SHEAR 2013: Conference Recap

shear2013Last weekend, historians of the early Republic convened in St Louis for the SHEAR annual meeting. As is normal for a meeting that takes place each year in mid-July, the heat and humidity during the day was rather intense (I somehow suspect this is a deliberate design to make the air-conditioned conference rooms a welcome solace!). As with Tom’s post covering the Omohundro conference last month, I can’t possibly hope to give complete coverage. As ever, the number of panels I wanted to attend was greater than the number of panels I could physically attend—the sign of an invigorating conference, for sure, but also a conference whose scope can’t be summed up in 1000 words. If you attended, please add your own reflections in the comments.

(Note: I wrote about the opening plenary session on Friday.)

The conference program revealed three main themes: the intersection of race, ethnicity and politics; new approaches to the issue of capitalism, property (and often politics); and the history of the environment, landscape and nature. Picking up on the plenary session’s discussion of the diverse national and racial influences on the early republic, a Friday morning panel on “Citizenship, Colorism and Separation” called great attention to the difficulties of integrating immigrants and the inhabitants of former empires into an American polity. Cinnamon Brown and Andrew Wegmann both looked at Louisiana’s politics in the early 19th century. Brown highlighted the former importance of the militia of color under Spanish rule, and the various strategies employed to protect the political and social importance against the incursions of an American racial order; Wegmann looked at the Creole population of New Orleans and their business and social networks as a means of examining the effect of laws creating racial hierarchies.

Rebekah Mergenthal’s paper on the same panel looked at the contrasting experiences of Mormon and German immigrants into Missouri, analyzing the ways in which German community building managed to establish a lasting presence somewhat separate from Anglo-American settlements where Mormons had failed. All papers highlighted the failure of governments to impose effective racial or ethnic distinctions in new states—as Wegmann pointed out with the Creole elite, ‘society did not treat these people as the law demanded’.

A more overtly political perspective on this issue was provided by a panel on Jacksonian Democrats in the Old South. Christopher Childers used the story of newspaper editor Thomas Ritchie to examine the ways in which the Missouri Compromise helped lead to a new articulation of a states’ rights philosophy. Adam Pratt then gave one of the most intriguing papers I heard all weekend, looking at the Georgia gubernatorial election of 1831.  The paper centered around the issue of whiteness, and how the campaign of George Gilmer attempted to impose a definition of whiteness that didn’t reflect the polyglot population moving into Cherokee land to mine for gold. This ended up costing him the election, losing to a more egalitarian campaign by Wilson Lumpkin that promised equal access to the resources of stolen Cherokee land. The twist came in policies followed after Lumpkin’s victory; Lumpkin would dilute his implied egalitarianism by insisting on excluding mixed-race individuals from the gold rush—even relying on the Georgia Guard, whose violence had led to disgust with Gilmer, to enforce the racial order. This highlighted what Pratt called ‘the malleable nature of whiteness’, and I’ll be fascinated to see how (or even whether) this malleability has broader national importance.

One other exploration of race and ethnicity came in Caitlin Fitz’s paper on Latin American Revolutionaries in the United States, looking at the diplomatic mission of revolutionaries from Pernambuco (northern Brazil) in 1817. Attempting to gain governmental and financial support to aid their cause, the Pernambucans sent a diplomat with explicit instructions to try to build up popular support, going so far as to plant at least seventeen newspaper articles in the American press, which in turn garnered scores of direct responses. Consequently, the Pernambucan cause was  celebrated in numerous toasts, and even by John Adams. The twist was that despite the near-universal support expressed for Pernambuco, their diplomat’s mulatto status was almost completely ignored in public discourse.

As for the second theme—new approaches to the history of capitalism—the most entertaining paper was undoubtedly given by Brian Luskey, telling the tale of notorious con man and fraud Monroe Edwards, whose shady dealings in attempting to circumvent the ban on the slave trade in the Republic of Texas jeopardized the new republic’s dealings with Great Britain. Edwards was an unambiguously horrible man, who seemed never to tell an honest tale, though a man with considerable reserves of ingenuity. Edwards’s particular importance came in his effort to try to make a profit off the slave trade not only by circumventing the ban, but also by posing as an antislavery activist whose efforts to free slave populations were hindered by unscrupulous elements in Texas. Thankfully, Edwards got his comeuppance, dying in Sing-Sing, but Luskey inventively demonstrated the ways in which ambitious men could seek to profit by playing both sides of the slavery/antislavery divide.

Other approaches to capitalism included those of Dael Norwood and Ariel Ron on ‘Lobbying in the Age of Sectionalism’, and a Sunday panel creatively titled ‘Banks A Lot’. My own reflections on this theme, though, are necessarily dominated by my own panel on Sunday morning, looking at ‘Property, Politics and Economics in Early American State Formation’. Fellow Juntoist Tom Cutterham kicked things off with a paper looking at how national elites in the 1780s came to develop an ideology aimed at securing property from the influences of popular legislatures. Looking at similar themes from the other side, my paper analyzed the debates over the charter of the Bank of North America in Pennsylvania, arguing that the process of the debate and the compromises that attended the Bank’s recharter reflected the abiding influence of the political philosophy of the 1776 state constitution. Jonathan Jones rounded things off with a new look at Pierre Choteau, who combined his role as frontier businessman with a government appointment as Indian agent in the West in a story that seemed reminiscent of the cozy political dealings of a Carnegie or a Mellon.  Jones used this to suggest that links between business and government in the early republic were cozier than might have been imagined, and that pragmatism rather than ideology was the order of the day. It was gratifying to see so many people listening at 8.30 on a Sunday morning, and the ensuing discussion, led by Andy Shankman’s comment on the necessity of combining ideology with material interests, was possibly the best and most coherent I’ve yet experienced.

I’m 1,000 words in to this recap, and I haven’t even mentioned Brian Schoen’s innovative take on the effect of rumor and foreign affairs in the Secession Crisis; nor a Friday panel on the public image of the Presidency; nor the Saturday panel on secrecy and conspiracy in early republic politics and civil society. And I haven’t managed to talk of the panel honoring Peter Onuf, either. Suffice it to say that a crowded room paid tribute to an innovative scholar and tremendously generous mentor.

As ever with a SHEAR conference, I returned home invigorated by the camaraderie, the stimulating conversations, and the chance to spend time with so many old and new friends. Special thanks should go to the organizing committee(s)—the program was diverse and the papers of strong quality; the location (on the north edge of Forest Park) was well chosen, not least for proximity to a variety of cafes and restaurants; and I was particularly pleased to see the efforts made to include graduate students in the activities—something that’s clearly much improved since I first showed up at SHEAR in 2008. All in all, it was a most enjoyable weekend, and I’m looking forward to next year in Philadelphia already!

One comment on “SHEAR 2013: Conference Recap

  1. […] Checkout the full recap here. […]

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