This last weekend I visited Cambridge’s lovely Madingly Hall to attend the conference for British American Nineteenth Century Historians, or BrANCH. I teach Fridays, so I missed Pekka Hämäläinen’s plenary lecture on Indians, empires, and states in North America. People who attended thought it provided a very nice, sweeping overview of questions in Native American history, and I wish that I’d caught it. Due to “signalling problems” I didn’t make it to the Saturday morning panels, either—so what follows is a reflection on the sessions I attended.
The first session I sat in on, “Land Rights, Property Rights and Human Rights in Antebellum America,” featured Christopher Clark and Silvana Siddali. Clark discussed the overlap between commodities and property, and talked about the ways in which people increasingly commodified land. Siddali was interested in inquiring into varying legal interpretations of the phrase “Right to the soil,” and how such interpretations could result in disagreements and conflict within the scope of Native American history and the history of the enslaved. Her point that people were revising ideas about property rights at the same time that they hotly debated them was particularly pertinent.
That evening I really enjoyed Shane White’s excellent keynote on African Americans and currency in Antebellum America. White nodded to the great work of historians interested in black religion in the 1810s, 20s, and 30s while simultaneously explaining that he’s more inclined to look into the lives of people who made preachers and ministers uncomfortable. His talk about black “burners” who conned whites carrying counterfeit currency into losing more money provided a fascinating view of the lives of people who behaved badly.
The conference dinner was fun because I got to hear about the journal submission process for American Nineteenth Century History, or ANCH. As we ate we learned about what makes it through to publication and what does not—unfortunately a paper on Lincoln and extra-terrestrials did not make the cut.
The next morning I attended “The Body and the Body Politic” panel, featuring Morwenna Chaffe, Adam Thomas, and Ben Schiller. Chaffe’s paper on nineteenth-century infertility made the provocative argument that although many historians locate women’s agency in their decisions about reproductive choice, it becomes impossible to trace that agency among infertile women. Schiller voiced similar concerns about finding agency in the narratives of the enslaved given that this quest can elide the lasting impact of the trauma of slavery. He encouraged historians to spend more time pausing to consider the ways that trauma may have shaped slaves’ and former slaves’ letters to their masters, for instance. Thomas’s paper shed light on the ways in which people after the Civil War imagined African American citizenship as a metaphorical prosthetic limb that threatened the health of the nation.
Later that day I got to go to “International Connections,” with Barbara Reeves-Ellington and David Thomson. Reeves-Ellington discussed the interlocking goals of diplomats and missionaries as they sought to promote Protestant ideals among Christian Ottomans, and in looking at the Civil War Thomson talked about how financiers’ faith in the union became synonymous with financial faith.
I like to attend conferences in part to get a sense of what people think is currently interesting in American history. Now, I’m more of an early Americanist than a nineteenth-century historian. As Daniel Peart reminded me, however, BrANCH interprets the nineteenth century in a generously broad way:
So, without further ado, I offer some speculations about current trends in nineteenth century history.
Among other topics, people seem interested in reviving questions of agency—especially among slaves, but in the cases of women as well. I also notice efforts to move back toward syntheses of Native American history while continuing to do good, tribal level histories. The panel on land drew attention to growing interest in environmental history. Finally, I observed efforts to link discussions of religion and economics together, which bodes well for both of those historical subcategories.
On a broader level I continue to try to be a good conference attendee and to ask useful questions. My meta-conference reflection is that it’s useful to ask a question that all panellists can take a stab at answering without asking individual questions of each panellist (I’ve been guilty of this, too). So in closing, I’d like to throw the comments open to our readers: If you attended BrANCH (first of all, you should’ve said hello), what panels did you find engaging or interesting? If you missed it, what panels would you have liked to hear? And finally, how do you try to be a good conference attendee?
 Having recently moved to England, I’ve enjoyed a relatively long honeymoon period insofar as public transportation is concerned. The proximity! The trains! The fact that I can live without a car. I’ve recently come to realize, however, that weekend service is another matter entirely. “Signalling problems” abound, though I think that’s just code for people doing construction work. And the British are not nearly as rigorous as I’d have thought about enforcing the rules of the Quiet Car.
 A PDF of the full program is available here.
 No word yet on whether vampires will feature in a future issue.
Great work Rachel, and for anyone reading this who is interested in attending/presenting at future BrANCH conferences do check out our website (http://br-anch.org/) – we have a special US conference in partnership with Rice University in April 2014, and then our regular British conference in the Autumn of 2014 will be a joint one with our friends in HOTCUS (Historians of the Twentieth Century United States, bless them).
A comment in response to your “meta-conference reflection”: a small conference like BrANCH has many benefits, but having served on the BrANCH committee I know that one problem is the difficulty of finding organically coherent panels – we generally choose around 32-34 papers for the programme from about 40 submissions, almost all of which come to us as individuals rather than pre-designed panels. Come the conference itself, this does make it more difficult for attendees at a session to ask questions that all the paper-givers can speak to – though I agree with you this would in general be desirable, and the better sessions (at any conference) do tend to be those in which the papers fit neatly together.
A second, and final, comment: no mention of the biennial BrANCH at Madingley Saturday afternoon croquet game? We have a long history of US representation too – Matt Mason flew the Stars and Stripes this year, following in the footsteps of Craig Hammond and Bruce Baker. Could it be Rachel Herrmann for 2015 croquet glory…
Is there any way to get copies of the papers presented at the Conference?
Papers aren’t submitted in advance or pre-circulated, but I expect if you were to email individual speakers most would be happy to share a copy.
to Daniel Peart, if possible to reach him this way. I am doing research on the Underground Railroad in Lancaster County, PA, and find a Benjamin Peart who was killed by a former slave whom he had freed. I am looking for any details about this. Do you know anything about this?
Hello Daniel – the short answer is, I’m afraid I don’t. The longer answer: I did have a relative who moved over to Pennsylvania in the 1840s, but he lived in one of the western counties and didn’t stay too long, so I don’t think Benjamin Peart has any connection to my branch of the family. When I was at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania last year they were trialing a new electronic database mapping the Underground Railroad, and out of curiosity I put “Peart” into that and got at least one hit – so you might want to contact them, if that’s not something you’re already familiar with (I don’t know what stage of development the database is in now, it may already be widely available). Sorry I can’t be more help, and good luck with your research.