Professor Downs studies the political and cultural history of the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Particularly, he investigates the transformative impact of the Civil War in the end of slavery and the establishment of new meanings of freedom. His first monograph, Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 was published by University of North Carolina Press in 2011, and examined the wartime creation of fantastic views of government among black and white Americans whose hopes for a state that could deliver them from want helped fashion an eccentric, but powerful post-bellum popular politics rooted in claims of friendship between politicians and the masses. The book was a Choice Outstanding Academic Title.
Downs's new book, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War
examines the immediate period after Confederate surrender as an extension of wartime and through the lens of occupation, as the U.S. Army sought to remake life on the ground through alliances with organized freedpeople and against the ongoing resistance of ex-Confederates. The book was published in April 2015 by Harvard University Press. With the support of the University of Georgia and the American Council of Learned Societies, Downs and Scott Nesbit produced an interactive digital history of occupation during Reconstruction, Mapping Occupation
. He also wrote about the occupation and the public memory of Reconstruction in an op-ed for the New York Times
With Kate Masur, Downs has co-edited a scholarly and a public history volume that seeks to recenter debates about the post-War United States. Their co-edited scholarly volume, The World the War Made
, grew from a conference
at Penn State's George and Ann Richards Civil War Center they co-organized. They previewed some of their arguments about the future direction of Reconstruction and historiography in the Civil War Book Review
Additionally, Downs and Masur helped the National Parks Service put together a public history handbook on Reconstruction to be sold at National Park Service sites that relate to Reconstruction, as part of an effort to educate parkgoers and other members of the public about the period. It is forthcoming from Eastern National Publishing in Fall 2015. They are currently co-writing a National Historic Landmark Theme Study on Reconstruction for the Park Service. This effort has been highlighted in The Atlantic
and the New York Times.
In 2016 Downs will deliver the Brose Lectures at Penn State University's Richards Civil War Era Center on the U.S. Civil War as part of an international revolutionary wave that ran from Spain and Cuba in the 1850s through the U.S. and Mexico in the late 1850s-1860s and back to Spain and Cuba in the late 1860s/1870s. By placing the U.S. Civil War in this international context, these lectures will embed the arguments in the United States in broader currents in liberalism, anti-slavery, and republicanism. The lectures will then be published as a book in the University of North Carolina's Brose Lecture Series.
A recipient of an NEH Award for Faculty, an ACLS Digital Innovation Grant, an NEH Summer Stipend, a Mellon Foundation fellowship, a Josephine DeKarman Fellowship and numerous other grants and fellowships, Downs co-organized Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center conference on Beyond Freedom: New Directions in Emancipation in November 2011.
He is also interested in the relationship between intellectual history, political history, and race, and his article on social evolution and the growth of Jim Crow White Supremacy, "'University Men,' Social Science, and White Supremacy in North Carolina," was published in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Southern History. His reviews and review essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Reviews in American History, Journal of Southern History, International Labor and Working Class History, H-South and other venues. Downs has also published essays and editorials in the New York Times Room for Debate series, New York Times Disunion series, on History News Network, and in the Raleigh News & Observer, and he has been featured in the New York Times, NPR's The Takeaway, NPR's Backstory, The History Channel, the New York Daily News, The Daily, Al-Jazeera America, and C-SPAN, among other outlets.
Trained at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Downs is also a fiction writer. His first book of short stories, Spit Baths, won the Flannery O’Connor Award and was published in October 2006 by the University of Georgia Press and has been called "masterful," "rich",and "mesmerizing," by the Philadelphia Inquirer, "one of the most entertaining books of short stories in a long time," by the Lexington Herald-Leader, and a "founding myth for a racially integrated South" by the San Francisco Chronicle. For his fiction, Downs was awarded the James Michener/Copernicus Society of America Award from the Iowa Writers' Workshop.