Rice historian earns national book prize

Caleb McDaniel, an assistant professor of history and a scholar of the 19th-century United States, received the 2014 Merle Curti Award for the “best book in American intellectual history” from the Organization of American Historians (OAH).

CALEB MCDANIEL

The award was given for McDaniel’s “The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform,” which was published in 2013. The award was presented April 12 in Atlanta at the annual meeting of the OAH, the largest professional society dedicated to the teaching and study of American history. McDaniel is the first Rice faculty member to receive this prestigious book prize in American history since it was established in 1977.

According to the OAH, McDaniel’s “vividly written, deeply researched, and brilliantly framed work … is a major contribution to the growing study of Atlantic intellectuals and reformers.”

McDaniel said his book’s main argument is that radical American abolitionists were “strikingly cosmopolitan, trans-Atlantic reformers, and that their intellectual exchanges with European reformers and thinkers help us better understand their movement against slavery.”

He said the book addresses timely questions, such as “Can radical critics of America also be considered patriots?” and “What happens when majority rule and democratic procedures produce unjust systems that are antithetical to democracy?”

“These are questions that remain pressing for many people even today, but they were also questions that American opponents of slavery had to confront before the Civil War,” McDaniel said. “My goal was to understand how abolitionists answered those questions. And to do that, or even to understand the questions they were asking, I found I had to follow them overseas and track the influence of trans-Atlantic liberals like John Stuart Mill or movements like Chartism on their thinking.”

McDaniel said “The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery” is a book that “shows, first, that these American activists were also serious thinkers and democratic theorists, but also that you can’t understand American activism and thought by looking only at the history of the United States.”

He hopes the book also helps readers to think historically about “what we mean when we talk about the power of public opinion in American society or about the meaning of patriotism and love for country.”

Dean of Humanities Nicolas Shumway said the award speaks to McDaniel’s talents. “He’s an extremely accomplished and very promising scholar,” Shumway said. “Caleb is also one of our most inventive teachers. He probably uses digital resources and Web archives better than anybody else we have. He incorporates technology into his courses by having students create Web archives on different subjects. He’s very good at getting even undergraduates into thinking as historians.”

McDaniel’s prize comes on the heels of a group of history faculty members who have received notable book prizes over the past year. Moramay Lopez-Alonso, an assistant professor of history and a Baker Institute Rice Scholar, received the Conference on Latin American History’s 2013 Mexican History Book Prize for her 2012 book “Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850–1950.” Cyrus Mody, an assistant professor of history, won the 2014 Paul Bunge Prize for his 2011 book “Instrumental Community: Probe Microscopy and the Path to Nanotechnology.” The prize is given by the German Chemical Society and the German Bunsen Society for Physical Chemistry for a work on the history of scientific instrumentation.

“This means that we have a really strong young cohort of scholars in the History Department, which is really good because we have a really strong older cohort of historians,” Shumway said. “I’m very optimistic about the future of this department.”

About Jeff Falk