Below are brief descriptions of recent works of scholarship on things Southern. Each are reviewed and recommended by our Associated Scholars. This page is updated frequently, so check back regularly to discover our views on the best new works in the field.
Margot Minardi, Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
This book is part of a growing body of recent historical scholarship that concentrates on ‘historical memory,’ or how past understandings of history were derived and how historical narratives in the past were constructed, and by whom, and, most importantly, how those understandings influenced or informed the historical present. In other words, what did those in the past know and/or believe about their own history and to what social and political purposes was that understand put by its creators and readers. The focus of Minardi’s book is on how Massachusetts historians such as Jeremy Belknap and others constructed a narrative of post-Revolutionary Massachusetts history which portrayed that state as a bastion of popular antislavery sentiment and receptive to the idea of racial equality before the law, all contrary to the actual history of the African American experience in the state in the aftermath of the Revolution. Because this view of the state’s history became the dominant one in Massachusetts in the antebellum period, citizens of Massachusetts came to believe they were unique inheritors to a glorious legacy of liberty, free of the stain of slavery and race prejudice, and, as such, they felt a moral obligation to take the lead in opposing slavery, slaveholders and slavery expansion. This narrative construction of their history, although based more in myth than in actual history, served the interests of political Abolitionism and was enormously significant in shaping how New Englanders in general, and Massachusetts New Englanders in particular, thought of themselves in relation to the South and the rest of the United States in the antebellum period and ever since. Despite what might at first appear to be another example of a new work following yet another academic fashion, this is solid scholarship with which anyone seriously interested in antebellum American sectionalism should be aware.
Richard E. Ellis, Aggressive Nationalism: McCulloch vs. Maryland and the Foundation of Federal Authority in the Young Republic, (New York:Oxford University Press, 2007).
This is a critical reexamination of Marshall’s reasoning in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that should force a rethinking of how Judicial nationalism was established and how widely, or not so widely, it was accepted in the Early American Republic.
David Goldfield, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011).
This is not exactly a neo-revisionist re-telling of the coming, course and consequences of the Civil War but it is as close to one as has been published in decades. Goldfield, one of the great Avery Craven’s last students, is different from other historians in that he does not find the Civil War to have been glorious or all that necessary. Nor does he think its consequences were as laudatory and without tragedy as they have been portrayed. In his introduction he claims that he is “antiwar, particularly the Civil War.” Among contemporary historians of the War that is a remarkable and novel statement. This book is a very thoughtful exploration of the war from that perspective. No one’s sacred cows are left untouched.
Gary W. Gallagher, The Union War, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).
This is the companion/counterpoint to Gallagher’s The Confederate War which was published in 1999. Here, Gallagher makes an honest and serous effort to understand the motivation of the North during the Civil War. Gallagher tires to understand the Civil War North on its own terms by letting Northerners speak for themselves as to why they fought to hold the American Union together. The book is important because it illuminates the ways in which Northerners conceptualized “Union” and how that conception motivated them and its relative importance as compared to other reasons often discussed such as slavery. This is one of few studies by a mainline historian to challenge the narrative of James McPherson, Eric Foner, and others that the war was mainly an episode in universal human emancipation.
Kevin R. C. Gutzman, James Madison and the Making of America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012). Professor Gutzman offers a major reappraisal of one of the most important figures in American history, one often labeled, somewhat misleadingly, the “Father of the Constitution.” Madison is present in every major debate and political crisis which shaped how later generations of Americans came to view the nature of the American Union and American nationality. This is a welcomed book.
William J. Watkins, Jr, Judicial Monarchs: Court Power and the Case for Restoring Popu-lar Sovereignty in the United States ( Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012) (www.mcfarlandpub.com).Who has the final say on the meaning of the Constitution? From high school to law school, students learn that the framers designed the Supreme Court to be the ultimate arbiter of constitutional issues, a function Chief Justice John Marshall recognized in decideing Marbury v. Madison in 1803. This provocative work challenges American dogma about the Supreme Court's role, showing instead that the founding generation understood judicial power not as a counterweight against popular government, but as a consequence, and indeed a support, of popular sovereignty. Contending that court power must be restrained so that policy decisions are left to the people's elected representatives, this study offers several remedies—including term limits and popular selection of the Supreme Court—to return the American people to thier proper place in the constitutional order.
Robert F. Turner (Editor), The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2011).Dr. Robert F. Turner served as Chairman of the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission, which strongly challenges the modern-era view that President Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children by an enslaved African-American woman named Sally Hemings. The report of the Scholars Commission on the Jefferson-Hemings controversy documents the results of a year-long, independent panel inquiry by thirteen distinguished academics from across the nation. Working without compensation at the request of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, the scholars were unanimous in their conclusion that "the allegation is by no means proven," and with but a single mild dissent their views "ranged from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly untrue." Each argument in the debate is examined in careful detail in the comprehensive 412-page volume, with more than 1,400 footnotes documenting their analysis.