My scholarship focuses chiefly on transformations in political thought and behavior in the eighteenth century. My first book, The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution, examined the relation of culture to politics in revolutionary America. I was especially interested there in how the emergent state was challenged in its effort to sustain inalienable natural rights alongside slavery and to achieve political secularization at a moment of growing religious expression. In another book project, Natural Rights: A Cultural History, 1689-1789, I hope to explain how and why ordinary people came to believe they had rights before and through the Revolution.I specialize in early American cultural, intellectual, and literary history, with additional research and teaching interests in a range of fields and methods: legal history; the history of political thought; book history; visual and material culture studies; quantitative analysis; the history of slavery, abolition, and emancipation; labor history; environmental history; and Atlantic history.
I am invested in recovering the lives and thought of under-documented people in America’s past, and am currently completing a short book on Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved “African painter” who lived and served in Boston in the 1760s and 1770s. Scipio Moorhead was one of 5,000 slaves in Massachusetts on the eve of emancipation in 1783. I try to place him at the center of his own story, using the life of one individual as a way of understanding the nexus of personal choices and social forces that attended the erosion of slavery in parts of revolutionary America.
I am also fascinated by the material history of books, and am working on a project entitled Walden’s Carbon Footprint: People, Plants, Animals, and Machines in the Making of an Environmental Classic. A blend of environmental, labor, and literary history, the project examines the supply-chain of raw materials in the 1854 first edition of Thoreau’s book (from cotton-based paper and linen thread to animal-skin glue), considers the many people who contributed to its production (including enslaved African-Americans in the South, commodity brokers, northern mill workers, European rag-pickers, and women and children in the printing trades), and reflects on the literary genealogy of our contemporary desire to know the origin as well as the environmental and social impact of objects in our daily lives.
My graduate seminars include period courses (“Enlightenment and Revolution in America”; “The Language of Rights in Eighteenth-Century America”; “Revolutionary Culture in Eighteenth Century France and America,” with Paul Cheney) and methods courses (“The History of the Book in America—1500 to the Present”). At the undergraduate level I regularly teach the 1500 to 1800 quarter in the “America in World Civilization” sequence, as well as an upper-level discussion course on the American Revolution and a lecture course on classic American writers of the early 1850s—Hawthorne, Melville, Stowe, Douglass, Thoreau, and Whitman.
Since 2008 I have directed the Karla Scherer Center, a hub for the exciting, multidisciplinary study of American culture at the University of Chicago. And I have also run the Scherer Center’s Multidisciplinary Seminar, a course designed for graduate students in the Humanities, the Social Sciences, the Divinity School, and the Law School that features lectures, readings, and visits by Americanist faculty from across the University.
- The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Honorable Mention, MLA Prize for a First Book.
- “Looking for Scipio Moorhead: An ‘African Painter’ in Revolutionary America.” Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World, edited by Agnes Lugo-Ortiz and Angela Rosenthal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
- “Rights.” In The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution, edited by Jane Kamensky and Ed Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- “Beard’s ‘Politics,’ Ours, and Theirs.” Contribution to Centennial Symposium on Charles Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. American Political Thought 2:2 (Fall 2013).
- “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The Boston Globe, July 3, 2011.
- “Revolutions in the Meaning and Study of Politics.” Published simultaneously, with a reply by Michael Rothberg (“Quantifying Culture? A Response to Eric Slauter”), in American Literary History 22:2 (Summer 2010) and Early American Literature 45:2 (July 2010).
- “Reading and Radicalization: Print, Causality, and the American Revolution.” Early American Studies 8:1 (Winter 2010). Special issue: “The Atlantic World of Print in the Age of Franklin,” edited by James Green and Rosalind Remer; afterword by David D. Hall.
- “The Declaration of Independence and the New Nation.” In The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson, edited by Frank Shuffelton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
- “Literature as Evidence.” Common-place 9:3 (April 2009). Special issue (“Who Reads an Early American Book?”) co-edited with Joanna Brooks and Bryan Waterman.
- “History, Literature, and the Atlantic World.” Subject of “The ‘Trade Gap’ in Atlantic Studies: A Forum on Literary and Historical Scholarship,” with responses by Alison Games, Bryan Waterman, Eliga H. Gould, and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon. Published simultaneously in Early American Literature 43:1 (Winter 2008) and the William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., 65:1 (January 2008).
Work in Progress
- Natural Rights: A Cultural History, 1689-1789.
- Looking for Scipio Moorhead: The Life and Times of an Enslaved “African Painter” in Revolutionary America.
- Walden’s Carbon Footprint: People, Plants, Animals, and Machines in the Making of an Environmental Classic.