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. Continue reading

The Many & the One

Lexington DoolittleLike many, Amos Doolittle struggled to turn in a decent first draft of American history. The 21 year-old engraver, later known as the “Paul Revere of Connecticut,” arrived in Lexington and Concord shortly after April 1775. Anxious to capture the battles’ action and aftermath, he chatted with local residents. He sketched terrain. For Doolittle, a trained silversmith, it was a chance to experiment with a craft he had yet to master. Part of what he produced, a set of four views storyboarding the “shot heard round the world,” hangs in the Boston Public Library’s new exhibit, “We Are One: Mapping America’s Road from Revolution to Independence.” By Doolittle’s lights, Massachusetts makes for a furious and frenzied tableau: gusts of redcoats’ gunpowder hazing the sky, and colonial ranks splintering on the advance. On the American side, it is hardly a picture of union. Patriots scatter, racing blindly to frame’s edge. In his rough draft of Revolution, Amos Doolittle demands that we unlock all hopes of what might come next. Continue reading

Big History: Weighing the Benefits and Drawbacks of a Comparative Project

Casey Schmitt is a PhD candidate in History at the College of William & Mary, where she is writing a dissertation on the Iberian roots of seventeenth-century Anglo-American slave law. This is her second guest post, following her first on the value of storytelling and the use of audiobook primary sources in the classroom here.

barbadosmapA little over a year ago, I switched research interests from the study of eighteenth-century contraband trade between Jamaica and Cartagena de Indias to a comparative study of the codification of slave law in the greater Caribbean. Admittedly not too drastic of a change, I was nonetheless daunted by moving from a historiography containing a select number of significant works to a field where innumerable scholars have dedicated entire careers. Like any graduate student, I began working through the library stacks here at the College of William and Mary, seeking answers to what I thought would be easy questions: Were the legal regimes of European slave societies shaped by their interactions with other slave societies in the Caribbean? Were English slaveholding practices modeled off of successful Portuguese or Spanish examples? Why were there so many institutionalized efforts to codify slave law in the seventeenth century and did these separate legal dialogues unfold in conversation with one another? As you can probably guess, none of these questions have proven as easy to answer as I thought. Continue reading

The Trouble with Global: Early Thoughts from an Early Americanist

mapofthenewworld-debryThis week, I’m wrapping up my survey course on modern global history (1500 to the present). It’s the first time I’ve taught this course. So I have opinions.

Let me just put this right out there: I had long been skeptical about global history as a standard survey course. It seemed too unwieldy, too shallow or spotty in coverage, and way too vulnerable to political ax-grinding. I assumed this course would reinforce old stereotypes: that history is an endless parade of random facts and dates and battles and names of elite men. Or else it would turn into pure theory, and thus an exercise in polemic. Either way, it would have little of the texture of lived experience, which is what I reckon makes history compelling to ordinary powerless students.

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The Week in Early American History

TWEAHWell, technically, this will be the last two weeks in early American history since we missed last Sunday. Let’s get to it: Continue reading

Sinews of Power and Those Power Forgot

A Call to the Most Bland and Boring Pieces of Paper You’ve Ever Skipped Over in the Archives

VouchersReceipts

Vouchers! Receipts! Bills of exchange!

The paperwork of empire, particularly that of credit and finance, is probably not what gets most of us up in the morning. In the archives, we skip over the dull sections of the finding aids—warrants, no thanks!—and instead dive into correspondence and maps and bound volumes and clippings. The more adventurous of us might even call up account books—but those individual receipts? They’re lucky if we ever take them out of the box.

And why would we? Unless we live in a world of down-and-dirty finance or economics or material culture, they seem not only besides the point, but, even more, incredibly hollow. What do we get from reading a quick statement that someone was eventually paid for delivering a barrel of pickled cabbage in 1760? Especially when we can read in frantic detail the correspondence about how that barrel fell into the Mohawk River, burst open, got hauled back onto a bateau, arrived at Fort Stanwix, was re-opened, reeked, was declared unfit for consumption, continued to reek, was declared fit for consumption, reeked some more, ordered northward to Oswego, reeked still, and finally was delivered to a garrison comprised mostly of Germans who (our correspondents assumed) would think they’d been gifted sauerkraut.[1]

It’s the correspondence, we might argue, that gives us actors and action. In it, even a barrel—brown, wooden, boring—becomes something dynamic.

But who delivered that barrel? How long did it take him? Where did he begin his trip? Was he a merchant contractor, a militia man, a professional sled driver? And what did he get out of a journey, in the dead of winter, through the type of paralyzing cold you can only feel in upstate New York, with barrels of spoiled pickled cabbage?

Exceedingly important questions like these suddenly make the boring, bland, bureaucratic paperwork appear just a little (a very little?) more interesting. Continue reading

Jay Gitlin’s French Frontier

Jay Gitlin, The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders, and American Expansion. The Lamar Series in Western History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Jay Gitlin"Bourgeois Frontier" begins this history of the francophone West with geologist William Keating, on an 1823 scientific expedition to the United States’s western frontier, marveling at the number of French speakers he encountered in the Mississippi basin. Who were these people? And why were so many of them still around, six decades after the Seven Years’ War had supposedly terminated the French presence in North America? The Bourgeois Frontier aims to answer these questions, and to explain why—two centuries later—Americans remain as ignorant of these people as Keating had been. The result is a compelling account of the francophone towns that formed a crescent-shaped constellation along the western fringe of the early American republic. In eight chapters of buoyant prose chronicling the 1760s through the Civil War, Gitlin shows how the French Creoles who inhabited these towns adjusted and adapted as American expansion changed their world. Continue reading

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