A historical alliance: Victor Cha on the US-Asian relationship

ChaHow was the critical American alliance system originally established in Asia, and is it currently threatened? In his most recent book, Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in AsiaVictor Cha draws from theories about alliances, unipolarity, and regime complexity to examine the fascinating evolution of the U.S. alliance system. Exploring the motivations and aspirations of the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies, Cha explains the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Asia and how it contributes to the resiliency of global alliances  today. Recently Cha took some time to discuss his book and what he learned while writing it.

Why did you write this book?

VC: I was motivated to write a history of how the United States created this incredibly unique and important alliance system in Asia.  Long after the Cold War, these alliance still exist and indeed are critical to US policy today.  So how and why were these alliances formed?  Powerplay is one of those studies that a scholar can work on for years.  It deals largely with archival work and in that regard, it is timeless!  In my case, I had started the project some 12 years ago and had written about 100 pages.  Then, I left Georgetown to take public service leave when I worked on the National Security Council as a director for Asian affairs.  I did this for nearly three years between 2004 and 2007 and when I returned to the academy, I took on two additional book projects which took me away from Powerplay for four years.  I was so happy to get back to it, however, and spent the last two years going back into the archives and recreating the history of how Kennan, Dulles, Eisenhower and Truman thought about Asia at the end of World War II.  I was also able to weave into the last chapter my thoughts about the future of the US alliance system based on my experiences in government.  I am so happy with the result and look forward to sharing this with readers.

What did you learn in the course of writing the book?

VC: Perhaps the most interesting lesson for me was how the American experiences as a great power in Asia were truly unique.  Even as a colonial power in the 19th century, the United States did not behave like European powers or like prewar Japan.  It was a hegemon in Asia, but was more inclusive in its thinking and genuinely interested in more than simply imperial designs.  Just as an example, the United States in the 19th century actively encouraged its missionaries to go to Asia to teach about worship, values, and faith.  This was unlike the British who banned their missionaries from educating Asia and the Japanese which later imposed state worship on their colonial subjects.  The American interest was cultural and economic before it was strategic.  It was only with the Cold War that the United States was compelled to create strategic relationships, but then used these relationships to promote democracy and prosperity in the region.

What is your favorite chapter in the book?

VC: Like all authors, I enjoyed the conclusion, because it meant the book was done!  Aside from that, I enjoyed very much writing the case study chapters on Korea, Taiwan, and Japan as the stories for each case are different and special in each of their own ways.  There are some wonderful quotes by Asian leaders like Syngman Rhee of Korea and Chiang Kai-shek of Taiwan that were fun to discover in the archives.  I also enjoyed writing the section in Chapter 7 about the region’s efforts to form a multilateral security organization in 1949.  These efforts are not really covered in other histories.

What is the story behind the cover art?

VC: So, the editors at Princeton and I discussed for a while an appropriate cover for the book.  There were some fantastic pictures in the Dulles papers at Princeton that I had come across, and the one we chose is that of John Foster Dulles at the front in Korea one week before the North Korean invasion of 1950.  The other photo we considered was Japanese prime minister Yoshida Shigeru signing a document at the San Francisco conference with Dulles and Dean Acheson standing behind him.  Both photos conveyed the inordinate strength that the United States wielded at the time over these countries, but also an appreciation of the strategic importance of these new allies.   The book is about “control” and these photos seemed to convey the “hands-on” nature of the U.S. commitment.

Victor Cha holds the D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Government and is the director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. He is also senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, and formerly served as director of Asian Affairs on the White House National Security Council. Cha is an award-winning author, receiving awards for his books The Impossible State and Alignment Despite Antagonism. His most recent book is Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia.

James Campbell: Just how polarized are our politics?

campbellThe United States of today is a divided nation, with two sides resting on opposite ends of a political spectrum.  James Campbell’s new book Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America provides a new and historically grounded perspective on the polarization of America, systematically documenting exactly how and why the current divide came to be. James Campbell recently answered some questions about his book, what exactly has lead to such bitter disputes in the American system, and what this has meant throughout political history.

What is political polarization?

JC: Polarization concerns the level and organization of political conflict in society generally or between groups such as the political parties. Political differences can vary in severity and their relation to one another: cross-cutting or reinforcing. A high level of polarization is one in which there are substantial differences in political perspectives on a wide range of issues organized along an ideological spectrum. Polarization intensifies rather than diffuses conflict. It establishes an “us versus them” politics and it is always the same “us” at odds with the same “them.” High levels of polarization are the basis for bitter disputes, making political compromises more difficult to achieve.

What are Americans polarized about?

JC: The short answer is government. The extent and use of governmental powers is the underlying and organizing subject that causes two sides to be set up for most issues in American politics. It is the great divider setting up quite consistently “us versus them” sides in disputes about public policy. Those with liberal political inclinations tend to be more inclined to see problems as public in nature and best solved by the use of government powers and programs. Conservatives tend to take a more restrained or “last resort” view of the use of government. Views about government and individual responsibilities unify liberals and conservatives against each other.

Why is polarization even an issue? Don’t we know that Americans are polarized?

JC: Most political observers believe that the public and the parties are polarized, but many social scientists doubt that the public is highly polarized. Reviews of survey data of public opinion indicate that extreme views on issue questions are no more likely today than they were 40 years ago. This leads some to believe that polarization of the public is a myth. They suspect that activists and the political parties are polarized, but that the general public is predominantly moderate and not ideological. My research, however, presents evidence that the public is highly polarized, has been so for some time, and has become more so in recent decades. The political parties used to do a poor job representing these polarized views. The realigned parties of the last couple of decades, for better or worse, now represent and accentuate those polarized views.

How can Americans be ideologically polarized when research indicates that they are not very politically sophisticated or informed?

JC: There is no doubt that most Americans are not highly informed about politics or very sophisticated in their political thinking. This does not mean, however, that they cannot be ideological in the sense that they have some fundamental perspectives or values they apply to politics. Pretty much everybody has a sense about what they think is politically right or wrong and that is, at its core, what ideology is about. Unfortunately early studies of political thinking labeled the highest level of political conceptualization as ideological. But ideologies can be based on vastly different levels of political thought, from philosophies to gut instincts. If nothing else, knee-jerk liberals and wing-nut conservatives are both ideological.

How do you know that Americans are highly polarized?

JC: Good question. I examined the extent and change of polarization in the public using three types of evidence. The first was the direct evidence of how people identify their ideological perspectives–liberal, moderate, conservative, or they don’t know. The second type of evidence was the reported attitudes of the public on various public policy issues. In a sense, this is indirect evidence, since attitudes on the issues may reflect an underlying sense of political values and perspectives. The third type of evidence was circumstantial evidence. It is widely accepted that the political parties in government have become more polarized in recent decades. Assuming that this is the case, a largely moderate public would be expected to react to this change in the parties differently than a highly polarized public. A polarized public would likely respond better to more polarized parties than would a largely moderate public. The analysis of all three types of evidence supported the same set of conclusions: the American public was fairly well polarized in the 1970s and has become more so since then.

Did polarized politics develop from the top-down or from the bottom-up? Did political leaders and activists cause the public to become more polarized or did the public lead the way?

JC: The conventional view has been that the increase in polarization was a top-down process. The idea is that leaders are more sophisticated and attentive to political issues and, therefore, ahead of the curve when it comes to political change. At least in this instance, I found the opposite to be the case. The increased polarization of our political system was instigated by the increased polarization of the public in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The polarization of leaders lagged that if the public. Leaders are more attentive to political change, but elected leaders also have a vested interest in preserving the status quo and the tools (incumbency advantages) to help them do so. The lack of a viable Republican Party in the South also impeded a good deal of leadership change until the early 1990s. The public was not so encumbered. The increase in polarization, at least initially, was a bottom-up process.

James Campbell is UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. He is the author of such works as The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National Vote and The Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections. His most recent book is Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.

Leah Wright Rigueur: Black conservatives do not speak for the black majority

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By Leah Wright Rigueur

Published in association with Aeon Magazine, a Princeton University Press partner.

When black voices rally to validate and defend extremist ideas, political observers should watch with heavy skepticism. In April, the National Diversity Coalition for Donald Trump launched a campaign in support of the controversial presidential candidate. ‘This man is no more racist than Mickey Mouse is on the Moon!’ Bruce LeVell, the coalition’s co-founder and a businessman from Georgia, told The Washington Post. Better yet, what are we to make of the former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s puzzling endorsement of Trump?

At a moment when black Americans, of all ideological persuasions, are deeply concerned with a status quo in the United States that allows racial inequality (and discrimination) to fester, black boosters for the party’s right wing have insisted that the ‘race issue’ is a distraction. Some even claim that black America will benefit from a Trump presidency. This kind of posturing might seem mystifying to some degree, but it is not new; there have always been black people willing to endorse the nation’s most extreme figures. The civil rights activist James Meredith worked for the Republican senator Jesse Helms in 1989, after all.

Employing black ‘surrogates’ or spokespeople for extremist candidates has become a way of validating non-traditional ideas as ‘authentic’, while at the same time invalidating accusations of racism. While the Democratic Party also has employed black voices in this manner (much to the distaste of its critics), the Republican Party’s use of conservative black voices is all the more fascinating because black conservatives’ beliefs are generally at odds with mainstream black opinion.

Egregious contemporary and historical examples abound. Consider the National Black Silent Majority Committee (BSMC), a black conservative organisation launched on 4 July 1970. Founded by Clay Claiborne (a former Republican National Committee staffer acquitted of defrauding black voters in the 1964 presidential election), the BSMC professed a faith in free-market enterprise and two-party competition, and adhered to a strict anti-communist, anti-welfare, anti-busing, pro-‘law and order’ agenda. Unlike other black Republican groups of the era, the BSMC articulated neither public nor private complaints about race and the Republican Party. Instead, the organisation exclusively blamed black people for the country’s problems with race. Upon the group’s founding, the civil rights activist Julian Bond called the BSMC a ‘trick’ to ‘subvert black political hopes on the altar of white supremacy and political expediency’.

The BMSC used Richard Nixon’s rhetoric of a forgotten class of Americans, claiming to speak for a majority of silent black Americans, ‘sick and tired of the agitation, shouting, burning and subversion carried out in their name by self-styled militant groups’. The organisation assembled a high-profile group of black men and women willing to endorse conservative values, including the national president of the Negro Elks fraternal order, the founders and publishers of the black newspapers the Atlanta Daily World and the Arizona Tribune (now The Informant), and dozens of black ministers from around the country. Black women also took on prominent roles as BSMC surrogates – an unusual occurrence, as black women were, and still are, the least likely of any demographic to support the Republican Party.

In 1972, for example, Mary Parrish was the star speaker of the BSMC’s 52-city ‘Black Youth Voter Crusade’. Parrish, a black Democrat-turned-Republican (who started her career campaigning for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm) used her pulpit to claim that liberals had ‘politically enslaved’ black people, especially black women; the Republican Party, she insisted, without providing tangible examples, represented the best hope for the ‘continued advancement of black people’. Parrish’s unusual turn as the ‘face’ of the BSMC is not an isolated event. Today, black women are among the most high-profile of the Trump campaign’s spokespeople.

But such minority endorsements are sporadic, and rarely translate into partisan support. When the BSMC launched in 1970, more than 72 per cent of black Americans held unfavourable views of President Nixon. Currently, about 80 per cent of black people hold unfavourable views of Trump. For both the BSMC and Trump’s black surrogates, this disconnect is consistent with their resolute dismissal of issues related to racial and social inequality, and their harsh criticism of black people who reject the Republican nominee.

Back in the 1970s, the BSMC readily admitted that the vast majority of its supporters were white. As the historian Matt Lassiter has suggested, the Nixon White House ‘orchestrated’ the creation of the BSMC to provide a counter-narrative to black moderate, and militant, voices, which also appealed to ‘white voters who believed that the civil rights and antiwar movements had gone too far’.

My own research shows that the all-white National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) was also a heavy financial backer of the BSMC from the start, providing start-up funds, financing the group’s cross-country ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Anti-Busing’ crusades, regularly highlighting the BSMC’s adventures to the public, and arranging private meetings with influential white officials.

In an unintentionally ironic moment in 1970, the then South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, a vocal cheerleader for the BSMC, declared that the organisation’s existence proved that plenty of black radicals were attempting to ‘speak for groups which they do not actually represent’. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, politicians actively used the BSMC to elicit broader political support for right-wing agendas largely rejected by black audiences, by suggesting that the group spoke for a black majority. The BSMC also provided a buffer against charges of racism, with white politicians arguing that their own policies couldn’t possibly be racist or discriminatory, since the BSMC endorsed them. In this way, the BSMC reassured white conservative voters uncomfortable with the social taboo of racism.

The BSMC is just one example of many organisations (and individuals) to emerge in the past few decades in support of ideas on the fringes of black political thought. As a result, black Republicans critical of their party’s position on race saw their influence within the party dwindle, as groups such as the BSMC saw their stock rise among the Republican Party’s right wing. New quantitative research suggests that little has changed; Republican politicians are more interested in championing right-wing black Republicans whose views on race fall outside mainstream black political thought than those whose race-conscious messages are more closely aligned with the attitudes of black people at large. For most black Republicans within the party, this sends a clear and troubling message – power for the party’s minorities often comes by way of endorsing right-wing extremism.

Thus Trump’s turn to minority (especially black) spokespeople should come as little surprise. But while race lends an air of legitimacy to extremist candidates, it rarely presents an accurate picture of black political opinion. If anything, when the extremists play the ‘race card’, genuine concern for racial issues are likely to be buried.

Leah Wright Rigueur The Loneliness of the Black Republicanis an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (2015).

Peter Lindert & Jeffrey Williamson: Will the rise in inequality ever stop?

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By Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson

Could the steep rise in the share of income gains falling into the hands of the top one percent of Americans since the 1970s have been stopped, and will the rise stop in the near future? A newly revealed history of American growth and inequality suggests the answer is yes to both questions.* What is exceptional about recent American experience is that inequality has risen faster than in other rich countries. Furthermore, it has happened twice in our history – before the Civil War, and again since the 1970s. Without some exogenous crisis like revolution, war, and great depressions, does America have the political will to stop the widening of income gaps between the very rich and the rest?

How hard would it be to stop, or even reverse, the trend? The economics is easy. The politics may be harder. However, to make the policies politically acceptable, just follow a simple equality-growth rule: Make life chances more equal in a pro-growth manner. Prioritize those economic policies that have been shown to equalize people’s opportunities without doing any damage to the growth of our average incomes.

$100 bills lying on the sidewalk

Finding such win-win policies is easy. To see why it’s so easy, just remind yourself: Has our political system seized all the chances to make us richer and more equal at the same time? Of course not. Throughout American history politicians have failed to cash in on equitable growth opportunities, even though they are all around us like so many $100 bills left lying on the sidewalk.

Four easy win-win choices stand out when we compare our experience with that of other countries – and yes, the United States can learn positive lessons from other countries.

Early and basic education for all. The United States has slipped down the rankings in its delivery of early education since the 1960s. At the primary and secondary levels, other countries have caught up with us in years of school completed, and we rank about 27th among all tested countries in the quality of the math, science, and reading skills that students actually learn by age 15.

We are also below the OECD average in the enrollment of three- and four-year olds in early education-plus-care institutions, mainly because we are also below average in our commitment to both public and private funds in pre-primary education. A growing body of evidence shows high returns to early education. Providing it to all serves both equality and growth.

Investing in the careers of young parents with newborns. Our country lags behind all other developed countries in public support for parental work leave. We are failing to invest in both child development and mothers’ career continuity. All of society gains from the better nurturing of our children and the extra career continuity of their mothers, and all of society should help pay for parental leave, not shoving the whole burden onto the young parents or their employers. Other countries figured this out long ago.

Equal opportunity and the inheritance tax. We should return to the higher federal tax rates on top inheritances that we had in the past. This would force rich children receiving bequests to work harder, make Americans more equal, and, by leveling the playing field for new generations a bit, even promote economic growth. A return to a policy which dominated the twentieth century would deliver on the American claim that “in our country, individuals make their own way, with their own hard work and abilities.” To honor that claim, we should make sure that the top economic slots are not reserved for those born very rich. We have done it before. Our top rate of inheritance taxation was 77 percent from 1942 to 1977, years when American incomes grew at the fastest rate this country has ever attained. We haven’t achieved that growth performance since the policy was changed in the 1970s.

Taxing high inheritances is not anti-growth. Instead, it promotes productive work by those who would have inherited the top fortunes. Statistical studies have demonstrated the strength of the “Carnegie effect”. Carnegie was right: passing on huge inheritances undermines the heirs’ work incentives. We also need to stress that bigger inheritance taxes do not take income away from any living rich citizen who has earned it.

Riding herd on the financial sector. Since our Independence, the United States has been above average in its history of financial meltdowns. One could even say that America has been “exceptional” in that regard. Frequent bubbles, booms, and crashes have done great damage to our growth and our equality. The danger of future meltdowns remains, because the Dodd-Frank reforms of 2010 are weaker than the tougher regulatory reforms of the 1930s, which served us so well until the ill-advised de-regulation of the 1980s. More regulatory vigilance, government liquidation authority, and capital requirements are needed to prevent financial breakdowns that tax the non-rich to bail out the rich, and make the poor also pay by losing their jobs.

History is also clear on the inequality connection. When the financial sector was closely regulated in response to the Great Depression disaster, the incomes of the rich in the financial sector fell to more moderate levels. After de-regulation in the 1980s, incomes of the rich in the financial sector soared.

Picking up the easy money takes time – and votes

Implementing just these four win-win policies may or may not be enough to stop any trend toward more inequality, or to raise growth rates from their now-modest levels. We will have to push against a strong headwind coming from competition with poorer countries. Lower-skill jobs in this country will continue to suffer from the competition produced by the long-overdue catching up rise in Asian economies since the 1970s, and from Africa in the future. This new global competition is to be welcomed. There is no reason to wish that poor countries remain hobbled by the bad institutions that have impoverished them for so long. Yet the rising competition challenges the United States to continue to upgrade its own skills to keep ahead. All the more reason to upgrade our human capital.

It will take some time to do these things. Politicians and voters hate to wait for good results that are more than two years away. And such policies may face opposition from those who would not directly gain from such win-win policies.

Still, our democracy can achieve reforms that promote both growth and equality. We’ve done it before. We can do it again. That’s what elections are for.

* The findings reported here are substantiated in Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality since 1700 (Princeton University Press, 2016).

unequal gains lindert jacketPeter H. Lindert is Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of California, Davis. His books include Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. He lives in Davis, California.

Jeffrey G. Williamson is the Laird Bell Professor of Economics, emeritus, at Harvard University. His books include Trade and Poverty: When the Third World Fell Behind. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Both are research associates at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Together they have written Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality Since 1700.

McGovern scholar Thomas Knock on classic presidential reads

election blog banner logoThomas Knock is the author of The Rise of a Prairie Statesman: The Life and Times of George McGovern, the first volume of the first major biography of the 1972 presidential candidate and eloquent critic of the Vietnam War. Called “the standard bearer of all future biographies” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Knock’s reconsideration of the politician is a perfect pick for election season. Recently we asked Knock what classic books on presidents we would find in his own library.

By Thomas Knock

I’m happy to recommend five books about major presidents and the politics of their times— from the early 20th century to the early 21st century—all classics in their field and favorites of mine. My list of personal favorites encompasses several historically great presidents or otherwise quite notable ones—Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton— who still have something to say to us today.

1.  John Milton Cooper, The Warrior and the Priest, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard, 1983).  This is a dual biography of two progressive presidents—one a Republican, one a Democrat—and the two most literate chief executives of the 20th century.  Together TR and Wilson recreated the modern presidency and, in their respective programs (the New Nationalism and the New Freedom) they laid the foundations for Big Government as we have come to know it today.  Cooper has definite and persuasive reveries about who is the Warrior and who is the Priest.

2.  Robert McElvaine, The Great Depression and the New Deal (Times Books, 1993).  A sweeping account of the crisis of the 1930s that gives both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt their due and even stresses a significant element of continuity between the policies of the two antagonists.  In this, while providing a most lucid interpretation of New Deal politics and culture, one also can see a parallel between Hoover and FDR, on the one hand, and George W. Bush and Barack Obama, on the other, as the latter pair struggled to contain the gathering disaster of 2008-09.

3.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and his America (St. Martin’s, 1976, 1991).  This remains one of the two or three best, and most moving, books ever written about Lyndon Johnson, who I myself would describe as half a great president.  Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this work are the implications of a single remark of Johnson’s to Goodwin:  that he believed when he entered office that he had only 18 months or so to get done whatever it was he was going to accomplish.  And that—the concept of the 18-Month Presidency, so to speak—is something that too many presidents have never grasped.

4.  Sidney Blumenthal, Pledging Allegiance, The Last Campaign of the Cold War (Harper/Collins, 1990).  This study offers a trove of insights into American politics at the end of the Cold War.  Its most significant achievement is to establish Reagan and Gorbachev as an irreducible team–that the advent of each was fundamental to the other’s well being if either was to have the salutary legacy that they are both credited with today.  Along with the entire cast of candidates in the 1988 knock-down, the volume also addresses the matter of the presidential sex scandal, something new in the politics of the ensuing post-Cold War era, which fatally ensnared the formidable Gary Hart, a former McGovern protege.

5.  David Maraniss, First in His Class, A biography of Bill Clinton (Simon and Schuster, 1995).  An essential work about the first post-Cold War president, this biography also includes substantial instructive coverage of the early life of Hillary Rodham.  The thrust is the striving of the first Boomer to enter the White House, who left Arkansas to be schooled at Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale Law; lived the politics of the Sixties and Vietnam and earnestly embraced McGovern’s campaign (learning chastening lessons along the way); and then returned to Arkansas as his means to power.  From a 2016 perspective, one can fully appreciate his enormous capacities while apprehending the bridge the two Clintons constitute between past, present and future.

KnockThomas J. Knock is Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor at Southern Methodist University. He is the author of the prize-winning To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order and the coauthor of The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century (both Princeton). He lives in Dallas, Texas.

We Work in the Dark: The Child Labor Photography of Lewis Hine

In Soulmaker, Alexander Nemerov (Wartime Kiss) examines the work of photographer Lewis Hine. Working for the National Child Labor Committee, Hine travelled the United States for several years photographing children at work. From textile mills to coal mines, Hine’s images showed young children in arduous and dangerous working conditions. His work played an important role in the campaign for reform of child labor laws that ultimately resulted in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Hine’s photographs are a close and disturbing window on the child labor system of the early 1900s. Beyond unvarnished documentary, these images are possessed of deep emotional resonance and an often eerie beauty. Nemerov highlights the fragility and ephemerality of the lives captured in Hine’s photographs. Here we present a selection from the photographs used in Soulmaker.

All images are courtesy the Library of Congress

James Axtell on writing a “genealogy” of the modern American research university

wisdom's workshop axtellPope Gregory IX described universities of the middle ages as “wisdom’s special workshop”, but today’s American universities bear only a passing resemblance to the European institutions that founded their most basic principles. In In his newest book, Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern UniversityJames Axtell writes an 800-year evolution of the modern research university, outlining the trials and successes that occurred while these universities were taking root in America. He recently took time to explain why this examination of higher education is so necessary.

You’re probably best known as the author of eight books on colonial Indian-white relations or “ethnohistory.” How and why did you make the transition to the history of higher education?

JA: I didn’t shift to higher education but back to it. I began my scholarly career in the history of education with a study of one-time Oxford don John Locke’s educational writings, followed by a book on education at all levels in colonial New England, including Harvard and Yale. Then, partly as a result of the “Red Power” protests of the late ‘60s, I was drawn to the ethnohistory of Indian-white relations in colonial North America. After 20-plus years probing the ins and outs of those relations, I was drawn back to the history of higher education. After finishing most of a book of essays on The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education (1998), I spent a dozen years researching and writing Princeton’s history from Woodrow Wilson’s transformative presidency (1902-10) to 2005. Retirement from William & Mary in 2008 took me to Princeton for a semester of teaching and the organization of a conference on “The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” which resulted in an edited book in 2012. When Peter Dougherty, the director of Princeton University Press, suggested the genealogy of the modern American research university as a much-needed book, I immediately saw it as a perfect fit for my longtime experience and love of universities.

Do you see that shift in interests as a sharp break?

JA: Not as much as it must seem to others, because I chose to write the history of Princeton as the first ethnohistory of a collegiate university. From my study of Indians and colonists I brought a focus on cultures and en- and ac-culturation as the best way to understand the transition of an educational institution from a relatively small, hidebound college to a world-class research university. So I devoted substantial chapters to the century-long development of the faculty, admissions, curriculum, student life and extracurriculum, library, art museum, graduate school, and university press–all the participants in and agencies of education.

Wisdom’s Workshop similarly focuses on the educational process (teachers, students, courses, and books), but with slightly more attention to institutional foundings, leadership, and architecture. It also covers a much longer time-span in tracing a clear and specific genetic lineage from medieval foundings and Tudor-early-Stuart Oxbridge, to 9 colonial American colleges, innumerable academies and c. 250 colleges before postbellum university developments and, in the 20th c., what Clark Kerr called “multiversities.”

Are the sources for university history much different from those for colonial ethnohistory? Are the questions?

JA: While some of the questions were framed similarly, the sources were of course quite different. I didn’t use archaeology, linguistics, or oral memory as much, but I did pay close attention to material culture, student jargons and dress, and faculty, administrator, and student memoirs. As centers of manuscript and then print culture, colleges and universities were founded on and sustained by the intellectual activities and written products of learned classes, who have left myriad clues to their pasts in libraries and archives around the world. The 19th-century invention and spread of photography has given university history an important additional source, which I have used in numerous illustrations in the Princeton and present histories.

You have written an 800-year “genealogy” of the modern American research university. What surprised you about what you found?

JA: A whole lot of things, some major, some interestingly “factoidal.” First, three persistent myths. I found no evidence to support the notion that Harvard was modeled after Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The second myth was that antebellum student mayhem was caused largely by a static college curriculum and a dull “recitation” system of teaching: the curriculum was prescribed but not static, and recitations were used almost exclusively in introductory courses to ground students in the basics. The third myth posited that American higher education was transformed after the Civil War by the wholesale importation of German academic features by returning American graduate students and scholars: instead, borrowings were carefully selected and adapted to American needs and conditions.

I was happily surprised to find that some medieval matriculants could not write; hazing of freshmen (“yellow-beaks” or “goats”) began in the Middle Ages; student spies (lupi or “wolves”) reported classmates who didn’t speak Latin outside of class as required; undergraduates were prohibited from using medieval libraries because they were places and “occasions for [presumably coeducational] sin;” four Tudor university chancellors were beheaded by King Henry VIII for not toeing the party line; 17th-c. Oxbridge students were forbidden (rather than recruited) to play football; parchment pages declared “heretical” were used as toilet paper, book bindings, and soap wraps; 17th-c. Harvard graduated an average of only 8 B.A.s a year; Yale College moved location five times in its first 18 years; campus was coined by Princeton’s president in the 1770s and spread quickly; antebellum academies enrolled far more students (including women) than did colleges and offered curricula that often earned advanced college placement; in copying older eastern college architecture, newer western colleges often built dorms with long hallways, perfect for student conspiracies (or rebellious “sprees”) and cannon-ball bowling games; the libraries of student literary societies were often larger (and more up-to-date) than college libraries; the only 19th-c. German university degree was the Ph.D. and only a quarter of students bothered to take it: the majority studied for state professional exams; 19th-c. German (and postbellum American) Ph.D. dissertations were article- rather than book-length; American college rankings began as early as 1910; Harvard wisely rebuffed a philanthropist’s offer to build a Harvard dorm in the “Turkish style;” diplomas (as opposed to degrees) were not given regularly until the late 19th c.; older veterans admitted to American colleges on the G.I. Bill after WW II (many with wives and children) performed so well that younger students cursed them as DARs (“Damned Average Raisers”); research conducted on government contracts at U.S. universities during the war contributed mightily to Allied victories, as did the influx of Jewish scientists and scholars exiled from Axis countries (the “Rad Labs” at Harvard and MIT and the atomic HQ at Los Alamos, NM were key); the loss of a Class of 1907 son on the Titanic led eventually to the building of the world’s largest university library system at Harvard (despite which, a New York Times article in 2014 declared Harvard “The Stanford of the East”).

The modern American university comes in for a lot of criticism. How do the consistently high global rankings of America’s research universities jibe with those criticisms?

JA: The global rankings are based primarily on research productivity, patents, and commercialization, faculty “star” power (especially Nobel Prizes), and other quantitative measures such as library holdings, endowments, and operating budgets. Most of the criticism is aimed at undergraduate education and the very diverse public and private American (non-)system below the 50 or 100 elite research universities. The two measures are not inconsistent or incompatible. In trying to serve more than 20 million students, America’s institutions of higher education perform very well for many, less well or poorly for many more, often because of inadequate secondary preparation, economic inequalities, or family circumstances. There is plenty of room for improvement in the “system” as a whole, but Wisdom’s Workshop, focused on America’s best universities, seeks to explain why they continue to earn a majority of the top global rankings.

The university is a medieval European creation. Has it maintained its essential identity and focus through eight centuries of social and intellectual change? If so, how?

JA: According to former University of California chancellor Clark Kerr in 1982, it had done so. “The eternal themes of teaching, scholarship, and service, in one combination or another, continue.” “Universities still turn out essentially the same products–members of the more ancient professions…and scholarship.” “The faculties are substantially in control….” “Looked at from within, universities have changed enormously in the emphases on their several functions and in their guiding spirits, but looked at from without and comparatively, they are among the least changed of institutions,” not unlike the Roman Catholic Church, several monarchies, and a few parliaments, all of which they outnumber by large margins.

Thirty-four years later, much the same could be said. For wherever they are founded or maintained, they serve society in familiar ways. Their participants may be more diverse, their purviews broader, their resources more extensive, their tools more sophisticated, their administrations larger and more involved in their operations. But they are today still recognizable for what they do, how they look, and who and what they produce because they are conservative as well as progressive institutions at the very crossroads of modern society.

You obviously enjoy writing: what do you like the most? Did or do you have any models?

JA: As a teenage sports reporter for two local papers and school publications, I was fond of adjectives and adverbs. Now, besides utter clarity and factual accuracy, I seek the richest nouns and verbs, internal rhythms, and unconscious (but once recognized, stet-ed) wordplay. I never consciously patterned my writing after that of any models, though I’ve admired and still do admire many historians and writers (Tony Grafton, Jim Turner, John Elliott, David Quinn, George Kennan, Edmund Morgan, Bill Bowen, John Fleming, Peter Brown, Erwin Panofsky, Natalie Davis, Rolena Adorno, John McPhee, and Inga Clendinnen to name just a few) Instead, I relish and applaud their lifelong professionalism, productivity, and stylistic brio.

James Axtell is the Kenan Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the College of William and Mary. His many books include The Pleasures of Academe, The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson, and The Making of Princeton University (Princeton). Axtell was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His most recent book is Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University.

20 University Press Books for Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, PUP has chosen twenty of the most relevant, intriguing books published by university presses, ranging from poetry to prose, modern critiques to historical accounts. Included are recent PUP titles, Story/Time: The Life of an Idea by Bill T. Jones, The Notebooks by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros by Galawdewos. Don’t miss the links to these titles’ design stories on our Tumblr design blog.

1. We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program by Richard Paul & Steven Moss (University of Texas Press)

We could not fail

2. Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools by Amanda E. Lewis & John B. Diamond (Oxford University Press)

despite the best intentions

3. Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis (Northwestern University Press)

forest primeval jacket

4. Stigma and Culture: Last-Place Anxiety in Black America by J. Lorand Matory (University of Chicago Press)

stigma and culture

5. The Notebooks by Jean-Michel Basquiat (Princeton University Press)

Check out a video of spreads from The Notebooks.

The Notebooks jacket

6. Thin Description:Ethnography and the African Hebrew Isrealites of Jerusalem by John L. Jackson, Jr (Harvard University Press)

Thin Description jacket

7. Black Georgetown Remembered: A History of Its Black Community from the Founding to “The Town of George” in 1751 to the Present Day
by Kathleen Menzie Lesko, Valerie Babb, and Carroll R. Gibbs (Georgetown University Press)

black georgetown remembered

8. Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conception of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society by John A. Powell (Indiana University Press)

Racing to Justice

9. Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical by Sherie M. Randolph (University of North Carolina Press)

Florence "Flo" Kennedy

10. Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime by Deborah Elizabeth Whaley (University of Washington Press)

Black women in sequence jacket

11. Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind by Osagie K. Obasogie (Stanford University Press)

Blinded by sight jacket

12. Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus by Krin Gabbard (University of California Press)

Better git it in your soul jacket

13. African American Slang: A Linguistic Description by Maciej Widawski (Cambridge University Press)

African American Slang

14. Tracing Southern Storytelling in Black and White by Sarah Gilbreath Ford (University of Alabama Press)

tracing southern storytelling in black and white jacket

15. Fly Away by Peter M. Rutkoff and William B. Scott (John Hopkins University Press)

fly away

16. The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman by Galawdewos (Princeton University Press)

The Life and Struggle of Our Mother Walatta Petros jacket

17. The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City by Eric Avila (University of Minnesota Press)

Folklore of the Freeway

18. Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry by Tiffany M. Gill (University of Illinois Press)

Beauty shop politics

19. Walking from the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. by David L. Chappell (Duke University Press)

waking from the dream

20. Story/Time: The Life of an Idea by Bill T. Jones (Princeton University Press)

Read more about the design process of Story/Time.

Jones_StoryTime

Affordable Housing in New York: A Slideshow

Affordable Housing in NY jacketAn issue that has reappeared throughout New York City’s history is the challenge of finding affordable, yet high quality housing. Director of Urban Administration program at New York Institute of Technology, Nicholas Dagen Bloom, and assistant professor of Urban Studies at City University of New York, Matthew Gordon Lasner explore this issue in their new colorfully illustrated book, Affordable Housing in New York. Examining the people, places, and policies of the most expensive and most progressive city in America, Bloom and Lasner guide readers through the city’s history in affordable housing, from the 1920’s to today.

Over twenty-five individual housing complexes are featured, including Queensbridge Houses, America’s largest public housing complex; Stuyvesant Town, Co-op City, and recent additions such as Via Verde housing complex. Included are accounts from leading scholars, including Ed Koch and Fiorello LaGuardia, Robert Moses, and Jane Jacobs.

Affordable Housing in New York delves into the city’s past pioneering housing efforts, examines the initiatives taken by progressive leaders today, and contemplates evolving  solutions for the ever-changing and always-innovating city. Check out our slide show of just a few of the book’s 106 color images.


Leah Wright Rigueur: The Republican Party has a Race Problem

Leah Wright RigueurToday, Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor of Public Policy, Leah Wright Rigueur continues her PUP blog series on the role of race in the modern Republican party. Her last piece, cross-posted on the Monkey Cage Blog, was on the surge in Ben Carson’s popularity among Republican voters in a race often dominated by Donald Trump. Today she looks at whether—and how—the “party of Lincoln” can win back black voters. Leah’s recent book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican, offers further insight into the seemingly incongruous intersection of civil rights and American conservatism. We’re delighted to feature her next installment. –PUP Blog Editor

The Republican Party has a Race Problem. Actually, that’s an understatement. The modern Republican Party has a race crisis – one of epic proportions. In the 2012 election, 80 percent of all non-white voters (Black, Hispanic, Asians and other minority groups), voted for President Barack Obama. Nowhere was this more apparent then with black voters – only 6 percent supported Republican nominee Mitt Romney. That’s the lowest amount of support a Republican presidential nominee has received since 1964.

The GOP’s 2013 autopsy report said it best noting that unless the party got serious about tackling the race issue, it would “lose future elections.” And in some respects, some within the party have tried to make racial inroads, particularly among black voters. Unfortunately the Republican presidential primaries have made those outreach efforts a distant memory, as candidates appear to be tripping over themselves to say the most racially offensive things possible. From police brutality jokes, to “media manipulation” comments, to “free stuff” gaffes, the hits keep coming.

The racial gaffes of the primary contenders are a reflection of a party that has a fundamental discomfort with discussing race. That the party has a torturous relationship to racial minorities in 2015 is unsurprising, given that GOP’s public attempts to wrestle with race have been near non-existent except in moments of antagonism.

So where did things go wrong? How did the “Party of Lincoln” fall by the wayside and move so far away from its “civil rights” roots?

The answer isn’t an easy one. Most would point to a long history of racial antagonisms, starting with Barry Goldwater receiving the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. But I’d argue that the disintegration of the relationship goes back even further – just look at Herbert Hoover’s “Lily White” movement or Operation Dixie from the 1950s.

The irony here is that as some within the GOP were hell-bent on alienating non-white voters during this period, others within the party went to great lengths to appeal to racial minorities. That those appeals were effective and coincided with strong (but piece-meal) civil rights decisions from the Republican Party, is a testimony to the support figures like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon received in 1956 and 1960, respectively.

Yet even as they pursued the non-white vote, Republicans continually weighed this pursuit against the possibility of alienating white southern voters. By 1963, for instance, the GOP had started to exclude African Americans from strategy meetings; a year later, the party had all but eliminated funding for minority outreach efforts and almost all of its black consultants. By the time the party nominated Barry Goldwater for president after a brutal convention battle, racial minorities, especially black voters, had already determined that the GOP offered no sanctuary for racial minorities. Goldwater, after all, was the same senator who had voted against the most comprehensive civil rights act the nation had ever seen. To position such a figure as the face of the Republican Party was a slap, erasing any goodwill the party’s previous efforts had generated.

Richard Nixon had predicted such a disaster, back in 1962, telling Ebony magazine that it would be a mistake for the Republican Party to “accept the beliefs” of Goldwater and “write off the Negro vote.” A Goldwater win, he argued, would mean that the GOP “would eventually become the first major all white political party. And that isn’t good. That would be a violation of GOP principles.”

That Richard Nixon – later of “Southern Strategy” infamy – would make that observation is telling. It speaks to a deep cynicism that invaded the Republican Party prior to Goldwater’s ascent, and took off after Goldwater’s presidential defeat. The next decade and a half would be defined by a party that veered wildly between centrism and right-wing conservatism and a party that fought an ugly, fierce fight over relationship between civil rights and conservatism. Are we an “inclusive or exclusive tent?” was common question among Republican thought leaders throughout the 1960s and 1970s; on the question of race, the party simply could not agree.

For every Edward Brooke in the party there was a Strom Thurmond; more important, was the fact that for every racially progressive initiative, there were at least half a dozen discriminatory actions. As Richard Nixon, for example, poured millions into minority enterprise, historically black colleges and universities, and introduced a progressive Family Assistance Plan, he also cut billions from antipoverty programs, opposed an extension of the Voting Rights Act, and nominated two southerners to the Supreme Court with odious civil rights records. Gerald Ford appointed civil rights lawyer William Coleman as Secretary of Transportation and regularly met with black civic and religious organizations but refused to dedicate significant money and time to minority outreach or racial issues. The GOP’s forceful rejection of any attempt to diversify state and local organizations undercut the party’s rhetoric of a “Big Tent” philosophy. Likewise in 1976, the GOP’s black delegates to the national convention denounced the party’s final platform, alienated by Republicans’ unwillingness to attend to matters of race in a sensitive and thoughtful manner.

But it is Ronald Reagan who offers the most complicated example of the Republican Party’s fractious relationship with race. In 1975 he argued that broadening the GOP base through targeted outreach was a rejection of conservative principles; and in 1976, he ran for president using the now infamous “Welfare Queen” trope. But by 1980, he had changed his mind – somewhat. He and his team employed an approach called “Reagan Focused Impact” (RFI) which relayed conservative messages to target constituent groups while appearing race-neutral. According to campaign memos, those groups were “white, suburbanite ticket-splitters.” Here’s where things get complicated: part of this approach meant campaigning in black and Latino spaces – visiting the South Bronx and talking about economic inequality, for instance – all while simultaneously speaking differently to white southern audiences. The same week that Reagan delivered his infamous “States’ Rights” speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi (the site where 3 civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier), he spoke to the National Urban League. As his strategists explicitly note, these outreach efforts were designed to neutralize black leaders’ outrage while generating positive press among white moderate voters.

In the 30 plus years since then, this approach has guided Republican politics, appearing alongside the more explicit racial gaffes. Sometimes, minority audiences endorse it (Ralph Abernathy did endorse Reagan in 1980), but most of the times, minorities reject the party’s approach, viewing it as insincere and hostile.

The million-dollar question of course, is can the Republican Party win back minority voters? Recent scholarship on the matter doesn’t look promising and the racial “foot-in-mouth” syndrome of the presidential candidates isn’t helping. Neither is the Republican Party’s unwillingness to listen to minority voters on issues of concern or eagerness to advance a revisionist history of the GOP’s relationship to civil rights. Returning to the “Party of Lincoln” isn’t impossible, but it means taking a thoughtful, sensitive approach to racial issues, listening to voter concerns, and endorsing policies and initiatives that reflect those concerns. A small step in the right direction has been the GOP’s interest in mass incarceration reform. At a moment in time when race is going to be central to the 2016 campaign, it remains to be seen if Republicans will address racial issues in a complex, nuanced way that rests on inclusion rather than alienation or exclusion.

Leah Wright Rigueur is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton University Press, 2015).

An interview with Eberhard Faber on “Building the Land of Dreams”

Faber jacketNew Orleans, iconic city of Mardi Gras, gumbo and jazz, was once little more than a sleepy outpost at the edge of Spain’s American empire. By the 1820s, with thriving cotton and sugar industries, the city was well on the way to becoming the urban capital of the antebellum South. Looking the ideological struggle, class politics, and powerful personalities that accompanied its transformation, Building the Land of Dreams is the narrative biography of a fascinating city at the most crucial turning point in its history. Recently, Eberhard Faber took the time to answer some questions about his book.

What inspired you to become a historian?

EF: It took a long time for me to become a professional historian; I was a touring musician for almost fifteen years before going back to school to study history. But I was always fascinated by history. As a kid I remember reading William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. During my music years I remember reading Robert Caro’s The Power Broker in the back of the tour bus. History is simply a way of looking at the world and trying to understand it. I’ve always looked at the world this way.

As far as how I got interested in New Orleans and the South, it happened early in grad school at Princeton; I wrote a research paper for Linda Colley about the short-lived British colony in West Florida formed in 1763, and all the sources that I read pointed to New Orleans as a crucial strategic point in that era. The next year I wrote a paper for John Murrin about the South in the War of 1812, culminating with the Battle of New Orleans. The year after that I moved down to New Orleans for what was to have been a year of research; we got hooked and live here still.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing Building the Land of Dreams?

EF: Well, so many things. But perhaps it would be the biographies of the many people who moved to New Orleans in the months following the Louisiana Purchase, from the northern United States but also from across the Atlantic: England, Ireland, and France especially. In the book I call them the “generation of 1804” because they arrived right after the Louisiana Purchase. They were a varied cohort, and they fought amongst each other a lot, but I found their energy, ambition and idealism very appealing. One common characteristic was that they were all sincere believers in the world-changing possibilities of republican rule. They thought this radical experiment that the United States had only recently embarked upon was going to rewrite everything about human history. In New Orleans they ran into a conservative creole planter class that believed in none of those things, and they had a rude awakening of sorts. It’s a fascinating encounter.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

EF: I think it has been a very common assumption that the United States imposed certain changes on Louisiana after 1803. That the course New Orleans and its wider region took, in the early nineteenth century, was an outcome of the policies of Thomas Jefferson and other American statesmen. What Building the Land of Dreams shows is that there were already very powerful entrenched interests in the area and that they, not the United States, ultimately had the power to dictate outcomes. What Jefferson and Madison could do was actually very limited; while the creole elite, on the other hand, initially threatened by republicanism, figured out that it actually gave them tremendous power to design the regimes – of law, of slavery, and race – that they had long wanted under colonial rule.

What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about what you do?

EF: Well, as far as my work in particular, I don’t think enough people know it for any major misunderstandings to have developed. As for the profession, I think there is a very wide gap between what the general public thinks of as “history” and what historians do in colleges and universities. If you go into a book store, many of the history books will be about military history (and at least half of those will be about the Civil War) and of the rest, a good portion will have Presidents on the cover. This leads many people to believe history is mostly about battles and Presidents, whereas in fact the field is so much bigger than that. The fact that it’s not understood is the fault of the field, of course. We need to do a better job of reaching the public and engaging their interest in historical issues.

What is your next project?

EF: I have two. One is a biography of the lawyer, legal reformer, and politician Edward Livingston, who was Mayor of New York and then fled from a scandal in 1803 to New Orleans. He ended up deeply entangled in New Orleans politics and power struggles and plays a major role in Building the Land of Dreams. I read almost all his personal papers in the course of writing the book and would love to focus on him exclusively for my next project.

The other one is totally different: a history of the music industry in the United States since the invention of the gramophone in the 1890s, with an emphasis on the parallel history of the rise of American capitalism.

What would you have been if not a historian?

EF: Well, that’s easy, since I was a musician (guitar player, songwriter, bandleader, arranger, record producer) for fifteen years before turning to history. I still play actively, too, within the limits imposed by writing and teaching. If the question is what would I have been if I was neither a musician nor a historian – well, my original hope was to be a professional baseball player, but at 5’ 5” that was never entirely realistic.

What are you reading right now?

EF: I’m currently reading Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams. It covers some of the same historical ground as my book – even including the word Dreams in the title! – but from a very different attitude and perspective. I find it alternately infuriating and revelatory. Either way it’s certain to become an important part of the discussion on the antebellum South. Other wonderful books I’ve read lately include Sarah Carr’s brilliant exposé on the New Orleans public school system since Katrina, Hope Against Hope; Robert Gordon’s classic history of Stax Records, Respect Yourself; and Greg Iles’ epic Southern mystery novel Natchez Burning.

What was the most influential book you’ve read?

EF: I always come back to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, an allegorical novel about Europe before the Great War. Although it’s fiction, it contains great intellectual history, and combines themes that are essentially historical with deep exploration of human psychology. The same is true of War and Peace, which also had a profound effect on me: a meditation on the meaning of history and the sources of historical change, inextricably intertwined with such “interior” issues as the nature of human suffering and the attempt to find meaning in the universe. All historians should read these books. They remind us of the spiritual dimension behind the often dry academic debates that tend to cloud the field.

Meanwhile, in the realm of historical scholarship, I could mention so many – Henry Adams, Schlesinger, Hofstadter, Genovese, Gordon Wood, Rhys Isaac, William Cronon, Alan Taylor, my mentors Linda Colley and Sean Wilentz – but the one book that truly did influence me more deeply and permanently than any other was Richard White’s The Middle Ground. I don’t even think I’m very much like White as a historian, temperamentally and aesthetically; he’s a burrower, while I’m a wanderer; he eschews drama completely, while I am simply incapable of living without it. But the method, the dedication, the integrity, the matching of evidence to ideas, the rigor of the concepts, the sense of change over time, in that book, all of that is just so beautiful to me, and it remains a very distant and unreachable benchmark of sorts.

Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?

EF: I like to write in libraries. I really love a nice library: the sensation that you are being enveloped in quiet and ideas and books, and that your work is going to merge into this enormous sea of scholarship that surrounds you. I wrote most of the first draft of Building the Land of Dreams on the C Floor of Princeton’s Firestone Library, 3 floors below ground level, in a tiny carrel. I wrote most of the revised version at the Community Coffee shop at the corner of Jefferson Ave. and Magazine St. in New Orleans (which is appropriate, because developing Thomas Jefferson’s part in the story was one of the biggest changes in the second draft).

As far as method and process, I think research and preparation is really 80% of the task, the actual writing is the final 20%. I spent lots of time on research; I read Edward Livingston’s papers in their entirety (140-some boxes worth), I read the New Orleans Conseil de Ville records in their entirety from 1803 to 1819, I have read pretty much every piece of secondary literature on early Louisiana ever written. It all goes into a big database (although, life being what it is, there’s always lots of stuff that never makes it into the database, too). By the time I actually start writing I have a very good idea of what I am going to say, including exact phrasing in many cases. The phrases have been building up in my head during showers and long drives for the months prior to writing them down. When I actually get going I write fast, and I write a lot. I have to trim a lot, too, eventually. The final version of Building the Land of Dreams is probably about equal in size to the pile of stuff that got left out and discarded along the way.

The whole project took almost seven years from beginning to end – three of which were spent working on the project pretty much full time, and four of which were spent balancing the writing and research with teaching.

Why did you write this book?

EF: I think I wrote the book because I had the very good fortune to have the institutional backing of Princeton University and Loyola University New Orleans; because I have a wonderfully supportive family; because I have a terrific network of colleagues and peers including a handful of close friends in my grad student cohort, my mentors at Princeton and in New Orleans, and the brother/sisterhood of Louisiana historians; in short because I am a very fortunate person in many ways. Good work doesn’t just spring from the genius of the author, but from very particular social circumstances in which the author is embedded. When I switched from a music career to an academic one, I knew I still wanted to be a creative person. I was lucky to find a great topic I could throw myself into and a great network of supporters to help me towards the finish. And lastly, in the final phase of turning this from a “project” into an actual book, I have also benefited greatly from the support and advice of Brigitta van Rheinberg, Quinn Fusting, and everyone else at Princeton University Press.

How did you come up with the title or jacket?

EF: Building the Land of Dreams – well, the phrase “Land of Dreams” comes from two places. One is William Blake’s poem, from the Pickering Manuscript, written around the time of the Louisiana Purchase. Blake never traveled to New Orleans, but the poem suggests the expanded mental universe of possibilities in the midst of the Age of Revolutions – and those world-changing possibilities were very much a part of the mental landscape of early 19th century New Orleans in the years after 1803. The second source, of course, is Spencer Williams’ “Basin Street Blues,” made famous by Louis Armstrong’s 1926 recording, which led to the “Land of Dreams” becoming one of the Crescent City’s many nicknames – and which, in the line about the banks of the Mississippi being “the place where dark and light folks meet,” also speaks to the central place of race in the city’s history and in my understanding of it.

The book’s jacket is a painting by John Boqueta de Woiserie, A View of New Orleans Taken from the Plantation of Marigny. It was painted in 1803, in celebration of the Louisiana Purchase and the American takeover, and it shows an eagle hovering over New Orleans, with a banner in its beak that reads “Under my wings/everything prospers.” It shows the enormous optimism with which some people, at least, greeted the prospect of American rule; the linked faith in personal liberty and material prosperity; and an unironic faith in the American promise that seems, in this cynical era, all too naïve. The book is the story of the various ways that promise was both betrayed and fulfilled.

Eberhard L. Faber teaches history and music industry studies at Loyola University, New Orleans. Previously, he spent twelve years leading the New York-based rock band God Street Wine. He blogs on New Orleans history and other topics at www.crescentcityconfidential.com.

Five Days in August — remembering the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On August 6 and 9, 1945, 70 years ago this week, the terrifying images of mushroom clouds rising over devastated cities were seared into the public consciousness. Atomic bombs, the result of an unprecedented collaboration between some of the greatest scientific minds of their generation, had decimated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed instantly, and in the days and months that followed, thousands more would suffer and die from radiation sickness and burns. The shocking display of military power and the vast human toll was unlike anything the world had seen. Whatever “nuclear” meant prior to August 6, it entered the lexicon that day as a term synonymous with uncontrolled destruction.

Five Days in AugustMost Americans believe that the Second World War ended because the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan forced it to surrender. But according to Michael Gordin’s  Five Days in August, (now available in e-book), the allied military did not clearly understand the atomic bomb’s revolutionary strategic potential. In fact, they were unsure whether the bombs would explode at all. But in the wake of the blasts and unparalleled ruin that did in fact occur, in the minds of many, physics became the science of war.

An interesting Princeton University Press historical note from Nature.com:

On the evening of 11 August 1945, just two days after the bombing of Nagasaki, the US government released Smyth’s 200-page document under the ponderous title, ‘A General Account of Methods of Using Atomic Energy for Military Purposes under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940–1945’. Quickly dubbed ‘the Smyth report’, copies flew off the shelves. The original Government Printing Office edition ran out so quickly that Princeton University Press published its own edition late in 1945, under the more manageable title, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, which sold more than 100,000 copies in a year.

The information contained in the Smyth report was heavily restricted for security reasons. But in a post-war and early cold war climate, atomic secrets were a hot commodity. Even today without the apocalyptic dread of The Day After, nuclear power remains a political and military preoccupation, as nations face the threat of terrorism, the problem of waste, and the danger of meltdown.

Gordin writes in Five Days in August, “Each generation has grappled intensely and repeatedly with understanding the implications of nuclearism for its future, but the struggle has always been caught  in terms fixed, as if in amber, with the speed and suddenness with which World War II ended.” For more on the moral questions left in the wake of these five days, and a look at the confused final months of World War II, sample Chapter 1, titled Endings, here.