Last weekend, the world of early Americanists transferred itself to Canada, for the Omohundro Institute’s annual conference. Hosted by Dalhousie and St Mary’s Universities, Halifax (Nova Scotia) provided the backdrop to the academic festivities. Though it was a long and arduous journey to Halifax (at one point I thought I might have to Skype my paper from Philadelphia airport), and though the weather frequently failed to shine (to this Brit, it was very reminiscent of summer), the conference was a tremendously well-organized feast of academic camaraderie. What follows is necessarily only a partial recap, but one that I hope gives a flavor of what was on offer. If you have other reminiscences—not least on the many panels I missed!—please do share them in the comments.
The conference theme was the consequences of war, and proceedings began on Thursday evening with a keynote address from Jack Greene, which followed an opening ceremony of welcome conducted by the Mi’kmaq. Greene’s paper focused on analyzing the transforming effects of peace in the quarter century following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Greene offered a variety of explanations for the transformation of the colonies, advancing his opening claim that the role of war is greatly overstated as a means of historical change. Primarily, he argued, this was a story of patriarchal household transformation outside of the political realm.
Ultimately, though, the session felt a little flat. Greene never really demonstrated why peace should have been considered the defining lens of this period, which meant that the address lacked a certain coherence in addressing the sweeping changes he identified in colonial America between 1713 and 1739. Some of the questions, too, seemed to go down less productive lines of inquiry—arguing that the prevalence of violence in colonial society meant it shouldn’t be considered a period of “peace.” If that was the case, I wondered, was there any value in thinking about peace and war as motors of historical change?
For much of the rest of the conference, my energies were focused on panels concerning political and legal questions in the colonial world. After a fantastic breakfast on Friday morning, a panel considered the multifaceted nature of Loyalism. Chris Minty delivered an impressive amount of data on the social networks formed by DeLanceyites in New York in the late 1760s, showing how links forged in partisan election battles then became critical in defining loyalists following the outbreak of war. I was particularly taken by his arguments relating to the use of techniques of popular political mobilization; though these are normally associated with the patriot movement, his marshaling of data for New York loyalists suggests there is much still to learn about the methods and ideology behind popular activism. Liam Riordan then compared and contrasted the experiences of Thomas Peters, a fugitive slave from North Carolina, and William Martin Johnston, a Georgian planter, following their decisions to join the British side in hostilities. Again, though, some of the questioning seemed to sell the papers on the panel short, focusing primarily on the question: “What is a Loyalist?” The papers had suggested the importance of recognizing the many varieties and motivations of those who sided with the Crown—perhaps Minty’s response of being wary of dividing people into “Tier 1” or “Tier 2” loyalists might be one way of providing overarching analysis.
The next panel offered three fascinating papers focused on questions of commerce and maritime law. Mitch Fraas looked at a number of cases relating to citizenship and nationality, with merchants variously making arguments on residency and birth to protect their maritime cargoes. Ultimately, he pointed to the fungibility of subjecthood leading to British legal officials seeking to institute the Rule of 1756, thus rendering questions of nationality moot in times of war. Hannah Farber discussed the commercial power of insurance companies in the early 1800s, both through their control of information and their control of capital, and the way this could be used to influence foreign policy. Kate Brown discussed the question of neutrality, and the way in which Hamilton and others used the legal system and the doctrine of neutrality to allow federal courts the authority to regulate commerce. In all papers, I was impressed with the consideration of the ways in which matters of considerable political import often found interested actors seeking ways to keep important changes out of the political realm.
Saturday’s panels looked at different responses to institution-building in the eighteenth century. David Flaherty looked at the importance of the Board of Trade as it sought to position itself as a crucial source of expertise on North America within the British imperial system; his paper was followed by Gwenda Morgan, who looked at the operation of the law of nations (especially through Vattel) during the Revolutionary War, and the question of retaliation in legal matters involving British and American prisoners-of-war.
In a subsequent session, Eliga Gould called more attention to the significance of the Treaty of Paris, and considered the implications of understanding 1783 as a moment of “imperial partition.” Craig Yirush created a comparative framework for understanding the link between ideology and interests in the colonial response to the Imperial Crisis by contrasting John Dickinson’s response to the Stamp Act with three pamphlets from prominent Barbadians. And Jess Roney looked at the failed attempt to create the state of Franklin, blaming the lack of a civil society for the failure of political institutions to take root in the region.
The common theme that seemed to emerge from all these panels was the importance of understanding institutions of power, both inside and outside formal channels of government. Perhaps even more importantly, they pointed towards the necessity of studying the interactions between governmental institutions and external networks and institutions of political potency. Hopefully, those themes were also reflected in my panel, looking at peace and violence in eighteenth-century America, featuring papers from Michael Goode on peace discourses during the Paxton Boys revolt; Tom Rodgers on languages of coercion in revolutionary South Carolina; and my paper on the politically productive uses of violence in post-revolutionary Pennsylvania.
But no conference is complete without throwing in at least one panel outside of the norm. For me, that session was also the most provocative panel I attended all weekend, on slavery and slave resistance. Presentations by Trevor Burnard and Simon Newman argued that thinking only about freedom may not be the best lens through which to interpret slave revolt and rebellion. Newman argued for the lens of protest against labor conditions, using (mainly) a case study of castle slaves on the Gold Coast. Burnard, meanwhile, emphasized the fact that nearly all of our evidence with which we interpret slave revolt comes from the perspective of white masters—who were often ignorant of slave life and were perhaps unable to fully understand what motivated the enslaved. Unfortunately, Billy Smith, the third panelist, was unable to attend. Though his paper was ably delivered by Jason Sharples, he was unable to fully explicate his stance—which heavily foregrounded the very claims to a desire for freedom the other two papers questioned. In the absence of Smith, it felt a little like the counterargument got insufficient weight in the questioning. Nevertheless, Burnard and Newman gave historians in the room a useful reminder to be careful of what assumptions they made in explaining the past.
There are, of course, myriad other panels unaccounted for in this roundup. But for all that there may have been four separate tracks in the conference program—in addition to the political/legal track, there seemed to be one on the international Atlantic world, another on questions of Native American history, and another on social/cultural history—attendees received a good taste of Halifax, from the Mi’kmaq opening ceremony through to closing receptions at the Citadel and a harbor cruise, and the general atmosphere at the conference seemed tremendously collegial, reflecting the interrelated concerns of the field. Congratulations must go to the conference organizers for such an enjoyable weekend, and I”m now looking forward to the SEA/OIEAHC extravaganza in Chicago next year!