The Author’s Corner With Matthew Clavin

ClavinMatthew Clavin is Professor of History at the University of Houston.  This interview is based on his new book The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community (New York University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: I am captivated by stories of extraordinary slave resistance that have for a variety of reasons been largely forgotten. Historians have known about Negro Fort for a long time, but I wanted to bring the story of its rise and fall to a wide audience. More than ever, it is vitally important for professional historians to communicate directly with the general public, especially regarding the long and complicated history of race and racism both in the United States and the world.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: The Battle of Negro Fort marked a significant moment in early American history. By destroying a fugitive slave community in a foreign territory for the first and only time in its history, the United States government accelerated its transformation into a white republic, which served both the interests and the ideology of an emerging Slave Power.

JF: Why do we need to read The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: The demonization of people of color on the opposite side of the United States’ southern border is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, American citizens and officials have long referred to these people as murderers, savages, and the like to score political points and secure what they considered important public policy. Following the War of 1812, slavery’s proponents depicted Negro Fort as an existential threat to the southern frontier. Eventually, they were able to convince the federal government to launch an illegal invasion of Spanish Florida to kill or capture the fort’s black inhabitants. The Battle of Negro Fort illuminates how—and why—in the four decades since the Declaration of Independence, much of the American republic’s ambivalence over the institution of slavery had disappeared.

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

MC: Since I was little, I have always been fascinated with the history of race and racism. While writing my senior thesis in college on nonviolent direct action and the Civil Rights Movement, I first considered the idea of research and writing history professionally. It wasn’t long after turning in that paper that I decided that I had to become an historian. A lot of people told me that I could never be a historian. I am so glad I did not listen to them.  

JF: What is your next project?

MC: I am currently writing a book that examines the intersection of slavery, anti-slavery, and nationalism in the United States in the decades before the Civil War. The goal is to show just how much love of the American nation justified and inspired revolutionary slave resistance.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

An Interview with the Editors of the *Journal of the Early Republic*

JEROver at The Panorama, Will Mackintosh interviews Andy Shankman and David Waldstreicher, the new editors of the Journal of the Early Republic.

Here is a taste:

Will: What are some of your plans for your editorial tenure at the Journal of the Early Republic?

Andy: Above all stewardship (which is an idea I’ve stolen from David) because I think the journal is in such great shape and has had such an impressive run of editors. So above all, I hope to do no harm. I’d like to involve the SHEAR community in helping us to think about special issues on topics that a large portion of our readers would like to see. For me, the core mission of the journal is to publish excellent original research drawn primarily from primary sources. But I also feel that we’ve never produced more high-quality scholarship at a greater (even overwhelming) rate than we are right now. I want to think about ways the JER might help us to attempt some broad, synthetic thinking, and perhaps get scholars of different generations and scholarly focuses talking to each other. So many people are asking so many critical questions now about the nation’s origins—about race and slavery, gender relations, the role and nature of the state at all levels, about how all of that relates to capitalism and political economy, about the need to bring together historiographies about institutions, cultural and social relations and constructions, political though,t etc., scholarships that haven’t always engaged with each other as much as they might—it’s a tremendously exciting time to be a student of the early American republic, and I want to think about ways in which the JER can continue to capture and convey that excitement.

David: Doug Bradburn buttonholed me with this same question at SHEAR in Baltimore when I took over in 2012 and I answered in one word: stewardship. (I’m still wondering if he was disappointed.) The job of the editor is to get the best possible work in all subfields into the journal. Articles should be timely in the sense of speaking to matters of current interest to historians, but it is even more important that articles should be built to last a long time, to be resources for historians in all fields and for others who will be interested in we know not what in 10 or 20 or 50 years (witness the renewed fascination with aspects of economic and diplomatic history, utterly unpredicted when I was in grad school). Sooner or later, anything may become timely again. Journal editing is about creating and spreading brand new discoveries and interpretations but also about archiving original research it so it is there to be more easily found later when it is needed. But perhaps most of all, regardless of whether one focuses on the short or long term of scholarship in our field, the number one job of the editors is to draw on whatever expertise we can muster, including especially the readers who graciously review manuscripts for us, to make every piece that passes through our hands (or now, screens) better whether we publish it or not.

Read the entire interview here.

The Erie Canal: Religion and America’s “First Great Social Space”

Erie

Lockport, NY on the Erie Canal, 1839 (Wikipedia Commons)

In The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society I wrote about the way the ABS used water as a metaphor to describe its work during the early 19th century:

The ABS owed owed much of its distribution success to burgeoning American infrastructure.  The construction of the Erie Canal and other canals reduced by months the time it took to send Bibles from New York to growing river and lake cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis.  ABS packages traveled down the Ohio or Mississippi and along the tributaries extending from these mighty rivers.  A representative from the Pittsburgh Bible Society described ABS packages as floating “messengers of salvation,” making visits to the “huts of the poor and destitute” on the frontier.  Fitting with a nation committed to building itself through travel across rivers, lakes, and canals, the ABS and its auxiliaries often used water metaphors to describe the distribution process.  The Bible traveled along “little streams” that flowed into the “mighty river” of the Christian nation that the ABS hoped to forge.  The distribution of the Bible was like the opening of a great “flood gate” that poured through the “arid regions” of the country, serving as a “streamlet to water every plant.”  The managers of the Indiana Bible Society, using a passage from the Book of Ezekiel, described the process of distribution as “Holy Water” issued from the “Sanctuary” that “spread wide and flowed deep, and all things lived wheresoever the waters came.” Both literally and figuratively, the ABS was using water to link remote and scattered settlements into a Bible nation.

A few years before I started working on The Bible Cause, I was asked to appear on a radio show to talk about the relationship between early American religion and the Erie Canal. I declined the offer.  I was busy at the time and I did not think I had much to say on the subject.  When they asked me if I knew of anyone else who might be qualified to appear on the program I wish I knew about the work of S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate.

Check out the Hamilton College religious studies professor’s recent piece at Religion News Service, “The Eric Canal and the birth of American Religion.”

Here is a taste:

The first great social space in the United States was not Boston Common, William Penn’s Philadelphia squares or L’Enfant’s great avenues of Washington, D.C.

It was an artificial river, 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, cutting across New York state.

Like the Silk Road in Asia, the Erie Canal not only established physical links across geographic regions, it also remade the social and religious lives of everyone it touched.

Albany newspapers, Genesee flour, Syracuse salt and Western timber traveled on the canal alongside theater groups, former slaves, tourists, industrialists and religious revivalists. This “one thronged street, from Buffalo to Albany,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne phrased it, exceeded its transportation uses to become an empire builder, a political-economic superpower that was inextricable from a spiritual empire.

Physical work on the Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817, when upstate New York was one vast wilderness in the eye of the young nation. Within three decades of its opening this “psychic highway” cultivated experimental spiritual groups, including the Mormons, the Adventists, spiritualists, followers of a revived apocalypticism and utopian communal societies such as the Oneida Community, with the Amana Colony and the Shakers passing through. The emotion-laden revivals of the Second Great Awakening also ignited along the way, giving rise to the evangelicalism that we know today.

Read the entire piece here.

The Press Was More Political In Jefferson’s Day Than It Is Today. Yet He Defended It.

pasleyEarlier today, while speaking to a crowd in Florida, Donald Trump referenced Thomas Jefferson in a rant condemning the press and the media.  Here is what he said:

I also want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news. The dishonest media which has published one false story after another with no sources, even though they pretend they have them, they make them up in many cases, they just don’t want to report the truth and they’ve been calling us wrong now for two years. They don’t get it. By they’re starting to get it. I can tell you that. They’ve become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln and many of our greatest presidents fought with the media and called them out often times on their lies. When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it. I will do whatever I can that. They don’t get away with it.

They have their own agenda and their agenda is not your agenda. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said, “nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” “Truth itself,” he said, “becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle,” that was June 14, my birthday, 1807….

Trump is correct about Jefferson.  The founding father had his problems with the press. Here are some more Jefferson quotes to prove it:

“I deplore… the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them… These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food. As vehicles of information and a curb on our funtionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief… This has, in a great degree, been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit.” –Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1814. Read the letter and get the larger context here.

“Our printers raven on the agonies of their victims, as wolves do on the blood of the lamb.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1811.  Read the letter and get the larger context here.

From 40. years experience of the wretched guesswork of the newspapers of what is not done in open day light, and of their falsehood even as to that, I rarely think them worth reading, & almost never worth notice. a ray therefore now & then from the fountain of light is like sight restored to the blind. –Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1816. Read the letter and get the larger context here.

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. –Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807. Read the letter and get some context here.

As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers. –Thomas Jefferson to Barnabas Bidwell, 1806. Read the entire letter and get some context here.

So as you can see Jefferson did have his moments with the press.

But Trump is only partially correct.  These quotes need to be considered in context with Jefferson’s other remarks about the press.  Here are a few more Jefferson quotes about the relationship between a free press and the success of the American Republic.  (These are from an earlier post on the subject):

…a hereditary chief strictly limited, the right of war vested in the legislative body, a rigid economy of the public contributions, and absolute interdiction of all useless expences, will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive. But the only security of all is in a free press. the force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. the agitation it produces must be submitted to. it is necessary to keep the waters pure. we are all, for example in agitation even in our peaceful country. for in peace as well as in war the mind must be kept in motion.  —Thomas Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette, November 4, 1823

The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.  Thomas Jefferson to G.K. Van Hogendorp, October 13, 1785

Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, January 25, 1786.

When faced with this second set of quotes, Trump supporters will probably agree that a free press is important. It is hard to reject the First Amendment.

But Trump supporters would also respond by saying that today’s press is politically biased against the POTUS.  Today’s press “is liberal.”  It is a “problem.”  It is “corrupt.”  Trump supporters would say that Trump’s new “enemy” is not a free press per se, but a free press that he believes to be tainted by opposition politics.

If Trump and his followers want to make such an argument against the press, and use Jefferson to do it, I think it is important for them to realize that today’s mainstream press (CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, the network news, etc…) is far closer to being objective than the press in Thomas Jefferson’s day.  The members of the press in the early American republic were openly political and they made no bones about it.

Read Jeffrey Pasley’s excellent The Tyranny of the Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic.  Here is the jacket summary:

Although frequently attacked for their partisanship and undue political influence, the American media of today are objective and relatively ineffectual compared to their counterparts of two hundred years ago. From the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, newspapers were the republic’s central political institutions, working components of the party system rather than commentators on it.

The lesson:  The press was actually MORE political in Jefferson’s age than it is today. Jefferson was often frustrated by it.  Yet he still found it indispensable to the success of the republic and was willing on more than one occasion to dogmatically defend it.

Bringing the “Hamilton” Soundtrack to the History Syllabus

hamilton

Framingham State University historian Joesph Adelman has matched every single class period in his “Early American Republic” course with a lyric from the Broadway smash “Hamilton.”

For example, on Friday January 27 the topic of discussion is “Local and National Politics.” Students will read Alexander Hamilton’s “Report on Public Credit” and a chapter in Brian Murphy’s Building the Empire State: Political Economy in the Early Republic.  The “Hamilton” lyric for the day is “If we’re aggressive and competitive.”

On Friday April 7 the topic of discussion is “Religion in America.”  Students will be reading a sermon by Charles Finney and an essay on missionaries by Emily Conroy-Krutz. The “Hamilton” lyric for the day is “I take my children to church on Sunday.”

Wow!  Can I take this class, Joe?

The Author’s Corner with Mark Guenther Schmeller

Invisible Sovereign.jpgMark Guenther Schmeller is Associate Professor of History at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. This interview is based on his new book, Invisible Sovereign: Imagining Public Opinion from the Revolution to Reconstruction (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Invisible Sovereign?

MS: When I began this project I was interested in the origins of public opinion polling and the larger changes wrought upon the concept of public opinion by advertising, marketing, and modernist social science in the early twentieth century. But one chapter into that project, I realized that I had no idea what “public opinion” meant before the twentieth century. So I went back to the late eighteenth century, when the term “public opinion” worked its way into common usage. From there, I began to look around for contexts in which the meaning of the concept seemed especially important and contested. For example, I found that political controversies over public credit in the 1790s compelled Federalists and Jeffersonian Democrats to articulate sharply different conceptions of public opinion. Disputes over what one might call the ethics of mass persuasion – the methods devised by political parties to win votes, or the measures employed by revivalists to gain converts – also generated new ideas about public opinion. In some contexts, public opinion could be synonymous with the code of honor, especially when the honor of a public man had been impugned in the press. And the concept also played an increasingly significant and divisive role in controversies over slavery and abolitionism.

In the end, I came to see that the meaning of public opinion was more a product of political contestation than some neutral ground on which politics was contested. Invisible Sovereign is about this politics of public opinion – a politics in which contestants sought to persuade public opinion by defining what it was and was not.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Invisible Sovereign?

MS: The book traces a shift over time from early “political-constitutional” concepts, which identified public opinion with a sovereign people and wrapped it in the language of constitutionalism, to more modern “social-psychological” concepts, which defined public opinion as a product of social action and mass communication. And this was a significant shift, because the revolutionary settlement was in many respects built upon the former, and the growing divide between North and South had much to do with the latter.  

JF: Why do we need to read Invisible Sovereign?

MS: Because claims to measure, persuade, or represent public opinion are such a common feature of our present political discourse, we can easily fall into the trap of presuming to know what “public opinion” means, and that it has always meant what we presume it to mean. For example, the ubiquity of polling might lead us to think that public opinion has always been understood as an aggregate of individual opinions. But if we trace the concept back to its eighteenth-century origins, the opposite view appears to have been prevalent: public opinion was thought to precede individual opinions. Similarly, our present-day conceptions of public opinion tend to be very “media-centric”: we assume that communications media shape public opinion. But in some important respects, antebellum Americans assumed the opposite: that “public opinion” would police what newspapers printed, with violence if need be.

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

MS: There must have been an exact moment when I made that decision, but I honestly cannot recall it or the reasoning involved. My father is a professor of European history, so I always had some interest in the study of history, but he never really pushed me towards an academic career. After college, I worked in politics for several years, and developed something of an obsession with public opinion polling. Those experiences also led me to become much more interested in United States history. So when I wound up in graduate school, I gravitated towards public opinion, despite my best intentions to study something else.

JF: What is your next project?

MS: I’m looking into the 1826 abduction and (likely) murder of William Morgan, an upstate New York laborer who had threatened to publish a book revealing the secret rites of the Freemasons. It is common knowledge that outrage over the kidnapping, and the subsequent efforts of Freemasons to shield fellow members from prosecution, led to the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party. But surprisingly little has been written on the crime itself and the ensuing trials. I think they will make for an interesting micro-history that touches on a number of things that fascinate me: the perceived operation and dangers of secret societies, conspiracies, and oaths, the proliferation and power of rumor, the political significance of religion in the “burned-over district,” and the importance of courts, juries, and ad hoc investigative committees in enforcing community justice and maintaining the “people’s peace.”

JF: Thanks, Mark!

Scale and Religious Geography in Early America

ChurchI only made it to one session today at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  I spent the morning in the book exhibit and then attended a meeting of the OAH Committee on Communication and Marketing.

In the afternoon I was torn between a session on podcasting and a session titled “Scale and Religious Geography in Early America.”  In the end I decided that I had attended to too many podcasting sessions in the last couple of years.  I opted for the religious geography session and got to hear some excellent papers by three young[er] historians of early American religion: Shelby Balik, Christopher Jones, and Kyle Bulthuis. (Heather Miyano Kopelson commented and Aaron Fogelman chaired the session).

It looks like I was the only one in the room who was live-tweeting the session.  The OAH has storified the tweets.  You can see my thoughts there.

SHEAR Has a Blog!

SHEAR logo

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic has started a blog.  Mark Cheathem, a veteran of the history blogosphere who has been quite busy lately, is involved with the project.  He explains:

We are excited to launch SHEAR’s new blog, The Republic! This blog will serve as the place to go for news about the organization and scholarship on the period.

Planning for this blog began in 2011, when the late Drew Cayton, then serving as SHEAR president, asked Caleb McDaniel and me to put together a working group to look into expanding the organization’s social media footprint. Rachel Herrmann and Beth Salerno joined us in crafting a proposal that addressed not only social media but also other ways in which the organization could incorporate twenty-first-century technology.

A number of SHEAR presidents—Harry Watson, Drew Cayton, Pat Cohen, John Larson, Ann Fabian, and Jan Lewis—and the members of the advisory council have been supportive in recognizing the need for SHEAR to make this move. Last year, Ann Fabian, with the approval of the advisory council, appointed me as SHEAR’s first social media coordinator. I asked Caleb and Liz Covart, whom many of you know from Ben Franklin’s World, to brainstorm our path forward. After the conference, we invited Vanessa Holden and Lyra Monteiro to join the committee. Late last year, the committee members and JER editor Cathy Kelly held a virtual meeting and discussed a number of possible approaches to take.

The committee members came away with several conclusions. First, we wanted SHEAR to have a viable and vibrant connection to the world of social media. We established Facebook and Twitter accounts several years ago, and they have proven successful in attracting the attention of both SHEAR members and non-members. In addition to taking a more active approach to social media during the year, we hope to have a more visible presence at the annual meeting. Second, we believed that our charge included more than just social media, so we altered the vision to include new media, which is a more encompassing description of what we intend. Lastly, we wanted to expand SHEAR’s reach in the digital world by establishing a blog. Most major historical organizations have taken this step, and it seemed appropriate for SHEAR to do so as well.

What can you expect from The Republic? On a weekly or biweekly basis, depending on the time of year, we expect to publish posts as diverse as author interviews, JER-related pieces, and pedagogical essays. We also hope that you will send us your relevant CFPs or perhaps even research queries that you have for other SHEARites. If you have an interest in contributing to the blog in some way, don’t be shy! Reach out to us at shearrepublic@gmail.com

Abigail Adams and Alexander Hamilton

Abigail_Adams_by_Gilbert_StuartUnlike many Americans who visit to Broadway today, John and Abigail Adams were not fans of Alexander Hamilton.  In 1806 John called Hamilton the “bastard brat of a Scotch Pedler.”  Abigail also had some choice words for the Secretary of the Treasury.

Here is a taste of Amanda Norton’s post at the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society:

…The next few years did nothing to improve Abigail’s opinion. Hamilton was widely believed to have unsuccessfully meddled in the 1796 Election, attempting to keep Thomas Jefferson out of the vice presidency, even, or perhaps, especially, if it meant sacrificing John Adams’ candidacy. Hearing of Hamilton’s interference in December 1796, Abigail wrote, “I have often said to you, H——n is a Man ambitious as Julius Ceasar, a subtle intriguer. his abilities would make him Dangerous if he was to espouse a wrong side. his thirst for Fame is insatiable. I have ever kept My Eye upon him.”

The revelation of Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds in 1797 was a breaking point for Abigail, leading to some of her most vitriolic comments. As the Quasi-War with France was building and the United States formed a new army, Abigail could not understand those who wanted Hamilton to be commander-in-chief. “That man would in my mind become a second Buonaparty if he was possessd of equal power,” she wrote to her cousin in July 1798. By January 1799, Abigail was increasingly heated. Learning that her son Thomas Boylston Adams who had been in Europe was to return to the United States on board the ship Alexander Hamilton, Abigail sneered, “I dont like even the Name of the ship in which he is to embark” and in letters written to John on 12 and 13 January, she railed against Hamilton. Abigail firmly believed that Hamilton’s failure to uphold his private marriage vow inevitably made any public vow he made suspect. In a Biblical allusion to King David, she warned that with Hamilton in charge of the army, “Every Uriah must tremble for his Bathsheba.”

Read the entire post here.

 

Historians Are Crazy About "Hamilton: An American Musical"

Lin-Manuel Miranda has managed to get Americans excited about Alexander Hamilton. His hip-hop musical about the first Treasury Secretary is taking Broadway by storm. It is even getting rave reviews from early American historians. In fact, a group of historians (and Pulitzer-Prize winners) went to see Hamilton last week and met with Miranda following the show.  If the twittersphere and blogosphere is any indication, these historians gave the show and Miranda rave reviews.

For example, here are some representative tweets:



//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js



//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js


//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js


//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js


//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Even Miranda himself got into the mix on Twitter:


//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I have yet to see the musical, but my history-buff daughter has been begging me to go.  In the meantime, I have been enjoying these reviews:

Bruce Chadwick, “Alexander Hamilton and the Hip Hop Founding of America

Benjamin Carp, “Bastard Out of Nevis

Robert Snyder, “Why ‘Hamilton’ Is the Right Musical for Our Time

Ishmael Reed, “‘Hamilton: the Musical:’ Black Actors Dress Up Like Slave Traders…and It’s Not Halloween.”

Terry Teachout, “The Revolution Moves Uptown

Today at “The Junto,” historian Joseph Adelman, who was part of the group of historians who saw the musical last week, has a thoughtful review.  Here is a taste:

What makes that argument compelling is that Miranda gets the history right and also approaches a deeper truth about his subject, in a way that for most historians in our forms of writing is inaccessible. I’ll give you just one example from the show that doesn’t give much away. Miranda re-imagines the Cabinet meetings of the Washington administration, in which Hamilton and Jefferson frequently butted heads, as a series of rap battles between the two. The lyrics are spot-on in describing the position of the two on hot-button questions of the day: Should Congress adopt Hamilton’s economic plan? Should Washington back France or Britain in their never-ending imperial fight?

Of course they literally didn’t have a rap battle, but in reproducing their words in rapid-fire meter, Miranda reveals the deep discord within the Washington administration as well as the fragility and instability of early Republic politics. Throughout the show, the theme of early American politics as hip-hop war works to convey a really complicated argument in a way that’s immediately accessible. Watching the show as a historian who works in that era, I can rattle off the books that have clearly influenced Miranda. They’re sitting right in the open (and as it happens when I attended some of them were sitting a few rows from me). Certainly scholars of the early American republic make arguments that rely on the messiness (and contingency) of politics and the political system. So I’m not saying they don’t.

But for most academics and history students, “presentism” is something to avoid. If a student or scholar submitted a paper that argued that the Revolutionary era was really a hip-hop-style battle, we would reject it out of hand. But an artistic project can be imaginative in that way. In so doing, Miranda comes at the past with a completely different eye and without any of the baggage that academics burden ourselves with. And though he doesn’t make a unique argument about the past—and his primary objective is to tell a story, not make an argument—he presents the past in a way that reflects on human nature and how people interact with one another. It’s a trans-historical claim to connect Jefferson, Burr, and Hamilton with Biggie and Tupac, but it cuts to the heart of the matter and, more importantly, it works.

Native American History at SHEAR

This weekend historians of the early American republic gathered together in Philadelphia for the thirty-sixth annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. Gabriel Loiacono, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, was working the conference floor as a correspondent for The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Gabe is writing a book about welfare in early republican Rhode Island.

What follows is Gabe’s report on two panels on Native American history:

On this first full day of SHEAR, I had the pleasure of hearing (most of) two panels on native history, which came at this history from quite different angles.  


The first, “Facing East from Miami Country,” delved into native intra-tribal politics as well as native-white contacts in the Ohio River Valley after 1800.  Full disclosure: I had to duck out before the third paper and comments of this panel, which is my loss and yours, dear reader.  

The second, “Settler Colonialism: A Framework for Interrogating the Early Republic’s Frontiers,” used the “settler colonialism” framework to analyze settler-native contacts in many times and places: Iroquoia in 1779 and 1879, Hawaii in the 1820s and 1950s, Oregon in the 1840s, and even underground in native burial sites throughout the early republic.  The settler colonialism framework, which drew some criticism and defense from the audience, is a transnational framework, that has been applied around the world, not just in the Americas.  It describes the long process by which settlers imagine, invade, claim, and make myths about lands that they settle.  It provides a unifying concept with which to compare this process in different times and places.  It was described by more than one panelist as being genocidal and yet including a myth-making stage in which genocide was un-remembered.  

The presence of this genocidal aspect brought my mind back to the first panel, “Facing East from Miami Country.”  James Buss’s paper, “Imagined Worlds and Archiveal Realities: (Re) Reading Myaamia History in the Archive,” showed how white debt claims against Miami people could be used to reconstruct an earlier period in which white settlers were employees of Miamis, building houses and performing other services.  Where does this patron-client relationship fit into the settler colonialism framework?  

Margot Minardi’s “Plea for Oregon,” and Noelani Arista’s “The Isle shall wait for his law” both focused on the imagining part of settler colonialism.  Margo Minardi focused both on American emigrants’ plea for the United States to extend its governance to Oregon and also on her own plea for scholars to work more on Oregon in the 1840s.  (That’s a tip for you new grad students out there).  Noelani Arista’s paper drove its point home well in just the first few sentences, quoting James Michener’s 1959 novel Hawaii, and making it clear how long the colonialist myths around Hawaii have persisted.  Judy Kertesz’s “To discover the antiquities of Our Continent” made many connections, between colonialism across horizontal space and colonialism across vertical space (mining and digging up native graves).  It also drew in industrial history, the mining of salt petre, slavery, and settler colonialism.  Patrick Bottiger’s “Misremembering Tippecanoe,” from the first panel, and Dean Bruno’s “Barbarians in 1779, Civilization in 1879,” from the second, about American expeditions against Tenskwatawa’s Prophetstown and the Cayuga nation, respectively, both fit nicely in the “settler colonialism” framework, as both dealt extensively with the “myth-making” stage of that process.  All of this focus on myth-making led Judy Kertesz and commentator Christina Snyder both to ask the question that I shall leave you readers with: if settler colonialism and its final stage of myth-making are accurate ways of understanding American colonization, expansion, etcetera, what exactly does this mean for us as historians and Americans in the present day?

Thanks, Gabe!