Highlights from the British Group of Early American Historians

This weekend it wasn’t just the swiftly-approaching independence referendum causing excitement in Edinburgh—it was also the annual conference of the British Group of Early American Historians (BGEAH: that’s “beggar” to some, “big-ear” to others), which brought together early Americanists from Southampton to Dundee and all points in between, plus a few from the far side of the Atlantic. In the stately setting of Edinburgh University’s Old Medical School, the theme we were given was “Better Together? Union and Disunion in the Early Modern Atlantic.” I couldn’t possibly cover everything, but in this post I’ll share a few of my personal highlights.

Sir Tom Devine’s keynote. Tom Devine got a lot of media attention recently when he declared his support for Scottish independence, and that political stance was always bound to colour the atmosphere around his keynote talk, “The foundation of Scotland’s dual identity within the Union state, 1707-1815.” As I understood it, though, Devine was far from making a case that Scotland had always resisted British identity, or that ideas of independence always lay under the surface. Rather, he emphasised that the Jacobite uprisings were civil wars within Scotland, not just wars against the English, and that many Scots eagerly adopted a sense of Britishness tied to late-enlightenment economic development. That development, intimately tied up with the forced displacements of highland clearance, destroyed pre-capitalist forms of life; but at the same time, it created a nostalgic cultural tradition that acted not as a call to arms, but as a vessel for Scottish identity “within the Union state.”

Junto participation. Junto presence was strong at BGEAH, with both “hoon-toe” and “djun-toe” factions represented. As well as my own paper on “sex, lies and international finance: Angelica Schuyler Church’s revolution,” there was a beautifully integrated panel on state prayer and contested religious rites put together by Sara Georgini, and a paper on “the rise of food diplomacy in eighteenth century America” by Rachel Herrmann. State-ordered days of feast and fasting had always been part of New England colonies’ collective life, Georgini argued, but by looking at the proclamations themselves we can see how colonial Christianity was gradually transformed for an American audience during the 18th century. Herrmann, meanwhile, showed that food became an increasingly important aspect of diplomatic exchange between British agents and Indians during the imperial crisis, as other goods for trade diplomacy got harder to come by.

The Greek scheme in East Florida. One of my favourite individual papers was Robert Olwell’s on the “Scottish adventurers” who dreamed up the New Smyrna settlement project of 1768. When Britain acquired the Florida peninsula from Spain at the end of the Seven Years’ War, the next task was to fill it with loyal settlers—so following standard eighteenth-century environmental thought, the Scot Archibald Menzies proposed to send Greeks from the Mediterranean, who would be suited to the heat (and were, importantly, Orthodox rather than Catholic) and would produce commodities for which the British had hitherto relied on the dangerous Turks. Surprisingly, the scheme succeeded in transporting nearly 1,500 settlers, though most of them were Minorcan rather than Greek. As an episode in applied enlightenment theory and wild imperial projection, the Greek scheme was a fascinating entry in the history of bad ideas.

Colin Nicolson and Owen Edwards on John Adams. There’s always a variety of styles of delivery on show at academic conferences, and people seem to have different philosophies about the performative aspect of their intellectual work; but this year’s highlight for many had to be the theatrical display given by these two eminent historians. There’s no way to do it justice in text alone, but suffice to say that while Dr Nicolson read a paper on John Adams’ participation in debates over the legal history of the British empire during the imperial crisis, it was Dr Edwards’ impassioned performance as John Adams himself that stole the show.

3 comments on “Highlights from the British Group of Early American Historians

  1. Jonathan De Vries says:

    I would agree the Edwards Nicolson paper was probably one of the best papers Ive ever heard. If the book is ever turned into an audible book I think they should be the ones to read it.

  2. Anthony Di Lorenzo says:

    Nice post, Tom. Enjoyed meeting you there. It was truly an enjoyable and productive conference with many highlights!

  3. […] and Scottish independence movements as the Scottish referendum approaches. Tom Cutterham recaps the British Group of Early American Historians‘ conference. Sara Georgini offers a roundup of early American art on display this fall. And […]

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