Since the recent enthusiasm for Hamilton began, general interest in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods of American history has increased. Though I don’t care for the music style of Hamilton, I’m excited to finally be able to discuss with others topics that have fascinated me for decades. That, in turn, encouraged me to seek out new resources for myself to learn even more.
One of those resources is my new favorite podcast, Ben Franklin’s World, put together by Liz Covart. The podcast began a couple of years ago and covers topics of all kinds from the time of Ben Franklin and early American history. Covering politics, war, specific groups of people, and daily life, each week Liz interviews a guest expert on a given topic. Most of the time, those guests have recently published a book on the topic, but occasionally they are employed by historical societies and such.
At the end of each episode, Liz hosts a what-if segment of the show called the Time Warp, asking her guest(s) a question about what might have happened if something happened differently or someone acted differently. This speculation often gives us a glimpse into an even deeper aspect of the topic.
Ben Franklin’s World has over 100 episodes already, though I admit that I’m only up to episode 63 (I like to listen to them in order). I have already learned more about history than I thought possible from a podcast, and I already knew quite a bit. Each episode gets me even more jazzed about American history, if that’s possible. This American Studies major is in history heaven.
I especially can’t wait to catch up to the episodes on the topic of “Doing History,” which Liz does in conjunction with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture. The episodes in that series are also listed separately on the Omohundro Institute’s website.
Liz Covart was nice enough to allow me to interview her about the podcast, American history, historical research, Hamilton, and how families can integrate learning about history into their lives. I also throw my own Time Warp question at her at the end. So, why not start your New Year off with a new family habit of learning about American history together?
About Ben Franklin’s World
GeekDad: What made you decide to begin hosting a podcast?
Liz Covart: I came to podcasting as a listener. I enjoyed the intimate feeling the media created between me and my favorite hosts and how podcasts allowed me to enrich time that I couldn’t be doing something else like cooking, walking the dog, folding laundry, and commuting. After listening to a few podcasts about social media, entrepreneurship, and writing, I started looking for a podcast in my field of work, history. In 2012, I couldn’t find a history podcast I wanted to listen to on a regular basis. Most offered overviews of topics or summaries of books the hosts had read. As a historian I wanted more. I wanted a program that offered me conversations with historians about their work and detailed discussions about historical topics. I also wanted a podcast about my favorite period: early American history. After a couple of months of lamenting how I couldn’t find a history podcast I wanted to listen to, I decided to create one. I spent about 18 months researching the medium and started Ben Franklin’s World.
GD: How do you pick your episode topics? Do you seek out people and authors who interest you? Are you ever approached to be on your show?
LC: I select episode topics based on listener requests for episodes, books, topics, and projects that I think would make interesting episode topics, and works that have either had or I think will have a big impact on the way we view and study the past. I try to present a balanced view of the early American past so that the podcast features different aspects of history such as politics, culture, religion, gender, and race; spans the geographic reach of early America; and covers the three different periods of early American history: colonial, revolutionary, and early republic.
I do receive pitches from historians who would like to come on the podcast to discuss their work. These pitches are helpful because early American history is such a vast topic it’s hard to keep up with all the work historians are doing in the field. Plus, pitches usually demonstrate a level of interest and enthusiasm that make it easier to tell whether someone will be a great guest.
GD: Which primary source document from early America do you think doesn’t get the attention it deserves?
LC: Historians don’t pay enough attention to the Articles of Confederation. There hasn’t been a book written about the Articles on their own terms since 1940, and many books and articles that discuss or mention the first constitution of the United States present it as a stepping stone to the Constitution of 1787. The Continental Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation during the War for Independence and when Congress wrote them, and the states ratified them, no one knew that there would be a new constitution in 1787.
I think the Articles are so understudied that in 2016, I started a book-length research project about them so I can call attention to them and so we can all better understand the first constitution of the United States.
GD: What is your favorite part of the historical research process?
LC: I love archival research. The hunt for information that might answer my questions about history is a lot of fun. It can also be frustrating too because sometimes the records you find don’t discuss the subjects you’re studying and sometimes you find that war or some sort of disaster has destroyed records that used to exist but no longer do. For example, the New York State Capitol fire of 1911 destroyed many records I wanted to look at when I researched my dissertation on Albany, New York. Sometimes I’d ask for a record that the fire had completely destroyed, other times I’d receive a box of charred letters or reports where I could make out some but not all of the information they contained. Historians who study aspects of southern history face similar problems. Acts of destruction and violence during the Civil War destroyed or ruined many southern records. However, hitting these roadblocks in your research just makes you think about where else you can look. I like this part of the hunt because it’s usually a fun challenge.
GD: What historical interests do you personally have, other than the American Revolutionary period?
LC: I’m a cultural historian who is primarily interested in the American Revolution. I’m fascinated by how thirteen colonies, hosting many different cultures, overcame or set aside their cultural differences to create the United States. My interest in this question comes from the good fortune I’ve had to visit forty-three states over the course of my life. Every time I venture out of my home region, New England, I’m always amazed at how other Americans seem so different culturally from me and yet how similar we are in that we can bond over the fact that we’re all Americans. Europe doesn’t have the cultural unity that the United States does and I’m fascinated by how the United States has been able to achieve this unity.
Outside of revolutionary America, I’m broadly interested in the history of revolutions during the early modern era. I’m particularly fascinated by the revolutionary history of the Dutch Republic and the Age of Revolutions. The Dutch Republic had the first major revolution during the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) and that revolution served as an example for other revolutions, such as the American Revolution.
GD: If you had the opportunity to live during the colonial era, would you take it? Why?
LC: I like to time travel only in my mind. I’m too modern in my ideas and I enjoy my modern conveniences too much–I really am in love with my smartphone and the internet. Plus colonial America was a difficult place to live in, especially for women. I don’t think I could live in a place where the law allowed the identity of women to be subsumed or “covered” by their husbands or in a world that practiced chattel slavery.
Families and History
GD: What do you think is the best way for families to learn about history together?
LC: I’m a big fan of national historical parks and museums. They’re the places that sparked my interest in history. During many school vacations and long weekends, my parents took my brother and me to a museum. My parents worked hard to make sure that our visits were both active and interactive. They would ask us questions about the history conveyed in the places we visited and what we thought about that history. It fostered the notion that the study of history is a process that is based on research, analysis, and interpretation. There isn’t one way to view the past and I think it’s fun to think about different ways we can view historical people, places, and events.
GD: How can kids discover parts of history that they might enjoy?
LC: Living history museums are great for kids because they humanize the past in ways that kids understand. Plus the staff at these types of museums are often gifted interpreters who know how to engage kids and really get them to think about and imagine what their lives might be like if they lived in the past.
GD: What are your favorite living history or historical attractions in the northeast, or in the rest of the country?
LC: My favorite living-history museum is actually in London, England. It’s the Benjamin Franklin House on Craven Street. I love it because it offers a combination of real-life interpreters and audio and visual exhibits in each room of the house and they all rely on primary source documents to describe and evoke Franklin’s life in London.
GD: How do you feel about the musical Hamilton and its recent success?
LC: I love Hamilton the Musical. I had the opportunity to see it with a group of fellow early American historians in New York with the original cast. The musical does a great job of humanizing the historical people portrayed in the show: Alexander Hamilton, the Schuyler sisters, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and King George III. I think it accomplishes this not only because Lin-Manuel Miranda did a great job of researching the history and deciding how he wanted to interpret and portray the past with words and acting, but his music has such power. Music and sound really affect how we view and interpret what we see. I know some historians criticize the show because it fails to acknowledge slaves would have been “in the room where it happened” and still ultimately portrays a largely white version of early American history, albeit with a multi-ethnic cast, but the show has caused people to raise these questions about history and how we interpret it, that few outside of the historical profession were raising before the show. I think has been great for encouraging the public to participate in the historical process.
GD: If someone without a history background wants to learn more about the early American time period, where would you suggest they start?
LC: I’d love for them to start with Ben Franklin’s World and the “Doing History” podcast series. I try to craft each episode of Ben Franklin’s World so that anyone can explore the topic of discussion without much prior knowledge of the early American past. The “Doing History” series is a special podcast series that I co-produced with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture for Ben Franklin’s World. It explicitly explores the historian’s process through early American history topics. It’s important for us to know where our knowledge of the past comes from and how historians come to know what they know about it. This is what the “Doing History” series explores.
Aside from those two resources, I recommend visiting historical societies and museums, which, in addition to their exhibits, offer guest speakers, seminars, and lecture series that anyone can participate in, and browsing the history sections of your local library and bookstore. I started my quest to know more about the early American past in middle school by getting lost in my local library’s history section. I’d find books on people and topics I wanted to know more about and read them. If I really enjoyed a book, or it left me with more questions (which was often the case), I explored the footnotes or endnotes in that book for more books about the topic.
GD: If the Continental Congress had failed to agree on a Declaration of Independence, what do you think would have happened? Would we still be subjects of the British Crown, or would we have managed to achieve independence at a different time or through a different means? Or would some of the original colonies have broken off and become independent on their own?
LC: On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia offered a resolution to the body of the Second Continental Congress: “Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” Lee’s famous resolution carried with it two more points of action that Congress also passed and acted on, but that many people don’t seem to know about. The resolution continues, “That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.”
The Declaration of Independence was an important document. It gave Americans a unified statement of why they had rebelled against Great Britain and presented ideas about the ideals and changes they hoped would come out of the Revolution. By June 1776, Americans were ready for independence, which makes the other two parts of Lee’s resolution very important. Americans realized that they needed foreign assistance if they were going to secure their independence. The young nation needed money and supplies to support the war effort as well as soldiers and naval ships. However, in order to secure those alliances, the Americans needed a unified government. European nations like France, Spain, and the Netherlands did not want to deal with thirteen different bodies. They wanted to deal with one, sovereign body. Therefore, I think we need to look at the Declaration of Independence as one important step toward independence, the moment when Americans declared their independence, but declaring and securing independence are different actions. I don’t think the Declaration would have played the role it has unless Americans had also agreed to and acted on the other two points in Lee’s resolution.
If the Americans had not been willing to declare independence and take the other two steps necessary to secure it then I think the war would have ended sooner. The French likely wouldn’t have joined the war or sent the covert aid that played a big role in the Patriots’ victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. The Spanish wouldn’t have entered the war if the French hadn’t allied with the United States. The Dutch wouldn’t have lent the United States as much money as it did if there hadn’t been a central, national government to lend it to. Without foreign aid and a centralized, national government, the United States would probably have remained British colonies for a time and today we would likely have some sort of Canadian-like confederation and place within the British Commonwealth.
Information About Liz Covart
GD: Other than the podcast, what projects are you working on now?
LC: I’m always researching how historians can use different media to convey knowledge about history to anyone who has an interest in it. I’m also working on a book project about the Articles of Confederation and on a new “Doing History” podcast series with the Omohundro Institute. The new series is called “Doing History: To the Revolution!” and it will offer episodes that explore the American Revolution and how what we know about it and how we view it has changed over time. The new series will debut in full in September 2017, but we’ll offer a few teaser episodes before then. In fact, you can listen to our first teaser for it, which offers new information about the Tea Crisis of 1773 and the Boston Tea Party. It’s episode 112.
GD: What’s the best place for our readers to contact you?