Adam I. P. Smith

Historian | Writer | Broadcaster

This is a piece I wrote for The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association which was published in their Summer 2020 issue. They slightly edited it. This is the full version. Review of Greg Weiner, Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln & the Politics of Prudence Greg Weiner thinks that Lincoln was a Burkean. There are good […]

This is a lightly edited text of a talk I gave at St. Anne’s College Oxford on 21 September 2019 We live in an age of anxiety – which may well be the default setting for all human societies, but which feels to many of us to be something new. The reasons for the anxiety […]

This is a piece I wrote on January 22, 2019, for BBC History Magazine about the history of US Federal government ‘shutdowns’. The context was the longest shutdown (to that point) in history that had resulted from President Trump’s demand that Congress give him Like so much else, it’s all the fault of the Founding […]

This is a review I published in History Today of Jill Lepore’s fabulous book, These Truths One of the ways in which the current President of the United States differs from all his predecessors, from Washington to Obama, is that unlike them he doesn’t speak of the special mission of his country. When he talks […]

This is the text of a piece I’ve just written for BBC History Extra A few questioned its necessity, but for most of the delegates to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787 giving Congress the right to impeach the President was an obvious move. It was not to be used lightly. It was an […]

The first time I visited the American South, sometime in the late 1990s, I took at tour around one of those elegant plantation houses–I think it was in South Carolina–with a Spanish moss-covered avenue of trees, a shaded veranda on which to sip one’s mint julep, and discretely placed slave quarters. The lady showing us […]

A few days ago President Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly told Fox News that the Civil War was caused by the “lack of an ability to compromise”, that it was “fought by men and women of good faith on both sides” and that General Robert E. Lee was an “honorable man.” Frankly, it would […]

This is an edited draft of a lecture I have been writing, which in time may grow into a little book about the concept of compromise in American political life from the Revolution to the present day. Compromise must surely be the most ambivalent concept in modern politics. It can be a virtue or a […]

This is a piece I wrote for BBC World History Magazine’s September 2017 issue. The whole point of a pedestal is to elevate whatever’s on it. That’s the thing about statues: they demand not just attention but reverence. And because they’re sited in prominent public places, the intention is always to make a statement. That […]

Inscribed above the dais in the wood-paneled Gustave Tuck Theatre in University College London is a quotation from Deuteronomy: “Remember the Days of Old; Consider the Years of Each Generation.” It’s a poetic and even rather inspiring injunction but if you think about it too much it’s not obvious how to live up to it. […]

The aim of historical writing is to convey complexity with clarity, isn’t it? We know that the world is an infinitely varied and confusing place. Yet we also know that without trying to impose some kind of schema, all we’re left with is anecdote. It can be hard enough, sometimes, to uncover the dots, but […]

A hundred years after the US declared war on Germany, I was at the main US military cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon and there was absolutely no one there at all other than me, the battlefield historian I was interviewing and my radio producer. This is a very empty part of France. You can drive for miles […]

Recently I made a series for BBC Radio 4 called “Trump: The Presidential Precedents”. It told the stories of six previous US presidents who had won elections by promising to shake up a corrupt establishment and restore government by, or at least for, the little guy. From Andrew Jackson, the first westerner to win, to […]

Among Donald Trump’s accomplishments is inadvertently stimulating popular interest in epistemology. “Post-truth” is the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 “word of the year”—a judgment based largely on the number of times it’s been invoked by journalists discussing the politics of the UK European referendum and the US presidential election. In a post-truth world, politics is conducted […]

I’ve been working on a radio series about previous presidential elections (to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 every day at 1.45pm in the week beginning January 16) with the aim of providing some historical context for our present political moment (Mr D. Trump, to remind you, if you’d forgotten, will be inaugurated on January […]

On election night last Tuesday, I was in New York. I watched Trump’s victory speech in a Sky News studio where I’d been offering some occasional undigested thoughts. A little later, when I emerged into Time Square in a dank pre-dawn hour, drunk Trump supporters were chanting “lock her up” and “build the wall”. One […]

A version of this blogpost appeared in the November 2016 edition of BBC History Magazine. It accompanies my BBC Radio 4 series, The Robber Barons. Railroad bosses were not supposed to order their own freight cars to be burned. In 1859, however, the superintendent of the western division of the Pennsylvania Railroad – a 24-year […]

Whenever the French have had a revolution since the first great eruption of 1789, they’ve re-written their Constitution and started over again — so the current French state is the Fifth Republic. Over the same period, in contrast, the USA appears to have had one stable Constitutional order. But appearances can be deceptive. Beneath the […]

This post is based on a review essay I published in the Times Literary Supplement in June 2015 Tom Taylor was the author of the play Lincoln was watching when he was shot. At least, he’d written the original script. Taylor had written a rather stilted comedy of manners in which a straw-sucking Vermonter called […]