The Author’s Corner with Sean P. Harvey

Sean Harvey is Assistant Professor of History at Seton Hall University. This interview is based on his new book Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation (Harvard University Press, January 2015).

JF: What led you to write Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation?

SH: I started out intending to write an intellectual biography of Albert Gallatin, a figure prominent in the political and diplomatic history of the early republic. Inspired by Drew McCoy’s Last of the Fathers, I chose to begin my research with his retirement, by which time Gallatin had become a prominent ethnologist, so I started with his extensive correspondence with a prominent philologist, Peter S. Du Ponceau. Every letter I read seemed to prompt a dozen new questions, but I was not finding satisfying answers in the existing secondary literature to a couple of the most important ones: what role, if any, did knowledge about Native languages play in U.S. colonialism, and what place, if any, did that knowledge have in developing notions of race. Gallatin quickly became but one part in a study that centered those questions.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation?

SH: Native Tongues argues that knowledge of Native languages played a crucial role in several distinct facets of colonialism, including trade, missionary work, diplomacy, and administration, and that understandings of Native languages—among scholars, missionaries, officials, and the broader public—was central to the construction of savagery as a concept that justified dispossession, removal, confinement, and efforts toward cultural (including linguistic) eradication. Assumptions about language reflecting and perhaps shaping thought and about similarities in sounds, words, and grammatical forms indicating the shared ancestry of speakers, in turn, gave rise after 1820 to a racialized conception of Native languages that fused psychology and descent, but which gradually fragmented in the face of physical ethnologists’ sustained criticisms and philologists’ increasing understanding of the cultural divergence among speakers of related languages.

JF: Why do we need to read Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation?

SH: I think Native Tongues makes three important contributions. First, it adds to our understanding of the ways in which notions of race, especially those directed at Indians, were built upon far more than phenotype. Second, it traces the interconnections between missionaries, private scholars, learned societies, and federal officials and agencies in creating and using knowledge of Native languages for the administration of colonialism. Third, it highlights the centrality of Native people (as tutors and as philologists in their own right) to whites’ knowledge of Native languages and, thus, to the production of knowledge about race.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SH: I realized that I loved American history while I was an undergrad at Villanova, and I realized how fun it was to do history when I had the opportunity to look at Philadelphia newspapers from the 1790s: everything from the crumbling paper to the overheated charges hooked me. I didn’t realize what it would actually mean to be a historian, however, until I began my graduate training at William & Mary. Through the mentorship of teachers and peers, I came to learn that the archives are filled with subject matter that is intrinsically interesting and that the field is filled with people engaged in fascinating and important conversations that help us understand the past as it was and the world as it is now. I wanted to be a part of that.

JF: What is your next project? 
SH: After I finish an article on Native understandings of linguistic relationships in eastern North America, I will return to what I had originally intended to research: Albert Gallatin and his several milieus. He was a Genevan immigrant who rose to prominence as legislator, Treasury secretary, U.S. minister in Paris, leading New York banker, and prominent ethnologist. A project that uses his life as a pivot to center an examination of his political and financial friendships, social circles, and scholarly communities—in Geneva, western Pennsylvania, the federal city, Ghent, Paris, and New York City—offers an unrivalled opportunity to integrate Atlantic and continental perspectives on the U.S. early republic while exploring the circulation of diverse ideas and varied forms of private and public action in political, economic, and cultural life too seldom examined in light of one another.
JF: Can’t wait to hear about it. Thanks Sean!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

2 thoughts on “The Author’s Corner with Sean P. Harvey

  1. If I understand the premise properly, this is an interesting way to think about race relations in America and the world today – obviously a very important and relevant topic. I am glad that we have people that are willing and able to do and share this research. I am hopeful it helps us understand who we all are as people and how we treat each other and why that is. I hope to read it soon.


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