Interview with Michael Blaakman, 2016 SHEAR Manuscript Prize Winner

Michael Blaakman is an assistant professor of history at University of St. Thomas. His Yale University dissertation, “Speculation Nation: Land and Mania in the Revolutionary American Republic, 1776-1803,” won the 2016 SHEAR Manuscript Prize.

The Republic (TR): Since most SHEARites won’t be able to read your dissertation until it is published, would you please provide a synopsis?

Michael Blaakman (MB): Certainly! Speculation Nation is a political and cultural history of the frenzied wave of land speculation that swept the new republic in its first quarter-century. As folks who’ve spent time swimming around in family papers from the 1780s and 90s know all too well, this was an era when thousands of elites were buying up millions of acres of claimed or expropriated Native American land—what Euro-Americans considered their own “public” domain—expecting that they’d be able to resell it for astronomical profits. The speculative market grew so furious, and so unprecedented in scale, that contemporaries and historians alike have described it as a “mania.” My study asks what that meant, why a “maniacal” market in lands emerged, and what it has to tell us about the outcome of the American Revolution and the origins of U.S. empire.

I find that the answer lies in the explosive connection Americans forged between expropriated land and the fiscal and political constraints of revolutionary state formation. Speculation Nation uncovers a nationwide pattern: in the years following independence, state and national U.S. governments framed settler-friendly policies for converting the Native lands they claimed into public revenue. But by the 1790s they had changed tacks and were selling vast tracts to speculators with alacrity. My manuscript follows land speculators “in action” to understand that shift—why speculators chose to invest so deeply in the imagined future of an American empire, and how they managed to do so. I reconstruct their strategies for lobbying and bribing governments, for hounding veterans to sell their depreciated land bounties, and for exploiting loopholes in land policies and the money system and federalism’s multiple sovereignties. I trace their attempts to grapple with Native American resistance, to develop the legal and cultural tools to commodify land, to market the yeoman ideal while waiting for land values to rise, and to court European investors and migrants.

Ultimately, Speculation Nation argues that land became a mania when Americans cast the sale of Native land to speculators as the basis of revolutionary statebuilding. By financializing the land that undergirded the settler-colonial early American “dream,” speculators inserted themselves into the process of expanding a republican empire.

TR: What led you to choose this dissertation topic?

MB: It was a convergence of things. I had encountered lots of revolutionary-era chatter about land speculation in prior research, and always felt mystified by it. So questions about it were banging around the back of my head. But I had arrived at grad school interested in political culture; I was intimidated by anything that smacked of economic history, and wished not to touch it with a ten-foot pole. My entering cohort, however, included a handful of brilliant students of twentieth-century labor history and political economy. I became excited by the questions they were asking—the ways they sought to cut across the boundaries that have typically divided the study of politics from the history of economic life.

At about the same time, in our own field, innovative studies of capitalism were moving past a prior body of work (Gordon Wood et al.) that had posited the American Revolution as the origins of a democratic capitalism. While prepping for orals, I grew concerned that this newer scholarship had altogether abandoned the Revolution as a causal turning point. Reading in other fields helped me see that literature with a skeptical eye; it convinced me that the state is essential to capital formation, and that periods of state-building—like the American Revolution—*must* therefore matter to the economic stories historians tell.

Then I finally read Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town. I devoured much of it on a road trip and can still remember the towns we passed through as the chapters flew by. I was fascinated by Cooper; I sensed he had this thumb on something central to the contested history of American democracy and statecraft and capitalism, and wanted to know more about folks like him. But when I surveyed the historiography—elite biographies, social histories of settler communities, studies of borderlands conflict—I realized that the goals and methods of land speculators appeared different in every regional study I read. I couldn’t find the overarching, national account I sought, the one that would explain why Federalists and Republicans and others, from Maine to Georgia to Amsterdam, understood themselves as part of a single “mania” for lands, and why it emerged when it did. That was when I realized I’d landed on a problem I’d be excited to grapple with for a decade.

TR: Which historians and/or writers most influenced your research?

MB: One of my favorite parts of being an historian is trying on approaches that I admire in other researchers and writers. This could be a very long list, but to name just a few of the people whose work has influenced my own: my mentor, Joanne Freeman, is my guiding light when it comes to reading evidence to unearth the human stories and unspoken rules that can help us comprehend prior worlds. I try to follow the examples of Jane Kamensky, Seth Rockman, and Stephen Mihm, who’ve managed to spin histories of economic life that normal humans might be interested in reading—no easy task. I’m inspired by new studies of early American political economy by Brian Murphy, Honor Sachs, Gautham Rao, and others, and I look to Steve Pincus, Max Edling, and Peter Onuf to understand how empires and state institutions function. I learned to think about markets, culture, and commodification by reading historians of slavery like Stephanie Smallwood and Walter Johnson, and my analysis is also informed by scholars of settler colonialism like Lisa Ford and Patrick Wolfe. Dan Richter makes me feel like it’s okay for serious scholarship to revel in a bit of wordplay, and serves as my model for centering the moral stakes in history. And by their example, two of my undergrad mentors—Carol Sheriff and Camille Wells—remind me of the joy of historical inquiry and the imperative to get it right.

TR: What is your next project?

MB: For the next couple years I’ll be trying to make Speculation Nation the best book it can be. But as that project winds down, I plan to turn my focus to a book I’m calling “Simcoe: Enemy of the Revolution.” John Graves Simcoe was a globetrotting British official, governor of Upper Canada in the 1790s, and one of the new nation’s most persistent antagonists. He disparaged the new republic as too democratic, and some of the land speculators I’m currently studying considered him the bane of their existence. But his policies in Canada—refugee aid, abolition, state-driven economic development, amicable Indian diplomacy—make him seem modern, even revolutionary, compared to many U.S. founders. I’m interested in that paradox. Both Simcoe and his wife, an artist and diarist named Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe, left sources that provide a rich window on the North American borderlands and the Atlantic world—not just their own experiences, but those of a host of others affected by the emergence of a republican U.S. empire: women and men, settler, Native, free black, and enslaved. Less a dual biography than a character-driven narrative history, this project will use the Simcoes’ lives to probe the meaning of the American Revolution from the outside in.

CFA: Deadline Extended for 2nd Annual SHEAR Second-Book Writers’ Workshop

SHEAR is pleased to announce the second annual SHEAR Second-Book Writers’ Workshop and to invite applications for four sessions at the annual meeting 19-22 July 2018 in Cleveland.

The journey from first to second book can be a difficult one. From choosing a topic for a second book to finding the time and support to research and write, the structure that guides the writing of the dissertation and first book disappears. Many of us struggle with this transition. We wonder if it makes sense to continue a research trajectory clearly laid out in our first project or to try something entirely new. We search for research support at the same time as teaching and service obligations increase. For some scholars, these difficulties are compounded by the obligations of family and child rearing that can make residential fellowships or long-term travel seem impossible. Yet the second book is an essential step in career advancement: a requirement for the promotion to full professorships or even at some institutions, for tenure. In recognition of the unique challenges of this stage, SHEAR’s workshop is designed to support its members at this transitional point in their scholarly careers.

The SHEAR Second-Book Writers’ Workshop replicates some of the structures of feedback that dissertation writers experience. The goals of the workshop include both practical advice and the motivation that comes from writing for and with your peers. To accommodate the many stages of second book production, the workshop encourages flexibility in pre-circulated materials. Organized into genre-based groups, the workshop provides a space for discussion of drafts of book proposals, fellowship applications, chapter drafts, and other documents related to the writing of a second book.

In 2018, workshops will take place in the afternoon of Thursday, July 19 prior to the plenary session. Committed mentors include John Larson, Marla Miller, Andrew Shankman, and Rosemarie Zagarri.

To apply to participate, writers of second books should submit via e-mail to 2ndBookSHEAR@gmail.com a single .pdf or Word file that contains a one-page CV and a one-page document comprising a description both of your second book project and of the document that you would like to circulate for the workshop. Applications to participate in the workshop should be submitted no later than April 1, 2018, and applicants can expect to hear back by mid-April.

Accepted participants’ materials for pre-circulation will be due June 15.

CFA: SHEAR 2018 Graduate Research Seminars

SHEAR is pleased to open registration for the 4th annual graduate student research luncheon seminars.  Reserve your spot for a free catered luncheon facilitated by two senior scholars in the field on Friday, 20 July 2018.

These seminars permit grad students and senior faculty to discuss common themes, important areas of research, and the challenges faced by scholars in the field.  Conversations in each group may turn alternately to subjects like archives, methodologies, and important secondary literature in their area. Best of all, these seminars help participants to network amongst like-minded scholars, and to find potential partners for organizing panels for future conferences.

Eligibility:

  • The program and lunch are free, but you must be registered for the conference.
  • You need to be currently enrolled in a graduate program or have received an AY 2017-2018 degree.
  • If necessary, preference will be given to those who did not participate in last year’s graduate seminars and who do not already appear on the conference program.

Sessions:

  • Capitalism and Market Culture led by Tamara Plakins Thornton and Christopher Clark
  • Women, Gender, and the Family in the Era of the American Revolution led by Charlene Boyer Lewis and Craig Thompson Friend
  • Legal History and Culture led by Honor Sachs and Sarah Barringer Gordon

Enrollment in each seminar is limited. We aim to assign participants to their first choice; but if that session fills early, we will accommodate participants in other sessions. To apply, please email a dissertation abstract (250 words max) to SHEAR2018@gmail.com with YOURNAME_Grad_Seminar in the subject line by April 20thInclude your graduate program (advisor, department, university), expected completion date, and your first and second seminar choice.

Call for Applications: 2nd Annual SHEAR Second-Book Writers’ Workshop

SHEAR is pleased to announce the second annual SHEAR Second-Book Writers’ Workshop and to invite applications for four sessions at the annual meeting 19-22 July 2018 in Cleveland.

The journey from first to second book can be a difficult one. From choosing a topic for a second book to finding the time and support to research and write, the structure that guides the writing of the dissertation and first book disappears. Many of us struggle with this transition. We wonder if it makes sense to continue a research trajectory clearly laid out in our first project or to try something entirely new. We search for research support at the same time as teaching and service obligations increase. For some scholars, these difficulties are compounded by the obligations of family and child rearing that can make residential fellowships or long-term travel seem impossible. Yet the second book is an essential step in career advancement: a requirement for the promotion to full professorships or even at some institutions, for tenure. In recognition of the unique challenges of this stage, SHEAR’s workshop is designed to support its members at this transitional point in their scholarly careers.

The SHEAR Second-Book Writers’ Workshop replicates some of the structures of feedback that dissertation writers experience. The goals of the workshop include both practical advice and the motivation that comes from writing for and with your peers. To accommodate the many stages of second book production, the workshop encourages flexibility in pre-circulated materials. Organized into genre-based groups, the workshop provides a space for discussion of drafts of book proposals, fellowship applications, chapter drafts, and other documents related to the writing of a second book.

In 2018, workshops will take place in the afternoon of Thursday, July 19 prior to the plenary session. Committed mentors include John Larson, Marla Miller, Andrew Shankman, and Rosemary Zagarri.

To apply to participate, writers of second books should submit via e-mail to 2ndBookSHEAR@gmail.com a single .pdf or Word file that contains a one-page CV and a one-page document comprising a description both of your second book project and of the document that you would like to circulate for the workshop. Applications to participate in the workshop should be submitted no later than March 15, 2018, and applicants can expect to hear back by mid-April.

Accepted participants’ materials for pre-circulation will be due June 15.

SHEAR Seeking New JER Editor

EDITOR: JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC

Applicants sought for the editorship of the Journal of the Early Republic, a quarterly publication committed to the best scholarship on the history and culture of the United States during the early republic (1776–1861). Since its beginning thirty-seven years ago, the journal has carved out a unique and important position in the landscape of historical publications, fostering a rich conversation among specialists of all types who share an interest in the period’s history, in all of its complex dimensions. The JER strives to provide healthy and creative discourse among new and veteran scholars, across a variety of historical topics, including politics, culture, gender, race and ethnicity, class, religion, economic development, and law.

We are willing to entertain a single editor or a pair of co-editors. Editor(s) must be active members of SHEAR at time of appointment and throughout tenure. The successful applicant(s) will serve as editor(s)-elect for a transition period through July 2018. The term of appointment will begin 1 August 2018, and will extend for five years with possibility for renewal. The editorship carries no stipend, but financial support for travel and other related expenses is available. The position requires support from the editor’s home institution, which generally includes course release and some level of administrative assistance, typically in the form of a graduate assistant. In return for supporting the editor’s contributions, SHEAR recognizes the editor’s home institution as a sponsor of the journal.

In general, the editor is responsible for the intellectual content, quality, and timeliness of the journal issues as well as the overall success of the journal by encouraging submissions, reading incoming manuscripts, soliciting referees, evaluating referees’ reports, writing decision letters, working with authors to develop and improve submissions, and editing for content, accuracy, and clarity. We check footnote citations (thus the graduate assistant) as far as possible for accuracy and integrity. The constitutional duties of the editor are:
• Performing all responsibilities associated with the management of the Journal of the Early Republic, including relations with the Journal’s host institutions, authors, the Editorial Board, direct supervision of any editorial staff, and coordination with any publishers, vendors, or other parties contracted to produce and distribute the Journal.
• Recruiting and appointing, with the advice of the President and Advisory Council, members of the Editorial Board to assist with the development of content for the Journal
• Recruiting and appointing, with the advice of the President and Advisory Council, a Book Review Editor for the Journal.
• Appointing an annual prize committee for Best Article Prize.
• Representing the Journal in all deliberations of the Society as an ex-officio member of the Advisory Council and Executive Committee.
• Reporting to the President and the Advisory Council, and submitting an annual report to the Council.

Application Materials: The application package should include:
• Curriculum vitae, highlighting scholarly expertise in the field and editorial experience.
• Vision Statement, no more than 5 pages, describing challenges and opportunities, a vision for the journal, continued development of online presence, and objective milestones for evaluation.
• Description of Institutional Resources addressing the feasibility of serving as editor in light of the institutional resources likely to be available. Preliminary statements of institutional support (including adequate office space and graduate, or other clerical, assistance) from the applicant’s Chair and/or Dean are requested.
• Names and contact information for three references.

Search procedure: Further information may be requested from SHEAR president, Craig Friend at ctfriend@ncsu.edu. Applications must be submitted as one PDF document to Craig Friend as well. Review of applications will begin on 1 February 2018, and will continue until the position is filled. The successful candidate will be required to provide a letter from the sponsoring institution on its commitment of resources to the journal’s success.

Final CFP: SHEAR 2018 in Cleveland

The 40th annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic will convene July 18 – 22, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio.

The program committee invites proposals for sessions and papers exploring all aspects of and approaches to the history and culture of the early American republic, c. 1776-1861. We particularly encourage submissions that

  • reflect the diversity of the past, but also address the most pressing issues of the present;
  • fill gaps in the historical narrative and/or historiography;
  • focus on pedagogy, public history, digital humanities, and other alternative methodologies; and/or
  • foster audience participation, feature pre-circulated papers, or assess the state of a given field.

Individual proposals will be considered, but the program committee gives priority to proposals for complete panels that include a chair and commentator. Attention should be given to forming panels with gendered, racial, institutional, and interpretive diversity, representing as well different professional ranks and careers. Individuals interested in serving as chairs or commentators should submit a one-page curriculum vitae. Please do not agree to serve on more than one proposed panel. The committee reserves the right to alter and rearrange proposed panels and participants. Please employ the guidelines available under the “Annual Meeting” menu when preparing your proposal.

All submissions should be filed as one document (Word doc preferred), labeled with the first initial and surname of the contact person (e.g., “SmithJ2018”). All proposals must include:

Panel title and one-paragraph description of panel’s topic
Email addresses and institutional affiliations for designated contact person and each participant
A title and description in no more than 100 words for each paper
A single-page curriculum vitae for each participant, including chairs and commentators
Indication of any needs for ADA accommodation or requirement
Indication of any audio-visual requests (please request only if A/V is essential to a presentation)

Deadline for submission is December 1, 2017. Please submit your proposals by email (shear2018@gmail.com) to the program committee co-chairs with “SHEAR2018” in the subject line.

Lorri Glover, St. Louis University, co-chair

Ami Pflugrad-Jackisch, University of Toledo, co-chair

Sean Adams, University of Florida

Christopher Bonner, University of Maryland College Park

Emily Conroy-Krutz, Michigan State University

Vanessa M. Holden, Michigan State University

Johann Neem, Western Washington University

Honor Sachs, Western Carolina University

Christine E. Sears, University of Alabama at Huntsville

Chernoh Sesay, DePaul University

Christina Snyder, Indiana University Bloomington

Interview with Caitlin Fitz, 2016 SHEAR Broussard Book Prize Co-Winner

Caitlin Fitz is Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern University. Her book Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions (2016) was co-winner of the James Broussard Best First Book Prize.

The Republic (TR): For those who haven’t read your book, would you please provide a synopsis?

Caitlin Fitz (CF): Our Sister Republics explores the wave of popular enthusiasm for Latin American independence that engulfed the early nineteenth century United States. In the process, it casts new light on popular U.S. thinking about race, revolution, and equality. For in watching other American nations grapple with the meaning of independence, people in the United States were forced to grapple anew with their own revolutionary heritage, and with what kind of nation they aspired to be.

TR: What led you to choose this topic for your book?

CF: I spent the summer before my senior year of college hunched over a microfilm reader at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. I was a research assistant for a biographer of Felix Grundy, tasked with reading every extant newspaper from Tennessee’s first few decades of statehood. After several weeks, I thought I knew what to expect: duels, land lotteries, slave sales, elections. I even learned the names of the region’s fastest race horses. I was starting to think that I knew these people, and I’ll admit that they struck me as whiskey-swilling, gun-toting, tobacco-spitting rustics, consumed mostly by their own local affairs: felling trees, fighting Indians, bearing children, casting ballots, buying slaves, selling tobacco.

I knew that these people did read news from Europe, which seemed logical enough at a time when the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon were tearing the Old World to pieces. What astonished me was the new wave of headlines that increasingly appeared as the early nineteenth century continued: “the brazils,” “buenos-ayres,” “carthagena.” I couldn’t understand it. These Tennesseans had a difficult journey just to get to Natchez and New Orleans, not to mention New York or Philadelphia. I could explain their interest in nearby Mexico.  But South America?  Maybe these people were less insular than I had assumed.

I moved on, but the surprise lingered in my memory. When I got to graduate school several years later—having just returned, actually, from a year in “the Brazils”—I continued noticing references to South America in surprising places, from Appalachian antislavery tracts to those sinewy Tennessee race horses. Indeed, in the midst of his ill-fated presidential bid in 1824, Andrew Jackson named his favorite horse Bolivar, after the hemisphere’s other leading general. That’s when I knew I was onto something.

TR: Which historians and/or writers most influenced your research for this book?

CF: How much space do I have? One thing that made this project such a pleasure to research was that it enabled me to dig into so many wonderfully vibrant subfields. People often hear about my project and assume it’s a history of early U.S. relations with Latin America. They’re certainly not wrong, and scholarship on early U.S. diplomatic history was indeed crucial for me—particularly the wonderful work of James Lewis and David Head, as well as the work of those who have studied territorial disputes over places like Florida and Texas. But what really compelled me to write this book was my conviction that popular U.S. thinking about Latin America sheds light on how ordinary U.S. observers understood revolution, republicanism, and equality at home.

Five overlapping subfields were especially fundamental to my project’s development.  First were studies about how the French and Haitian revolutions shaped the early United States. I was riveted by the work of Rachel Hope Cleves, Seth Cotlar, Alec Dun, François Furstenberg, Julia Gaffield, Ashli White, and many others.

Second, I couldn’t have made sense of the popular displays of hemispheric ardor—and the relationship between ordinary people and formal politics more generally—without the work of “new new political historians” like Joanne Freeman, Simon Newman, Jeff Pasley, David Waldstreicher, and Rosemarie Zagarri.

Third, scholars of the politics of slavery and abolition—including Robert Pierce Forbes, Matt Mason, Caleb McDaniel, Ed Rugemer, and Manisha Sinha—helped me contextualize U.S. thinking about Spanish American antislavery efforts.

Fourth were historians of independence-era Latin America.  Marixa Lasso’s work on Colombia was especially crucial given my interest in how black as well as white U.S. audiences understood Spanish American race relations.

Last but not least, I learned a lot from my co-winner, Matt Karp—another hemispherically-minded U.S. historian! I was lucky to benefit from his ideas at a formative stage when we were both McNeil Center fellows.

TR: Most Americans have probably never considered the influence of the Latin American revolutions on the development of the early American republic. Do you think this oversight is because of ethnocentrism, or is it something else?

CF: I don’t know that ethnocentrism quite explains it—our understanding of early American history has flourished in recent years because of groundbreaking work on African American history, Native American history, borderlands, and #vastearlyamerica, to name just a few. I suspect the oversight stems more from the geographic lenses we get accustomed to. After all, I’m not the first to study the early United States from a hemispheric perspective. In the middle third of the twentieth century, historians like Samuel Flagg Bemis, Laura Bornholdt, Charles Carroll Griffin, and Arthur Whitaker wrote sweeping histories of early inter-American relations; Herbert Bolton was drawing similarly provocative hemispheric comparisons. But the rise of NATO and Atlantic history tended to redirect scholars’ attention to connections across the Atlantic, particularly across the North Atlantic. In some ways I’m just drawing us back to that earlier (and complementary) hemispheric lens, updating it with fresh insights from social and political history in the United States and Latin America alike.

Language also helps to explain the oversight, of course. If you know Spanish, Portuguese, and French and you want to become a historian, the obvious thing for you to do is become a Latin Americanist. But I had already fallen in love with the study of U.S. history, so I just decided to see if I could put my languages to use closer to home.

TR: What is your current project?

CF: I’m investigating the extraordinary life of Emiliano Mundrucu, a Brazilian-born revolutionary of color who fled to the United States in 1825 and helped to inform the antislavery and equal rights movements at a pivotal moment. His story illuminates the impact of inter-American connections within African-American and abolitionist communities from the late eighteenth century through the Civil War.

Interview with Jane Kamensky, 2016 SHEAR James Bradford Biography Prize

book coverJane Kamensky is Professor of History at Harvard University and Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. In addition to winning the 2016 James Bradford Biography Prize from SHEAR, A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley (2016) was awarded the New-York Historical Society’s Barbara and David Zalaznick Book Prize in American History and the Annibel Jenkins Biography Prize of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. It was also a finalist for PEN’s Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, the Marfield Prize for Arts Writing, and the George Washington Book Prize.

The Republic (TR): For those who haven’t read your book, would you please provide a synopsis?

Jane Kamensky (JK): A Revolution in Color tells an off-kilter story of British America in the age of the American Revolution through the biography of the New England-born painter John Singleton Copley. Born on the eve of King George’s War, Copley came of age in a thoroughly British Boston, with streets named Queen and King, and book stores and coffee houses touting the latest news from London. He identified thoroughly with an imperial imaginary, dreaming of a world in color an ocean away. When Boston grew heated over taxes in the 1760s, he identified as a Son of British Liberty, and hoped for a return of the status quo ante. He painted men and women on all sides of the conflict–Paul Revere and Thomas Gage, Samuel Adams and Francis Bernard–who doubtless gave him an earful while they sat for their portraits. But when shouting turned to shooting, he, like Melville’s Bartleby, simply preferred not to. Copley’s life and work make visible, literally visible, the viewpoints of that large group of early Americans whose preferred side in Britain’s American War was neither. As Yeats would say of another revolutionary conflict more than a century later, he thought “the worst [were] full of passionate intensity.” He himself lacked political conviction, focusing his own intensity on art and family strategy rather than matters of nation or party. His rise and fall show both the terrors of revolutionary fervor, and the costs of passivity in an age where people insisted on forging their own destinies. Like the Revolution itself, it’s a very ambivalent story.

TR: I would venture to say that many Americans have never heard of John Singleton Copley. What led you to choose him as the subject for this book?

JK: If they haven’t heard of Copley, they’ve seen his work. His Paul Revere is surely the second most famous face of revolutionary America, and we see a version of it every time we hoist a bottle of Sam Adams lager. And of course, Bostonians know Copley as written into the very landscape of the city: Copley Square, the Fairmont Copley Hotel, Copley T station. But the irony is, Copley’s life doesn’t support his use in contemporary culture, which follows a kind of New England nationalism. That gap was interesting to me. Plus, the evidence is very rich: in addition to his dazzling painted work, Copley and his kin left hundreds of letters, which is true for very few artists. Those letters allowed a muddled, middling character to emerge from the swirl of events in the age of revolution. Like a Copley portrait, he’s a well mottled character. We have too few of those in the literature of revolutionary heroes and villains.

TR: In 2008, your novel Blindspot, co-written with Jill Lepore, was published. How does writing a historical novel differ from writing non-fiction? Do you think that experience influenced your writing of A Revolution in Color?

JK: Blindspot actually introduced me to Copley’s letters; Fanny Easton, the protagonist I wrote for that novel, is based in many ways on Copley. Writing a novel was a wonderful chance to think about the past in sensory and affective terms. Writing history is a more distant enterprise in many ways, but Blindspot taught me fresh ways to seek the story, and to think about reading the past forward, and from the inside out.

TR: What is your current/next project?

JK: I’m working on another biography of an artist in an age of revolution: the feminist pornographer Candida Royalle (1950-2015). It’s a departure in many ways, but has surprising continuities as well. I’m still living part-time in the eighteenth century, via a number of teaching and writing projects.

CFP: SHEAR 2018 in Cleveland

The 40th annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic will convene July 18 – 22, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio.

The program committee invites proposals for sessions and papers exploring all aspects of and approaches to the history and culture of the early American republic, c. 1776-1861. We particularly encourage submissions that

  • reflect the diversity of the past, but also address the most pressing issues of the present;
  • fill gaps in the historical narrative and/or historiography;
  • focus on pedagogy, public history, digital humanities, and other alternative methodologies;
  • foster audience participation, feature pre-circulated papers, or assess the state of a given field.

Individual proposals will be considered, but the program committee gives priority to proposals for complete panels that include a chair and commentator. Attention should be given to forming panels with gendered, racial, institutional, and interpretive diversity, representing as well different professional ranks and careers. Individuals interested in serving as chairs or commentators should submit a one-page curriculum vitae. Please do not agree to serve on more than one proposed panel. The committee reserves the right to alter and rearrange proposed panels and participants. Please employ the guidelines available under the “Annual Meeting” menu when preparing your proposal.

All submissions should be filed as one document (Word doc preferred), labeled with the first initial and surname of the contact person (e.g., “SmithJ2018”). All proposals must include

  • Panel title and one-paragraph description of panel’s topic
  • Email addresses and institutional affiliations for designated contact person and each participant
  • A title and description in no more than 100 words for each paper
  • A single-page curriculum vitae for each participant, including chairs and commentators
  • Indication of any needs for ADA accommodation or requirement
  • Indication of any audio-visual requests (please request only if A/V is essential to a presentation)

Deadline for submission is December 1, 2017. Please submit your proposals by email (shear2018@gmail.com) to the program committee co-chairs with “SHEAR2018” in the subject line.

Lorri Glover, St. Louis University, co-chair

Ami Pflugrad-Jackisch, University of Toledo, co-chair

Sean Adams, University of Florida

Christopher Bonner, University of Maryland College Park

Emily Conroy-Krutz, Michigan State University

Vanessa M. Holden, Michigan State University

Johann Neem, Western Washington University

Honor Sachs, Western Carolina University

Christine E. Sears, University of Alabama at Huntsville

Chernoh Sesay, DePaul University

Christina Snyder, Indiana University Bloomington

Interview with Matthew Karp, 2016 SHEAR Broussard Book Prize Co-Winner

Matthew Karp is Assistant Professor of History and Elias Boudinot Bicentennial Preceptor at Princeton University. His book This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2016) was co-winner of the James Broussard Best First Book Prize.

The Republic (TR). For those who haven’t read your book, would you please provide a synopsis?
Matthew Karp (MK): The book explores the ways that southern slaveholders directed U.S. foreign policy in the decades before the Civil War. Slaveholders were overrepresented in every branch of the antebellum federal government, but as presidents, cabinet officers, congressional committee chairmen, and diplomats, they were especially dominant in the realm of foreign and military policy. After the shock of British emancipation in the Caribbean, the book argues, antebellum southern elites came to understand the United States as the western hemisphere’s leading champion of slavery. Slaveholders embraced an assertive, even aggressive foreign policy that mustered the full force of the federal government to help protect slave property across the hemisphere, from Texas to Cuba to Brazil. The antebellum era’s most ambitious military reformers were proslavery leaders like Secretary of the Navy Abel Upshur of Virginia and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Far from isolated reactionaries, decrying the advance of modernity, America’s most powerful slaveholders were confident that slavery — by the 1850s, more extensive and more prosperous than ever — was fully compatible with modern development on a global scale. Only the victory of Abraham Lincoln and the antislavery Republican Party in 1860 convinced southern elites to abandon the United States and found their own independent slaveholding republic.

TR: What led you to choose this topic for your book?
MK: It goes back a while. As an undergraduate, my favorite courses were on 20th century U.S. foreign policy — with class discussions that pivoted on the great ideological and strategic struggles of the 20th century, between fascism, communism, and capitalism. It occurred to me that not many people wrote about 19th century foreign relations in the same terms, even though the struggle over slavery was in some ways just as epochal and just as international. I did my undergraduate thesis on slavery, antislavery and the British response to the U.S. annexation of Texas. In graduate school, working with two historians of the South (Steven Hahn and Stephanie McCurry), I decided to focus more explicitly on the South and foreign policy. That led pretty directly to the foreign policy of slavery.

TR: Which historians and/or writers most influenced your research for this book?
MK: That would be a long list — and my endnotes probably tell the story more eloquently than anything I can say here. But to zoom out for a bit, my list should probably begin with W.E.B. DuBois, whose writings on Atlantic slavery and the Civil War era built a kind of foundation for the way we understand these things in the 21st century, even as his work was marginalized by the academy during his lifetime. The book’s epilogue is built around Du Bois’s commencement address at Harvard in 1890, which bore the provocative title “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization.” Another legendary historian who thought in very large terms, and whose work I find myself returning to again and again, is Eric Hobsbawm. His influence on the book I think is apparent — even, or perhaps especially, when I disagree with him.

Of course, the book was also shaped by the more recent outpouring of scholarship that approaches the early American republic (and American slavery) in international terms. Rather than tick off an endless list of names, I’ll single out two younger historians whose work had a concrete influence on my own. I was thrilled to share the Broussard prize with Caitlin Fitz, whose research on US attitudes toward Latin American revolutions helped me frame and periodize my early chapters, on the emergence of a distinctively proslavery foreign policy after British emancipation. And Brian Rouleau, whose work I’ve cribbed from since grad school, helped me think about US foreign relations not just in terms of armies and territories, but steamships and oceans.

TR: Many Americans seem to accept the notion that the South was a marginalized region that threw off northern oppression in the secession winter of 1860-61. Why do you think that idea persists, despite the voluminous scholarship that historians have produced that shows otherwise?
MK: It’s an interesting question. Part of the problem, I think, is that often this is really a political battle masquerading as a historical debate. For some people, idea of an oppressed antebellum South — fighting off a bullying Northern overdog — has come to play an important role in their own personal and political identities. It’s sort of a proxy war for more complex contemporary struggles, involving race, class, and region. In that sense, I think historians are kidding themselves if they think that these questions can be resolved, or even advanced, by a non-partisan appeal “to the facts.” To the extent that this is a political struggle, it has to be fought politically. That means appealing to people with arguments that resonate with their everyday lives, not brandishing documentary evidence that proves something about secession, however definitive. I’m not saying we should stop making historical arguments — it’s our job to get the facts right, which means rejecting the bogus narrative of Southern oppression — but I don’t think we should kid ourselves that facts alone will move the ball. The climate change battle is another reminder of this.

Tracing the intellectual genealogy of that idea is somewhat easier. The notion that the South was “marginalized” before 1860, I think, really only takes off after the end of the Civil War, when ex-Confederates like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens composed their long and self-serving histories of the rebellion. For a long time, historians continued to look at the antebellum South from the perspective of Appomattox — consciously or unconsciously using the South’s wartime defeat as a way to emphasize southern weakness before the war. My book joins a host of recent scholarship that thinks we should examine the master class from the perspective of Washington DC, where antebellum southerners actually dominated American politics.

TR: What is your current/next project?
MK: I’ve begun work on a book tentatively called The Radicalism of the Republican Party. Spending a dozen years with proslavery southerners has only underlined my feeling that the national victory of an anti-slavery party in 1860 was a surprising and transformative moment in American political history. After all the recent scholarship re-emphasizing the strength and power of the antebellum master class, I think we need to reconsider the origins, growth, and worldview of the party organization that overthrew that class.