Jon Wells is a social, cultural, and intellectual historian interested in the literary, cultural, and political evolution of nineteenth-century America. He is the author or editor of ten books and has been invited to present his work to audiences across the US and internationally. He delivered the 2017 Lamar Lectures at Mercer University on the coming of the Civil War.
Wells’s first book, The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 1800-1861 (UNC Press, 2004), examined the fluid movement of ideas, literature, and people back and forth across the Mason-Dixon Line, a previously unexplored facet of early America that facilitated the emergence of a professional and merchant class amidst slavery. This monograph, the first to challenge the notion that class divisions and capitalism defined the South only after slavery had been abolished, shifted a long-standing paradigm in the history of antebellum America. This interest in the relationship between slavery and capitalism has led Wells to a new and exciting book project on self-emancipated African Americans (and the slavecatchers who pursued them) who straddled the thin line between slavery and freedom in the antebellum North. Titled The New York Kidnapping Club, this new book will explore the complicated ways in which ideas about enslavement and freedom competed for public support in northern communities like New York, debates that profoundly shaped politics and culture in the North and the coming of the Civil War. Finally Wells is also the previous editor of The Journal of the Early Republic, is currently the president of the Organization for the Study of Southern Economy, Culture, and Society, and has served a range of colleges and universities in administrative capacities.