This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate the Fourth of July with books on American History.
American History Now, edited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr
American History Now collects eighteen original historiographic essays that survey recent scholarship in American history and trace the shifting lines of interpretation and debate in the field. Building on the legacy of two previous editions of The New American History, this volume presents an entirely new group of contributors and a reconceptualized table of contents.
The new generation of historians showcased in American History Now posed new questions and developed new approaches to scholarship to revise the prevailing interpretations of the chronological periods from the colonial era to the Reagan years. Covering the established subfields of women’s history, African American history, and immigration history, the book also considers the history of capitalism, Native American history, environmental history, religious history, cultural history, and the history of “the United States in the world.”
American History Now provides an indispensable summation of the state of the field for those interested in the study and teaching of the American past.
Upon the Ruins of Liberty by Roger C. Aden
The 2002 revelation at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park that George Washington kept slaves in his executive mansion in the 1790s prompted an eight-year controversy about the role of slavery in America’s commemorative landscape. When the President’s House installation opened in 2010, it became the first federal property to feature a slave memorial.
In Upon the Ruins of Liberty Roger Aden offers a compelling account that explores the development of this important historic site and the intersection of contemporary racial politics with history, space, and public memory. Aden constructs this engrossing tale by drawing on archival material and interviews with principal figures in the controversy—including historian Ed Lawler, site activist Michael Coard, and site designer Emanuel Kelly
Upon the Ruins of Liberty chronicles the politically charged efforts to create a fitting tribute to the place where George Washington (and later John Adams) shaped the presidency as he denied freedom to the nine enslaved Africans in his household. From design to execution, the plans prompted advocates to embrace stories informed by race and address such difficulties as how to handle the results of the site excavation. Consequently, this landmark project raised concerns and provided lessons about the role of public memory in shaping the nation’s identity.
Tasting Freedom by Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin
Octavius Valentine Catto was a second baseman on Philadelphia’s best black baseball team, a teacher at the city’s finest black school, an activist who fought in the state capital and on the streets for equal rights, and an orator who shared the stage with Frederick Douglass. With his murder during an election-day race riot in 1871, the nation lost a civil rights pioneer—one who risked his life a century before the events that took place in Selma and Birmingham.
In Tasting Freedom Daniel Biddle (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) and Murray Dubin painstakingly chronicle the life of this charismatic black leader—a “free” black man whose freedom was in name only. Born in the American South, where slavery permeated everyday life, he moved north, where he joined the fight to be truly free—free to vote, go to school, ride on streetcars, play baseball, and even participate in Fourth of July celebrations.
Catto electrified a biracial audience in 1864 when he called on free men and women to act and to educate the newly freed slaves, proclaiming, “There must come a change.” With a group of other African Americans who called themselves a “band of brothers,” he challenged one injustice after another.
Tasting Freedom presents the little-known stories of Catto and the men and women who struggled to change America. This book will change your understanding of civil rights history.
Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas A. Foster
Biographers, journalists, and satirists have long used the subject of sex to define the masculine character and political authority of America’s Founding Fathers. Tracing these commentaries on the Revolutionary Era’s major political figures in Sex and the Founding Fathers, Thomas Foster shows how continual attempts to reveal the true character of these men instead exposes much more about Americans and American culture than about the Founders themselves.
Sex and the Founding Fathers examines the remarkable and varied assessments of the intimate lives of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris from their own time to ours. Interpretations can change radically; consider how Jefferson has been variously idealized as a chaste widower, condemned as a child molester, and recently celebrated as a multicultural hero.
Foster considers the public and private images of these generally romanticized leaders to show how each generation uses them to reshape and reinforce American civic and national identity.
The Spirits of America by Eric Burns
“Thousands of years ago, before Christ or Buddha or Muhammad…before the Roman Empire rose or the Colossus of Rhodes fell,” Eric Burns writes, “people in Asia Minor were drinking beer.” So begins an account as entertaining as it is extensive, of alcohol’s journey through world—and, more important, American—history.
In The Spirits of America, Burns relates that drinking was “the first national pastime,” and shows how it shaped American politics and culture from the earliest colonial days. He details the transformation of alcohol from virtue to vice and back again, how it was thought of as both scourge and medicine. He tells us how “the great American thirst” developed over the centuries, and how reform movements and laws (some of which, Burn s says, were “comic masterpieces of the legislator’s art”) sprang up to combat it. Burns brings back to life such vivid characters as Carrie Nation and other crusaders against drink. He informs us that, in the final analysis, Prohibition, the culmination of the reformers’ quest, had as much to do with politics and economics and geography as it did with spirituous beverage.
Filled with the famous, the infamous, and the undeservedly anonymous, The Spirits of America is a masterpiece of the historian’s art. It will stand as a classic chronicle—witty, perceptive, and comprehensive—of how this country was created by and continues to be shaped by its everchanging relationship to the cocktail shaker and the keg.
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