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Five Minutes With… Dr Adam Smith

Adam SmithDr Adam I. P. Smith is an historian, author and senior lecturer at University College London specialising in 19th century American history. His publications include  The American Civil War (American History in Depth) and  No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North. His biography of Abraham Lincoln is set to be published by The History Press later this year. Adam’s most recent Radio 4 programme How Do Children Learn History? can be found here.  

What is an historian? A historian (I never use ‘an’ although probably I should) is anyone with a serious and systematic interest in trying to understand and explain the human past.

Since the late nineteenth century, when ‘history’ was institutionalized as an academic discipline in universities, ‘practicing’ scholarly historians have tended to monopolise the term historian. They have defined canonical ways of ‘doing history’ – collecting sources, dispassionately analysing them, and then carefully narrating their findings in written form using a panoply of scholarly devices like footnotes.

This kind of history has been privileged, but in fact there are many other ways of being ‘a historian’ and not all of them are represented very well in universities. Filmmakers, museum curators, re-enactors, and some artists and fictional writers are also ‘doing history’.

And schoolteachers, at all levels from toddlers to teenagers, actively communicate an idea of the past and encourage children to develop a sense of it.

All of these people are historians.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history? There was a moment when I was in my last year as an undergraduate at Oxford when I had a choice between going to drama school and doing a postgraduate degree in history. It was a bit of a wrench because I loved acting, but I decided to do an MA. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life saying someone else’s lines (if I was lucky – I probably would have spent the rest of my life working in a coffee shop). I think it suits me being a historian because I’m quite nosy and am interested in people and how they work, because I’ve always been very interested in politics and those big questions like why are some countries richer than others, or why wars happen. And also because when I walk down a street or look out of a train window at the passing countryside I enjoy working out why and how it came to be as it is.

What is the one history book you simply couldn’t do without? I think the answer would change day by day, or at least week by week. At the moment, I couldn’t do without Doug Wilson and Rodney Davis’ Herndon’s Informants, which is an edited collection of reminiscences about Abraham Lincoln drawn from the vast oral history collection compiled in the 1870s by Billy Herndon. It’s a wonderfully useful book – or at least it is if, like me, you’re putting the finishing touches to a biography of Abraham Lincoln.

Do you have a favourite website for historical research (or procrastination)? Why? Probably the Chronicling America website at the Library of Congress – a searchable database of 19th and 20th Century US newspapers. Also twitter. Does that count?

What is your favourite historical place? Durham Cathedral. In the city where I grew up.

You have a time machine for 24 hours, where do you go? I would travel to June 15 1938. Just before 6pm Eastern Standard Time. New York City Grand Central Station. I’d board the “20th Century Limited”, the famous New York Central railroad sleeper train (it’s the one featured in North By Northwest) to Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station, arriving at 9 the next morning, Central Time. That particular night was the first journey of the new art deco-style streamlined engines and rolling stock, decked out in the New York Central’s blues and greys. Obviously I’d make sure I was in a first class sleeping compartment and before dinner I’d have one of the company’s famous 20th Century Limited cocktails while conversing with my fellow passengers.

So I’d only need 16 hours actually. I guess I could use the other 8 wondering the streets at either end.

You have a new research project and a deadline. What is your normal working pattern? I go through phases of working very hard on a book project and then phases of doing other things. If I’m in a writing phase, I try to get up early – about 5.30 in the summer time. I make myself a big pot of black coffee and walk to the bottom of our garden where I have the most wonderful, cosy garden office. I call it my ‘shed’, although it’s better insulated than our house. It has room for a wall-full of books, an armchair and a desk. From where I sit I look out onto our veg patch and, at the moment, a mini-forest of bluebells. If all goes well, I write 1500 words before the day begins properly and the distractions start. I used to work very late into the night, but then we had children and now I’m exhausted and in bed by about 10pm most nights.

Your period of expertise no longer exists. Which historical period would you research instead? Either twentieth century British history, which I read a lot about, or 17th century British history, which I read less about, but should know more about since it mattered so much to the sensibilities of the people I study in the mid-19th century.

Why is history important today? Because if you want to understand why the world is as it is, history is what explains it. And for that reason I think history is a very empowering subject. It gives people an intellectual tool-kit to interpret their world, in a way that I genuinely think no other academic discipline can do.

Finally, what is your best historical fact? The one I keep returning to is that at the start of the 19th Century most people in the western world didn’t earn wages – they worked their own land, or in a non-cash economy, or they were what we would now call ‘self-employed’ as artisans. People talked about ‘wage-slavery’ because they thought that to earn wages was a loss of freedom tantamount to slavery. And yet by the end of the 19th Century, most people in the western world worked for someone else and earned money in return. Sometimes they talked about ‘slave wages’ to indicate that the money they earned was too little, but that’s not the same as ‘wage slavery’. Isn’t that a fascinating transformation? Imagine the psychological and cultural changes it required, as well as the re-ordering of the economy and of political ideas.

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