Review: Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton


One Thing after Another finds the ten-sentence limit for Very Short Reviews too constricting and has surrendered to the lures of a much longer format. Today’s review of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is our first of what promises to be reviews of normal (or abnormal) length.

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Books, 2014).

Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History is about the “rise and fall of the European-dominated empire of cotton” (xi). Beckert is particularly interested in this story because no other industry erected such a large, ubiquitous “global production complex.” By tracing the fortunes of this large and ever-changing empire, Beckert claims that he has provided a useful—perhaps even the best—example of “capitalism in action” (xv). Along the way, Beckert emphasizes several themes: states were absolutely integral to creating the empire of cotton; this empire relied on large doses of armed force and other illiberal types of coercion; cotton was global like no other product (which explains why a study of the empire must look not just at Manchester or Britain, but at the entire world); and production of the fiber constantly adapted to changing circumstances by engaging in revolutionary transformations.

Before the empire of cotton was created, cotton was largely consumed where it was produced—in a band that encircled the globe between 32 to 35 degrees south latitude and 37 degrees north. This band included Central America, West Africa, the Nile River valley, the Near East, Central Asia, and China. That Europe would come to dominate the production, financing, and processing of cotton when it was incapable of growing the plant is one of the central marvels of Beckert’s story.

This story proceeds by stages. In the late-medieval period, Europeans (particularly in northern Italy—and then later in Germany) began buying cotton from Mediterranean sources such as Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt. But European textiles were not particularly competitive on the world market (such as it was) because the quality of there products was inferior to what was woven in India. What eventually made Europe a player in the market for cotton was its success in forging a “complex commercial web” that linked India, West Africa, North America, and Europe. As Beckert puts it, “the products of Indian weavers paid for slaves in Africa to work on the plantations in the Americas to produce agricultural commodities for European consumers” (36). Europeans (primarily the British at this point) inserted themselves into existing networks and created ever more extensive ones through the use of force. Although the state would come to play a major role in the empire of cotton, at this point, most of the force involved in this process was in private hands—“heavily armed privateering capitalists” as Beckert describes them. The exercise of coercion became the first step in the creation of “war capitalism” (Beckert’s term). Becket never really defines what “war capitalism” was so much as he describes what it did, supported, or allowed: “imperial domination, the expropriation of vast territories, decimation of indigenous peoples theft of their resources, enslavement, and the domination of vast tracts of land by private capitalists with little effective oversight by distant European states” (38).

As time went on, the British increasingly aimed at creating an overseas market for their own textiles—instead of merely peddling superior Indian products. The main problem for Britain, however, was that wages were much higher there than in India; for that reason, British textiles could not compete on the basis of price. This problem inspired a concerted effort to increase the productivity of British labor. The answer consisted of making advances in spinning and weaving technology—which we associate with the Industrial Revolution. It also required the mass mobilization of labor in the metropole—usually drawn from vulnerable groups like children and women. War capitalism, Beckert argues, created propitious circumstances for the industrialization of Europe by providing access to markets, technology, labor, and raw materials. It also created a great deal of capital and fostered the development of various financial instruments. These important changes allowed the British to sell their goods in overseas markets. None of these achievements would have been possible without the activities of a strong, interventionist state. The state, according to Beckert, “was capable of forging and protecting global markets, policing its borders, regulating industry, creating and then enforcing private property rights in land, enforcing contracts over large geographical distances, forging fiscal tools to tax populations, and building a social, economic, and legal environment that made the mobilization of labor through wage payments possible” (76). This array of capacities was associated with “industrial capitalism” which was initially fostered and sustained by war capitalism.

A major way in which war capitalism assisted industrial capitalism was in securing huge territories and enormous pools of labor to supply the raw materials necessary to keep up with Britain’s enhanced industrial productivity. Beckert views the emergence of the American South as perhaps the most significant accomplishment of late war capitalism. In this part of the world, the empire of cotton did not have to compromise with existing socio-economic relations as it did in, say, India. Instead, indigenous inhabitants were removed wholesale, and a completely new labor regime (slavery), ideally suited to the cultivation of cotton, was implemented. It is no coincidence, as Beckert points out, that Baring Brothers & Co., which later became the most important British merchant bank involved in the cotton business, underwrote the Louisiana Purchase which allowed the United States take hold of an enormous territory on which cotton could be grown.

Although industrial capitalism required war capitalism to get started, Beckert points out that significant tensions persisted between the two. While war capitalism was particularly useful in securing the means for growing enormous volumes of cotton, it was totally ill-suited for the processing of the fiber or the manufacturing of textiles. Frictions between war and industrial capitalism were not impossible to reconcile so long as, say, war capitalism remained something that took place overseas (or “outside” as Beckert puts it) while industrial capitalism was something that happened at home (“inside”). However, in the United States, the two systems existed side by side, their interests were incompatible, and the American Civil War occurred as a result.

The Civil War was a major turning point in the history of the empire of cotton, and perhaps the greatest crisis it ever surmounted. Southern planters, who were the last politically powerful group of cotton growers in the world, were utterly destroyed as a force. The war capitalism with which they were intimately associated also came to an end. Most important of all, the war and the Federal blockade completely disrupted the flow of cotton to Europe. Manufacturers now had a huge incentive to reduce their dependence on American cotton and diversify their sources of the fiber—especially as it became clear to them that even the American South could not meet the enormous future demand for cheap, raw cotton. Looking to alternate sources also meant recasting the socio-economic relations of various regions and changing the way that cotton was produced, financed, and transported. The empire of cotton was compelled to penetrate the interiors of India, Egypt, Brazil, Africa, Central Asia, and American South. The empire built railroads to facilitate the transportation of cotton from remote parts of the world. It also took over the financing of cotton production, shouldering aside local traditional lenders. It employed scientific agricultural reform to enhance productivity. And it imposed new labor arrangements, mainly sharecropping, that eventually led to wage labor. In parts of India, for example, the countryside was deindustrialized as weavers were reduced to peasant status. Moreover, these peasants were no longer the traditional subsistence farmers who grew cotton on the side; they now exclusively produced cotton for the market. This kind of monoculture led to food insecurity and eventually periodic famines. The intensification of imperialism in the latter part of the 19th century (what most textbooks refer to as “New Imperialism”) only provided the empire of cotton with additional political tools to pursue the same ends.

Since then, the locus of textile production has changed: the manufacturing of cotton textiles has moved to the “global South.” Beckert focuses on two major reasons for this change. First, as the global South adopted increasingly advanced manufacturing techniques, its low wages allowed it to produce textiles at much lower prices than the First World. Second, with the advent of decolonization, the global South obtained states that acted according to their perceived national interests and implemented policies (often statist) that sought to protect domestic production. States and manufacturers in these regions, however, do not dominate the contemporary empire of cotton. Instead, according to Beckert, immense corporations are in charge. They no longer have to integrate new regions of the world into the market economy; that work has already been completed by various states. They no longer depend on any particular state; they “can easily shift all forms of production around the globe” (438). They no longer focus on “raw cotton, yarn, and cloth;” their interest is in the “apparel business” (437). From Beckert’s perspective, then, “the empire of cotton has continued to facilitate a giant race to the bottom, limited only by the spatial constraints of the planet” (440).

This reviewer cannot vouch for the economic history that lies at the heart of this work (because he is not an economic historian), but Empire of Cotton is a fascinating, thought-provoking, pioneering book that required great powers of synthesis to produce. Beckert’s decision to conduct a truly global history of cotton is justified by the results. Beckert does a wonderful job of showing the complex web of business links that stretched from Liverpool and Manchester all the way to, say, Bombay and Berar during the heyday of this empire. As the author details the doings of various figures who served this empire, the reader invariably feels as if he has removed the housing from a great machine and obtained a rare opportunity to see all the cogs, levers, and flywheels working in perfect order. Beckert’s model has great explanatory force, and as he describes it, each step taken by the empire of cotton seemed to lead ineluctably to the next.

At times, though, the activities of this empire sometimes seem too inevitable. Beckert’s depiction of the machine is a bit too elegant, smooth, and unproblematic. In his telling, the empire of cotton becomes an irresistible, revolutionary capitalist force that relentlessly adapted to changing circumstances while conforming to unimpeachable economic logic. Although Beckert describes the activities of numerous individuals caught up in this empire, they merely serve it; there is very little room for human agency here either. In other words, everything seems overdetermined. Conflict and ambivalence within the heart of this empire are simply ignored. For example, the abolitionist movement in Britain, which strenuously opposed slavery, receives no mention at all (Beckert merely states that “Britain in 1834 outlawed slavery within its empire”) (122). At the same time, certain facts are shoe-horned to fit Beckert’s interpretation. Beckert argues, for instance, that Britain’s Reform Act of 1832 allowed “many textile entrepreneurs to move into the House of Commons, where they strenuously lobbied for the (global) interests of their industry, from the Corn Laws to British colonial expansion” (77). Most British historians would argue that such a statement paints with an extremely broad (and somewhat inaccurate) brush (i.e. “many” entrepreneurs did not enter the Commons until much later, their efforts did not precipitate repeal of the Corn Laws, and many were ambivalent about colonial expansion).

These problems are probably a function of studying an enormous topic whose every single detail is somewhat beyond the powers of a single historian to master. Yet they are also partly due to the nature of economic history which does not always perceive problems in the round. As we have seen, Beckert depicts the American Civil War as a clash between elements of war capitalism and industrial capitalism—an old-fashioned interpretation that smells a bit like Charles and Mary Beard. It might seem unfair to criticize an economic history for being, well, an economic history. But if Beckert had matched the global scope of his study with a wide-ranging approach that incorporated more subfields of history (for sure, a herculean task), he would have avoided some of the mistakes and blind spots that crop up in his work.

At the same time, for all the details concerning the growing, financing, transportation, processing, and selling of cotton, Beckert is somewhat less precise when it comes to defining his most important terms. He never explains, for example, what the phrase “empire of cotton” actually means. While the reader obtains a fairly good idea of what Beckert signifies, a more explicit description would provide a better analytical tool. The problem here has to do with the use of the word “empire” which is not exactly a self-evident word. The same goes for words like “war capitalism” which is something of a novelty—at least in the way that Beckert uses it.

Finally, Beckert closes his work by referring to the two faces of capitalism that were presented by the empire of cotton: “domination and exploitation” on the one hand, and “liberation and creativity” on the other (442). The balance of the work certainly seems to stress the former at the expense of the latter. This tendency seems a strange foundation for his closing statement that the story of cotton should “give us hope . . .  that our unprecedented domination over nature will allow us the wisdom, the power, and the strength to create a society that serves the needs of all the world’s people.”

Despite these criticisms (and the amount of space they have consumed in this review), Beckert’s book is a terrific and worthwhile read. Present-day entrepreneurs like to pretend that they are the first to have made the world anew, but Empire of Cotton does a valuable service by reminding contemporary readers that visionary entrepreneurs in the past have made the world anew many, many times before.

Hugh Dubrulle

Kane Lands Job with Brown Brothers Harriman


Lili Kane ’16 (Lynn, MA) had scarcely graduated last May before she obtained a real plum of a job (involving history no less!) with Brown Brothers Harriman in Boston, MA. One Thing after Another contacted Kane to ask her about her experiences at Saint. Anselm College and her new position.

On November 1, at 7 PM, Kane will appear with other alums at the Living Learning Commons (new dorm) to discuss career opportunities for History majors. Appearing with her will be:

  • Lisa Palone ’95, Editorial Research Manager, WGBH (where she is the content manager for the Emmy-winning public affairs program, Frontline)
  • Dan Puopolo ’98, Managing Director, NextShares Solutions LLC
  • Stephen Shorey ’11, Staff Attorney, Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Public Records Division

Q: What brought you to Saint Anselm College, and why did you major in History?

A: I came to Saint Anselm College not only because of the fantastic food and gorgeous campus, but also because of the sense of opportunity. I knew I wanted to attend a college that was academically challenging and offered small class sizes so I could easily engage in class conversations and get to know my professors personally. I also valued how invested the school was in setting up volunteer opportunities around Manchester. Saint Anselm College immediately created a sense of community for me, and I never for a second regretted my choice.

When I started my freshman year, I had yet to declare a major, but I knew I was interested in history. I’ve always loved to read, so I decided to take a couple of history courses. The introductory course I took with Professor Masur (History 100: Introduction to the Study of History) was challenging, intriguing, and super fun. At the time (and even at graduation) I had no idea what I was going to be doing with a history degree, but that didn’t matter because I knew I was receiving a strong education and that was all the confidence I needed.

Q: Back in July, you landed a job as an Enterprise Services Senior Specialist at Brown Brothers Harriman in Boston, MA. Tell us a little bit about the firm and what you do there.

A: Established in 1818, Brown Brothers Harriman is the largest private bank in North America and by far the oldest. A linen merchant by the name of Alexander Brown emigrated from Ireland to Baltimore where he created a private, family-owned merchant bank with his four sons. Strategic investments and innovative business decisions have transformed Brown Brothers Harriman from leaders in merchant banking and transatlantic trade to an integrated worldwide financial services firm. My role as an Enterprise Services Senior Specialist has given me a unique perspective on the firm. I work in General Administration where I help the team with any administrative support, but my main focus is on managing the firm’s historical archives and research.

With the firm’s bicentennial (in 2018) quickly approaching, my knowledge of the firm’s past will prove helpful to any department looking for historical information. Also, since Brown Brothers Harriman is very proud of its history and longevity, it is publishing a book that will tell the story of their last 200 years—and I will be assisting the author in his research!

Q: In what ways do you think your history background might have helped you obtain the job and prepare you to undertake the tasks associated with your position?

A: If it had not been for my history background, I am certain I would not have this role at Brown Brothers Harriman. I had applied for an entry-level operations position, and a woman from HR contacted me about this role because my major at Saint Anselm caught her eye. Brown Brothers Harriman was looking for someone who could do research, enjoyed history, and was able to multitask while doing additional administrative work. When I went for the interview, I told my future boss that this role had my name written all over it. I still have a lot of researching ahead of me, but with the skills I learned at Saint Anselm—how to actively read, critically think, and look at the bigger picture—I have no doubt that I will succeed in this role.

Q: While you were at Saint Anselm College, you also minored in Communication and got an internship with the Office of College Communications and Marketing (CCM). What were the tasks associated with this internship? What did you learn that helped you at Brown Brothers Harriman?

A: My internship with the Office of Communications and Marketing really helped me develop my writing skills. In my history classes, I was always a decent writer, but I frequently struggled with getting all my thoughts effectively on paper. As an intern at CCM, my daily tasks were to draft news stories for the college website. I never realized how challenging journalistic writing was. My experience as an intern at CCM strengthened my ability to write in a simpler manner, which is valuable in my role at Brown Brothers Harriman since what I write there tends to be shorter (e.g. informative news blurbs) than, say, a history research paper.

I truly cannot emphasize enough how important internships are. I felt so confident in myself when this job began because I knew I had the education and a significant amount of experience that could all be tied into this role.

Q: You’re from Lynn, MA. What’s the best thing about your hometown besides Marshmallow Fluff?

A: Well, fluff is pretty awesome, BUT what I think the best thing about Lynn is that we’re called the City of Firsts. Lynn had the first baseball game under artificial light, the first iron works, first fire engine, and a bunch of other stuff. But I bet you’ll never guess that Lynn had the FIRST roast beef sandwich. Marshmallow Fluff and roast beef—Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin likes classy food.

Gates Interns with the NH Department of Environmental Services


Recently, History and English double-major Ginger Gates ’17 (Pembroke, NH) was profiled in the Saint Anselm Crier because of her summer internship at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.

One Thing after Another took advantage of this opportunity to ask Gates a few questions about her experiences over the summer

Q: One Thing After Another understands you interned with the NH Department of Environmental Services in Concord, NH this summer. What drew you to that internship?

A: I think it’s important for students and young people to be aware and well-informed about the environmental issues that the state and country as a whole face. I saw this internship as a crucial opportunity to learn more about the state of New Hampshire’s environmental concerns and to help address them in any way that I could. The NHDES Groundwater and Drinking Water Bureau’s archive of rules and regulations date back to the late 1800s; it was my job to organize these rules and create an online matrix of each rule and its different versions. This project combined two of my passions: history and law. From reading the rules alone, you can see distinct shifts in attitudes about water conservation and water safety. A state’s laws and regulations can really tell you a lot about what that state values. New Hampshire values its great outdoors, its lakes and mountains, and its bright fall foliage. Especially during this period of extreme drought, it’s important to understand the rules and why they are in place so that individuals and businesses can do their part in conserving water.

Q: How did your major in history and the skills you’ve learned in that major help you in this internship?

A: As a history major, one of the most important skills I’ve learned is how to articulate thoughts and ideas clearly and concisely. While interviewing for this position, my employers were impressed by my ability to communicate well and effectively. Studying history has taught me to evaluate and solve problems efficiently. Because of the nature of my internship, I was given a lot of freedom to change how I approached creating the matrix. There were many times when these problem-solving skills were helpful in creating a clear, user-friendly, and accessible document.

Q: This must have been an interesting summer to work for that agency, given two key water issues happening in the state—extreme drought and ground water contamination with volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). Were you working on anything related to these issues?

A: I wasn’t directly working on these issues, but when water safety and level is affected, everyone is affected. When my boss gave me opportunities to shadow fieldwork, it was evident how detrimental this summer’s drought has been. Lake Massabesic, the reservoir that supplies drinking water for the Manchester area, has dropped four feet over the summer to a level that hasn’t been seen in a hundred years. Many private well systems in the southern part of the state have gone dry in the past months. We take for granted how accessible water is, and when it’s not readily available, that entirely changes your perspective and how you go about your daily routine.

Q: Did you have an interest in environmental issues before this internship?

A: Yes. The problems of the environment are everyone’s problems. Regardless of whether or not climate change has been caused by human action, the issue remains. It is truly the most pressing concern my generation faces now and in the next fifty years.

Q: What benefits did you get from your internship?

A: As in all internships that require interacting with others, my communication and writing skills developed throughout the summer. The NHDES is a large and diverse office, and the people I worked with were a joy to get know, which makes any internship or job much more pleasant. Learning about individual water systems, how vital water is to our everyday lives, and how important the laws and regulations that govern water use and water filtration really gave me a new perspective on water use and enforcement. Only fifty years ago water filtration was just a few metal screens of varying size and a chemical treatment. We can thank the EPA and the Safe Drinking Water Act for the strict regulations that are now in place.

I’ve always been interested in pursuing a law degree after graduation, and this internship strengthened that desire. I had never thought of going into environmental law until this summer, but seeing how vital our natural resources are to our entire lives, it’s something I have an interest in.

Q: You are a senior this year. What are you most looking forward to in your last year at Saint Anselm College?

A: I’m really looking forward to completing my thesis—not only to have it done and not have to worry about it anymore, but to have a cohesive and substantial piece of writing to show future employers or schools.

I’ve developed a new appreciation for the beauty of nature, so I’m really looking forward to seeing this campus move through all the seasons, especially autumn. Hopefully the foliage will still be as colorful, despite the drought!

For the past four years, I’ve really developed great relationships with professors and fellow students. I’m looking forward to continuing to build those relationships and learning as much as I can before I’ve completed my undergraduate degree. There’s a lot to look forward to in the future, so I’m excited to see what it holds.


Assessing Historians against Trump


Yes, it’s time for Trump yet again! Back in July 2016, Historians against Trump (HAT) produced “An Open Letter to the American People” in which they enunciated their objections to Donald Trump and articulated the special role historians ought to play in opposing Trump’s candidacy.

This open letter elicited a sharp response in the New York Times Sunday Review from Stanley Fish, the legal scholar and prominent literary theorist best known, perhaps, for developing reader-response theory:

As indicated by the History News Network, scholars have assumed different positions on this dispute between HAT and Fish:

What is the proper role of historians in relation to a Trump candidacy?

One Thing after Another does not wish to recapitulate HAT’s entire argument in detail, but to generalize, it seems to revolve around the following points. First, Donald Trump’s candidacy presents an “exceptional challenge . . . to civil society.” Second, historians are especially well positioned to recognize this challenge, partly because of their knowledge of the past and partly because of skills they have developed in assessing documentary evidence. Third, the “lessons of history” compel historians to speak out against Trump. Fourth, historians have a special role to play in educating the public so that it is better capable of protecting civil society and resisting the appeals of people like Trump.

Fish contests the view that historians are especially qualified to assess Trump or somehow inoculate society against political charlatanism. As he puts it,

while disciplinary experience qualifies them to ask and answer discipline-specific questions, it does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom.

Fish is adamant that history does not produce objective truths in general, and historians acting as historians should not confuse their political opinions with facts.

The dispute over HAT, then, is not really about Donald Trump (Fish claims his disagreement with HAT is not inspired by support for Trump). Rather, it concerns a) what role historians should play in public political discourse and b) on what basis they should play that role. At the risk of sounding a bit wishy-washy, One Thing after Another thinks HAT has overreached while Fish’s view of history’s jurisdiction is too narrow.

Fish and others have charged that HAT has assigned a privileged position to the discipline of history. HAT, of course, does not explicitly claim that historians are better than anybody else, and there is some justice in David Schlitt’s claim that Fish has engaged in a “bad-faith reading” of HAT’s letter.

The introduction to HAT’s letter, however, does seem to imply that historians possess special insights derived from the unique nature of their discipline that allow them to understand the challenges presented by Trump better than anybody else. They “recognize . . . ominous precedents,” they “understand” the consequences of the ugly side of politics (e.g. “the enduring appeal of demagogues, the promise and peril of populism, and the political uses of bigotry and scapegoating”), and, most important of all, they know the “lessons of history.”

One Thing after Another will leave to one side the question of whether HAT thinks the discipline of history should assume a particularly distinguished role in opposing Trump. First, while they sail close to the wind on this issue, they don’t explicitly come out and say that history is primus inter pares among disciplines in this particular case. And, second, if they did, such a position would be unsupportable. Many other fields have important contributions to make on this question (take economics, for example):

What interests One Thing after Another more is HAT’s claims about “precedents” and the “lessons of history.” “As historians,” HAT claims, “we recognize . . . the ominous precedents for Donald J. Trump’s candidacy.”  What exactly are these precedents, and what do they signify? We are none the wiser upon finishing the letter. For a missive written by a collection of historians on behalf of historians, this piece is curiously bare of references to the past (there are some links buried in the text, but nothing particularly sophisticated).  If HAT intends to take a leading role in educating the public, it needs to do better than that. The only clue HAT provides explain its reference to precedents is a photograph of Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First rally in 1941. The problem is that Donald Trump is not Charles Lindbergh, and the United States in 2016 is not the United States in 1941.

HAT cannot loosely refer to precedents without explaining them—otherwise, how can we scrutinize the group’s argument? Use of the word “precedent” suggests an analogy is being made, but HAT must actually produce the analogy so we can measure its soundness. We cannot take analogies for granted; as this blog has repeated many times before, historical analogy is a very tricky art. To name one particularly pertinent example, over the last year, historians and others have referred to a wide variety of historical figures in an attempt to locate someone who resembles Trump. Is he like Andrew Jackson? William Jennings Bryan? Huey Long? Joe McCarthy? Nelson Rockefeller? George Wallace? Pat Buchanan? Is he a Mussolini in the making? Or is he sui generis? So long as we cannot fix on a particular person, it is hard to claim that we have established a definitive precedent, let alone “lessons of history.”

An intimation of what HAT means, perhaps, comes from Renate Bridenthal who signed the letter and defended it in the New York Times:

She writes:

As a historian of Germany, I found our letter much too mild. Historians are responsible for the collective memory of peoples, and just like individuals with memories of past trauma, we are obliged to shout “stop!” when we see familiar signs of coming disaster.

The suggestion is that, at worst, Trump is like the Fascists and Nazis of the 1930s and 1940s. The degree to which this analogy works is debatable, and we have discussed this point on One Thing after Another some months ago:

More important, does a knowledge of 1930s Germany give one a good sense of what Trump will do or how his policies will play out? Not only is Trump different from Hitler in many ways, but the United States in 2016 is quite different from Germany in the 1930s. In this context, One Thing after Another recalls George Orwell’s observations in The Road to Wigan Pier about what British fascism could possibly look like should it take hold of that country:

When I speak of Fascism in England, I am not necessarily thinking of [Oswald] Mosley [the leader of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s] and his pimpled followers. English Fascism, when it arrives, is likely to be of a sedate and subtle kind (presumably, at any rate at first, it won’t be called Fascism), and it is doubtful whether a Gilbert and Sullivan heavy dragoon of Mosley’s stamp would ever be much more than a joke to the majority of English people.

Orwell argued that Fascism would not be about jackboots and uniforms as it had been in Italy or Germany; in Britain, it would come dressed in tweed. In other words, events in Italy and Germany were of limited utility in determining what would happen in Britain (where Fascism did not succeed). Precedent and analogy can only serve our purposes if the two things being compared are clearly similar. That is, of course, unless one uses the word “precedent” in a most general way (e.g. thoughtlessness, lying, xenophobia, and disrespect for the law will lead to stupid, unethical, bad, and criminal policy). If that’s how HAT means to use the word “precedent,” then we are not discussing some special or precise insight that only people with doctorates in History possess. Rather, we are discussing something that any person with a modicum of sense might figure out on his or her own.

As for the “lessons of history” (an expression that no academic historian has ever uttered in One Thing after Another’s hearing), there are serious problems with this concept. Fish has a point when he takes HAT to task for using these words which make history sound objective, definitive, static, and monolithic. As even undergraduates will tell you, history is a representation of the past grounded in an interpretation of primary source documents. Interpretations vary according to the way different historians understand the world which is why the field is characterized by debate. Not only that, as the concerns of historians evolve over time, the questions they bring to the documents also shift. For these reasons, history is contested and constantly changing. Under these circumstances, how does one produce “lessons of history,” especially when historians respect every event as unique?

Although HAT get some things wrong, that doesn’t mean that Fish gets everything right. Fish has a narrow view of the historian’s proper sphere. He writes that historians’

disciplinary experience qualifies them to ask and answer discipline-specific questions, it does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. . . . It’s their job to teach students how to handle archival materials, how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence, how to build a persuasive account of a disputed event, in short to perform as historians, not as seers or political gurus.

This blog is all in favor of preventing the discipline from overreaching itself, and One Thing after Another would feel uncomfortable if historians sought to become political leaders, guides, seers, and gurus. While they should do something less than these tasks, they should do something more than answer discipline-specific questions. Historians have much to contribute as the nation and the state confront important questions. For sure, the discipline will not provide definitive answers (or lessons), but it can hone our judgments and allow us to approach problems in a careful and methodical manner. This blog is reminded of The Economist’s special report on the Arab world (“The War Within,” May 14, 2016). This extended and interesting rumination on the instability and divisions that plague that part of the world—in which we are so interested today—is well illuminated by its understanding of history. That being the case, it seems to this blog that there is a public space beyond the boundaries of the discipline that historians ought to fill, but they ought to be judicious in filling it.

CFP Jimmy Carter and the “Year of the Evangelicals” Reconsidered

CFP  Jimmy Carter and the ‘Year of the Evangelicals’ Reconsidered
April 6-8, 2017
New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Saint Anselm College
Manchester, New Hampshire

In 1976 Newsweek magazine borrowed a phrase from pollster George Gallup and proclaimed that year the “Year of the Evangelicals.”  Both presidential candidates – Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter – claimed to be “born again” Christians, a claim made by one third of all Americans; and significant proportions of Protestants and Catholics told Gallup’s pollsters that the Bible should be taken literally, a marker of conservative evangelical Christianity.  This phenomenon caught journalists by surprise, and they struggled to understand this new segment of the electorate, beginning at the top with the candidacy of Jimmy Carter. The election of 1976 brought evangelicals back into the political arena. While many of these people supported Carter’s candidacy and made the difference in his election, the ways in which they influenced public life quickly extended beyond Carter and the Democratic Party.  It also marked evangelicals’ movement from the margins of intellectual and cultural life into the mainstream. Indeed, they soon became a political and cultural force.

Some forty years later, with financial support from the Henry Luce Foundation, Saint Anselm College and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Manchester, New Hampshire, will host a conference in honor of that Newsweek cover story and presidential election. The conference, “Jimmy Carter and ‘The Year of the Evangelicals’ Reconsidered” aims to assess both the scholarly and popular significance of the return to public life of American evangelicals.  While the Newsweek cover story provides the initial starting point, this conference aims to explore the phenomenon of evangelicals and politics more broadly.

Conference organizers seek individual paper proposals or proposals for an entire panel that analyze evangelicalism in light of its contributions to public life both in and since 1976.  In many ways, scholarship on late twentieth-century evangelicalism and the rise of the Religious Right has matured.  But there are still questions to be answered and new interpretations to be offered.  The following research questions point to potential areas for proposals, but this list is not exhaustive and proposals that address other questions or re-imagine conventional interpretations will be welcomed.

First, with the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s and 1980s, the progressive evangelicalism in the Newsweek article was relegated to minority status in the political world.  Why is that and what happened to its political influence in the late 20th century?

Second, in the Newsweek story, Foy Valentine, leader of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission, called the label “evangelical” a “Yankee” word.  What made southern Protestant Christianity different from the rest of the nation (and why was it not necessarily “evangelical”)?

Third, African Americans are not often included in the category “evangelical” – especially in the political sense that characterized Newsweek’s story. What about African-American evangelicals?  Where do they fit in evangelicalism’s conventional historical narrative?

Fourth, what has been evangelicals’ influence on popular culture and intellectual life since their return to public life in the 1970s?

Fifth, where are we now?  Has evangelicalism’s influence on American politics diminished in the twenty-first century?

Sixth, what about the mainstream press’s treatment of evangelicals and politics?  What impact did the Newsweek cover story and the election of 1976 have on journalists?

Finally, what was the relationship between Catholics and evangelicals during this period?

Individual paper proposals should include a 250-word abstract, a brief (1-page) CV, and contact information (including email address).  Panel proposals should include a 500-word abstract, with brief (1-page) CVs for all participants and contact information for the panel organizer.

Direct proposals and any questions to Andrew Moore (

Deadline for submissions is November 15, 2016.

Burkart Back from Study Abroad in Italy

Jonathan Burkart

Last semester three history majors spent time abroad. One went to Germany and another explored Britain. History major Jonathan Burkart ’18 (Brooklyn, CT) went to Orvieto, Italy. One Thing after Another was curious about how his background in history influenced his encounter with the ancient Etruscans, the Romans, the medieval city-state, and modern Italy. We asked Jonathan about his experiences abroad as well as his thoughts about internships and careers.

Q: How did you come to be a history major? What inspired or influenced that choice?

A: History has always been my favorite subject. Since elementary school, I would soak up every piece of history in literature, my classes, and when visiting museums or parks with my family. I am lucky enough to have had a long list of exceptional teachers who helped increase my interest through fascinating classes and a genuine commitment to their students. My passion for history never abated, so it was a natural choice to major in it.

Q: You spent all of last spring semester in Orvieto, Italy as part of a Saint Anselm College study abroad program. What were your classes and experiences like?

A: It’s hard to summarize three extraordinary months in a few sentences. . . . I loved every minute of my study abroad experience. Perhaps the most incredible feature was our Chiavi class. In Chiavi (which translates to “keys”), we read about different parts of Italy’s history, such as Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, and then we would take a trip to Florence to see and “unlock” the history and culture. Orvieto and Italy are so rich in history, from ancient times to recent events, that practically every street showcases beautiful, culturally important elements that, when pieced together over a semester, create a breathtaking tapestry that speaks of history more eloquently than any single class could ever hope to. Our education came from talking with locals and from experiencing history first-hand.

Q: Did you find your background in European history affected how you experienced the semester abroad?

A: Before I studied in Orvieto, I took a Modern European course and a War and Revolution class, and both prepared me for Italian history very well. I have studied European history throughout my college and high school careers, but it was incredible to see my textbook pages come to life when walking through the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. My history classes affected my study abroad experience in that they enhanced my appreciation of every trip we made. Simply being in Italy is phenomenal, but comprehending the depth of walking on 2000-year-old cobblestones made the trip indescribably amazing.

Q: What are you looking forward to during this school year?

A: Catching up with friends that I haven’t seen since fall semester of last year and resuming classes probably top the chart of things I’m looking forward to this year, but Davison food is in a close third place.

Q: You often attend Admissions Open Houses as a history major, which we really appreciate. What do you say to high school students who are thinking about a history major but aren’t sure yet?

A: When I attend the Admissions Open Houses, the first question I get from prospective students is always, “But what if I don’t want to teach?” I think one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding history majors is that you can only become a teacher after college. While that is definitely an excellent option, there are more applications for a history major than you might think. While looking for an internship next semester, I discovered that the FBI is looking for history majors. The critical skills of researching and being able to present your information in a cogent, comprehensive manner is important for a large number of jobs, which is why I recommend taking history classes to anyone unsure of what he or she may want to do for a living. You never know, you just might discover a hidden passion while you’re at it.

The SAC History Department Blog Celebrates 101 Posts

101 Dalmatians

Last week, One Thing after Another, the Saint Anselm College History Department blog, published its 101st post. “Why celebrate 101 posts?” you might ask. “Why not 100”? First, 101 has a certain symmetry that 100 does not. Second, 101 has been a “thing” since 101 Dalmatians. Third, we forgot to write something after the 100th post was published. We cover up our mistakes with specious rationalizations (see the first two reasons); that is the way we roll.

In any event, we at One Thing after Another thought that you might like to see the stats behind the blog in the same manner that, say, Toto exposed the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. How many people read the blog, who are they, and what are they interested in?

Our very first post, which announced the launching the blog, was published on March 21, 2014. It featured an old newsreel that showed the launching of the battleship USS Missouri back in 1944 (as an analogy to the launching of our blog, you see). That video, which we found on YouTube, has since been taken down, so we suppose a little maintenance is required there.

That post obtained all of 20 views. At the time of writing (August 28, 2016), the blog has been viewed 16,628 times by 11,098 distinct visitors. That’s roughly 160 views and 110 viewers per post, on average.

These averages conceal wild fluctuations from post to post. The “Very Short Reviews” series is, apparently, not widely read. The record for the least popular post is shared by a review of Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon: A Life and one of Geoffrey Wawro’s A Mad Catastrophe (both with a paltry 6 views).

We’re sorry to say, however, that Very Short Reviews will remain with us because Professor Dubrulle finds that writing them is the only way he can remember what he read over the summer.

Fortunately for Professor Dubrulle, he is also the author of the most popular post on the blog as well. “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: Slavery and the 1.6%” has been viewed 1,811 times since it was published on February 5, 2016. That day witnessed the heaviest traffic on the blog ever, with 509 views.

One Thing after Another’s most popular post about a person was published back in May 2014, and featured Justin Eckilson ’14, who had just graduated and won the History Department Award, the Fr. Stephen E. Parent, OSB Award, Delta Epsilon Sigma, Tau Chapter, and the Chancellor’s Medal for highest GPA in the graduating class. That post earned 815 views.

Who reads One Thing after Another? The short answer is Americans. They account for 13,963 of the 16,628 views. Not surprisingly, English speaking -nations are well represented among the countries with the most views on the blog: the United Kingdom (633), Canada (252), Brazil (143), Germany (179), Australia (163), and France (163). We don’t know why New Zealand is not more fascinated with One Thing after Another.

We do know who is not fascinated with the blog—at least in 2016. In South America, no one from Paraguay, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana has visited. Nobody from any Central American country between Mexico and Costa Rica has visited. Somebody from every European country has looked at least at one page on One Thing or Another—except for Belarus and Macedonia. In East Asia, only the Cambodians, Laotians, and Mongolians have refused to visit. In Micronesia, it’s the folks from Papua New Guinea who are missing out. The blog does not have a good track record in the Middle East and Central Asia: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbajian, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen are all missing from the visit column. Africa is very underrepresented—in this case, it is easier to list the countries that had visitors than to single out countries where one has visited: Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana.

But who is reading what on the blog? The statistics are not as helpful here, but we think we can make some educated guesses. Alumni, students, parents, and friends of the college tend to read our pieces about professors, students, and alums. It is probably for this reason that posts on people are not as popular as our essays on history. The Britons, Canadians, Brazilians, Germans, Australians, and French (as well as most Americans for that matter) who read our blog do not have any connection to the college and can’t be expected to show much interest in the people there, illustrious as they may be. But we are happy to see that this large audience is interested in the historical questions that this blog takes on from week to week.

What One Thing after Another finds most exciting and intriguing is that the blog has a substantial amount of traffic day in and day out, even when it has not published anything new for some time. For example, on August 28, 2016, 20 people from 3 countries (the United States, Australia, and, yes, New Zealand) visited the blog and notched 25 views. These visitors looked at 7 different pages. As long as people keeping coming, we’ll keep publishing.