Who are these members of SHEAR who “support the idea that white supremacists actually have a legitimate argument?” I don’t think we have met.

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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:

 

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.

Was Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy genocidal?

Indian Removal

Some of you have been following the Dan Feller controversy at SHEAR. Get up to speed with Episode 72 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast. You can also read my posts on this controversy here.

After Feller delivered his paper “Andrew Jackson in the Age of Trump,” Feller was criticized for saying that the word “genocide” should not be used to describe Jackson’s policy of Indian removal. Over at The Panorama, the blog of The Journal of the Early Republic (SHEAR’s official academic journal), University of Oregon historian Jeffrey Ostler provides a thoughtful discussion of this issue.

Here is a taste of his piece “Was Indian Removal Genocidal?”:

In his paper, “Andrew Jackson in the Age of Trump,” the centerpiece of the much-discussed SHEAR2020 plenary session, Daniel Feller dismissed the perspective that Andrew Jackson’s “Indian removal policy was deliberately vicious and inhuman, if not overtly genocidal.” Several historians, commenting on Twitter, pushed back against Feller’s contention, claiming that Indian removal was indeed a genocidal policy. Interestingly, however, most recent scholarship on Indian removal, while supporting the view that the policy was vicious and inhuman, has not addressed the question of genocide. Historians have indicted the policy as “ethnic cleansing,” a serious allegation since ethnic cleansing is a crime against humanity under current international law. They have also called for replacing “removal” with terms like “expulsion” and “deportation” on the theory that these terms more accurately convey the coerciveness of the policy. But specialists have not argued that the policy was genocidal. Was it?

Addressing this question requires considering the intent of Indian removal and its consequences. The stated intention of the policy was the opposite of genocide—to save Native people from an otherwise inevitable extinction. Speaking before Congress, President Jackson asserted that instead of “utter annihilation” should Indians remain in the East, removal “kindly offers . . . a new home.”2 To the extent that U.S. presidents are capable of inflicting catastrophic destruction while claiming to be benevolent, however, we should be cautious about accepting Jackson’s claims at face value. A more realistic assessment of the policy’s intentions requires an evaluation of its consequences and Jackson’s response to these consequences.

Read the rest here.

Episode 72: Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump, and the Upending of SHEAR

Podcast

In this episode we talk with Daniel Feller, the editor of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. We discuss his work as a documentary editor, the uses of Andrew Jackson in the age of Trump, and a controversial paper he recently delivered at the annual meeting of the Society for the Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR).

You can also listen at your favorite podcatcher, including Apple Podcasts.

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

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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.

 

When an organization of historians (SHEAR) abandons historical perspective

Congressional Pugilists Painting; Congressional Pugilists Art Print for sale

“I respect your work, but I disagree with what you wrote about the SHEAR plenary session.”

I have received several e-mails and tweets of this nature over the past 48 hours. (Here I am writing to the folks who actually wanted to have a conversation about this).

So now let me give this a try with the SHEAR advisory and nominating committee:

“I respect your work, but I disagree about the way you have handled this entire Dan Feller mess.”

Let me begin by saying that I am not progressive by temperament. For example, when it comes to monuments, I prefer to take a little time to think about which ones should go and which ones should stay. I would rather see monuments removed through official channels after conversations with historians and other experts. These conversations should take a little time.

So needless to say, I was really surprised how quickly SHEAR moved to remove Douglas Egerton from the presidency.  Egerton, one of our best historians of the African American experience in the early republic, admitted that he made some mistakes with this “plenary.” But were these mistakes enough to oust him from office in less than 72 hours?

SHEAR is an organization of historians. Where was the prudence that we value in our work as historians? Where was the detached perspective that historians bring to the human experience? (I admit that I was probably guilty of this as well. As I have told many of you privately in our e-mail exchanges, I stand by my original piece but I might have changed my tone in a few places). When did we start to treat Twitter as kind of political poll?

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.

SHEAR calls for its president to resign (and some thoughts on today’s Twitter mob)

SHEAR

There are now multiple calls for historian Doug Egerton to resign as president of The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR)By the time you read this he may already be gone.

Here is a July 19, 2020 letter from the voting members of the SHEAR Advisory Council:

The digital plenary on Friday, July 17, 2020, violated the ethical norms, academic standards, and established procedures of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. The SHEAR Advisory Council deeply regrets and sincerely apologizes for these failures.

These failures included the president’s lack of full consultation with relevant elected and appointed committees during the planning of the session and neglect of procedures that encourage a diverse set of participants at all SHEAR panels.

We are therefore recommending that Douglas Egerton resign as President and step down from the Executive Committee, and that President-Elect Amy Greenberg step in as President. In consultation with the Nominations Committee, the remaining members of the Executive Committee should then proceed immediately with this year’s elections.

We also wish to strongly endorse and co-sign a letter sent to SHEAR leadership and signed by a group of concerned SHEAR members (see below). It represents the outpouring of communications we have received over the weekend. SHEAR is the collective creation of its members and we are grateful for the letter writers who created this statement.

Although this moment is difficult, this incident has served to strengthen our resolve to foreground diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism as core tenets of our professional work and to build an organization that properly reflects the diversity that is a hallmark of 21st century historical research. New leadership is essential to move SHEAR forward and we invite our membership to participate actively in this process. In the meantime, the Council will meet with the remaining members of the Executive Committee to discuss further steps.

Sincerely,

Susan Branson, 2018-2020                            

Kevin Butterfield, 2020-2022                         

Jonathan Earle, 2018-2020                            

Nicole Eustace, 2018-2020                            

Leslie Harris, 2020-2022                                 

Ronald Angelo Johnson, 2020-2022              

Jessica Lepler, 2019-2021                              

Caleb McDaniel, 2019-2021                           

Margot Minardi, 2020-2022                             

Amanda B. Moniz, 2018-2020                        

Sarah J. Purcell, 2019-2021                           

Daniel Richter, 2020-2022                              

Tamara Plakins Thornton, 2019-2021            

Attached to this letter on the H-Net e-mail list (where I saw it) was a July 17 letter. It reads:

We are writing as long time members of and boosters for the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic to express our outrage at the plenary panel on Friday, July 17.

The online plenary offered an opportunity to showcase the broad and diverse membership that SHEAR has been working to cultivate, and which President Doug Egerton referenced in his opening remarks. Unfortunately, the panel provided just the opposite. The collection of scholars who were part of the panel featured a lack of intellectual diversity, a lack of career stage diversity, and most importantly, a lack of racial and ethnic diversity. Indeed, the panel did not even follow SHEAR’s own guidelines for panels, which advise that “the best panels have a mix of presenters—by gender, graduate students and professors of different ranks, racial diversity, people from a range  of institutions, non-academic presenters, people who haven’t appeared on a SHEAR program before or in a while, and people who don’t all live within the city limits of one university town.”

The result of this lack of diversity, which surely could have been anticipated, was evident immediately as none of the panelists could speak to the most pressing issues raised by the paper in question, such as Indigenous dispossession, monuments, and the role of junior, independent, and contingent scholars in engaging with the public. The narrowness of the discussion, combined with the dismissiveness of journalists and their work, does a disservice to historians who are working hard to reach audiences outside of universities and work with public-facing partners.

Moreover, the panel offered the opportunity to showcase much of the new and exciting work being produced by SHEAR members, and instead featured a paper that caricatured this scholarship rather than offering a fair critique. This is the antithesis of the scholarly engagement and intergenerational mentorship that SHEAR prides itself on providing at its annual conferences, and it works against longstanding efforts to welcome various voices into our organization.

Most egregiously, a panelist repeatedly referred to Native peoples with a racial slur. No panel participants stopped the use of this word nor did they say anything in response to this racist and offensive language. We hope that SHEAR will issue a public acknowledgement and condemnation of this language immediately and will work to repair the significant damage this behavior has done to the SHEAR community and to others who observed the session. The health of this organization depends on it.

Signed,

Whitney Martinko

Rachel Sheldon

Kelly Kennington

Joseph M. Adelman

Seth Rockman

Bronwen Everill

Adam Malka

Ryan Quintana

Hilary Green

Michael Blaakman 

Emily Conroy-Krutz

M. Scott Heerman

Adam Pratt

Zara Anishanslin

Richard Bell 

Cassandra Good

Ben Wright

Derek Litvak

Kristen Epps

Honor Sachs

Paul J. Polgar

Christina Snyder

Jacob F. Lee

Nathaniel C. Green

Mandy L. Cooper

John P. Bowes

Gautham Rao

Julia Lewandoski

Dael A. Norwood

Elizabeth Ellis

Rachel Walker

Lori J. Daggar

Emilie Connolly

Andrew Shankman

Kevin Kenny

Daniel Diez Couch

Al Zuercher Reichardt

As most of you know, I wrote a post in support of the session in question. You can read it here. I was critical of the use of an ethnic slur during the Q&A, I thought there should have been more diversity on the panel, and I was critical of Feller’s claims that other scholars were incompetent. But that was not enough for many folks on Twitter.

I appreciate some of the push-back on Twitter and I also want to thank all of you who have e-mailed and messaged today with support. I still stand by what I wrote and I am saddened to see SHEAR make this move. I have heard today from people on the left, right, and center who supported the post. I can assure you that what you have seen on Twitter over the last 48 hours does not represent all SHEAR members or all members of the historical profession.

A few final thoughts:

I realized today just how tyrannical the Twitter mob can be. Over the course of the day I have seen tweets that have mocked my integrity as a historian and human being. The college where I work and have devoted 18 years of my career has been attacked. My intellect was questioned and my politics misrepresented. Some of the folks doing the damage were people with whom I thought I had a friendly acquaintance.

Twitter is a rough and nasty place and I realized today that it is not good for my soul. I guess the silver lining in all of this is that I had the chance to look in the mirror today. I saw a lot of myself in the tweets–the anger and vitriol I level against those with whom I disagree. I realized my own potential for using a reasonably large number of Twitter followers to summon the mob, cast judgment, squelch opinion, and monitor boundaries. It was not a pleasant sight. So, for the moment, I think I need to take a break from looking at Twitter.

As I noted in my post, I have been a fellow-traveler with SHEAR for over two decades. I have always enjoyed the meetings I have attended. So I am sorry it all turned-out this way.

And now for some logistical issues for those of you read the blog and could care less about SHEAR or these academic squabbles. (In other words, most of my readers). I will continue in my commitment to use social media to reach the general public who are interested in content at the intersection of American history, religion, and politics. My posts here on The Way of Improvement Leads Home will still go to Twitter, and I will continue to write what I believe is true. But for the time being, I will not be interacting or answering messages via Twitter. If you want to reach out to me, please do it by e-mail. The same goes for my public page on Facebook. I deleted both apps from my phone.

 

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.