We believe that when people think historically, they are engaging in a disciplined way of thinking about the world and its past. We believe it gives thinkers a knack for recognizing nonsense; and that it cultivates not only intellectual curiosity and rigor, but also intellectual humility. Join Al Zambone, author of Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life, as he talks with historians and other professionals who cultivate the craft of historical thinking.
Episode 296: Mercy
I can't introduce Cathal Nolan's book Mercy: Humanity in War any better than he does himself, with these words:
This is not a book about war. It is about mercy and humanity… Mercy happens in a microsecond, wrapped inside a surprise moment of mortal danger; it restrains baser instinct and reminds us about higher things. This book shows that mercy limits cruelty in ways laws and honor codes seldom do, because mercy is the highest personal and moral quality any of us achieves. It is above all other virtues, even justice and courage. It is superior to bravery, especially in a soldier. It is the greatest gift we give to those we meet in civilian life who are suffering and for whom it is in our power to aid or harm. Greater still when offered to the defenseless in war.
Mercy is the grace that happens between those who have a fleeting superiority of physical power and those who cannot save or protect themselves. It is greater than a gift to the helpless and the innocent, for as Shakespeare wrote, it elevates the merciful, too.
Cathal J. Nolan is Director of the International History Institute at the Pardee School of Global Studies and Professor of History at Boston University. His most recent book was The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost, which we discussed in Episode 79.
Episode 295: New England Fashion
When the Massachusetts Historical Society was founded in 1791, its august members probably did not anticipate that one day its archives would contain not only family papers, but family dresses–as well as waistcoats, wigs, and at least two scarlet cloaks worn by fashionable men in the late eighteenth century.
Kimberley Alexander (who is Director of Museum Studies and Lecturer at the University of New Hampshire) was last heard on the podcast talking about shoes, but more recently curated a 2018 exhibition "Fashioning the New England Family." Our conversation is about the book that eventually accompanied that exhibition, also titled Fashioning the New England Family. In it, with the help of an able supporting cast, Alexander describes the history of New England in what some New Englanders wore over three centuries, from the first English settlement, to the beginning of the twentieth century.
For Further Investigation
A New York Times article on cochineal
Priscilla Mullins and John Alden
A swatch from the dress of Priscilla Mullins Alden's dress
The tracing of a quilted petticoat pattern from the Leverett family
John Leverett's buff coat
Two waistcoats: one from the wardrobe of Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor William Tailer (d. 1732), and a truly incredible one worn by Andrew Oliver, Jr. (1731-1799)
Henry Bromfield's wig; and a short history of the rise and fall of the wig
Two crimson cloaks: one belonging to Peter Oliver (1713-1791) and another belonging to Henry Bromfield (1727-1820), described as "the last gentleman in Boston to cling to old fashioned styles of the 18th century"
Abigail Adams, painted by Gilbert Stuart, an exemplar of how to modulate the latest French fashion in a way that suits you; and a more billowing style, from c. 1830
Episode 294: Black Suffrage
On April 11, 1865, Abraham Lincoln addressed a crowd gathered outside the White House. He spoke not of recent victories, or those to come, but to the shape of the peace that would follow. Now that the Thirteenth Amendment had been passed by Congress, he urged that it be ratified. Moreover, it seemed to him, Lincoln said, that it was necessary for “the colored man” to have the right to vote. “I myself,” Lincoln told the crowd, “would prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.” That might now seem like a timid suggestion, but not to one man then standing in the listening crowd. When John Wilkes Booth heard Lincoln’s words, he turned to a companion and vowed “That’s the last speech he will ever make!” It was not the fall of Richmond, the flight of the Confederate government, or the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army that finally made Booth decide to act, but the threat of black suffrage.
With me to discuss the cause of black suffrage in the weeks, months, and years following Lincoln’s death is Paul D. Escott, Reynolds Professor of History Emeritus at Wake Forest University. He is the author of numerous books, including Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives; The Worst Passions of Human Nature: White Supremacy in the Civil War North; and most recently Black Suffrage: Lincoln’s Last Goal.
For Further Investigation
Many previous conversations on this podcast are related to this one. For an overview of Reconstruction, see my conversation with Douglas Egerton in Episode 67; how Black Americans created American citizenship was the focus of a conversation with Christopher Bonner in Episode 167; and most recently my conversation with Clayton Butler discussed Unionism as an ideology, and in part how it explains part of the mentality of Andrew Johnson.
For a different take on Lincoln than that held by Paul Escott, see my conversation with Michael Burlingame in Episode 242; Burlingame would argue that Lincoln was never interested in colonization prior to the war, and never serious about colonization during the war.
Episode 293: Brilliant Commodity
At the end of the 19th century, Amsterdam was home to nearly seventy diamond factories, in which were 7,500 steam-powered polishing mills. The workers who cut and polished the diamonds, brought there from the mines of South Africa, were not all Jewish–but many of them were. Indeed, in the late 1890s Jews were about 10% of the population of Amsterdam, and half of them were economically reliant on what the Dutch called simply “the profession”.
The Jewish community in Amsterdam were not the only Jews who worked with diamonds. In her new book A Brilliant Commodity: Diamonds and Jews in a Modern Setting, Saskia Snyder traces the involvement of Jews not only in Amsterdam factories, but in the fields of South Africa, in London, and in the growing consumer market of the United States during the late 19th century. She also examines how the involvement of Jews with diamonds became a feature of anti-semitism.
Saskia Coenen Snyder is Associate Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, where she is also a core faculty member of the Jewish Studies Program.
For Further Investigation
Numerous conversations on this podcast tie in with something mentioned in the course of this conversation. Way, way back in the beginning, when this podcast was newly hatched, is Episode 5: Diamonds are a Problem, which focused on the mining of diamonds in South Africa, and elsewhere in Southern Africa. In Episode 19, I talked with historian Vicki Howard about small local department stores in the United States, which were often founded and managed by immigrants like Jews and Italians. Some of the themes of the "democratization of luxury" were touched on along with many other things in Episode 91: Wanamaker's Temple, which was about the very, very large department store created by John Wanamaker. And most recently we talked about postcards and the importance of mail delivery with Lydia Pyne in Episode 249: Postcards from the Past.
Episode 292: Mutiny!
It is perhaps the greatest scandal and sea-story of the first half of 19th Century America that nearly everyone has forgotten. It led to a court martial, endless headlines, a fistfight in a meeting of the President’s cabinet, and quite possibly to the foundation of the United States Naval Academy. And given that nearly everyone who went to see in the early American republic seemed to know one another, there was one degree of separation between this story and James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, and future Confederate naval captain Raphael Semmes.
It was nothing less than an attempted mutiny aboard the USS Somers in November 1842, led by–of all the people in the United States of America—the son of the United States Secretary of War who supposedly wanted to become a pirate. With me to discuss this incredible story is James Delgado, historian and underwater archaeologist, whose new book is The Curse of the Somers: The Secret History Behind the US Navy’s Most Infamous Mutiny
For Further Investigation
James Fenimore Cooper: proud of his four years a merchant sailor and then a midshipman in the United States Navy, Cooper's fourth novel was The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea, probably the first American nautical novel.
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.: now curiously forgotten, Dana was a Harvard dropout who enrolled as a merchant seaman, sailed to California and back, wrote about it in a bestseller titled Two Years Before the Mast, and then went on to become a prominent lawyer.
Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry: young brother of naval hero Oliver Hazard Perry, "Old Bruin" became one of the most prominent officers of the US Navy between 1814 and 1861, most famously leading the expedition that forced Japan open to trade and international interaction
Raphael Semmes: once commander of the USS Somers, he became an officer in the Confederate Navy, and most famously commanded the CSS Alabama
Herman Melville: elements of the Somers mutiny can be found in both White Jacket and Billy Budd
Episode 291: True Blue
In late November, 1864, David R. Snelling visited his uncle, who then lived in Baldwin County near Milledgeville, Georgia. As a boy, he had worked in his uncle’s fields alongside those his uncle enslaved. Now Snelling returned home as a Lieutenant in the Army of the United States, commanding Company I of the First Alabama Cavalry–though detached on temporary duty as commander of the headquarters escort for General William Tecumseh Sherman. The homecoming was not a happy one, at least for Snelling’s uncle. The troopers who accompanied Snelling took what provisions they could find, and then at Snelling’s direction burned down the family’s cotton gin.
Snelling and the First Alabama were some of the very small percentage of Unionists who persisted in the Deep South following secession. Yet Clayton Butler argues that their importance in the minds of both the Union and the Confederacy “helps to shed light on some of the most crucial issues of the entire era.” He examines these Unionists, and those illuminated issues, in his new book True Blue: White Unionists in the Deep South During the Civil War and Reconstruction.
For Further Investigation
The Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, in Greeneville, Tennessee
An informative website constructed by historical reenactors who interpret the First Alabama Cavalry (USV)
The image is of a Union scout in Louisiana, during the Red River campaign of 1864. For more, ""Union Scouts in Louisiana," artist's impression, Harper's Weekly, May 1864, detail," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College
For an introduction to Reconstruction, see the conversation in Episode 67 with Douglas Egerton. For a view of the Civil War that dovetails nicely with this conversation, see Episode 132, a conversation with historian Elizabeth Varon.
A Window more people need to look through
Brings the past to life and reveals complexities, subtleties, and understandings that broad brushes almost always miss.
Thoughtful and Interesting
This is a really interesting podcast. Hosted by a historian, it is a great resource for anyone wanting to engage in history on a deeper level. As a high school history teacher, I have learned a great deal not just about particular topics but about how to think and ask questions like a historian. Highly recommended.
Great for history lovers
Great guests, a well-prepared interviewer, good topics. Home run.