The Mission of SHEAR

Adopted July 2004

Established in 1977, the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) is an association of scholars dedicated to exploring the events and the meaning of United States history between 1776 and 1861. SHEAR’s mission is to foster the study of the early republican period among professional historians, students, and the general public. It upholds the highest intellectual standards of the historical profession and encourages the broad diffusion of historical insights through all appropriate channels, including schools, museums, libraries, electronic media, public programming, archives, and publications. SHEAR cherishes a democratic ethos in scholarship and cultivates close, respectful, and productive exchanges between serious scholars at every level of experience and recognition. SHEAR membership is open to all; most members are professional historians employed in colleges, universities, museums, and historical parks and agencies, as well as independent scholars and graduate students.

The Significance of the Early American Republic

The founding era of the United States has special public significance, not only for historians, but for every American citizen. This feature of early republican history creates a special responsibility for its scholars and special incentives for other cultural institutions to join SHEAR’s efforts to deepen public understandings of the age.

The era of the early republic begins with the founding of the United States through the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and these texts endure as defining covenants of the American nation-state. Beyond their clear institutional importance, the civic ideals enunciated in these founding documents remain touchstones of publicly-sanctioned national identity and public culture across the American political spectrum. This remains true even as we understand that practice in the republic has not always matched precept, either then or later.

Beyond conspicuous moments of public nation-building, the era of the early republic also saw a dramatic series of other, parallel foundings that created much of the ideological, institutional, and economic framework of American public life. New states, towns, and cities, mass political parties, voluntary associations, reform groups, religious organizations, educational efforts, labor unions, business corporations, government agencies, and family structures all emerged from the early republican era.

The framers of these key institutions established most of them with the consciousness that they too were engaged in a larger process of national founding, and often drew deliberately on “republican” concepts to justify their actions or to judge their success. The founding process also entailed a massive geographical expansion of the United States, bringing opportunities to many Euro-Americans, extended sites of enslavement for African-Americans, and even more deadly consequences for Native Americans. The consequences of U. S. expansion reverberated throughout the American continent and formed a central aspect of the republic’s early history.

Beyond the realm of public life, moreover, in the so-called private sphere of women, families, and small groups of the oppressed or the like-minded, the process of creating new identities, new forms of interconnection, and new bases for community life expanded energetically in this period, often drawing explicitly on contemporary efforts at public nation-building. Even those who suffered most in the early republic, notably women, blacks, and Indians, frequently called on its professed ideals to measure its shortcomings and to voice their own aspirations. In other words, Americans who burned the Constitution as a “covenant with death,” or searingly asked “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” or modeled their declaration of women’s rights on the Declaration of Independence, or resisted invasion by founding a Cherokee republic, were deeply engaged with the republican founding process in ways that twenty-first century observers may not fully appreciate.

The story of the early republic does not end with its first generation, for the Framers and their contemporaries embedded a grave contradiction between slavery and freedom in its defining covenants. The gravity of this contradiction became increasingly and ineluctably more obvious, even as generations of American leaders struggled to avoid it. The antebellum decades also saw the flowering of numerous developments in social, economic, political, and cultural history which originated in earlier years but only reached maturity thereafter. A national tradition of arts and letters, for example, whether shaped by the giants of the American Renaissance, by nameless folk artists, or by marginalized writers like the authors of slave narratives, was a key aspect of republican founding that took decades to emerge. SHEAR therefore understands the period of the early republic to include the generation of growing national consciousness and gathering sectional crisis that eventually cracked open the Framers’ construction, forced a decisive confrontation with its most fundamental contradiction, and finally pushed the United States beyond its founding era to a dramatically different future.

The rich complexity and enduring significance of the early American republic draw the members of SHEAR to its history and invite us to share what we learn with a wider audience in contemporary American life. While the American republic was not completed or frozen at its moment of origins, its founding is the seedbed of much of our current public life, and Americans of all stripes frequently feel compelled to cite its examples both for validation and criticism of its diverse currents. While these realities do not exhaust the reasons why study of the early republic is important, they do generate an ongoing public appeal among Americans for the finest available scholarship on the period, and suggest why partnerships with SHEAR may be attractive to a wide variety of publicly-engaged institutions.

SHEAR Activities

During its quarter-century existence, SHEAR has pursued its mission in two primary ways. First has been its quarterly journal, The Journal of the Early Republic (JER). Peer reviewed and exactingly edited, the JER provides specialists with an outlet for their research and informs readers of important developments in all aspects of the field, including social, political, economic, and cultural history. SHEAR’s second major activity is its annual meeting, usually held on a university campus during the third week in July. The SHEAR convention attracts about 300 attendees from the United States and abroad and gives scholars the opportunity to deliver papers and receive commentary on their work.

Twin commitments to academic excellence and intellectual democracy drive all of SHEAR’s activities. The organization’s members include an unusually large proportion of highly accomplished scholars. The outstanding quality of the JER has just been recognized by an unsolicited invitation to participate in J-STOR, the online archive of superior academic journals. Yet the journal and the annual meeting are both marked by an intensely democratic ethos. SHEAR strives to bring senior and junior scholars together on an equal footing, to encourage fresh voices in its ongoing conversation, to maintain a friendly and respectful atmosphere, and to make ideas rather than status the measure of discussion. Surveys of SHEAR members have consistently shown that this quality of open, supportive, and informed exchange at every level is the society’s most valued asset, one that members are anxious to preserve as SHEAR continues to evolve.

Looking to the Future

As its own founding generation recedes, SHEAR now moves to a new phase of its own history. In 2004 a consortium of four Philadelphia historical institutions agreed to provide SHEAR with its first permanent home. These institutions include the American Philosophical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Temple University has since joined this consortium of supporting institutions. The Journal of the Early Republic moved to Philadelphia and now is published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Related administrative changes have enhanced the society’s routine operations and provide support for an expanded SHEAR mission.

SHEAR’s new institutional home has created an enormously exciting opportunity to offer new and expanded services to its members and to a larger public. Documentary collections held by members of the consortium and other area institutions are crucial for historical research and highly attractive to specialists in the early republic. As the capital of the early republic, Philadelphia draws thousands of visitors annually to its historical landmarks, many of whom would welcome a deeper exposure to thought-provoking historical scholarship. In the next phase of its history, SHEAR will reach out more actively to both groups.

Enhanced opportunities for scholarship are fully consistent with SHEAR’s existing commitments and will strengthen ties between junior and senior scholars. Expanded travel grants to Philadelphia archives and other repositories, earmarked fellowships for research in the early republic at our Philadelphia partner institutions, joint activities with museum and public history professionals, and specialized conferences to pursue topics of particular interest are among the ideas now under discussion.

Outreach to a wider public is a more ambitious expansion of SHEAR’s work, but is likewise consistent with its fundamental mission. The founding era is intensely interesting to Americans, and SHEAR members would like to respond by contributing their best current scholarship to the fund of public memory. SHEAR in Philadelphia is better positioned to play this role than any other group of professional scholars. The effort to share insights with a larger public is thus a natural extension of SHEAR’s educational mission. If properly carried out, outreach can likewise bring greater strength and support to the society and its field of learning.

Proposals for wider service include summer institutes for teachers, workshops for journalists and policymakers, and mentoring opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students. Further ideas are welcome, consistent with SHEAR’s core commitments to intellectual democracy and rigorous, innovative scholarship.
SHEAR cannot pursue its broadened vision alone. Renewed investment is the key to new fields of service. SHEAR has begun with special appeals to its members and they have responded. It likewise turns to individuals, foundations, universities, museums, and related institutions who share its belief in the centrality of the early republican experience. A commitment to join in SHEAR’s expansion is an ideal way to project that faith into the future. SHEAR invites all who share its priorities to invest in the effort to bring the best professional scholarship into our national dialogue.

The ideas and institutions of the United States’ founding era are part of the cultural legacy of every American. The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic seeks to enrich that legacy with the deepest insights of historical research, combined with a spirit of intellectual democracy best expressed in ongoing communication with the American public. Joining with others who share this vision, SHEAR eagerly moves forward to embrace its task.