Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

A Mike McGiffert legacy

· September 28th, 2016 · No Comments

by Karin Wulf

Next Tuesday, October 4, 2016, we begin a new tradition at the Omohundro Institute: the annual McGiffert Lecture. The lecture series honors the late Michael (Mike) McGiffert who served as editor of the William and Mary Quarterly (WMQ) at the Omohundro Institute from 1972–1997 and also taught at William & Mary. Mike had an enormous influence on the journal, and on the OI. He was honored with a forum “Editing Early America:  Michael McGiffert and the William and Mary Quarterly, 1972-1997” in the April 1997 issue of the WMQ that included reflections from scholars including Mary Beth Norton, Edmund S. Morgan, Gary Nash, and Gordon Wood. Patricia Bonomi included a tongue-in-cheek reader’s report on Mike’s notice of his intent to retire  (“this section lacks conviction; it needs to be clarified and supported by a larger body of evidence”) and the OI’s then-Director Ron Hoffman described the use of multiple page proofs required to keep Mike in the dark as the forum was assembled, edited, proofed and included for the issue’s printing.

The McGiffert Lecture, supported by a generous bequest by Mike, ensures that he will continue to support early American scholars and scholarship, and in particular the OI’s ability to share extraordinary historical work with a public audience. Each McGiffert Lecture will be delivered by an author whose work won one of the WMQ awards in the previous year and is intended to foster and inform intellectual discourse among early Americanists and the interested public. In addition to delivering a lecture, the invited scholar will spend time with faculty and students at William & Mary. Mike’s gift in support of this series is a great example of how individual donors can support the OI’s mission of furthering excellence in early American scholarship.

The inaugural McGiffert lecturer is Lester J. Cappon Award winner Sarah Barringer (Sally) Gordon, who will give a talk titled “The First Wall of Separation between Church and State: Slavery and Disestablishment in Late Eighteenth-Century Virginia.” Professor Gordon is also a member of the OI’s Council. She is the Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies the legal history of religion in America, especially the history of constitutional protections of religious liberty and separation of church and state. Her first book, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, 2002), was followed by The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America (Cambridge, MA, 2010). She is currently at work on a study of separation of church and state from independence through Reconstruction titled “Freedom’s Holy Light: Disestablishment in America, 1776–1876.” Her lecture will draw from that project, and is designed to revisit and revise long-accepted narratives of how separation of church and state became politically popular in 1780s.

I look forward to welcoming old friends and new to the McGiffert Lecture on October 4th, and to these opportunities for sustained intellectual engagement for many years to come.

No reservation is required to attend the lecture and reception in Blow Hall 201 at William & Mary and all are invited. Contact Martha Howard at or 757-221-1115 if you have additional questions.

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