FSU historian leaves a lasting legacy on the study of colonial, revolutionary America

| Fri, 04/26/24
Ed Gray
Florida State University Professor of History Ed Gray. Courtesy photo.

When we think of the disruption cryptocurrency has on today’s monetary system, historians can tell us that America has seen this before.

Florida State University Professor of History Ed Gray’s scholarly work revealed that Benjamin Franklin, founding father and an innovator in the world of currency politics, experienced challenges from and dismissal by leaders at the time, as he attempted to steer the monetary environment of 18th century America toward use of printed money.

“Franklin was an adamant and vigorous promoter of printed paper money, an unpopular position at the time in colonies that had grown comfortable using their own coin currency,” Gray said, in a 2022 interview. “This would be like promoting cryptocurrency today — a lot of people rolled their eyes and were skeptical that this is some new-fangled nonsense, and we need to nip it in the bud because it’s going to cause all kinds of problems.”

Much of what we know about how the founding fathers’ thoughts and policies impact life in present-day America comes from the work done by historians like Gray. His decades of research and publications on topics touched on how ordinary people’s ideas circulated, gained traction, and shaped social and political discourses, economies, and infrastructures throughout American history. This research informs modern-day leaders as they make the decisions that will form the next act in American history.

Gray, who passed away suddenly in December 2023, left a legacy in progress that inspired all who came across his work, from students to colleagues. His body of work will be celebrated in Tallahassee this weekend during Word of South, an annual festival of literature and music, with a panel featuring Jennifer Portman, managing editor for national news at USA TODAY; Jane Kamensky, a leading American historian and president of Monticello/The Thomas Jefferson Foundation; and Gray’s FSU colleague Katherine Mooney, James P. Jones associate professor of history.

“Ed didn’t just produce scholarship; he produced superb work that drew national attention,” Mooney said. “His particular work required being able to see how very small, even mundane, details can have telling political and social significance. Very few people have ever done it as well as Ed did, and his work will remain an example for years to come.”

Gray joined FSU’s faculty in 1998 after earning his Ph.D. from Brown University in 1996. His early research interests centered on how nations and empires shape themselves and function on the ground and, subsequently, what it was like for societies to live with the consequences of those processes. He spent most of his professional teaching and administrative career at FSU, including service as department chair from 2013 to 2022, and here focused on colonial and revolutionary era-U.S. history, from European contact with early America in the latter part of the 16th century through the early 19th century.

More recently, his research began covering modern American history, including the Civil War.

In his 2023 book, “Mason-Dixon: Crucible of the Nation,” Gray compiled the first comprehensive history of the Mason-Dixon line and offered a field-altering way of viewing the evolution of the United States from an imperial backwater to a nation torn apart by slavery and civil war. In the pre-Civil War period, the Mason-Dixon line was considered the dividing line between slave-owning states of the South and free-soil states of the North.

For Scott Craig, a two-time FSU alumnus who earned his master’s degree in history in 2010 and doctorate in 2014, both under Gray’s guidance, Gray’s work served as a solid foundation for a future: Craig now works as an adjunct professor of history at Central Texas College and conducts field work in Australia to study Britain’s exile of convicted felons to America and Australia during the colonial period.

“Ed’s work largely influenced me because he wasn’t afraid to study beyond the scope of traditional borders,” Craig said. “He had a strong interest in what was going on in the Pacific in the 18th century and showed how these developments could be linked with broader imperial projects. My work built on this perspective by examining how Britain was able to colonize parts of the world by exiling convicts to use as laborers to build new settlements overseas.”

Gray consistently earned accolades and prestigious fellowships during his time in the field, including from the American Philosophical Society, which was founded by Franklin and is the country’s oldest learned society, and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Public Scholars Program. He was one of only two professors selected to receive the American Philosophical Society-National Endowment for the Humanities Sabbatical Fellowship in 2022-23 for his project, “Benjamin Franklin’s Money: A Financial Life of the First American.” Gray was also a member of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic.

In 2014, Gray earned a Fulbright Distinguished Teaching Award from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to teach, lecture, and research in Japan for a semester. In 2007, he was named the Top Young Historian by History News Network. In 2006, he was elected a member of the American Antiquitarian Society. Gray also served on more than 20 doctoral committees from 2001 to 2020, three of which he chaired.

“He was an excellent major professor, showing his students how to succeed by exemplifying what a successful historian looked like both in seminar and at conferences,” Craig said. “He would look at an individual or an object and reveal something so broadly important that you couldn’t believe it was possible from such a narrow starting point. In this regard, his work serves not only as an example of outstanding historical scholarship but also remarkable storytelling.”

In addition to his most recent, and highly-acclaimed, publication, Gray published three other major books exploring new paths in early American history. “New World Babel” was published in 1999, “The Making of John Ledyard” published in 2007, and “Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge” in 2016. He also served as co-editor, with Kamensky, of a keystone historical handbook, the “Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution” and editor of “Common-Place,” a pioneering online journal of early American culture.

“Ed’s curiosity was one of his most impressive academic qualities, and his work will always resonate with inquisitive minds,” said Jennifer Koslow, a professor of history and Gray’s successor as department chair. “His questions always made you re-examine what you took for granted. While the FSU Department of History has a strength in studies of the Age of Revolution, nobody did what Ed did. His work linked together so many others’ work in his topics and approaches that will remain relevant for generations.”  

To learn more about the Department of History at FSU, visit history.fsu.edu.