Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


A "Doubtful and Dangerous Practice": The 1721 Boston Inoculation Controversy, and Uncovering African Medical Knowledge in Early American Newspapers

In 1721, residents of Boston began to fall ill with smallpox, in what would become the city’s sixth such epidemic since 1630.  At this time, neither physicians nor laypeople conceptualized disease in terms of discrete entities such as germs or viruses; instead, they held that illness originated in physical imbalances, often caused by unhealthy environmental conditions or dietary choices.  Additionally, many colonists believed that illness was a divine judgment upon people that could be healed through prayer and repentance.  Consequently, Boston city leaders ordered 26 free Africans to wash the streets in hopes of preventing smallpox from spreading.  Their efforts were unsuccessful, for the disease infected over half of the city’s population of 11,000, eventually killing over 800 citizens in just over a year. 

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The Muslim World in Early U.S. Texts

About a decade ago, I began researching representations of Islam in early national American literary texts; when someone would ask what the subject of my dissertation was, and I gave this answer, I often received responses along the lines of, “Was there any literature about Islam in the early U.S.?” 

Oil painting of Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat
during the bombardment of Tripoli, 3 August 1804.
Source: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, Washington Navy Yard

The Muslim World in Early U.S. Texts


Finding John McKinley: Fresh Discoveries about a Forgotten Supreme Court Justice

When I moved to Alabama in 1998 to take a faculty position with Auburn University’s Department of Political Science, I already knew a great deal about two of the nation’s most notable Supreme Court justices appointed from that state. John Archibald Campbell resigned from the Court at the outset of the Civil War only to return later as an attorney to argue several important cases before his former colleagues. Hugo Black, the first Supreme Court appointee of Franklin Roosevelt, spurred an expansion of the protections contained in the Bill of Rights against state and local government infringement. Upon arriving in Alabama, however, I was surprised to learn of a third justice from the state—a man named John McKinley—who was the first Alabamian to serve on the United States Supreme Court upon his appointment in 1837. McKinley intrigued me. For much of the next decade, I kept my eye out for material about him, but my own academic research and writing took me down a different path.

By early 2007, I had started to devote more time to McKinley, but quickly learned that this justice was forgotten in part because so little information was available. In all of the books and journal articles discussing McKinley that I could find, the cumulative record of his life amounted to approximately one hundred pages, and much contained in those sources was duplicative. I resigned myself to completing no more than a short article on McKinley’s life and legacy.

Finding John McKinley: Fresh Discoveries about a Forgotten Supreme Court Justice


“Suitable To The Season”: Using Historical Newspapers to Help Reproduce 18th-Century Clothing

Cinnamon, nutmeg, claret, coffee and chocolate are not just spices or beverages; they were adjectives commonly used in the 18th century to describe the color of cloth. Easily visualized today, colors like cinnamon and coffee help us form a picture of goods on the shelf of an 18th-century New England shop.  As a costumer specializing in the accurate reproduction of Colonial Era clothing, I have found Early American Newspapers an invaluable reference source on early American garments.

Source: Hallie Larkin

When studying Colonial Era clothing, naturally the primary source is the original garment. As a first step in the research process, nothing can compare to personal examination of an extant artifact.  From these we can learn how the 18th-century tailor or seamstress constructed the garment, what thread and sewing stitches were used, how the clothing fit on the body, and the textiles used in construction.

As a second step in clothing research, 18th-century portraits should be examined. Oil paintings enable us to see clothing as it was worn, accessories used, changes in fashion, and the physical posture of the 18th-century woman or man. Also we are often able to know who the sitter was, where they lived and when the portrait was painted.

“Portrait of Anne Willing Bingham” by Gilbert Stuart (1797)

“Suitable To The Season”: Using Historical Newspapers to Help Reproduce 18th-Century Clothing


Slow Reading the News: Gandhi’s Philosophical Experiments with His South African Newspaper

During his South African years (1893-1914), Mohandas Gandhi started a printing press and a newspaper, Indian Opinion. One of the world’s great intellectual archives, Indian Opinion constitutes an experiment with reading and writing that fed into Gandhi’s ideas on satyagraha or “passive resistance.” 

Writing in an age of vertiginous acceleration via telegraph, train and steamship, Gandhi grappled with an industrializing information order in which readers were bombarded with ever more reading matter. In this context, Gandhi saw reading and writing as ways of managing the tempos of the industrial pressure. Such strategies questioned the relationship of speed with efficiency, a link that lay at the heart of satyagraha and its critiques of industrial modernity. 

Gandhi’s ideas on reading and writing hence have much to say to our frantic, information-smothered lives. In a recent book, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Harvard University Press, 2013), I explored these themes of speed and sovereignty, satyagraha and reading. 

Satyagraha and Reading

Satyagraha is generally understood as a political practice of non-violence, civil disobedience or non-co-operation. But it is equally a mode of building swaraj or “self-rule,” which for Gandhi meant literally that, namely, rule of the self. In his thinking, such self-rule or independence cannot be conferred on a person; it has to be built up painstakingly by each individual. 

Slow Reading the News: Gandhi’s Philosophical Experiments with His South African Newspaper


Bay Mares, Coquettes, and Plumage: Naming and Novel Celebrity

For most present-day racetrack goers, it seems unlikely that a horse named Eliza Wharton might cause a flash of recognition, a knowing smile, or a startle at the potential impropriety. But for nineteenth-century racing fans, this was not the case.

“Eliza Wharton” was the heroine of Hannah Webster Foster’s 1797 best-selling novel, The Coquette, loosely based on a New England scandal of the previous decade involving Elizabeth Whitman, the daughter of a well-known minister in Hartford, Connecticut. The novel’s heroine, likewise a minister’s daughter, spurns the advances of a rather staid minister, only to succumb to the seductive wiles of a well-known rake, fall pregnant, and flee her parents’ home for Danvers, Massachusetts, where she eventually dies after delivering a stillborn child. Readers who might have been expected to condemn the fallen woman instead sympathized with her.

Why exactly the name Eliza Wharton was chosen for the bay mare, we can’t be sure: was the novel a particular favorite of her owner, Thomas Doswell of Virginia, or his wife, Susan Brown Christian? Did the horse remind them of the novel’s well-bred and refined heroine? Or was there a bawdier reason, suggesting both the horse and the novel’s heroine were “fast”? Regardless, the horse serves as a marker of the novel’s saturation in the American imaginary. It is unlikely that anyone who read its name in a newspaper of the 1830s did not immediately grasp the association.

Bay Mares, Coquettes, and Plumage: Naming and Novel Celebrity


Frontiersman or Southern Gentleman? Newspaper Coverage of Andrew Jackson during the 1828 Presidential Campaign

During the 1828 presidential election, Andrew Jackson came under attack for a number of reasons: his violent temper, his execution of U.S. militia and foreign nationals during the 1810s, and even the questionable circumstances of his marriage to his wife, Rachel. Often overlooked was the question about Jackson’s southern identity. During the final six months of the 1828 campaign, newspapers across the nation were filled with attacks and counterattacks about whether Jackson fit the expectations of a southern planter.

Two main questions about Jackson’s southern identity drew the attention of the nation’s media: Old Hickory’s slave mastery and his support of southern disunionism. Critics highlighted accusations that Jackson had been a slave trader prior to the War of 1812, which Jackson denied. This charge called into question his moral judgment and fitness for office. “There is no charge which ought to affect more seriously the reputation and prospects of General Jackson than that of speculating in slaves,” the Daily National Journal (Washington, D.C.) declared in mid-October. “Could the people of the U. States, under the influence of a momentary infatuation, elevate to the first office in the nation a man who had been engaged in carrying slaves from one State to another, for the purposes of traffic and profit,” the editorial continued, “ages would be insufficient to wipe away the foul stain from the annals of our republic.”

Frontiersman or Southern Gentleman? Newspaper Coverage of Andrew Jackson during the 1828 Presidential Campaign


The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia (Washington, D.C.) as told in the Washington Evening Star

From late 1877 until his death in early 1895, Frederick Douglass was the most prominent resident of Anacostia, the historic area located in Washington, D.C.’s Southeast quadrant. An internationally known writer, lecturer, newspaper editor, and social reformer, Douglass was a man of his neighborhood. He spoke regularly at nearby churches, invested in the area’s first street car line, and opened his Victorian mansion, Cedar Hill, to students from Howard University, where Douglass served on the Board of Trustees. Douglass’s many contributions to Washington, D.C. have been overlooked for too long.

With the digitization of the Washington Evening Star, researchers can now systemically track the growth of Anacostia, which became D.C.’s first subdivision in 1854, and the life and times of Frederick Douglass in the nation’s capital. Douglass moved from Rochester, New York, to Washington, D.C. in the early 1870s to publish and edit The New National Era, a weekly newspaper devoted to covering Reconstruction, the Republican Party, and black Washington.

Click image to view full pdf.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia (Washington, D.C.) as told in the Washington Evening Star


Mr. Jefferson’s Mandarin, Or, a controversial promotion

When the ship Beaver departed New York harbor bound for the China coast in August 1808, the United States was fully embargoed. For over six months the country’s trade had been at a standstill, and all the ports idled. The livelihoods of America’s maritime workers had been sacrificed to the greater good by Jeffersonian Republicans, in the White House and the Congress, who hoped that an extreme form of commercial warfare—a wholesale ban on international trade—would force Great Britain and France to respect American neutrality without any shots fired.[1]

Though it sailed out as an exception to the embargo, the Beaver was no smuggler, and its owner, fur trade magnate John Jacob Astor, was no scofflaw—not this time, at least. The ship was one of the few granted official permission to sail beyond coastal waters—and in this case, that grant came from the President himself, Thomas Jefferson. How did the Beaver and Astor manage this good fortune, one that all the merchants and sailors in America languishing under the embargo desperately desired? The answer lies in the Beaver’s most important passenger: “Jefferson’s mandarin,” a man named Punqua Wingchong.[2]

Mr. Jefferson’s Mandarin, Or, a controversial promotion


Celestial Vision: China’s Scholars in the Connecticut Valley

In September 1872, Yung Wing escorted a delegation of young students from China to Springfield, Massachusetts, under the auspices of an unprecedented enterprise—the Chinese Educational Mission.  Wing’s all-male contingent attracted attention throughout the United States.  Rumors had circulated for months that in order to bring its isolated nation into the 19th century, the Chinese government would finance the American education of gifted children.  The Hartford Daily Courant (May 7, 1872, p. 5) explained that “Mr. Wing has finally…prevailed upon his government to select thirty boys each year for the next five years…through which China should be able to profit by an acquaintance with the ways of modern civilization.” 

Often described by journalists as the young Celestials, the boys, none of whom was older than 14, would achieve high rank working for Chinese authorities upon completion of their studies upon completion of their studies.  The students endured a six-week voyage across the Pacific Ocean and a lengthy train ride from San Francisco to their New England destination.  They were disbursed from Springfield to host families throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut.  Prominent citizens were selected to welcome the Chinese boys into their homes and provide a period of home schooling.  When the students had sufficiently grasped the English language and become acclimated to American culture, they would proceed to public schools.  Three more delegations of young scholars would follow a similar regimen over the next few years. 

Celestial Vision: China’s Scholars in the Connecticut Valley


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