Some of you who read this blog are familiar with the controversy going on in the Society for the History of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). You can get up to speed with these posts. We also interviewed Dan Feller in Episode 72 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.
On July 24, 2020, SHEAR’s official website, The Panorama, published Johann Neem’s piece “And/Or: Reflections on SHEAR’s Plenary.” Here is a taste of that post:
Instead of “and,” “or” was all over the plenary session on Jackson and the immediate Twitter response. The panel revolved around a paper offered by Daniel Feller, director of the Papers of Andrew Jackson, contesting both Trump’s claim to the Jacksonian legacy, as well as what Feller considers the “cartoon version” of Jackson offered by recent historians. When I first read Feller’s pre-circulated paper for the SHEAR plenary, I was intrigued. It felt important to assess Jackson, the founder of the Democratic party, the longtime inspiration for its egalitarian commitments, who has fallen from grace because of his racist ideas and actions, and is now Donald Trump’s favored president. It seemed like a good choice for a broad public discussion.
Unfortunately, Feller seemed to be in an “or” mode. And in response, Twitter exploded with “or.” “Or” is most useful to bring sharp distinctions into relief, to cut the past analytically in ways that make rendering judgment easier. I have often used “or” in my writings, especially when I want to draw attention to contrasts. “Or” is a powerful tool to divide or categorize, but it can hide complexity. Often, it lacks humility.
“And” was missing from the conversation. Maybe this reflects our current cultural mood. We desire certainty and want people to be on our team. Perhaps we seek perfection in our heroes and want our villains to be purely terrible. Perhaps the contradictions we find in people like Jackson reflect his failings. But maybe, just maybe, our unwillingness to understand the past in terms of “and” reflects a failing on our part too. As Emerson said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
I am not defending Jackson. If anything, I must confess, and it is a bit embarrassing, but I kind of like the Whigs. The Whig party was, in our terms, more progressive on issues of gender and race. And Whigs’ vision of freedom emphasized cultivating human capabilities through collective institutions, from the family to civil society to the state.
But the Whigs were never just this, or else the left would have turned to the Whigs for their inspiration. They didn’t. To those who became Democrats, Jackson and his supporters offered a vision of egalitarian democracy that Whigs supposedly lacked. That is why left-leaning historians of labor and education have tended to side with the Democracy. The Democrats were the party of the working class who resisted the expansion of capitalism, historians argued. And the Democrats challenged the nativism, anti-Catholicism, and social control efforts of Whig philanthropy, including the Whigs’ vision of common schooling. Andyet Democrats were also the party most committed to upholding white supremacy.
There is nothing wrong with Feller wanting to defend Jackson and his legacy. At his best, Feller asked us to think seriously about historical context and to look beyond rhetoric to the specifics of Jacksonian policy. But it was also true, as critics pointed out, that Feller’s paper and remarks did not engage meaningfully with the specific arguments made in recent scholarship critical about Jackson. The panel would have been stronger if these perspectives had been represented by including, for example, an expert in indigenous history. But Feller urged us to remember the Jackson who, in the Bank War, challenged an economic and political system favoring the few over the many. We historians must contend honestly with that Jackson too.
It can be hard to find the space and patience for “and” during these fraught times. With all that is happening in our country and around the world, there are days when I want to stake a position and hold it against all challengers. I want to know who’s with me. Sometimes I mistake this for solidarity. But maybe it’s my Whig sensibilities that remind me how fragile institutions like SHEAR are, and how much they depend on our collective will to sustain them over time. I think that doing so requires all of us—myself included—to be more open to “and.” And not just for the people we study; we among the living also contain multitudes. Do I contradict myself? I can’t help it. I have contradictory impulses. I only know so much. My intellect is limited. I make mistakes. I may need your forgiveness.
As historians, we have the opportunity to help one another and our students, readers, and listeners make sense of “and.” Because I have been coming to SHEAR for years, I know many of you, and I know that when we sit down to talk, we understand “and.” We are not “and” users or “or” users. We’re both.
I was glad to see The Panorama publish Neem’s post. The piece asks us to remember the historian’s task and it calls for honest and fair debate among those trained in the discipline.
But after I read Dawn Peterson’s and Laurel Clark Shire’s recent piece at Panorama, I wonder if Neem’s commitment to “AND” is really possible. Peterson and Shire were two of the historians Feller criticized in his plenary paper. They write:
On July 17, 2020, the Society for the History of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) held a plenary session online in lieu of the cancelled annual conference. The speaker was University of Tennessee professor Daniel Feller, the editor of Andrew Jackson’s papers. The plenary, based on a pre-circulated essay, was a debacle. By giving an apologist for slavery and Indian removal a large platform, SHEAR highlighted ongoing weaknesses both within the society and in the historical profession writ large regarding the histories of African American and Indigenous people, and of race and white supremacy more broadly.
The claim that Dan Feller is an “apologist for slavery and Indian removal” seems to be little more than a smear on the character of a fellow historian. There was nothing in Feller’s paper, the Q&A session that followed, or in my long podcast interview with Feller to suggest that he is an “apologist for slavery and Indian removal.”
Peterson and Shire continue:
Feller’s defensiveness was evident from the start. During the session, he excoriated journalists and historians for misrepresenting Jackson as a “hardcore racist” and the originator of “Indian genocide.” He dismissed scholarly interrogations of Jackson’s policies as being part of a politically motivated campaign to decry Donald Trump, who claims Jackson as a personal hero and inspiration. The essay demonstrated a stubborn refusal to engage scholarship by Indigenous and African American historians or even by other scholars of their histories. Instead, he misrepresented and caricatured recent work on Jackson—most of it by women historians—as he excused and defended Andrew Jackson’s policies. During the Q&A session, he refused to address Jackson’s slaveholding (lack of time, he said) and, at the end of the plenary, he even spoke aloud, and then repeated, a racist slur. Feller’s arguments were directly contradicted by respondent David Waldstreicher, which we and many others appreciate. Yet the speaker’s essay and its delivery, combined with the senior, all-white panel of respondents, indicated that SHEAR had failed to ensure that this panel would represent its own policies on diversity, equity, and inclusion. As we are two of the people whose scholarship Feller mocked, the editor of ThePanorama asked us if we would like to respond, and we do so here.
I have said this before, but the argument Feller made in his paper was well within the bounds of historical debate. I wish Feller would have been more hospitable to the voices of other scholars. Much of what he said was tainted by his use of a racial slur. Moreover, this session may not have been the best choice of panels to put forth as the face of the organization. (Feller acknowledges all of this in my podcast interview). But there was nothing about the content of the paper that merits the attacks he is receiving.
Feller was familiar with Peterson’s and Shire’s work. He cited them in the paper. Perhaps he should have engaged with them more because their work is important. So is the work of the scholars they cite in the footnotes of The Panorama piece. Personally, I have learned a lot from their scholarship and I have tried to use my platform to amplify their voices and arguments. In August 2016, I interviewed Shire as part of this blog’s Author’s Corner series. Many of the scholars mentioned in the footnotes have also appeared as part of this series. Julie Reed, the author of Serving the Nation: Cherokee Sovereignty and Social Welfare, 1800-1907, and a former colleague of Feller at the University of Tennessee, was our guest on Episode 46 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast. In the end, Feller read Peterson’s and Shire’s work and found it wanting on several points. His differences were based on his reading of the sources.
Shire and Peterson write:
Andrew Jackson was not only a racist, but was also a person who made his career, his money, and his reputation on his steadfast commitment to racial slavery and genocide. He held some 150 people in bondage, separated kin on the auction block, and profited from the trade in human beings. He sent U.S. troops into sovereign Indian nations and ordered them to execute the residents of entire villages. He also advocated for and directed the forced eviction of thousands of Indigenous people from their lands, a removal that was carried out with violence and had terrible immediate and long-term human costs. Many respected historians of that policy note that if Indian removal had happened in the twentieth century we would recognize it as an “ethnic cleansing.”Historians also recognize that the eviction of Native peoples cleared the way for the expansion of slavery in the early republic, an economic boon for the white families of Jacksonian America, and one that expanded and perpetuated Black servitude. All of these things are historical truths acknowledged long before Trump occupied the White House.
I think Dan Feller would agree with everything in this paragraph.
These truths are not under dispute, not even by longstanding defenders of Jackson. Instead, Jackson’s apologists diminish their significance in light of what they consider to be Jackson’s other “accomplishments” in U.S. political and economic history. When historians write of Jackson as a white supremacist, defenders question the integrity of that research, arguing that it either ungenerously judges this historical figure by “presentist” standards or finding ways to undermine decolonizing methodologies or the documentary record writ large.
I am not sure anyone is trying to diminish Jackson’s racism. Also, one can still teach in a way that calls attention to Jackson’s political and economic policies without necessary calling them “accomplishments.” Do any of us really teach Jackson solely in terms of his views on slavery and Indian removal? If we say something in class about Jackson’s populism, appeal to immigrant workers in the North, his role in the Nullification Crisis, his “Kitchen Cabinet,” or his efforts to crush the National Bank, do we automatically “diminish the significance” of Jackson’s white supremacy, slavery, and treatment of Indians?
Nicholas Guyatt is a historian for whom I have much respect, but I just don’t understand this tweet he posted in response to my podcast interview:
Feller offers the old triad of Indian removal, nullification & the Bank war as the crucial lenses for understanding Jackson; not surprising that Feller’s critics chafe at the absence of slavery given AJ’s slaveholding & Indian removal’s crucial role in creating the cotton belt.
— Nicholas Guyatt (@NicholasGuyatt) August 2, 2020
Did Jackson’s slaveholding and Indian removal play a “crucial role in creating the cotton belt?” Of course. I don’t think anyone would argue with the distinguished Cambridge professor on this point. But his tweet makes me wonder if Guyatt (and other critics of this so-called “triad”) has ever taught the U.S. survey course. What would a middle school or high school teacher say about this tweet as they try to cover all the stuff about Jackson included in their state social studies standards? What about an AP U.S. History teacher who needs to prepare students for the AP exam? As someone who graded these exams for seven years, I can attest to the fact that students will need to know things about the bank crisis, nullification crisis, and Jackson’s appeal in the North. Apart from the fact that it reduces Jackson’s life to merely one category of analysis, Guyatt’s attack on the “old triad” is impractical. It is disconnected from the work of American history teachers in the trenches.
Shire and Peterson write:
When a scholar makes racist comments, or tries to normalize white supremacy in the past, or displays clear sexism (or ableism, or homophobia), treating these comments as legitimate opinions to be debated makes it seem as if they are reasonable and must be engaged with. When people choose to respectfully debate racism it preserves “white comfort” at the expense of people of color and other marginalized groups. For a historian to claim that Indian removal and slavery were “overstated distractions” or “details we don’t have time for” was alienating and hostile to scholars of Indigenous and African American descent. It appeared that, with one exception, the goal of the panel assembled by SHEAR was to keep things “civil” as the speaker tacitly acknowledged the harms done to people of color as unfortunate, necessary evils along the way to American democracy. As Indigenous studies scholars have repeatedly argued, this call to “civility” stages white supremacy as both normal and legitimate and makes any refusal to support it beyond the pale of legitimate engagement or “civilization.”
Rather than supporting “both sides” approaches we urge SHEAR to no longer amplify histories that justify racism and violence and instead prioritize and emphasize the work of scholars committed to equity, particularly that of scholars of color. Giving historians who seek to defend white supremacy platforms equal to (or, often times, even greater than) those who highlight the individual and collective resilience of those targeted by the colonial state supports the idea that white supremacists actually have a legitimate argument. If SHEAR, for example, was committed to exploring Donald Trump’s fascination with Jackson—as was the stated intention—then why not create a plenary session with scholars who could speak to that in the context of both men’s devastating policies toward Black and Indigenous communities and the political mobilizations that arose and strengthened as a result?
Again, this seems unfair. It implies that Feller said that Indian Removal and slavery were “overstated distractions” and “details we don’t have time for.” Feller never said any of this. Peterson and Shire ask SHEAR to reject a “both sides” approach that gives voice to the work of historians who “amplify histories that justify racism and violence.” Who are these members of SHEAR? Are there really members of this esteemed organization of early Americanists who “support the idea that white supremacists actually have a legitimate argument?” Is SHEAR going to build its case for moral purity on such a straw man?
One final word. I have received several responses to my podcast interview with Feller. Most of them have accused me of not criticizing Feller or going too easy on him. Guilty as charged!! Anyone who wants to see how scholars are criticizing Feller can read Twitter and the official statements from SHEAR. My goal in the podcast was to let Feller tell his side of the story. That, after all, is what historians do. We try to listen to multiple perspectives of a particular event and draw our own conclusions. I hope Shire and Peterson will listen to that interview.