*The New York Times* covers the “clash of the historians” at SHEAR


Jennifer Schuessler has written a fair report on what happened last weekend during (and following) the Society for Historians of the Early Republic (SHEAR) ZOOM panel titled “Andrew Jackson in the Age of Trump.”

Schuessler quotes from the second blog post I wrote about the session and its aftermath. (I did not speak with her). I also invite you to read my initial response to the panel here. I am returning to the topic now because my message boxes are starting to fill again.

Anyone who has followed the SHEAR controversy will be familiar with much of Schuessler’s piece, but she has also done some additional reporting, including an interview with Dan Feller.

Here is a taste:

In an interview, Mr. Feller, 69, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said it wasn’t the historian’s job to defend or condemn. What he questioned, he said, was the insistence on seeing Jackson purely as someone “who just wanted to kill everybody,” as well as what he sees as a politicized approach to writing history.

“The point in the paper is not that Andrew Jackson is a good guy or a bad guy,” Mr. Feller, who called himself a lifelong Democrat, said. “But because both sides have identified him with Trump, for opposite reasons, we are now reading Jackson through the lens of Trump.”

And he was unapologetic about the panel, which he noted had been approved by the society’s programming committee and Mr. Egerton last fall, as one of 39 at a planned conference. (The others have been postponed until next summer.) The paper had been circulated weeks in advance, he said, adding that he had received no criticism before the panel.

As for his use of the phrase “redcoats and redskins,” he said it was a reference to a common phrase in older scholarship, and had “implied quotation marks” around it. “I have never volitionally used the word ‘redskin’ in my life, period,” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

After reading Schuessler’s piece, re-reading Feller’s paper (including a close reading of the footnotes), and listening to the Q&A for the third time, I honestly don’t see why what happened at this session merited the removal of the SHEAR president and such a backlash.

  1. I did not see Feller trying to defend Jackson, as some have accused him of doing. It seemed like he was trying to understand him, which is what historians are supposed to do. As Feller writes, “The point in the paper is not that Andrew Jackson is a good guy or a bad guy….”
  2. For example, Jackson was indeed a white supremacist. But isn’t it possible that Jackson understood the status of Lyncoya differently than he did his Black slaves? Is it wrong for a historian to suggest this kind of complexity? If such nuance existed in Jackson’s mind, then shouldn’t the historian call attention to it? Or are such arguments now out of bounds?
  3. If Feller doesn’t believe that Jackson’s Indian Removal was “genocide,” should such a view result in a public condemnation by the SHEAR Advisory Council, the SHEAR Nominating Committee, or the SHEAR Program Committee? Isn’t this a matter of interpretation?
  4. If Feller argues that Jackson’s use of the word “pet” to describe Lyncoya is more complicated than what a few younger scholars have suggested, does that merit the kind of trash talking directed at him on Twitter and the public shaming of the man? I imagine that the public shaming will be a lot worse now that The New York Times has covered this.
  5. Was Feller dismissive of younger scholars and women scholars? Well, he was certainly hard on them. But he also disagreed with their interpretations. It appears that he read the work of these scholars and found them wanting. Where then do we draw the line between “disagree” and “dismiss?” If Feller had disagreed with these scholars more politely would that have been okay? Or is Feller being condemned simply because he disagrees with female and junior scholars? If the latter is the case, then I see this as a problem. If we are trying to find out what is true about Andrew Jackson, and the leading authority on the subject has a different opinion than junior scholars, shouldn’t his views be taken seriously?
  6. Of course it is also essential for senior scholars to treat other people–especially junior members of the field– fairly and respectfully. If members of SHEAR feel marginalized we should take their voices seriously and listen. As a white male, I have learned a lot of hard lessons on this front, especially in my own academic institution. Indeed, SHEAR has always been an old boys network. This needs to change and it is changing. Feller was a lot harder on younger scholars than I would have been, but I am not sure that this rises to the level of demonizing him and ousting the organization’s president.
  7. In my opinion, the entire point of historical scholarship is to make an argument based on the rigorous reading of the evidence. Historians will disagree on how to read such evidence. Sometimes newer scholars will challenge long-established scholarly orthodoxy and in the process give us a better understanding of what happened in the past. But just because an argument is new doesn’t mean we have to automatically accept it. Of course many who believe that scholarship should always be progressing onward and upward, leaving all older interpretations behind in a manner that C.S. Lewis described as “chronological snobbery,” will disagree with me here. And that’s OK. But let’s debate and exchange ideas instead of turning out the mob. As Johann Neem wrote yesterday, we need more and and a little less or.
  8. Of course any such debate must take place with charity and a sense of intellectual hospitality. This is a lesson for Feller, Twitterstorians, the SHEAR leadership, and all of us in the academic profession.
  9. Feller told Jennifer Schuessler that the use of a racial slur at the end of the Q&A was meant with “implied quotation marks.” This is what it sounded like to me as well. Those final couple of minutes were very confusing, but I will once again refer to the last paragraph of Andy Shankman’s response to the plenary session. It seems that both Feller and Harry Watson were familiar with this phrase and were using it in their discussion of the “slaughtering” of British soldiers (“redcoats”) at the Battle of New Orleans. Feller was trying to make a point about Jackson as a general in the War of 1812. He only used this phrase because he thought one of the panelists had said it earlier.

As some of you know, I have also written on Trump’s use of Jackson, particularly in the context of white evangelical support for Trump in 2016.

This then leads me to the quotation that Schuessler pulled from the blog:

The SHEAR debacle has very little to do with history and a whole lot to do about politics. This is why many Americans–including the thousands of people I engage with on a daily basis– don’t trust us and our scholarship.

On the first sentence of the quote:

As I noted above, it seems as if SHEAR has decided that certain approaches to historical scholarship are unacceptable. Current president Amy Greenberg is quoted in the piece. She says that Feller’s paper does not representative SHEAR’s “standards of scholarship.” I am surprised by this. I thought Feller’s paper was an excellent piece of scholarship. Of course it is SHEAR’s prerogative to draw its own boundaries, but this seems like political censorship to me.

A quick word about my use of “political” here.  All historical scholarship is political. I will be the first to argue that our social and cultural location in the present shapes how we view the past.  As David Novick reminded us several decades ago, “objectivity” is a “noble dream.”

But when I said that this was all “about politics” I was talking about SHEAR as a professional organization. In any professional organization, those in power decide what arguments are acceptable and unacceptable. Since every member of the Advisory Board, Nominating Board, and Program Committee agreed on the decision to condemn Feller and oust Doug Egerton, and I have heard privately from dozens of SHEAR members who disagree with one or both of these decisions, it tells me that this was a political power play, whether the leadership of SHEAR understands it that way or not.

CORRECTION (July 28, 2020): It has come to my attention that the Advisory Council of SHEAR never took a position on condemning Feller and has not done so.  Moreover, the Ex Officio (and voting) members of the Advisory Council did not sign the letter calling for Egerton’s ouster. This latter point is explained in a statement from current SHEAR president Amy Greenberg).

And now on to the last line of the quote.

I have spent much of my career trying to bridge the gap between the work of professional historians and the public. I spend a lot of time talking to history teachers. I also train 7-12th grade history teachers.

I also speak and write to evangelical Christians, a group with a long history of anti-intellectualism that desperately needs to think more deeply about American history as it relates to race, gender, and the relationship between church and state. (For example, if you read this blog, you know I have been working hard to teach my audience that systemic racism is a real thing). The number of negative messages I received from SHEAR members and other scholars this week pales in comparison to the number of e-mails I get each week from those who attack me from the Right or question my religious faith.

When I started this blog I made a commitment to entering the fray. As I wrote at The Panorama in late 2019, this kind of work is not for the faint of heart. I’d like to think I have remained consistent in my convictions throughout it all. Or at least I have tried.

I got into this mess (or as Frank Cogliano and David Silkenat called it “SHEAR MADNESS“) because at least ten of my readers asked me to comment and help them make sense of what was going on. They watched it all unfold on Twitter and were left with many questions about Andrew Jackson, Trump’s use of Jackson, slavery, public discourse, and the nature of the historical profession. Many of my readers love history and think it is important, but they come from all political stripes. A lot of them–liberals and conservatives– don’t trust academics because they seem to sing only one political note.

Finally, let’s put things in perspective. Let’s remember that while SHEAR is cleaning house and marking boundaries, there are millions of people deciding right now whether they will pull a lever for Donald Trump in November. They are listening to the very bad historical arguments about “Making America Great Again” emanating every day from their car radios and computer screens. They are having history-based debates with their families and friends. They are trying to make sense of the American founding and how it relates to our current political moment. They want to know what to say at a town hall meeting devoted to tearing down a monument or renaming a school. They are trying to use history to build community in the places where they live, work, and have their being.

There are K-12 teachers who need help trying to figure out what to do with the 1619 Project, how to talk to parents about what should and should not be happening in a history classroom, or how to start a conversation with students about race in America. Some are just trying to defend the study of history against school boards intent on giving it short shrift in the curriculum.

There are parents asking about what kind of materials to use as they try to teach history to kids who may not be going back to school in the Fall due to COVID-19. They want to know if there are one or two books they can read that will help them.

While some historians are on Twitter bashing Dan Feller, there are history professors standing face-to-face with white supremacists at Civil War battle sites trying to convince them the war was about slavery. Others are fighting for their professional lives because their administrations are cutting tenured faculty.

I know these people exist because they have reached-out to me (or I have reached-out to them) in one way or another over the course of the last few months. As an educator–both in the classroom, the church, and online–I have worked hard to build their trust.

I hope those who remain in SHEAR will strive to develop a professional society that celebrates diversity, lifts up the voices of  junior scholars and graduate students, respects the work of seasoned members of the profession, embraces honest debate and conversation, and tries to reach as many people as possible with good early American history.