Thoughts on Daniel Feller’s plenary address at SHEAR 2020

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I finally got around to watching Daniel Feller‘s lecture on Andrew Jackson in the age of Trump at this year’s virtual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. You can watch it here and decide what you think about it. (You can also watch it here). Several of you have now asked me to comment.

Historians on Twitter are very upset about the session. There seem to be four related criticisms. First, many are angry because Feller failed to say more about Jackson’s racism, especially as related to Indian removal. One key issue was Feller’s refusal to describe the Indian removal as “genocide.” Second, some are angry that SHEAR did not invite younger scholars–especially those who study race and Native American history–to participate in the session. Such scholars, they argue, would have brought more complexity and diversity to this scholarly debate. Third, Feller took some shots at other historians. Fourth, Feller used a racial slur during the Q&A session.

You can read their takes at #SHEAR2020.

The participants were:

Daniel Feller, Director of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee

David Waldstreicher, City University of New York

Jeanne Heidler, U.S. Air Force Academy

David Heidler, U.S. Air Force Academy

Harry Watson, University of North Carolina

Jessica Lepler, University of New Hampshire

Thoughts:

  • I loved the session. Feller made a forceful argument. I thought the session was a model of what good academic debate should look like. As someone who has been teaching Andrew Jackson at the survey and upper-division level for twenty years, and also wrote about Trump’s use of Jackson in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I learned a great deal from Feller’s paper. The commentators made me think in different ways about Jackson and his comparison to Donald Trump. I want to thank SHEAR for hosting it.
  • On Feller’s use of the racial slur that was formerly associated with Washington’s NFL team, I agree with Journal of the Early Republic editor Andrew Shankman’s take. Shankman writes: “We all encounter this language in our sources.  We all struggle with how to bring students and colleagues to this work without normalizing and prolonging categories and terms that have justified, and continue to justify, violence and contempt, and that seek to deny full and equal membership in a loving community.  In my view, knowing that many people feel pain when they hear words that force them to recall wrongs done to them and those they cherish, and to recall them not at a time of their own choosing, is reason never to use such words.” I will leave it there.
  • There are several historians who offered useful criticism of Feller on Twitter. This is good. For example, I learned a lot from Becky Goetz’s long twitter thread and I jotted down a few titles for future reading. This is historical twitter at its best. (Although I also felt that Goetz was asking Feller to do a lot in a short paper).
  • On the other hand,  if you want to see how the historical profession deals with legitimate scholars who have dissenting views, read the tweets at #SHEAR2020. It’s not pretty.
  • There are some historians who attack SHEAR for simply allowing Feller to speak. They are calling his lecture a “disaster” and a “debacle.” Let’s remember that Feller is no slouch. He has spent his entire life studying Andrew Jackson. But some seem to suggest that his views are so out of bounds that they do not belong in the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic. Others are “disappointed” in SHEAR. Disappointed? I wish there were more sessions like this. I thought it raised some great questions about historical method and how to balance the usefulness of the past with the notion that the past is a “foreign country.” (I actually wrote about this earlier today). I might use this in class.
  • Some historians on Twitter are saying that Feller does not give credit to younger scholars working on Jackson, race, and Indian removal. This is true. SHEAR should have brought some of these younger scholars into the conversation. This was a failure on their part. It is possible that Feller has read the scholarship of younger academics and simply does not find it compelling. There is nothing wrong with this. But let’s have some of these other scholars present to debate.
  • Many historians are questioning whether or not they will continue their membership in SHEAR because Feller was permitted to speak. If I were a member of SHEAR (I let my membership lapse years ago, but still occasionally attend the conference and write for the Panorama when asked) I would consider dropping my membership based on how Feller was treated by some SHEAR members on Twitter. (For the record, I have never met or corresponded with Feller). Of course we should feel free to disagree with Feller and express that on social media. I didn’t agree with some things he said either. But this cancel culture has to stop. Feller is no David Barton or Howard Zinn–writers who use the past for the sole purpose of promoting political agendas.
  • As I mentioned above, only about one-third of Feller’s presentation dealt with Indian removal. I know that race is an important topic right now, and it deserves the attention it is getting in the wake of the George Floyd murder and the ongoing discussion on monuments, but there are other categories of analysis. Feller made this point during the Q&A and I think he is correct. I appreciated Feller’s attempt to situate Jackson’s Indian removal policy within his entire presidency and point out that this moment was not the only thing that defined him. Also, this paper was about Trump’s use of Jackson. It was not a scholarly paper on Indian removal. The argument that more scholars of native American history should have been invited is fair, but it only goes so far since Feller’s paper was not devoted exclusively to Indian removal.
  • Feller’s criticism of Joyce Chaplin went too far when he suggested that she was incompetent. It also seemed to be a shot at “cosmopolitan” Cambridge from the Knoxville backcountry–a very Jacksonian move. On the other hand, if the editor of the Papers of Andrew Jackson criticizes a historian who is not a Jackson scholar we should probably not dismiss such criticism out of hand.
  • Historian Doug Egerton, the president of SHEAR, responded to the criticism of the panel with this letter. I thought it was a fair letter.