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The Points Interview — Ian Tyrrell

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note:  Australian Americanist, Ian Tyrrell, the last president of the Alcohol & Temperance History Group and the first president of the newly renamed and reconstituted Alcohol & Drugs History Society, shares a few reflections on his recent book, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (Princeton University Press, 2010).

My book is about late 19th century U.S. missionaries and moral reformers who wished to change the world not by turning everybody into Americans, but by Christianizing it and ridding it of drugs, alcohol, prostitution, and other “sins.” But in the process, these people were changed, and the movements they led were changed. The experience of trying to change the world influenced reformers and missionary supporters back in the United States, creating a strong sense of the need for moral reform at home, and for the idea of a Christian nation achieved through exertion of state power.

Ultimately, I am showing how the world was, more than a century ago, already a very connected place with a United States that was surprisingly affected by overseas influences and engaged in exerting moral influence abroad. My American story is of a nation newly linked as part of a worldwide web of communications. I show the impacts on moral reform movements of an important wave of 19th century globalization in trade and rail, steamship, and telegraph communications.

Contributing as they did to deeper American engagement with the wider world, these developments in technologies and social movements present a picture quite different from the well-known inwardly looking story of the frontier, the movement west, and the ideas of American isolationism that developed along the way. Globalization did not begin yesterday.

2. What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Wilbur Crafts at the International Reform Bureau

Wilbur Crafts, at the International Reform BureauI hope they will find my pioneering research on anti-alcohol policies in the Philippines, and on the relationship between Christian lobby movements at home and colonial policy in that area after 1898, as in the case of the Rev. Wilbur Crafts’ International Reform Bureau, useful. There, and in drug policy towards opium, the story I tell belies the common misconception of a purely outward push of American ideas. Instead, I argue that certain American domestic policies were trialed to a considerable extent for prohibition of drugs and alcohol in the colonial “formal” empire of the Philippines, especially between 1898 and 1914. In this way, the inside and the outside of American history are linked, shaping one another.

3. Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book? 

I like the people. All history is ultimately about individual people and the patterns of history that they make. The advocate of transnational history, Pierre-Yves Saunier, has rightly said we historians must follow the trails. Those individuals crossing national boundaries make the most interesting trails I’ve ever seen. I would like to know even more about these people. There is so often an inner core of their motivation that can, at best, be captured by the historian only fleetingly and imperfectly. I put Jessie Ackermann of Woman’s Christian Temperance Union fame, the missionary who went around the world 8 times, in this category. I find fascinating the lifelong journey of the YMCA’s Sherwood Eddy towards social radicalism from his early missionary work in India. Also compelling is the case of the Leitch sisters, missionaries to Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), whose moral journey took them back from mission work to innovative transnational organizing, including anti-drug campaigns first begun in Ceylon. The origins of modern Transnational Non-Governmental Organizations can be traced to these and other European and American women and men who organized for the sake of “humanity” in the 1880s and 1890s, in the Red Cross, the YMCA, Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and similar groups.

Newly Retired, btw– congrats, Ian!

4. Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon? 

Much more needs to be done on the responses of colonial peoples on the ground to drug and alcohol regulation by the colonial state. My approach only allowed an overview, though it did incorporated the reaction of missionaries and reformers to anti-Christian religious revitalization movements in Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, and the secularization tendencies in anti-colonial movements, including those of nationalism.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration? 

Who knows? Surely we are all sick of Ken Burns’ use of Peter Cayote in now stereotyped documentaries. Similarly David Attenborough is so very good, but this is not nature programming. I can think of a couple of my native Australians who could plausibly do it, but they won’t be widely known internationally. Instead, I would like Michael Wood, the BBC tele-historian. I love his approach to history as journeys to be experienced, as if they were happening against an unknown future. He manages to maintain a sense of wonder. Also good is Neil Oliver, on Scottish television history and geography — he can make anything interesting — and he makes Scottish missionaries very much so in the episode of program on David Livingstone. Provided the stories of the individual missionaries and their dreams are told, they can be made compelling, because we are all interested in individual lives – hopes, dreams, failure, life and death.

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