SHEAR 2015: Conference Recap

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Ann Fabian’s SHEAR Presidential Address

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic enjoyed three energizing days in Raleigh, North Carolina, last weekend. Lightbulbs went off—and, sometimes, sparks flew—in sessions centered on a vast range of questions about what Ann Fabian called the “complex and unmade world” of the early republic. The book exhibit was abuzz with talk of projects newly published and still in the works. And each evening, the sidewalks thronged with surprisingly large crowds of carousing local youths; we can only assume they were so lively because they knew that the early Americanists had brought the party to town.

Several attendees happily remarked that this year’s conference crowd was noticeably more diverse—in terms of age, race, and topical interests—than usual. These promising steps were undoubtedly the work of this year’s program committee, chaired by Seth Rockman. The committee designed a well-rounded program, which welcomed topics and approaches new to SHEAR while also sustaining the organization’s traditional commitment to innovative political history. The program emphasized questions about capitalism and about slavery; space and movement were also recurring themes.

With the help of fellow Junto-SHEARites Nora Slonimsky and Mark Boonshoft, I’ll use this post to highlight several of our favorite sessions. After a conference of more than fifty panels, though, we can only hint at the intellectual riches that were on display. Readers: help us out! In the comments section, please report on panels, continue conversations begun last weekend, and reflect on the conference as a whole.

At a Friday morning roundtable, panelists and audience members shared classroom strategies for “denaturalizing” capitalist systems and modes of thought in order to teach the subject historically. Courtney Fullilove weirds it: comparing 1780s maps that represent Jeffersonian land policies with 21st-century satellite photos of the U.S. West and of Kazakhstan, she mobilizes her students’ antipathy towards Monsanto in order to explore the long history of capitalism’s global networks and knowledge structures. Will Mackintosh uses students’ rebellious inclinations to get them to think seriously about contingent moments when alternatives to capitalism’s cultural norms seemed possible. Joshua Rothman pointed out that the term “capitalism” can alienate students. It tends to produce three reactions: reverence, hatred, or apathy, none of which make for good historical analysis. John Larson and Rachel Van suggested ways to sneak students into the topic. Van’s students find childhood easier than capitalism to historicize, so she starts with childhood and moves from there into markets, morality, labor, and institutions. Larson, meanwhile, challenges students’ notion of liberty as his point of entrée; liberty meant land and slaves, pioneering, innovation, and exploitation. Liberty led to capitalism, but capitalism “only manifested itself once infection has taken root,” he says, “much like an STD.” The subsequent conversation focused on how to calibrate teaching the history of capitalism for different students at a range of institutions—students with diverse backgrounds, straight out of high school at some institutions, and at others with military experience, full-time jobs, or families. The session revealed that strategies for teaching capitalism, perhaps more than most topics, must be designed around what our students bring with them into the classroom.

A session on “Indians, Race, and the U.S. State in the Early Republic” discussed the era’s codification of white supremacy and the claims that Native peoples made on the state in the face of that process. Taking into account removal and colonization, the changing definition of “the West,” and the power dynamics of treaty negotiations, the panelists discussed the place of American Indians in a global community of nations. The discussion focused on how, despite Natives’ keen entrepreneurship and diplomacy, the U.S. state attempted to portray American Indians as “not modern” in order to legitimize coercive assimilation and removal. While each participant engaged with a spectrum of positions—the close analysis of a particular tribe in a specific location on the one hand, and this globalized view on the other—all echoed Christina Snyder’s statement that while there have been considerable advances in the cultural and social scholarship, there is still a tremendous need for indigenous intellectual history, particularly as it relates to the politics of Indian nation-building.

One of the final panels on this year’s SHEAR program dove deep into the nitty-gritty of the American Revolution. “Nine Months in Philadelphia: British Occupation in America’s Revolutionary Capital” used the experience of urban occupation to think anew about the Revolution’s impact on local communities. The first two papers, by Lauren Duval and Kendra Kennedy, looked at how revolutionary politics in the occupied city became particularly gendered. For Duval, women’s attempts to navigate the structures of British authority as they moved between spaces imbued them with a political role, while Kennedy’s paper focused on the women’s centrality to the pomp and circumstance of the Meschianza. Finally, Aaron Sullivan argued that stark opposition between Patriots and the British Army in Philadelphia actually makes it easier to uncover the plight of “disaffected” people—those who did not take a clear side. Occupation, then, set the stage for the problem of reintegrating the disaffected in to the larger body of “the people” come 1783. In their own way, each paper reminded the audience of how the politics and upheaval of occupation impacted Philadelphia in ways that shaped the early republic.

Another panel explored the gendered meanings early Americans ascribed to genius. Kirsten Fischer, Lucia McMahon, Margaret Sumner, Timothy Williams, and Barbara Oberg’s discussion ranged from how conceptions of genius changed over time to the gendered roles and goals of faculty wives and Southern college men. Fischer’s contribution—about a freethinking, globetrotting cosmologist named John Stewart, whose sense of self was deeply rooted in unshakeable confidence in his own genius—was particularly vivid. (See Common-place for more.) But the panel as a whole was excellent, probing the questions of who and what genius was for, and how people pursued and exercised it. The session was a perfect demonstration of how gender, as a category of analysis, reshapes our understanding of every topic to which we bring it.

A standing-room-only session asked: “How does a republic become an empire?” Emily Conroy-Krutz, Kathleen DuVal, Eliga Gould, Brandon Mills, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, and Rosemarie Zagarri took us from the institutional core of empire to its fringes, in foreign missions and African colonization settlements, and back again. Zagarri pointed out that while scholars used to ask when the U.S. became an empire, we now agree that it was one from the beginning. An invigorating discussion addressed questions about how republicanism conditioned the shape and aims of empire, how indigenous peoples dealt with settler colonialism, and whether “empire” is a useful term for anything other than winning book prizes. For me, the conversation revealed that historians nowadays use the word to mean very different things. Thanks to the work of scholars like Eric Hinderaker and Linda Colley, many historians now focus on how people on the ground and at the periphery of imperial sovereignties enacted “empire.” But amid resurgent interest in the institutional structures of the state, another train of scholarship seems to operate with a different, more centralized (perhaps even more social-scientific) conception of what made empires tick. The takeaway: it’s time for somebody to write an AHR article that takes stock of these diverging definitions.

SHEAR debuted a new event this year: four graduate-student lunch seminars devoted to hot subfields, each hosted by two senior scholars. This year’s seminars centered on capitalism, labor, and political economy; slavery and race; politics; and cultural history. The lunches were a great way to meet fellow early-career scholars from different institutions, to build a sense of intellectual community, and to discuss what makes our respective fields exciting and significant. At the capitalism lunch, for instance, we enjoyed rich conversations about how and why labor history has changed in recent decades, about the field’s relationship to definitions of “capitalism,” and about the methods we use and the recent work that has invigorated our own. Our hosts, Christopher Clark and Paul Gilje, embargoed any discussion of our own respective projects until the last twenty minutes of the lunch, which helped open up discussion to consider the field as a whole. The nine grad students who attended agreed that while recent studies of capitalism are deeply innovative in the ways they apply the methods of cultural history to (political-)economic questions, “THE History of Capitalism” is not as revolutionary a field as the news coverage might suggest. Our work is as indebted to Jeanne Boydston, Charles Sellers, Joan Jensen, and Gary Nash as it is to Stephen Mihm, Sven Beckert, Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, and Walter Johnson. All agreed that the lunch seminars were a resounding success and should become an annual feature. I’d only suggest that, next year, the senior hosts circulate in advance a few questions for discussion. A bit more preparation would have allowed us to better address not just what’s new and exciting, but also what questions remain unanswered and where our field should head next.

One of the weekend’s greatest highlights was Ann Fabian’s presidential address, delivered in the House Chamber of North Carolina’s Old State Capitol. Fabian told the story of William Blanding—a doctor, apothecary, and mediocre itinerant naturalist—to chart the early republic’s evolving “register of everyday life” from nature to the market, and to illuminate the connections between slavery, commerce, religion, and society. She followed his specimen-collecting trips, many of which were paved by his wife Rachel’s evangelical connections. She discussed Blanding’s hired enslaved assistant, and his work supplying medical kits to plantations; Blanding insisted he never “owned” a slave, but he certainly benefited from the institution, Fabian argued. In the room where North Carolina officially threw in with a secessionist slaveocratic republic four years after Blanding’s death, Fabian explored his varied relationships with slavery and with enslaved individuals to demonstrate that the institution touched everything in and about the early republic. There was also a very nice turtle. The talk did what Fabian’s style of cultural history does best: it honed in on someone unexpected, even obscure, and used him to cast a raking light on the broader culture and society.

The Saturday banquet celebrated the affirming and exciting community that we SHEARites are lucky to call our intellectual home. Much-deserved prizes went to Rachel Hope Cleves’s Charity and Sylvia, François Furstenberg’s When the United States Spoke French, Catherine McNeur’s Taming Manhattan, Brian Rouleau’s With Sails Whitening Every Sea, and Shane White’s article, “Freedom’s First Con: African Americans and Changing Notes in Antebellum New York City.” Sarah Levine-Gronningsater received the SHEAR manuscript prize for her dissertation, “Delivering Freedom: Gradual Emancipation, Black Legal Culture, and the Origins of Sectional Crisis in New York, 1759-1870.” SHEAR’s indefatigable conference coordinator (emeritus), Craig Friend, received the Distinguished Service Award, and a new book prize in women’s and gender history was named in honor of a very surprised Mary Kelley.

Around the turn of the 19th century, John Stewart, Kirsten Fischer’s globetrotting freethinker, denigrated scholarship as the “musty volumes of recorded error.” I like to think SHEAR 2015 would have changed his mind. See you next summer for SHEAR 2016 in New Haven!

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