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RETHINKING COLONIAL AMERICA: A Harvard history professor Jill Lepore, J87.
photograph by Rose Lincoln

5 minutes with Jill Lepore, J87

In 1741 Manhattan, a series of unexplained fires were attributed to a conspiracy by slaves to take over the local government. Dozens of innocent people were put on trial, resulting in the execution of 30 men and banishment of 70 others to the Caribbean. In New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (Knopf), Harvard history professor Jill Lepore, J87, revisits this execrable episode from colonial America.

The history of 18th-century America has always been important to me. I grew up in New England and was raised on the mythical story of colonial America. The more I learned about the past the more I began to question it. As a result, all of my work deals with rethinking the origins of America.

This story is great to teach as a mystery. In one graduate seminar, 21 students all had very different solutions. That’s what fascinates me—how people’s minds work so differently with a particular historical problem.

Slavery in the North is a buried past. New England, for example, in the 19th century started to bill itself as the birthplace of freedom. Yet there were slaves burned at the stake in Boston in 1750. Stories like these and what happened in New York need to be buried in order to support the mythical remembrance of freedom.

Conspiracy theories were especially popular in the 18th century. During this time, we see the decline of a certain kind of providential religious thinking and a gap between that and a rise in a set of explanations rooted in a rational enlightenment. How do you explain gravity in 1750? You can’t. Historians argue that the 18th century is a special period, where everything looks like a conspiracy because nothing works anymore.

The history of slavery is bound up with the history of freedom. I argue that this conspiracy was undoubtedly a consequence of the expansion of freedom of the press in New York and the rise of an oppositional political party in New York City. You can’t really understand those events unless you understand the history of slavery and vice versa.

I teach my students the importance of evidence. The past isn’t a random set of conversations among scholars about what they think. It’s about what we can learn from the evidence at hand.


Just What I Said: Bloomberg Economics Columnist Takes on Bonds, Banks, Budgets, and Bubbles
Caroline Baum, J71
Bloomberg Press
For nearly two decades, Caroline Baum has produced commentary on central bank policy, the ebbs and flows of the economy, and how they influence the bond market. She also covers government policies, currency and stock markets, and other topics that are followed worldwide every trading day by participants in the capital markets. This selection from her more than 1,300 columns for Bloomberg News, arranged by major themes and with new introductions by Baum, condenses and organizes that wisdom for the first time in print form.

Churchill's Triumph
Michael Dobbs, F73, F75, F77
In Michael Dobbs’ latest historical novel, the Second World War is coming to an end and the three most-powerful men on earth—Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin—gather in Yalta to thrash out the details of the peace. Meanwhile, a Polish soldier tries to make his way back home and find his daughter, missing in the ruins of Warsaw. For this man, and many like him, the enemy is everywhere, and it falls to Winston Churchill to stand by his conscience and fight for justice and the principles of civilization.

Who Were the Beatles?
Geoff Edgers, A92
Grosset and Dunlap
Almost everyone can sing along with the Beatles, but how many young readers know their whole story? Geoff Edgers, a Boston Globe reporter and hard-core Beatles fan, brings the Fab Four to life in this Who Was...? series. Readers will learn about their Liverpudlian childhoods, their first forays into rock music, what Beatlemania was like, and why the group broke up.

Rwanda's Genocide
The Politics of Global Justice
Kingsley Moghalu, F92
Palgrave Macmillan
Kingsley Moghalu, special counsel and spokesman of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, provides an engrossing account and analysis of the international political brinksmanship embedded in the quest for justice in Rwanda’s genocide. Moghalu goes behind the scenes to the political and strategic factors that shape a path-breaking war-crimes tribunal and demonstrates why the trials at Arusha, like Nuremberg, Tokyo, and the Hague, are more than just prosecutions of culprits, but also politics by other means.

Murder in Exile
Vincent H. O'Neil, F96
Thomas Dunne Books
In his debut novel, Vincent H. O’Neil places his hero, Frank Cole, in a rickety cottage in Exile, Florida. Waiting for a bankruptcy to be settled, he takes a job as an insurance company’s lowly fact-checker. The challenges of the job escalate, however, when he is called to investigate the hit-and-run death of a young man. When Cole becomes convinced that the death was no accident, he opens the gates to a quagmire of dirty dealings in the town’s major money-making industry. Murder in Exile won the 2005 Malice Domestic/St. Martin’s Press Best First Traditional Mystery Contest.

Between Worlds
The Making of an American Life
Bill Richardson, A70, F71, H97, with Michael Ruby
Between Worlds is New Mexico governor Bill Richardson’s story of how his multicultural heritage and political education have shaped his dreams for America and provided vital lessons in the art of successful negotiating. He has been nominated four times for the Nobel Peace Prize and is counted as one of the country’s most knowledgeable politicians on Iraq and Saddam Hussein; Afghanistan, the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda; North Korea; energy policy; Latin American affairs; domestic politics; and Hispanic America. Yet there is much about Richardson that most people don’t know. The son of an American businessman father and a Mexican mother, raised in Mexico City, educated in a prep school in New England, and shaped by the Southwest, Richardson grew up between two worlds, something that has continued in a career that has seen him jump from congressman to ambassador to global troubleshooter.

Strange Future
Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots
Min Hyoung Song, G93, G98
Duke University Press
In Strange Future, Min Hyoung Song, associate professor of English at Boston College, shows how the 1992 Los Angeles riots have become a cultural-literary event—an important reference and resource for imagining the social problems plaguing the United States and its future. Song considers works that address the riots and the traumatic place of the Korean-American community within them: the independent documentary Sa-I-Gu (Korean for April 29, the date the riots began), Chang-rae Lee’s novel Native Speaker, the commercial film Strange Days, and the experimental drama of Anna Deavere Smith, among many others.

faculty books
Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos
Eric Chaisson, Director, Wright Center for Science Education
Columbia University Press
The astrophysicist traces the development of ordered systems from day one to the present, through seven “ages”: particulate, galactic, stellar, planetary, chemical, biological, and cultural.

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Daniel C. Dennett, University Professor, Philosophy
The director of the Center for Cognitive Studies holds religion up to scientific scrutiny, declaring it to be no less fitting an object of inquiry than other aspects of behavior. He knows he’s treading a minefield: “By asking for an accounting of the pros and cons of religion, I risk getting poked in the nose or worse.”

David Rivard, Lecturer, English
Graywolf Press
In his fourth collection of poetry, Rivard offers up varied subject matter and forms, including several “self-portraits”—“as a boxful of pigeons,” “as anchored sunlight,” and “as a blind snowy owl.”

Social Injustice and Public Health
Barry S. Levy, Adjunct Professor, Public Health
Oxford University Press
Levy (co-editor with Victor W. Sidel) looks at how discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, language, class, and other social identifiers impedes health care. Forty-eight experts weigh in.