Iver Bernstein

Professor of History, African and African-American Studies, and American Culture Studies
PhD, Yale University
MPhil, Yale University
MA, Yale University
BA, Brown University
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mailing address:

  • Washington University
  • CB 1062
  • One Brookings Drive
  • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
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​Professor Bernstein’s scholarship centers on the long 19th-Century United States, with a focus on slavery, race, and political culture.

Bernstein has written about the origins and significance of the Civil War, the roots of racialized violence, and the possibilities of democratic social and political movements. He is especially interested in the traumatic histories, sometimes forgotten, sometimes unspoken, of slavery, race, and war, that shaped the United States's national dramas of revolution and rebellion, creative destruction and re-invention. His book, The New York City Draft Riots:  Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (Oxford), engaged such traumatic histories and national dramas. 

His current book project, Stripes & Scars:  How Americans Came to Fight a Bloody Civil War (under contract, Oxford), focuses on the origins and significance of the US Civil War. Drawing upon extensive archival research, he seeks to explain the origins of the annhiliating violence of the Civil War, with special attention to the context of the everyday violence of enslavement. How did Thomas Jefferson's Republic of Reason reach its fulfillment in the killing fields of 1861-1865, a Jeffersonian nightmare had he lived to see it? Jefferson's liberal creed of possessive individualism and property rights, law, contract, and comity sought to create a government that would preserve its citizens from the cycles of war and violent death that plagued Old World states. 

From this perspective, the Civil War, with its massive self-sacrifice and butchery, was at once a sustained outburst of dispossession, a startling expenditure of individual lives, bodies, property, and other resources, and an all-consuming and at times erotically-charged outpouring of a kind of possessiveness, an annhiliating conquest of the other. In the antebellum era, Americans had placed their faith in the family and its vaunted love, intimacy and stability as the ballast for their experiment in building the first liberal, possessive individualist nation, only to run smack into the problems of familial exploitation, rivalry, violation, indeed, rape and incest. Americans encountered these family conflicts and violations, variously, in the everyday world of enslavement, in the so-called bourgeois family (it was hardly exempt), and ultimately, in the "Brothers' War," as Americans so often referred to the Civil War. 

Stripes & Scars is a re-assessment of the significance of the war and the political processes that led to it, focusing on the war's intertwined dynamics of violence and love. It contends that we must account for a far wider spectrum of human needs and desires than historians conventionally do, as well as attend to national and racial regimes of managing those needs and desires that historians have all but ignored, to explain the orgiastic sacrifice, the sheer expenditure and destruction of life, of 1861 to 1865. The Civil War was both no pursuit of happiness, not in any way Jefferson could have endorsed or understood, and it was the ultimate and surprising culmination of that pursuit of happiness.

Two other book projects, edited volumes nearing completion or in progress, James Baldwin and American Democracy and The Material World of Modern Segregation (see below), engage racialized experience in the United States, particularly the relationships between its intimate and public domains, and between its material and political dimensions.

Selected Publications

Books

Stripes & Scars: How Americans Came to Fight a Bloody Civil War (under contract with Oxford University Press)

The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1990, cloth and paperback) (Oxford Kindle edition)

With Heidi Aronson Kolk, ed., The Material World of Modern Segregation: St. Louis in the Long Era of Ferguson (in progress)

Special Journal Issues
With Katherine C. Mooney, co-editor of and contributor to a special isssue of The Common Reader (forthcoming, March 2019) dedicated to James Baldwin and American Democracy

Articles and Essays

"Lincoln and the Traumatic Violence of Slavery and the Civil War:  A Brief for Expanding Historical Imagination," in Stephen Hansen and Caroline Pryor, eds., TEACHING LINCOLN (Peter Lang, 2013), 21-29.

"Political Evil and the Body Politic in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America," in Steven Mintz & John Stauffer, eds., The Problem of Evil: Slavery, Freedom, and the Ambiguities of American Reform (University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 231-59

"Securing Freedom: The Challenges of Black Life in Civil War New York," in Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris, eds., Slavery in New York (The New Press, 2005)

"Abraham Lincoln's Body and Body Politic: Two Puzzles in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Political Language and Culture," in Harold Holzer and John Y. Simon, eds., The Lincoln Forum: Rediscovering Abraham Lincoln (Fordham University Press, 2002)

“The Volcano Under the City: Draft Rioting in New York City and State, 1863," in Harold Holzer, ed., State of the Union: New York and the Civil War (Fordham University Press, 2002)

"Moral Perspective and the Cycles of Jacksonian History," Journal of Policy History (Summer 1994)

"Expanding the Boundaries of the Political: Workers and Political Change in the Nineteenth Century," International Labor and Working Class History (Fall 1987)

(With David Montgomery), "Work, Family and Class Values in the Nineteenth Century," International Labor and Working Class History (Fall 1981)

Awards & Grants

Recipient, Ferguson Academic Seed Fund Grant, Washington University, for "The Material World of Modern Segregation: St. Louis in the Long Era of Ferguson" (with Heidi Aronson Kolk, et al.), 2016-17

Recipient, Dean's Collaborative Research Seed Grant, Washington University, for "Modern Segregation and the Roots of Structural Racism," (with Clarissa Rile Hayward and Rebecca Wanzo), 2014

Special Recognition for Excellence in Mentoring, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, Washington University, 2005

Kemper Faculty Award, Washington University, 2000

Avery Craven Prize Committee, Organization of American Historians, 2000

Advisory Board, Lincoln Prize

Oxford-Smithsonian Lecturer, Smithsonian Institution, 1998 

American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, 1995-96

Fletcher Jones Visiting Professorship, Huntington Library, San Marino, California, 1995-96 (declined)

Mayer Fund Fellow, Huntington Library, San Marino, California, 1993

Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Library Company of Philadelphia Fellow, 1990

American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship for Recent Recipients of the Ph.D., 1987-1988

National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend, 1987

George Washington Eggleston Prize, Yale University, Best Doctoral Dissertation in American History, 1985

Stephen Charney Vladeck Fellowship (Inaugural Fellow), New York University, 1983-84

Whiting Fellowship in the Humanities, Yale University, 1982-83

Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude, Departmental Honors in History, Brown University, 1977.

Recent Courses

Civil War & Reconstruction
The New Republic: The United States, 1776-1848
The Theory and Practice of Justice: The American Historical Experience
The American Trauma: Representing the Civil War in Art, Literature and Politics
The Age of Lincoln:  America in the 1850s
The Problem of Freedom: The Age of Democratic Revolution in the United States and the Americas, 1760-1888
Slavery in America: The Politics of Knowledge Production
Introduction to the Graduate Study of American History, to 1865
Introduction to Graduate American Culture Studies: Conceptualizing American Empire
American Exotic: History, Memory, and Tourism in Charleston and New Orleans
Engaging the City: The Material World of Modern Segregation

Administration and Special Projects (selected)

Director, American Culture Studies Program, five-year term, 2013-2018 (directed endowed cross-disciplinary and collaborative program in American Culture, based in Arts & Sciences, with 60 affiliated full-time faculty, undergraduate major and minor, graduate Ph.D. certificate program, postdoctoral fellows, M.A. program in American Culture through University College, and On Location site-specific study course/initiative, with mission of fostering intellectual community and sustained collaborative research and teaching among these constituencies, across the university's schools.)

Arts & Sciences Co-Chair, Washington University Sesquicentennial Celebration, 2003-04 (conceptualized and staged year-long "Conversations" series in recognition of the University's Sesquicentennial: four cross-disciplinary university-wide conversations open to the public, engaging academics and thought leaders in and outside of Washington University on long trajectories of knowledge production in Arts & Sciences, broadly and variously defined:  "The Future of Freedom"; "Human Origins"; "What Kinds of International Borders Will Exist in the 21st Century?"; "Public Intellectuals")

Profiles, Podcasts, Op-Eds, and Interviews

Suzanne Smalley, "History Lesson," Newsweek.com, January 8, 2003

Washington People:  Iver Bernstein, October 28, 2011

Iver Bernstein and Katherine Mooney, "Henry Highland Garnet's Vision of Black Suffrage," Op-Ed, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 13, 2013

Stripes and Scars:  Hold That Thought American Identities Podcast Series, August 28, 2013 (with new introduction, September 11, 2014)

"We Live Within Its Structures":  Iver Bernstein on Modern Segregation," Washington University Record, September 17, 2014

"Curiosity: Iver Bernstein on the role of violence in American history," Washington University Arts & Sciences, February 18, 2016

Iver Bernstein, Heidi Aronson Kolk, and Brandon Wilson, "American Graffiti," nextSTL, June 7, 2017

Washington Magazine, August 7, 2018

Recent Talks

"American Incest/American Freedom: How Americans Came to Fight a Bloody Civil War," Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting, St. Louis, Missouri (conference theme: "Taboos"), April 16, 2015