An Omohundro Conference Recap

This year’s annual meeting of the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture was hosted with panache by Philip Morgan at Johns Hopkins University. It was apt that it took place in Baltimore, the birthplace of Ron Hoffman, whom the conference honoured as he steps down from a long tenure presiding over the institute. At the closing roundtable, a number of senior scholars movingly—and in some cases hilariously—recounted their experiences as Ron’s colleagues and friends, and paid tribute to his work as editor of the Carroll papers and historian of the Revolutionary war and its dissenters. Tongue firmly in cheek, Ron responded to the tribute manfully, by quoting Charles Carroll’s response to a biography of himself: what you have said, he told the biographer, makes me seem a much greater man than I ever believed, yet you have said nothing that is not absolutely true.

I can’t, of course, give a thorough overview of the conference because, with simultaneous panels, I could only attend less than half of it. So I will stick to my personal highlights, which naturally begin with the opening plenary on Charles Beard. Indeed, what was gratifying to me about the panel—apart from the amazing opportunity to sit at the same table as Max Edling, Woody Holton, Eric Slauter, and David Waldstreicher, as well as our chair Richard Bernstein—was the seeming consensus in the audience that Beard really is still worth talking about and remembering fondly, in spite of all his failures (not least over slavery). That we should be writing history that deals critically and publicly with matters of class and power, which is precisely the point I wanted to make, was left undisputed: leaving some of us to wonder whether perhaps all the conflict has generated something of a Beardian consensus.

The conference had a full schedule through Friday and Saturday, punctuated by some excellent refreshment spreads in the gleaming, sun-drenched Hopkins campus. My favorite panel of the Friday dealt with “The Practices of Political Justification in the Eighteenth Century Atlantic,” chaired by Daniel Hulsebosch. Will Deringer gave an account of the British radical Richard Price’s belief in mathematical calculation as a pure form of political reason, unrestrained by the passions. Indeed, as can be seen in many a book and article today, the use of numbers can be among other things a persuasive performance of reason. Jonathan Geinapp, meanwhile, took on the transformation of the constitution in the 1790s and the debate over removal of executive officers. In responding to the exegetical challenges of a new written constitution, Geinapp argued, American politicians generated a variety of discourses and interpretive practices which shaped the future meaning of the constitution—including that most hoary jurisprudential tradition, originalism.

On Saturday, the highlight for me was “The French Revolution and the Problem of American Democracy,” chaired by Rosemarie Zagarri and commented on by Seth Cotlar. There, Armin Mattis took an intellectual history approach to the shifting and exclusionary meanings of democracy in the thought of Thomas Jefferson and Destutt de Tracy, and David Houpt traced the movement of popular political organising as it took inspiration from the French Revolutionaries, and then coalesced into the Democratic-Republican party as the authority of the constitutional state expanded and the horizon of legitimacy narrowed in the 1790s. In a paper that blended themes and methodologies with remarkable facility, Matthew Hale argued that the rise of a “democratic” identity in America occurred in response to the French Revolution, and should be seen in religious terms, as a structural echo of the Reformation, and an igniting spark to the Second Great Awakening.

There were so many other great papers, many of which added references, arguments, and ideas to my own thinking, and I feel bad for only being able to give a taste. If there’s any way to sum up, for me, it might be to say that clearly, the Revolutionary era is in the sun right now among historians of early America. I went to the Omohundro expecting to learn a lot about the 17th- and early 18th-century colonies. For good or ill, I managed to avoid that almost completely! Many of the speakers in Baltimore referred to the recent American History Reborn conference in Philadelphia, but the impression given by the Omohundro programme was that the revolution had never been dead. It had merely taken on new forms, been put to use in new ways, and made to illuminate new problems—and that, after all, is what scholarship should do.

2 comments on “An Omohundro Conference Recap

  1. Thanks for the recap, Tom. I look forward to engaging the conference first hand next year in Nova Scotia.

  2. […] 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 […]

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