The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Recent Events

Brown-Bag Lunch Talk: “Drops of Grace and Mercy”

On Wednesday, 1 June, past and present fellow Rachel Cope of Brigham Young University gave a brown-bag lunch talk on her current book-length project “Drops of Grace and Mercy: How Women Cultivated Personal Change Through Conversion Processes.” Much of the existing scholarship on the Second Great Awakening of religion in American life focuses on what Cope identifies as external forces. Scholars ask what socioeconomic forces, such as industrialization and migration, precipitated the culture of religious revival life during the first half of the nineteenth century. Cope argues that this emphasis on externalities has lead to an inordinate focus on male participants, since men were most often the visible preachers and organizers. When women appear in the existing scholarship, it is most often in the aggregate, as a demographic very likely to participate in the revivals. In part because of the equation of femininity with spirituality, women’s participation in religious movements has been understood as natural rather than worthy of particular note. Thus, there has been a dearth of critical historical analysis of women’s involvement in revival activities.

Seeking to address this gap in the scholarship, Cope focuses on women’s spiritual experience as religious seekers, asking how and why they came to religious conversion and what women did after they chose a certain spiritual course. Recently, Cope has begun to think about the concept of “agency,” an idea that has a lot of currency in present historical scholarship. When historians speak and write of agency, they are trying to understand the degree of freedom individuals and populations had, within a certain historical context, to make meaningful choices and pursue their desired life course. Because of the emphasis on personal freedom, discussion of agency has often emphasized people whose life choices are radical, people who are obviously pushing the boundaries of what is expected of individuals in their situation. Cope would like to consider not only the agency of exceptional women, but also the agency of women whose spiritual experiences and choices “fit the mold,” or supported (rather than resisted) existing structures. As she says of these women, often “working within the box is [just as] meaningful” as working outside of it.

Discussion following the presentation revolved around how Cope will situate her subjects within broader contexts, even as she focuses on their internal experiences and women’s interpretations of their spiritual lives in diaries, letters, and other forms of autobiographical writing. Those who attended the brown bag asked questions about comparing the female subjects’ writing to the voices of male counterparts; about socioeconomic commonalities among the women who left a spiritual record; about comparisons between religious and non-religious women; and about the possibility of change across time from the early 1800s to the 1850s, when Cope’s research ends.

As Rachel Cope continues her fellowship here, and moves forward with her project thereafter, we wish her the best in forming this valuable contribution to the fields of religious and women’s history.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 8 June, 2011, 8:00 AM

Brian Gratton Presents @ Brown Bag Lunch Talk

On Wednesday, March 16, short-term fellow Brian Gratton presented the preliminary results of his research here at the MHS, working with the papers of Massachusetts politician Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924). Dr. Gratton is a Professor of history at Arizona State University, specializing in the history of immigration and ethnicity in the United States, Latin America, and Europe. His work at the MHS explores Lodge’s role within the Republican party in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century debates about race and immigration restriction.

Dr. Gratton used the formal portion of his talk to describe how the rhetoric of immigration restriction in Lodge’s political and personal writing (and speaking) shifted between the late-1880s and the mid-1890s from a near-total silence on the question of race, which Gratton describes as “not eerie -- scary! … [an] almost pure form of political correctness,” to an argument for immigration restriction that relies on “good” and “bad” immigrants based on race and ethnicity.

During the late 1880s, Lodge relied on a primarily economic rationale for immigration restriction, attempting to persuade working-class constituents in Massachusetts that immigration restriction, like tariffs on imported goods, protected their jobs and their wages. Among working class voters, even those who had themselves immigrated or were the children of immigrants, the economic justification for immigration restriction had some limited success. However, the economic frame became problematic because it offered politicians, and their supporters, no way to differentiate between “good” and “bad” immigrants, and ultimately lost them support of those who feared their own ethnic communities would be targeted for restriction.  In the early 1890s, the language shifted subtly to distinguish between groups of immigrants understood to be part of the “founding” or “native” American ethic groups – Anglo-Saxon groups that, with some fancy footwork was amended to include Irish-Americans – and groups of immigrants deemed suspect.  The suspect groups, during this period, would have included Italians, Poles, European Jews, Eastern Europeans, and immigrants from Japan and China.

Dr. Gratton suggest that, on a national scale, the frame shifted from economics to race in stages, whereby first target groups were identified based on their willingness to accept lower wages (at least on its face an economic rationalization), and then gradually the discussion shifted to emphasize the group’s citizenship potential (or lack thereof) and questions of character.  Literacy tests proved a useful way of implementing de facto exclusion by race and ethnicity because the majority of Irish and German immigrants, by the late 1800s, were able to pass the tests, while Southern and Eastern Europeans and Chinese and Japanese immigrants were much less likely to meet the requirements.

Conversation following the presentation focused on the way these shifting discourses concerning race and ethnicity operated within the framework of Massachusetts state politics and on the national stage. Audience members also suggested possible avenues in to discovering the less public version of Lodge’s views on race and ethnicity, perhaps through reading the private writings of family and friends.

If you missed this brown-bag lunch, mark your calendar for April 6, when Dr. Linford Fisher will present "The Land of the Unfree: Africans, Indians, and the Varieties of Slavery and Servitude in Colonial New England."

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 18 March, 2011, 8:00 AM

Dangers and Denials: Cautionary Tales for Our Times

On Thursday, February 10, Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich joined us for the first event in our new conversation series, "Dangers and Denials: Cautionary Tales for Our Times." Over the next few months, the MHS will host several programs that will examine what happens when evidence from the past is disregarded as nations fall prey to the seductions of greed, power, and ambition. Is this time really different or is it the result of a repeating pattern that we have ignored to our peril?

The conversation centered on ideas explored by Professor Bacevich in his most recent book Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War. The program began with a discussion of the sources that contributed to the militarization of United State foreign policy after World War II. These mutually-reinforcing conditions, including the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, economic expansion, and the growth in military and government bureaucracy in the second half of the twentieth century, have kept America on a constant cycle of foreign intervention and war. Why, he asked, has there been no effective counter to this perpetual movement towards war and violence abroad? The answer to breaking this cycle, he argued, will not come from leaders in Washington, but from the people, who need to demand and bring about change.

When discussing America's role (or potential role) in contemporary world affairs, professor Bacevich reminded the crowd of a speech given by John Quincy Adams before the House of Representatives on July 4, 1821. Discussing America's global persona, Secretary of State Adams argued that while America was the "well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all," she did not go abroad "in search of monsters to destroy." In response, several audience members asked how Adams's insightful observations on nineteenth-century policy could be adapted to present-day American policy. For example, how (or should) the United States respond to the revolutionary events taking place in Egypt? Bacevich argued that although the United States has no real ability to affect events in that country, our government should play close attention to the eventual role of the Egyptian military, which receives weapons, training, and financial support from our nation’s military-industrial complex.

Professor Bacevich offered his own thoughts on the war in Afghanistan as the conversation drew to a close. He asserted that intervention in Afghanistan is not of vital national interest to the United States. Is our presence there, he asked, really the best use of our nation's resources? Should a sense of moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan take precedence over our moral obligation to other peoples? America has bigger questions to consider, according to Bacevich, including how our nation can share the responsibility for maintaining order in the world with other parties, especially given the dwindling resources available to us. What can we -- as citizens and as a nation -- do to combat the growth of anti-western jihadism? These and other challenges loom large on America’s horizon.

Given audience response, it's clear that our new conversation series is off to an exciting start. We hope you will join us for our next conversation at 2:00 P.M. on Saturday, March 5, 2011. Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale will be on hand to discuss his latest book, The Decline and Fall of the American Republic.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 17 February, 2011, 8:00 AM

Maier Talk Available Online

You can now watch Pauline Maier's 23 October MHS author talk about her new book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 online, thanks to the Forum Network. The video is located here.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 9 December, 2010, 7:46 AM

Revisiting Bunker Hill

Fifty years ago Thomas Fleming published Now We Are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill. As the anniversary of that pivotal Revolutionary War event approaches, and more importantly in celebration of the fifty years since the book was first published, Fleming has issued an anniversary edition of the title hoping to reach a new generation of Americans with the inspiring and complex tale of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

On Tuesday, June 15, Thomas Fleming gave a lunch-hour talk at the MHS taking the audience through his experience of writing the book. It seems the project began while he was on a trip to Boston to research an article. Fleming was traveling with his family and his son looked at a portrait of Joseph Warren and asked Fleming who he was. In searching for the answer to that question, Fleming discovered his next book. And in the process of writing it came to understand that Bunker Hill was not just any other battle. It was not a simple matter of the good guys vs the bad guys, or the amateur (American) vs the professional (British) soldiers. On that battlefield men who had fought together during the French and Indian War now Joseph Warrenstood on opposite lines; men that had lived and worked side by side, that had called each other friend, were now facing each other in battle.

Over the course of his talk Fleming highlighted the roll of the American heroes of the day, including Joseph Warren, Israel Putnam, John Stark, William Prescott, Andrew McClary, and Peter Salem (one of the free blacks fighting in Prescott’s regiment). Using passages from participants own letters and diaries Fleming brought the battle and the people involved in it back to life for those sitting in audience.


For information about upcoming events at the MHS be sure to check our events calendar.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 17 June, 2010, 8:00 AM

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