SHEAR 2013: Presidential Plenary Session

This post comes to you from the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic in St Louis. If you’re at the conference, please come and say hello!

The SHEAR Annual Meeting kicked off this year with the Presidential Plenary session, “Missouri: Crossroads of the Early Republic?” Using the conference’s location as a jumping-off point for discussions of the diverse and multifaceted history of the early nineteenth century, four distinguished historians offered reflections as if located in Missouri, looking across the North American continent in different directions. Walter Johnson then concluded the roundtable with the notional title “Looking Forward,” but calling attention to some ways in which the session might profitably be used by historians looking to introduce new themes and stories into their teaching.

Kathleen DuVal began the session by looking west, and reminding the audience that for much of the early republic, those looking west of Missouri would find a polyglot population with little relation to the United States. Recognizing that this caused difficulties in relating the history of the west to the main narratives of colonial America—not least in teaching of the American history survey—DuVal suggested that there was nothing wrong with telling the history of Native American nations very differently from the history of the United States. After all, they were different experiences.

By telling separate stories, moreover, this had the possibility to change some of the themes of the early Republic—placing a new emphasis on the size and diversity of the North American continent, and in telling the story of Plains Indians, highlighting the limitations of US power. Later in the period, the west became more of a period of contestation among empires; again, DuVal reiterated the value of this broader imperial story in diversifying key narratives in American history. A particularly valuable question raised at this point was this—why didn’t more powerful empires block the expansion of a weak USA while they still had the chance?

Peter Kastor then took up the baton by “Looking East,” placing particular emphasis on the peculiar political history of the Midwest in this period. Asking the question,”how do we account for a place without Federalists?” (my response: celebrate!), Kastor argued that there were universal themes in US history that arose from the territorial system through which the states of the Midwest joined the union. Not just in the fact that most states became states through the territorial system into the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, but also in the forms of statecraft America deployed in post-war Germany and later Iraq and Afghanistan.

On a practical level, it was the political conditions of the West that came to define America in the mid-nineteenth century. A polity without Federalists, often dominated by local rivalries, and comfortable with a system based on turmoil rather than stability helped produce figures like Thomas Hart Benton and Andrew Jackson. Understanding that political development would shine light on a story very different from the revolutionary creation myth, and one that would explain American political philosophy beyond the territorial system.

Jay Gitlin then stepped up  to make the French connection, in amusing and anecdotal remarks that challenged the audience to break away from a railroad-dominated, east-west narrative of national expansion, and instead to focus on a steamboat driven, north-south connectivity made by French traders in the former French empire.

Noting the many contributions the French population made to the life of St Louis, Gitlin also reminded the audience of the developing importance of New Orleans throughout the antebellum era, noting that French St Louisans hoped their city may become the “New Orleans of the North.” Demonstrating that the western borderlands of the early republic had a distinctly “French accent,” Gitlin pointed out that Missouri showed many of the dilemmas of the nation as a whole—placing multiple historical contexts on a collision course.

Robert Forbes finished the geographical perspectives by looking at Missouri from the South, contending that though Missouri was a slave state, it was not a southern one. That is to say, Missourians saw slaveholding as a means of economic advancement rather than an entrenched culture. This placed the story of slavery and the Missouri Compromise as one which calls for new attention to the question of sovereignty. Missouri thus became emblematic of a West that was trying to create its own definition of national destiny that was separate from New England.

As a particular example of this, Forbes cited the last ditch attempt of northerners to invalidate the Missouri Compromise by rejecting the state constitution, averted by maneuverings from Henry Clay. Missouri, perhaps unpredictably, kept to the terms of Clay’s compromise, but in a way that challenged more eastern conceptions of race and citizenship—free blacks would be allowed to enter the state, but only if they could provide a certificate of citizenship from the state they came from, thus highlighting hypocrisies in other state’s citizenship laws. As such, Missouri was central in the development of a proslavery nationalism.

Finally, Walter Johnson called for the audience to think carefully about how they planned to construct the transnational, global, capitalistic history that had just been sketched out for them. He asked for particular attention to subaltern histories as a means of making sure that a new history didn’t simply end up talking about imperial governments, business elites, and those perpetrating what he called a system of “global racial governance.” He suggested one way of doing this would be to create a different timeline for the history of the early republic—looking at the invasions of Cuba and Nicaragua in the 1850s rather than focusing purely on the Compromise of 1850, for example, or looking at 1808 as a critical date in the history of slavery, rather than the 1820 Missouri Compromise.

The five panelists certainly gave much for the audience to reflect on in thinking about the ways in which historians might approach writing a more diverse, geographically expansive, and multipolar narrative. My main criticism of the panel, though, would be that for something that asked if Missouri was the ‘crossroads of the early Republic’. Missouri—and, in particular, Missourians—often seemed strangely absent.

That is to say, we were told that Missouri was a place that was shaped by a variety of different cultures, ethnicities and races. And we were similarly told that there were distant and powerful forces that acted upon Missouri from a distance. What never seemed at the front and center of the panelists’ discussions, however, were the goals and the actions of ordinary Missourians themselves. The political figures mentioned were all famous national leaders; Jay Gitlin’s French actors were often part of a business elite. Ordinary folk only seemed to appear in distant glimpses—writing their own constitution, or campaigning for the introduction of slavery.

Clearly, that’s a challenging story – but the question of democratic legitimacy being granted to the action of forces characterized as “imperial” seems to me also to be central to the history of the Early Republic. Is it possible to assess the centrality of Missouri to this period without accounting for the goals, aspirations and achievements of those who came to settle in the state? It may be unsettling to find that the “dark,” yet impersonal forces that were mentioned were those of a democratic citizenry as well. But it’s a really important question to investigate. If we’re going to think seriously about how Missouri might have been the crossroads of the early Republic, more time thinking about those who lived there would have paid real dividends.

3 comments on “SHEAR 2013: Presidential Plenary Session

  1. Thanks for this Ken from “down under!” Wish I could have been there! Sounds like a fascinating panel and also an affirming one for those of writing outside the standard EAR narrative. It is exciting to see that Haiti and Nicaragua are more on more on the radar of how we might envision the seven decades after the American Revolution.

  2. […] wasn’t able to attend SHEAR this year, so I must rely on colleague Ken Owen’s account of the session on Missouri as the “Crossroads of the Early Republic.” At the Institute […]

  3. […] I wrote about the opening plenary session on […]

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