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What’s in the December Issue of the Journal of American History?

The December issue of the Journal of American History is now available online and in print. Included are articles by Rachel A. Shelden and Erik B. Alexander, Vanessa May, Ronnie A. Grinberg, and Daniel Immerwahr’s Editor’s Choice article, “Burning Down the House: Slavery and Arson in America.” The pieces explore a range of topics, including gender and neoconservatism, slavery and arson, frameworks for understanding nineteenth-century party politics, and post–World War II child labor, youth employment, and social welfare. The issue also features reviews of books, movies, and digital and public history projects.


Rachel A. Shelden and Erik B. Alexander argue that our understanding of nineteenth-century politics has been hindered by a framework known as the party system model, which offers a view of parties as top-down institutions focused on capturing the national government. Reliance on this framework has resulted in a fragmented understanding of the century’s politics. Shelden and Alexander propose a new understanding of nineteenth-century politics based on party fluidity. Nineteenth-century parties were fundamentally unstable organizations, operating within a constantly shifting partisan landscape that was federal rather than national. Americans used this fluid partisan atmosphere to battle over questions about who could govern and how, and who was a legitimate member of the body politic.

Slaveholders, from George Washington to Jefferson Davis, accused the people they enslaved of setting fires. This was a particularly serious charge in America, where the wooden landscape made fires uncommonly destructive. But were slaves lighting those fires? Historians have been divided, some seeing arson as a crucial, much-used “weapon of the weak,” others arguing that slaves took the blame for accidental fires. Daniel Immerwahr examines quantitative evidence and concludes that not only was it likely that enslaved people set some of the South’s largest fires, but these fires should rank among the most important insurrections in American history. Enslaved arsonists did not just torch cities; they haunted antebellum politics and helped spark the Civil War.

Vanessa May explores the 1950s-era decline of policy makers’ and reformers’ support for social welfare protections for women and children and its effect on child labor and youth employment programs. She argues that in the 1950s, child labor reformers and other child-welfare experts gradually moved away from advocating policies aimed at protecting children from labor exploitation and toward programs that prepared youth for paid work. This shift was reflected in 1960s jobs programs, which sought to communicate the value of work to mostly Black and Hispanic young people. Considering how critics of child labor framed the issue in the 1950s and how jobs programs built on these ideas in the 1960s demonstrates the slow demise of labor protection as a social welfare strategy after World War II and reveals the far-reaching effects of this abandonment of social welfare protections on the lives of Black and Hispanic poor and working-class youth and their families.

Ronnie A. Grinberg examines Midge Decter, a prominent neoconservative and antifeminist writer. Neoconservatism initially referred to liberal intellectuals who shifted politically rightward in the late 1960s. Decter’s writings, however, highlight how anxieties about gender long undergirded what became a neoconservative politics. Informed by midcentury revisionist Freudianism, which advocated “maturity” through heterosexuality and marriage, Decter began writing “conservatively” on women, sex roles, and sexuality in the late 1950s. By the late 1970s, her writings bolstered a “family value” politics that came to define the New Right, and she played an important role integrating the wings of the postwar Republican party.