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 […]

In the last twelve months we have lost two great historians of the United States: William Brock and Michael O’Brien.* I remember them both with admiration and affection. They were men of different temperaments, backgrounds and generations, but beneath the surface were some similarities that tell us much about the practice of history at its […]

It’s not surprising that its residents so readily describe Santa Barbara as paradise. On a fertile plain between steeply rising mountains and a sandy, south-facing stretch of the California coast, the city basks in year-round warm sunshine. I was there at the end of January, when the contrast with the wintry chill of London was […]

A few weeks ago I found myself in the middle of California’s central valley, standing on the edge of a road with straight lines of fruit trees stretching regimentally in every direction. It is a totally flat landscape – more like the Midwest than most people’s image of California. On a clear day I probably […]

A frontier gunfight May 11, 1880: a gunfight in a wheat field six miles northwest of Hanford, CA, the main town in what was then known as the Mussel Slough area of Tulare County (now Kings County) in the Central Valley. Seven men were killed or mortally wounded that day. The fight was over land. […]

When I went there, I thought that Alta Loma terrace, in Hollywood, CA, was a pretty, rather enviable place to live. Unusually for any residential street in America the houses are arranged on either side of a footpath instead of a road (although reassuringly there’s vehicle access to the rear of the houses) and the […]

Historians, it seems to me, are temperamentally divided into those who gravitate to the particularities of studying people — and those who want to describe big patterns and large-scale processes of change. For some the fascination of the past is in ultimately in understanding how people lived, thought, coped. For others it is in answering […]

I spend much of my professional life reading the words of people who were passionate advocates of Union, and, indeed, who declared their willingness to die for it. Last night I gave a talk about my new biography of Abraham Lincoln, who was the most articulate advocate of Union of all. The audience, at the […]

Last year, the government’s proposed new history curriculum caused intense debate about what history children should learn. Should the black nurse Mary Seacole be taught, or (implicitly) is her inclusion in a school history curriculum a sop to political correctness? Should the content of history lessons be a story of Britain or of the world? […]

If you were a teacher, would you take your children somewhere where you knew they were going to be shouted at and made to do household chores for no pay? Perhaps that’s best left as a rhetorical question. On school trips to Holdenby House in Northamptonshire, where Charles I was held prisoner by the Scots, […]

I was on Radio 3’s Night Waves last night presenting a short package about the legacy of the Gettysburg Address. You can listen to it here. On Radio 4, James Naughtie presented a documentary on how and why Lincoln came to give the speech (I appear in that programme as well). Here is the text […]

The extraordinary thing about the Gettysburg Address, which was given 150 years ago on Tuesday, is that people still venerate it as they do. It is, on one level, a pretty standard piece of wartime rhetoric, polarising the issues and claiming that the stakes are universal, eternal and profound. Churchill did the same sort of […]

It is, I suppose, an unalienable truth that the American Civil War was, in some senses a Revolution. Certainly that was true for enslaved African Americans who were legally freed, often displaced, sometimes reunited with separated family members, and, in a few cases, managed to acquire new wealth and some improvement in their political status […]

In the UCL History Department, we’ve been trying to work out how best to support the often difficult transition from school to university study. We’ve come up with (what I think is) an exciting new curriculum which is being introduced for new first years in September. I’ll be convening one of the new first year […]

The folks who produce BBC History Magazine have just published a special issue called The American Civil War Story. I had a couple of pieces in it, including one that seeks to explain why the South lost the war in less than a thousand words. This is it: Why the South Lost the Civil War […]

The 1860 Presidential Election was one of the most consequential elections in world history, since it directly triggered the American Civil War. (Others on the shortlist include the series of three Reichstag elections in 1932-3). It was in response to the election of Abraham Lincoln that the first tranche of slave states seceded, and Lincoln […]