5 Questions With Barbara Clark Smith
What do we love more than helping you navigate the Smithsonian? Sending someone from the Smithsonian to your neighborhood! Our people are our greatest resource and when new curators join the Smithsonian family, we like to share their stories with our network.
In this edition, we spotlight Barbara Clark Smith, an internationally known historian in the field of Revolutionary America. She has spent her career at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) as a curator of early American social and political history. She has curated and co-curated major exhibitions, including The Jefferson Bible; After the Revolution: Everyday Life in America, 1780-1800; and Jamestown, Quebec, and Santa Fe: Three North American Beginnings. She has written both popular and scholarly books and essays and has been a frequent speaker at museums, book festivals, and other public history venues.
- What was the moment or experience you had that made you interested in Revolutionary America?
My father was a mechanical engineer who loved reading history books in his spare time, so I learned from a young age that studying the past could be fascinating. Luckily, first-rate teachers at Montclair High School in New Jersey fed my love of history. It was the opportunity to work with a truly inspiring historian in graduate school—Prof. Edmund S. Morgan at Yale—that led me to choose the Revolution as a field of study. The Revolution is an exciting topic because events and ideas provoked the participation of men and women of many different backgrounds, beliefs, and social positions. The era shows us both unprecedented unity among North American colonists and profound differences and conflicts as well. There is no simple way to sum it up, and I know I will never fully understand every aspect of the Revolution. It is endlessly fascinating.
- What excites you about coming to work in the Division of Political and Military History at NMAH?
Through political action, people try to bring their ideas about what is fair and what is right to bear in their societies. While some elements of political history have focused largely on a powerful elite, I enjoy tracing the relationships between political elites and more ordinary Americans. I enjoy working with NMAH museum collections that have long included attention to the political forms used by everyday people, such as protests and petitions as well as the vote. Colleagues in the division focus on different aspects of political history while sharing a dedication to exploring the past in new ways and to bringing our findings, perspectives, and enthusiasms to the public.
- Since you oversee a vast collection of artifacts, which one is the most special to you and why?
That is impossible to answer! I love Paul Revere’s print of “The Bloody Massacre” of 1770, as it represents a dramatic (if flawed) political claim about the value of ordinary American lives. Along the same lines, I treasure Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, where he introduced radical ideas that caught fire among an unprecedented number of readers. Then there’s a Bible that belonged to Stokeley Sturgis, an ordinary farmer in Delaware who converted to Methodism during the Revolution at the urging of his enslaved man, Richard. Methodist belief moved Sturgis to allow Richard to buy his own freedom. That man, Richard Allen, later founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Sturgis’s Bible represents a connection between two men of faith who changed each others’ lives.
- You’re interested in visiting Affiliate communities, what would you like to share with them?
I grew up in the Jersey suburbs and have since traveled and learned from people in many parts of the country and some other parts of the world. I love hearing different perspectives and grappling with some of the contradictions of our national history. That means learning more and more local and regional history, so as to include the variety and richness of US history as much as possible. I am married and have two adult children—one in California, the other in New York. So my husband and I travel fairly often coast to coast. We have built the Midwest and, to a lesser degree, the Southwest into our travels, and we have recently been exploring the deep south. We have so much more to explore and learn, of course!
- What projects are on the horizon you are most excited about working on?
The public talks that I am presenting are also occasions for me to learn from audiences who offer new perspectives and questions about the founding era. Besides those presentations, I am working with my colleague Kenneth Cohen on a small exhibition case that treats the encounter between Wampanoag people and the Separatists (or “Pilgrims”) who landed at Patuxet / Plymouth in 1620. The 400th anniversary of that encounter offers an opportunity to revisit and rethink those extraordinary events.
Barbara offers the following presentations to Affiliates:
1. “A Freeborn People”: Slavery and the Founders
New findings and insights have transformed historians’ understanding of chattel slavery in the nation’s founding era. During years of revolution and nation-building, Americans both white and black confronted slavery’s powerful impact on their economy, society, and political world. Both slavery and opposition to slavery shaped the era’s most important documents and institutions. A white historian of 18th-century politics and society considers this history and its legacy for today.
2. “Hanging Together”: Unity and Disunity in America’s Founding Era (Available early 2020)
“Now we must hang together, or we shall assuredly hang separately.”
—attributed to Benjamin Franklin, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence
Today’s experience of deep divisions in US society, culture, and politics makes the history of 18th-century nation-building more pertinent than ever. The founding generation needed to reconcile people of divergent religious beliefs, economic interests, social positions, and ethnic backgrounds to create a revolution and form a “more perfect union.” How—and how far—did they hang together? A historian finds answers in English political traditions; an ideal of economic patriotism; ideas of racial identity; African American acts of community-building; and Native American practices of confederation. A Smithsonian curator offers timely perspectives on the founding era.
Interested in bringing Barbara or other Smithsonian scholars to your organization? Contact your National Outreach Manager!