Tamara Plakins Thornton


Tamara Thornton Photo.

Tamara Plakins Thornton


Tamara Plakins Thornton



19th century United States History; Early American History; Social and Cultural History; Intellectual History; History of Medicine, Disability and Science


  • PhD, Yale, 1987
  • AB, Harvard, 1978

Courses Regularly Taught

HIS 161: U.S. to 1877
HIS 216: Crime and Punishment in America
HIS 348: Learning, Science, and the Arts in America
HIS 361/62: American Cultural and Intellectual History I and II
HIS 429: American Landscape History
HIS 497: Honors Research Seminar
HIS 537: Readings in American Cultural History
HIS 551: Intellectual Life in America
HIS 576: American History Core I

Research Interests

American cultural and intellectual history; early republic and antebellum America; capitalist culture; American elites; history of reading and writing; the structure of intellectual life; history of American science.

Current Research

The quantitative sciences; the histories of capitalism, bureaucracy, and information in 19th-century America; mathematical geography, terrestrial and celestial globes, and global thinking in early America.  

Selected Publications

Mathematical Geography, the “Use of the Globes,” and Race Theory in Early America,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d. ser., 77 (Apr. 2020): 273-310

Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life (University of North Carolina Press, 2016)

“Capitalist Aesthetics: Americans Look at the London and Liverpool Docks,” in Capitalism Takes Command: The Social Transformation of Nineteenth-Century America, eds. Michael Zakim and Gary J. Kornblith (University of Chicago Press, 2012): 169-98.

“‘A Great Machine’ or a ‘Beast of Prey’: A Boston Corporation and Its Rural Debtors in an Age of Capitalist Transformation,” Journal of the Early Republic, 27.4 (Winter 2007): 567-97.

“Deviance, Dominance and the Construction of Handedness in Turn-of-the-Century Anglo-America,” in Moral Problems in American Life, Karen Halttunen and Lewis Perry, eds., (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

Handwriting in America: A Cultural History ( Yale University Press, 1996)

Cultivating Gentlemen: The Meaning of Country Life among the Boston Elite, 1785-1860 (Yale University Press, 1989)

Awards and Fellowships

  • 2021: American Antiquarian Society-National Endowment for the Humanities Long-Term Fellowship
  • 2020: Exceptional Scholar - Sustained Achievement Award, SUNY, Buffalo
  • 2017: Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize, Massachusetts Historical Society 
  • 2017: Finalist, New England Society Book Award, New England Society in the City of New York
  • 2016: John Lyman Book Award, North American Society for Oceanic History
  • 2008: Ralph D. Gray Article Prize, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR)
  • 2001: Milton Plesur Excellence in Teaching Award
  • 1993-94: National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship