasters in Haiti and the United States reveal that the countries are not as different as many Americans might like to believe.

Create Dangerously is an eloquent and moving expression of Danticat’s belief that immigrant artists are obliged to bear witness when their countries of origin are suffering from violence, oppression, poverty, and tragedy.

Brooklyn-born Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) was one of the most important artists of the 1980s. A key figure in the New York art scene, he inventively explored the interplay between words and images throughout his career, first as a member of SAMO, a graffiti group active on the Lower East Side in the late 1970s, and then as a painter acclaimed for his unmistakable Neoexpressionist style. From 1980 to 1987, he filled numerous working notebooks with drawings and handwritten texts. This facsimile edition reproduces the pages of eight of these fascinating and rarely seen notebooks for the first time.

The Notebooks are filled with images and words that recur in Basquiat’s paintings and other works. Iconic drawings and pictograms of crowns, teepees, and hatch-marked hearts share space with handwritten texts, including notes, observations, and poems that often touch on culture, race, class, and life in New York. Like his other work, the notebooks vividly demonstrate Basquiat’s deep interests in comic, street, and pop art, hip-hop, politics, and the ephemera of urban life. They also provide an intimate look at the working process of one of the most creative forces in contemporary American art.

Few institutions seem more opposed than African American literature and J. Edgar Hoover’s white-bread Federal Bureau of Investigation. But behind the scenes the FBI’s hostility to black protest was energized by fear of and respect for black writing. Drawing on nearly 14,000 pages of newly released FBI files, F.B. Eyes exposes the Bureau’s intimate policing of five decades of African American poems, plays, essays, and novels. Starting in 1919, year one of Harlem’s renaissance and Hoover’s career at the Bureau, secretive FBI “ghostreaders” monitored the latest developments in African American letters. By the time of Hoover’s death in 1972, these ghostreaders knew enough to simulate a sinister black literature of their own. The official aim behind the Bureau’s close reading was to anticipate political unrest. Yet, as William J. Maxwell reveals, FBI surveillance came to influence the creation and public reception of African American literature in the heart of the twentieth century.

Illuminating both the serious harms of state surveillance and the ways in which imaginative writing can withstand and exploit it, F.B. Eyes is a groundbreaking account of a long-hidden dimension of African American literature.

In Radioactive Starlings, award-winning poet Myronn Hardy explores the divergences between the natural world and technology, asking what progress means when it destroys the places that sustain us. Primarily set in North Africa and the Middle East, but making frequent reference to the poet’s native United States, these poems reflect on loss, beauty, and dissent, as well as memory and the contemporary world’s relationship to the collective past.

A meditation on the complexities of transformation, cultures, and politics, Radioactive Starlings is an important collection from a highly accomplished young poet.

 

Leah Boustan: What hundreds of thousands of census records can teach us about the Great Black Migration

In honor of Black History Month, we’re running a special blog series entitled, “Exploring the Black Experience.” Learn more about the Great Black Migration with this post by Leah Boustan, author of Competition in the Promised Land

BoustanIn 1920, Kernell and Royal Pleasant, two brothers aged 13 and 11, lived with their parents and younger sister Jennie in Assumption Parish, the heart of Louisiana’s sugarcane region, 80 miles west of New Orleans. The boys’ father, Thomas Pleasant, was a carpenter who reported working “by the job.” Even this middling profession placed Thomas one rung above their neighbors, most of whom were farm laborers in the sugarcane fields.

By 1940, Kernell and Royal’s lives had diverged. Kernell, the eldest brother, still lived in the same ward where he had been as a boy, following his father’s footsteps into carpentry and earning only $200 a year. Royal, although younger by two years, had moved up to Chicago, joining the millions of other southern black men and women who moved to northern cities during the twentieth century. By 1940, Royal was a college graduate and worked as a filing clerk in a municipal government office. He earned more than twice as much as his older brother, reporting $480 of annual earnings.

Although separated by region, educational status, and earnings, one feature drew the Pleasant brothers together: both Royal and Kernell lived in all-black neighborhoods in 1940. Back in Louisiana, Kernell’s closest neighbors were all still laborers in sugarcane fields. Up in Chicago, Royal, his wife Louise, and their lodger William lived down the street from railroad porters, barbers, and laborers at the stockyards. Most of their neighbors were fellow migrants, hailing from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

Royal Pleasant was only one of the four million black southerners who moved North from 1940 to 1970. The Census rolls that document the Pleasant brothers’ lives offer one small glimpse into this mass movement. As it turns out, Royal’s success in the North was a highly typical migrant story.

Using newly-digitized Census records, I was able to trace nearly 250,000 black men who were living in their childhood households in 1920 to their adult location in the 1940 Census. Many of these records contained sets of brothers, one or more of whom had moved to the North. Just as Royal was earning more than double his brother’s pay, I found that the average black man who moved North or West during this early wave of the Great Black Migration earned more than twice as much as his brother(s) who remained in the South.

The bar chart shows earnings estimates of the economic return to moving to the North for both black and white migrants. The blue bars compare earnings between migrants and non-migrants in the full population, and the green bars depict the results of a similar analysis for sets of matched brothers. In both cases, I find that black migrants earned twice as much as their southern counterparts, and white migrants earning around 50 percent more (the bars are presented in log terms; 80 log points is the equivalent of around 130 percent higher earnings). Half of the nominal return to migration can be attributed to higher cost of living in northern cities, but the other half represents a real increase in purchasing power.

The goal of examining brother pairs, rather than simply comparing all migrants to all men who remained in the South, is to account for potential selection in who chooses to move. If migrants were drawn from well-off households, a portion of the estimated return to migration would reflect this positive selection. If, instead, men from poorer households were more likely to move to the North, the estimated return to migration might be too low. The similarity of the estimates suggests that southern migrants were not especially selected, either positively or negatively, a pattern that is consistent with a large mass migration.

The 1940 Census was the first to include questions about individual income levels; earlier censuses only asked about occupation. As it turns out, most of the return to migrating to the North was driven by shifts from lower-paid rural occupations into higher-paid industrial or white collar positions. It was rare for migrants to remain in the same line of work as their brothers in the South. (There are always a few exceptions; the Allison brothers, David and Winston, both worked as waiters in restaurants, but David made twice as much in Chicago as Winston did in Birmingham, Alabama).

My ability to compare men who participated in the Great Black Migration to their brothers who stayed home is only possible because of large-scale digitization projects of the historical Census records. The manuscripts were transcribed by more than 25,000 volunteers organized by FamilySearch, the genealogical arm the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Data files were then made available to researchers through a partnership between Ancestry.com and the Minnesota Population Center. The digitized 1940 Census files include 134 million persons and 70 variables.

From the 1940 Census, we can see only one snapshot of how Royal fared in his new life in Chicago and how Kernell managed back home. As new Census waves are released to the public (72 years after the surveys were taken), we will be able to follow these men and their many counterparts forward in time. Did Kernell ever join his brother in the North? Did Royal return to Louisiana, or one of the South’s burgeoning metropolitan areas, when it became time to retire? And how did the lives of their children (if any, as neither brother yet had children in the 1940 Census) unfold in their disparate settings?

On the last question, a new paper (link here) by Trent Alexander and co-authors uses restricted-access data from the Census Bureau to follow young children living in migrant and non-migrant families in 1940 to their adult outcomes in the 2000 Census. The children of migrants enjoy modest income gains even 60 or more years after their parents first moved to the North. Just as the parental generation was able to double their income by moving North, their children continue to enjoy a 10 percent earnings boost. The Great Black Migration is not only an essential chapter in black history but is still a vital part of black economic fortunes today.

Leah Platt Boustan is professor of economics at Princeton University, and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is the author of Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets.

 

Exploring the Black Experience through Economics

For hundreds of years, the American and global economies have been built on the backs of Black people. In each era, new forms of marginalization—enslavement, segregation, exclusion—have been devised to limit Black economic success. Still, Black dreams and Black resilience have created space for Black people’s hard-won economic gains. As workers, scholars, migrants, and emissaries of empire, Black people have shaped the American and global economies in crucial ways.

From industrial migration to economic colonization, and from unfunded neighborhoods to elite business schools, these four books from PUP’s catalog highlight different aspects of Black Americans’ experiences at the center, the margins, and the cutting edge of the formal economy.

From 1940 to 1970, nearly four million black migrants left the American rural South to settle in the industrial cities of the North and West. Competition in the Promised Land provides a comprehensive account of the long-lasting effects of the influx of black workers on labor markets and urban space in receiving areas.

Employing historical census data and state-of-the-art econometric methods, Competition in the Promised Land revises our understanding of the Great Black Migration and its role in the transformation of American society.

In 1901, the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington, sent an expedition to the German colony of Togo in West Africa, with the purpose of transforming the region into a cotton economy similar to that of the post-Reconstruction American South. Alabama in Africa explores the politics of labor, sexuality, and race behind this endeavor, and the economic, political, and intellectual links connecting Germany, Africa, and the southern United States. The cross-fertilization of histories and practices led to the emergence of a global South, reproduced social inequities on both sides of the Atlantic, and pushed the American South and the German Empire to the forefront of modern colonialism.

Tracking the intertwined histories of Europe, Africa, and the Americas at the turn of the century, Alabama in Africa shows how the politics and economics of the segregated American South significantly reshaped other areas of the world.

Baltimore was once a vibrant manufacturing town, but today, with factory closings and steady job loss since the 1970s, it is home to some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in America. The Hero’s Fight provides an intimate look at the effects of deindustrialization on the lives of Baltimore’s urban poor, and sheds critical light on the unintended consequences of welfare policy on our most vulnerable communities.

Blending compelling portraits with in-depth scholarly analysis, The Hero’s Fight explores how the welfare state contributes to the perpetuation of urban poverty in America.

For nearly three decades, English has been the lingua franca of cross-border organizations, yet studies on corporate language strategies and their importance for globalization have been scarce. In The Language of Global Success, Tsedal Neeley provides an in-depth look at a single organization—the high-tech giant Rakuten—in the five years following its English lingua franca mandate. Neeley’s behind-the-scenes account explores how language shapes the ways in which employees who work in global organizations communicate and negotiate linguistic and cultural differences.

Examining the strategic use of language by one international corporation, The Language of Global Success uncovers how all organizations might integrate language effectively to tap into the promise of globalization.