Editor's Note, Princeton Historical Review, Winter 2024

Dear reader,

It is my pleasure to present the first issue of the 2024 volume of the Princeton Historical Review. This year, we intend to return to two issues—one in the winter and one in the summer—and we also introduce a number of exciting changes to our approach to sharing innovative undergraduate research. I will mention three. First, we welcome a larger-than-ever corps of editors including a substantial number of third-year students who have just joined the History Department (as well as one second-year concentrator-to-be!). Their enthusiasm has infused the publication with new life and made possible our second major reform, the implementation of a robust, two-stage editing process that affords our contributing authors a greater volume and variety of feedback with which to refine their already-stellar articles. In line with our mission—to serve as a resource for all undergraduates wishing to sharpen their historians’ skills—we also continued the practice of providing feedback to all who submitted their work for consideration (as long as they desired it). Finally, believing the study of history to be inherently interdisciplinary, we made a conscious effort to reach out to students outside of the Department, one result of which was the brilliant essay by English concentrator Juliette Carbonnier contained in these pages.

Speaking of which: let us turn to the contents of the issue.

In “‘Soulless Capital and Grasping Speculation’: A Comparative Genealogy of the Homestead Act of 1862,” Alex S. MacArthur provides a fresh look at the much-debated but little-understood titular act of legislation. In fact, MacArthur contends, the lack of consensus in recent historiography around the many meanings of the Homestead Act reflects the conflicting ideological forces that shaped its passage. MacArthur charts the lives and thoughts of two contemporary figures: Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose writings captured the anxieties around the expansion of American commercialism that underpinned the Act, and Galusha A. Grow, the Speaker of the House who steered it into law. As MacArthur argues, these two men embraced the ideal of petty agrarianism but stopped short of rejecting market relations altogether. Emerson believed the emerging division of labor in the North poisoned Man, but his “rhetoric was tinged with the imperial impulse toward Native displacement, westward expansion, and the development of land” (12). As for Grow, with the collapse of Reconstruction, he abandoned his Jacksonian roots and became a successful capitalist. In the final analysis, the Homestead Act was “a comparatively radical yet reactionary American attempt to distribute property among the toiling masses—a measure at once resistant to the forces of capital and yet couched in capitalist logics of development, displacement, and expansion” (20).

In “Hrotswitha the ‘Strong Voice of Gandersheim’: The Brazen Playwright Nun of Tenth-Century Germany,” Carbonnier examines the canoness Hrotswitha, who took advantage of her unusual intellectual and artistic freedoms to critique medieval gender constructs and assert her agency as a playwright. Carbonnier’s strength is her close reading: she offers a detailed analysis of Hrotswitha’s Abraham that makes it accessible to readers at the remove of more than a millennium. But her work hinges on her ability to place the text in its historical context. As Carbonnier shows, while Hrotswitha reinscribed certain notions of patriarchy, her play was nonetheless a radical departure from the fourth-century story on which it was based. In subtle ways, Hrotswitha condemned the chauvinism of the male characters and offered a generous interpretation of female salvation. When considered alongside the possibility that Hrotswitha presented her work to her fellow nuns, her version of Abraham becomes a powerful vehicle for suasion. In a greater sense, however, regardless of her specific didactic aims, “Hrotswitha’s most revolutionary act was to alter the ancient story of Mary and Abraham for her own purposes” (34). It is the deftness with which Carbonnier navigates between the fine grain and the big picture that makes her article such a joy to read.

Last but not at all least, in “Public Perception, Political Argument, and Presentation: The Story of Mary Mildred Williams, Senator Charles Sumner, and the Republican Party in 1855,” Anika Asthana takes us back to the mid-nineteenth-century United States and the politics of the Republican Party. But where MacArthur offers critical analysis of some of the era’s most notable and powerful figures, Asthana’s subject is the formerly enslaved seven-year-old Mary Mildred Williams. Asthana recounts how the famed Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner conspired with John Albion Andrew to purchase Williams’s freedom and then make her the centerpiece of an elaborate anti-slavery publicity campaign. Recent histories of Williams have focused on the public reaction to her; Asthana, on the other hand, delves into mechanics of the campaign itself. She draws on an impressive array of sources, including private correspondence, newspapers, and even visual material, to show how the age’s leading Republicans used Williams as a “political argument” (40). Specifically, Sumner manipulated Williams’s fair skin color to exploit anxieties in the North following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act that white people might become enslaved: he portrayed the girl as “the Real Ida May,” in reference to a contemporary novel about one such “white slave.” Although the usual gaps in the historical record around the interiorities of enslaved people leave Williams herself voiceless, Asthana compellingly argues that she “set a model for anti-slavery political campaigning in the 1860s, and turned normative assessments of race and slavery on their head” (53).

No formal themes, topics, or methodologies link these three brilliant and original works of scholarship. Instead, they share an effective use of primary sources, a sensitivity to the stakes of their arguments and their position within historiography, and truly high-quality writing. Interestingly, none of the articles was originally produced as a junior paper or thesis chapter, making their rigor all the more impressive. They offer many lessons to historians at the undergraduate level and beyond.

In addition to the authors and the talented PHR editorial team, thanks are due to the faculty and staff of the History Department and especially to Jackie Wasneski and Judie Miller for helping to make this issue possible (and for all they do to improve our lives).

Read on!

Sam Bisno

Winter 2024 Vol. 9, Issue 1

See caption.

Julian Vannerson, daguerreotype of Mary Mildred Botts Williams, ca. 1855, visible oval image 7 cm x 6 cm, in case 9.5 cm x 8 cm, Massachusetts Historical Society online collections.


Sam Bisno '24


Angie Allen ’25
Isis Arevalo ’25
Michael Emperor ’25
Kayra Guven ’24
Sam Harshbarger ’24
Aidan Iacobucci ’25
Seiyoung Jang ’25
Noah Maxwell ’24
Alice McGuinness ’24
Carly Mraz ’25
Allan Shen ’24
Julia Stern ’26
Leighton Symons ’25
Shireen Waraich ’24
Rebecca Wu ’25
Julia Zhou ’24

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