Professors who do cool things: Seth Rockman

While Gordon Wood (the subject of this squabble) and our beloved Michael Vorenberg continue to hold it down in Peter Green, a trendsetter has emerged from the History Department’s Sharpe House. According to a recent article in the New York Times, capitalism has become the fashionable topic for historians across the country and Brown’s own Seth Rockman is part of the vanguard. Professor Rockman, an early Americanist, has focused his research on slavery and the elaborate economic machinery that kept the peculiar institution running—incredibly interesting for history nerds, but not quite exciting for the student masses.

In a textbook case of historical contingency, however, Rockman noticed that emphasizing a trendy topic such as capitalism in his course might attract more students from other disciplines to his lectures. Subsequently, as the Times notes, Rockman’s course enrollments jumped up when he changed its title from “Capitalism, Slavery and the Economy of Early America” to “History of Capitalism.” Naturally, the lure of big ideas and power relation exploration—the opiates of undergraduate study—attracted students in droves. Capitalism, additionally, will provide the organizing theme for his introductory U.S. survey class next fall. With a couple of books in the works (including one entitled Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development), there is little doubt that Rockman will remain a key player in this emergent wave of capitalist historians. And long as there are new hegemonic relationships to “explode,” Brown students will be along for the ride.

The scholars are coming, the scholars are coming!


While the concept of an additional 100 people filing into the small-but-mighty state of Rhode Island might be puzzling, it’s in fact the case. Even more interesting is the fact that these 100 individuals are hanging out in Providence for a jam-packed four days… and that they’re all international Fulbright scholars. Yeah, Providence’s IQ just went through the roof.

According to a report on, 100 Fulbright scholars from 70 different countries are gracing our tiny city with their presence. The purpose of their visit? This event, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, will allow these individuals to participate alongside Providence historians in various community service projects and engage with the city’s history that dates back to colonial times. It’s easy to take the glorious PVD for granted, but it played an integral role in the development of the United States as we know it. (We’re actually kind of jealous that we’re not on this program with them.) That said, keep an eye out for some really smart international students on the Hill this weekend.

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Time-waster of the day: February 14, 2013



Need a Valentine’s Day card for the history concentrator/general nerd in your life (read: me)? Ben Kling has you covered. This card also comes in Mandela, Nietzsche, and Curie forms.

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lincoln vorenberg

Professors who do cool things: Michael Vorenberg, the unsung hero of ‘Lincoln’?

In an article on The New Republic website, Timothy Noah suggested that Brown University superhero history professor Michael Vorenberg and his book, Final Freedom, were likely the “principal source” for the Oscar-nominated Lincoln. Vorenberg’s book is widely regarded as the most comprehensive account of the passage of the 13th Amendment, which is the main focus of the film.

Noah also expressed dismay that Lincoln‘s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, and the film’s producers had not publicly recognized Vorenberg’s contribution. Lincoln’s promotional materials and final credits state that the film is based “in part” on Team of Rivals, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin, who also served as a historical advisor to Kushner. The problem, according to Noah, is that Goodwin’s book provides only a brief description of the most important historical events in the film—in particular, the legislative battles surrounding the 13th Amendment.

Vorenberg’s Final Freedom, which was a finalist for the 2002 Lincoln Prize, has been commended by many historians for demonstrating the crucial role of 13th Amendment in the abolition of slavery. Both scholarly works and popular narratives had often given the Emancipation Proclamation the principal role, though the wartime measure affected only those Confederate territories in active rebellion and outside of Union military control. It was the 13th Amendment—which, as the film shows, was from far from a foregone conclusionthat formally abolished slavery in all of the United States. (Yes, like almost everyone else at this school, I took Vorenberg’s blockbuster “Civil War and Reconstruction.”) Continue Reading

Neglected Holidays: Evacuation Day is today!

Ahhh Thanksgiving! Eating turkey, giving thanks for friends and family, and passing out on the couch like a football-watching beached whale. That’s fine, but personally I want more days centered around Americans being badass and climbing up flagpoles.

Ok ok, allow me to explain. When Lincoln created Thanksgiving in 1863, (there’s nothing Lincoln can’t do), Evacuation Day became obsolete as a holiday and faded by the turn of the 20th century. Before its untimely demise, Evacuation Day celebrated the end of the Revolutionary War: George “Gallant Stroll” Washington took back Manhattan and evacuated the last British troops from the island on November 25th, 1783. This is my appeal to bring back Evacuation Day because it’s crazy as fuck:

  • The last shot of the war was apparently fired on this day when a smelly redcoat shot a cannon into a jeering crowd on Staten Island.
  • By the time George Washington reached the Battery, (now Battery Park), British soldiers had nailed a British flag to a flagpole at the Battery and then greased the pole, proving their douchiness. The scrappy Americans nailed some wooden cleats to the pole and John Van Arsdale was able to switch out the Union Jack for the stars and stripes before the British fleet had sailed away. Continue Reading


A Cool Thing You Probably Missed: Deirdre McCloskey’s Odyssey Lecture

Though we may like to forget it sometimes, Brown University is, above all else, an educational institution and part of its role is to invite scores of intelligent people to campus for meaningful debates and lectures in every field. Unfortunately, many Brown University courses pile on coursework like its their job — because it is —and, as a result, the average student lacks the time to take advantage of all the opportunities for unadulterated academic enrichment outside of class. A Cool Thing You Probably Missed… seeks to highlight obscure, esoteric and often fascinating people and ideas that tend to get lost in the “school vs. everything else” manner of time management.

Last Wednesday afternoon, Deirdre McCloskey gave the Political Theory Project’s Odyssey Lecture on her book Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World in MacMillan 117. But, while the giant lecture hall overflows with Out of Bounds enthusiasts for their regular sketch shows, the audience was a mere handful of professors and students for the equally entertaining Professor McCloskey.

If you’re already wondering what could possibly be notable about another seemingly standard political theory talk, look no further than McCloskey’s characteristically extravagant self-description: “postmodern free-market quantitative rhetorical Episcopalian feminist Aristotelian woman who was once a man.” Yep. That just happened. Trying to unpack all the contradictions and ironies of that bunch of descriptors might make your head spin, and the spinning will only get worse once you try to wrap your head around her thesis: in terms of wealth, world average income was almost perfectly consistent (roughly $3) until a drastic upshot in the 1800s, when free market ideology gained wide acceptance amongst everyone who conducted business. In this way, McCloskey basically claims that free market ideology, rather than higher investment in capital (the conventional economic explanation), explains how the world got so rich. More on why McCloskey, and her ideas, were a cool thing you probably missed after the jump. Continue Reading