Interview with Mary Sarah Bilder, 2016 James Bradford Biography Prize Winner

Mary Sarah Bilder is Founders Professor of Law at Boston College Law School. Her book, Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention, was the inaugural winner of SHEAR’s James Bradford Biography Prize.

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

Mary Sarah Bilder (MB): Madison’s Notes of the Constitutional Convention remain the standard authority for scholars, historians, journalists, law professors—and with the rise of originalist constitutional argument–lawyers and judges. They created the narrative we inherit of the Convention. Madison’s Hand argues that the Notes do not date in their entirety to the summer of 1787, but were revised by Madison as he changed his understanding about the Convention, the Constitution, and his own role. It explores the manuscript as a text and also as a historical object, an artifact. Over fifty years, Madison transformed the Notes from an incomplete political diary, taken in part for Thomas Jefferson, to a seemingly impartial and objective account of the writing of the Constitution. In the summer of 1787, Madison only completed the Notes through August 21. In the fall of 1789, he wrote the remaining section using rough notes and a secret personal copy of the official Convention journal. He then revised the manuscript and even replaced certain of his speeches in part to accord with Jefferson’s new vision of republican politics. Madison ultimately decided not to publish the Notes in the 1790s and continued to revise them in the decades after his retirement from the presidency. Madison understood his revisions as repeated efforts to create a record—his record—of what he saw as significant in the Convention. Yet each revision—small and large—increased the distance from the summer of 1787. The story of Madison’s composition of the Notes emphasizes his inability—and that of his fellow delegates—to perceive the extraordinary document that the Constitution would become. Tracing Madison’s composition of the Notes guides us back to a moment when the substance and fate of the Constitution remained uncertain.

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

MB: I had never intended to write on any of the Founders. Some years ago I thought I would try and write an article on the Framers as lawyers. In attempting to develop a list, I ran across misidentified law notes by James Madison in the Library of Congress. I wrote an article about Madison and his legal note-taking referring to him as a Demi-Lawyer, a person who never professionally identified as a lawyer. I enjoyed writing about notes and genre (I was an English major as an undergrad and my Ph.D. is from an interdisciplinary program). I thought I would write about Madison’s Convention notes the way a literary scholar might write about a text. I started by trying to find a version of the Notes that represented what they had looked like in the summer of 1787. As I became more familiar with the sources, I realized that there were significant mysteries about the manuscript. In exploring those mysteries, digital technologies allowed me to compare manuscripts at different archives and to take inexpensive watermark photographs. I was fortunate to have the significant cooperation of the Library of Congress and other archives that held Madison manuscripts.

TR: Madison’s Hand won SHEAR’s Bradford Prize for Biography, but it isn’t a traditional biography. How does your book expand historians’ definition of that genre?

MB: Unfortunately, we don’t have a good word for a book that explains how a manuscript/text developed from initial stages to iconic status—and how that also helps us understand the author’s development and the changing historical moment. As I was working on this project, I read Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, which has somewhat of a similar goal. But explaining one’s project as “about the making of a manuscript” doesn’t come off as particularly methodologically sophisticated. Moreover, texts don’t make themselves and so the author is always present. I’m indebted to Jack Rakove who first suggested that the book was really a biography. The word completely captured what I was attempting to do. (At one point, I wrote a part of the introduction attempting to coin a new word to describe a biography of a text (e.g., librography, manuscriptography, scriptography)—but soon decided that biography was expansive enough to incorporate the story of a text. A biography is the story of someone’s life – and a book like mine tells that story through the lens of a particular piece of the person’s writing. It allows the historian to think about the ways in which our images of people are created through the texts they leave – which are themselves self-curated.  For me, the biography label has special meaning. The first article I ever published was called “The Shrinking Back: The Law of Biography” (1992), using literary theories of biography to argue that quotations of copyrighted material used for history or biography were “facts.” It has been fun to come full circle.

TR: What is your current/next project?

MB: I was sorry not to be able to write about women in this book in any meaningful manner. My first book had a chapter on women and colonial constitutionalism. This summer, I’ve been reading around in the wonderful scholarship written over the past several decades about women and politics in the revolutionary period and early republic. I’ve been thinking about how to think about what role women played in the politics of the Convention.

Interview with Rebeccah Bechtold, 2016 Ralph D. Gray Article Prize Winner

Displaying Bechtold_Rebeccah_color.jpegThe Republic (TR): For those who haven’t read your article, would you provide a synopsis?

Rebeccah Bechtold (RB): “A Revolutionary Soundscape: Musical Reform and the Science of Sound in Early America, 1760–1840” examines how the growing accessibility of music in the mid eighteenth century cultivated a wider appreciation for music as an individuated art. In this period, advocates for music linked its practice with the political aims of independence through a shared discourse of sensibility, turning to the science behind sound in order to describe music as an art form capable of communicating to and regulating the emotions of the listening public. Influenced by music’s origins as a sacred art and an Enlightenment rhetoric interested in bodily functions, Americans living and working in the northeastern cities of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York ultimately employed a revolutionary rhetoric that advocated for the aesthetic as a method of reform, accenting music’s potential in safeguarding national harmony and, in the nineteenth century, producing social concord.

TR: What brought you write on this topic, and how does it fit within your broader research?

RB: My research tends to explore the social, cultural, and formal intersections of music, described in the early American period as a “language of feeling,” with its literary counterpart, the sentimental tradition. More specifically, I am interested in how music reshaped prevailing attitudes toward sentimentality and the production of emotion in the United States. I came to write “A Revolutionary Soundscape” while working on building a cultural history of music’s emergence as this emotive aesthetic. Even though my research originally focused exclusively on the nineteenth century (in particular the explosion of musical culture in the 1830s and 1840s), it quickly became clear that the American description of music as a sentimental aesthetic had an earlier foundation—as seen, for instance, in the writings of eighteenth century psalmodists like William Billings and Andrew Law.

TR: As a professor of English, do you find yourself thinking differently from historians about the role of music in history?

Perhaps—I usually begin with a literary text in order to develop questions about the historical use of music and sound. However, I am very much interested in maintaining a historical awareness of how early Americans heard and interacted with music, an approach I first learned from my dissertation chair, Trish Loughran. Much of my work also is informed by the soundscape studies of historians like Mark M. Smith and Richard Cullen Rath. Their work, among others, encouraged me to think more broadly about my archive—the kinds of texts I could use to examine music in its broadest definition, as a cultural phenomenon encompassing a network of music, musicians, composers, listeners, instruments, images, and texts.

TR: What is your current/next project?

RB: I am currently working on two article-length essays that explore sound and music’s function as a mode of religious or spiritual communication. One examines Augusta Jane Evans’s use of the romantic prelude-form in her 1859 Beulah—a novel that overtly studies the tension between religious faith and artistic expression—while the other interrogates the soundscape of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables and its portrayal of sound as a “spiritual medium” capable of countering the destabilizing noise of the modern world.

SHEAR 2016 Roundtable on Hamilton Musical to Air on C-SPAN 3

Dear SHEARites,

At our recent annual meeting, C-SPAN taped panel 19, ‘”History is Happening in Manhattan:” A Critical Roundtable on Hamilton’ and the recording will air this weekend and next on C-SPAN 3.  Look for it on Sunday, 8/21 at 8:00 a.m. and Saturday, 8/27 at 2:00 p.m ET.

After the first airing, it will be available in C-SPAN’s video library for you to view and share the link. In the meantime, here is a preview.

Robyn Lily Davis

Interview with Jen Manion, 2016 Mary Kelley Book Prize Winner

Jen ManionLiberty's Prisoners is Associate Professor of History at Amherst College. Manion’s book, Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America, was the inaugural winner of SHEAR’s Mary Kelley Book Prize.

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

Jen Manion (JM): The book examines the origins of the penitentiary system in the U.S. through the lives of people who were its targets: African Americans, European immigrants, and poor women and men who were struggling to survive, fighting for their own freedom, and seeking to claim for themselves the promises of American independence. It explores how prevailing ideas about race, sexuality, gender, and class influenced which people were targeted for arrest and how they were treated once imprisoned. The book shows how the dramatic changes in governance, politics, and work led to somewhat more widespread expressions of emotion, more liberal attitudes towards sex, greater challenges to social hierarchy, and a hardening of racist views. It specifically shows how men having sex with each other in prison was used as justification for widespread use of solitary confinement and an expansion of punishment more generally. The entire system was organized in highly racialized and gendered ways from the beginning, making it far more than a simple scheme to control the poor but rather one that helped to define the rights and responsibilities citizenship as something for white men, to the exclusion of others.

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

JM: The history of punishment in the U.S. is incredibly important and yet we still know very little about the actual lives, dreams, and actions of those who were subject to its reach and why they were targeted. We know an absurd amount about the actions and aspirations of the political and economic elites and hardly anything about the masses of people who made their wealth and rise to power possible. The penitentiary system — and the carceral state more broadly — is one of the places where these two groups interact intimately on a regular basis. It is undeniable. The founding generation created the idea of imprisonment as the premier approach to punishment, an idea their decedents embraced wholeheartedly by expanding the carceral state dramatically throughout the antebellum period. I wanted to understand the social, political, and economic conditions that made this move seem necessary to them and what its impact has been, not only on people who were arrested and imprisoned but also in the creation of ideals about who deserves rights and protections and who does not.

TR: Are there parallels to today’s criminal justice system that readers might find in your discussion of the Early Republic’s penitentiary system?

JM: People who are critical of mass incarceration and seeking to undo decades of racial disparities in punishment would actually find a great deal of useful information in reading my book. There are several reasons for this. One is that punishment by imprisonment was an invention — it is neither natural nor an inevitable outcome, meaning that there are other ways to imagine a state might hold people accountable for violating its laws. Two, if you really want to get to the heart of the criminalization of African Americans in the U.S., you have to take a long view of the history of slavery and especially how racial difference was understood in the moment of transition from slavery to freedom. This happens in Pennsylvania from the 1780s to the 1830s, laying an ideological foundation for the criminalization of free blacks. Then, as now, the punishment of women and children was given less attention because they are a smaller overall percentage of inmates but they were generally treated terribly and throw doubt over widely held believes Americans have about the desire to cherish and protect women and children. I focus much of this research on women imprisoned because it is a very important dimension of punishment for us to understand and yet few people even realize it happened.

TR: What is your current/next project?

JM: I’m working on a history of gender non-conformity in the nineteenth century called, “Born in the Wrong Time: Transgender Archives and the History of Possibility, 1770-1870.” This project really has three inspirations. I have long collected records pertaining to same-sex relationships between women in the 18th and 19th centuries but in most of them, gender crossing or non-conformity is a very central aspect of the story. Second, I was surprised in researching my first book that the carceral state did not explicitly or actively target people for crossing gender until the 1850s and 1860s and I want to better understand why that was the case. Third, I hope to add to rather slim body of scholarship documenting a “past” for the transgender community.

TR: What are the challenges of researching the Early Republic’s transgender community?

JM: The hardest challenge I face is determining the language to use in writing this history. While it would be anachronistic to assign a transgender identity to someone who lived two hundred years ago, that does not mean that people did not move in the world and understand themselves in ways with clear parallels to that of a modern transgender identity. But most of the records are about such people rather than by them, so I try to write about people in broad, expansive ways that create space and possibility for how they might have lived, how they understood themselves, and how other people viewed and treated them. Scholarship in Queer theory and transgender studies is immensely helpful in this process and I am having a lot of fun. But there is still a great deal of resistance to gender neutral pronouns such as “they” within academic writing. I have already had editors on four or five different pieces undo my careful work by inserting gendered pronouns into my writing. It requires constant editorial vigilance and educating. I usually convince people by the end but that does not mean it is not undone by someone else in the next round of editing. It is impossible for most people to think, write, or edit without labeling people “he” or “she.” That is what we call the gender binary and language fortifies its resilience, even though people live their genders in much more nuanced ways. This project is partly about recovering an archive but it also very much about how we think and write about the past as well.

SHEAR 2017: How To Get a Panel Accepted

Every year, the Program Committee can accept only 50 panels for the conference, and every year the number of proposals goes up. For the 2016 conference we received 75 panel proposals and 31 individual paper proposals, so we had to decline more than a third of all submissions. How do you give your panel the best possible shot at success?

First, read—and follow—the instructions. You’d be surprised by how many proposals ignore them. Nor are we just talking about a missing commentator (panels of three or fewer papers need two comments) or neglecting to list an email address. A number of proposals break the rules of nepotism established by the organization (graduate students from the same institution or with the same advisor, a grad student/advisor combination, a voting member of the Program Committee). Don’t give us easy reasons to lower your ranking before we read the proposal. Finally, please note deadlines. This year’s due date is December 1, 2016.

Second, identify a clear topic or problem that distinguishes you from the pack. One of the Committee’s duties is to try to flesh out the program with something for everyone. Some submissions stand out immediately for their timely or unusual topics. But remember that some of the most exciting areas of our field are also quite popular right now (slavery/race, capitalism/business) which means that competition is fierce. Do what you can to identify your panel as having distinct, vivid, and relevant questions or problems at its center, particularly if your central topic is a popular one. One solution might be to interweave a hot topic with second, less ubiquitous subfield that helps set it apart (slavery and the history of medicine; capitalism and historical memory, and so on).

Third, submit a panel rather than an individual paper. Every year the Committee does what it can with the individual paper submissions—and we often succeed with a minority of them—but these combinations often pale in comparison to the full panel proposals because they lack the intentionality (and require the Committee to come up with chairs and comments). It complicates matters with the Committee if one of the commentators has agreed to serve on more than one proposed panel, so please make sure that the people you have asked for this job have not done so.

Fourth, use social media—as well as members of the Program Committee—to find people. H-SHEAR and Twitter (#SHEAR2017) have proven to be effective ways of bringing people together. It can sometimes be harder to find commentators who might be appropriate, so don’t hesitate to contact the Program Committee, whose members represent a variety of subfields, to ask for suggestions.

Finally, display diversity in your selection of personnel. It is no longer acceptable to submit a panel that’s all-male and all-white, but these are not the only forms of diversity we look for. The best panels have a mix of presenters—by gender, graduate students and professors of different ranks, racial diversity, people from a range of universities, non-academic presenters, people who haven’t appeared on a SHEAR program before or in a while, people who don’t all live within the city limits of one university town.

Good luck! We’re looking forward to seeing your panel proposal later this year.


Douglas R. Egerton, Le Moyne College, co-chair,

Leigh Fought, Le Moyne College, co-chair,

CFP: SHEAR 2017 in Philadelphia

Call for Papers



July 20 – 23, 2017

The 39th Annual Meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic will return to its home in Philadelphia from July 20 – 23, 2017.

The Program Committee invites proposals for sessions and papers exploring all aspects of the history and culture of the early American republic, together with its northern and southern borderlands and transnational connections, c. 1776-1861. We particularly seek:

  • New scholarship in the history of African Americans, Native Americans, the carceral state, gender, and sexuality
  • Work informed by new methodologies and approaches
  • Participants from outside traditional boundaries of the field (for example, the Parks Service)
  • Submissions focusing on pedagogy, public history, and digital humanities.

We also welcome panels that foster audience participation, feature pre-circulated papers, or assess the state of a given field. Scholars who desire to participate in non-traditional sessions (such as pecha-kucha) should also submit proposals.

The Program Committee gives priority to proposals for complete panels (including a chair and commentator). Individual papers will be considered, but we encourage the use of venues like H-NET, Facebook, and Twitter (#SHEAR2017) to locate participants for a full session. Those interested in acting as a session chair or commentator should submit a one-page curriculum vitae. Please do not agree to serve on more than one proposed panel.

All submissions should be in the format of a single electronic document (Word or .pdf) that begins with the surname and first initial of the contact person, e.g., “SmithJ2017.pdf.” This single document should contain:

  1. Panel title & short, one paragraph description.
  2. Proposals for each paper (no more than 100 words each).
  3. Single-page curriculum vitae for each participant. Panels of three or fewer papers must have two commentators; no panels can have two participants from the same institution or an advisor/grad student combination.
  4. Indication of any needs for ADA accommodation or requirement. Also indicate any special requests, such as audio-visual equipment. A/V requests will be honored only if technology is integral to presentation. Requests made after proposal submission may not be granted.
  5. Email addresses for the designated contact person and each participant.

Please note that all program participants will be required to register for the conference.  The deadline for submissions is December 1, 2016. Please submit your proposals by email either to Doug Egerton, or Leigh Fought, with SHEAR2017 in the subject line.


Douglas Egerton, LeMoyne College, co-chair

Leigh Fought, LeMoyne College, co-chair

Thomas Balcerski, Eastern Connecticut University

Carol Einhorn, University of California, Berkeley

Carol Faulkner, Syracuse University

Richard Follett, University of Sussex

Craig Thompson Friend, North Carolina State University

David Head, Spring Hill College

Brenna Holland, University of the Sciences

Adam Jortner, Auburn University

Sowande’ Mustakeem, Washington University in St. Louis

Elizabeth Pryor, Smith College

Indian Factories and the American Empire of Commerce

Today’s post was written by David A. Nichols, associate professor of history at Indiana State University. It is based on his new book, Engines of Diplomacy: Indian Factories and the Negotiation of American Empire (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

The American purchase of Louisiana had many consequences, but in the beginning it was mainly an affair of commerce. Thomas Jefferson and his partisans made their deal with Napoleon not to acquire land but to control the Mississippi River, conduit for one-third of the United States’ trade. Commerce also became the means whereby the Jeffersonians, leery of armies and large bureaucracies, planned to realign their new Trans-Mississippi domain’s Native American majority. The Corps of Discovery, one of several parties sent to reconnoiter the new territory, bore additional responsibility for opening peaceful trade with the northern Plains Indians. As Lewis and Clark approached the Continental Divide, another group of federal officers entered the eastern Louisiana Territory to turn vague promises of American trade into reality. These were the employees of the United States’ Indian factory system.

The factories already comprised a growing network of trading posts in the Trans-Appalachian West, selling manufactured goods at cost and buying Indians’ peltries and other wares at market prices. The public traders, or factors, who ran these posts sought to lure Native Americans away from foreign traders and make them economic clients of the United States. Economic clientage would then lead to political alliance. “Commercial connections,” as George Washington argued in 1784, “of all others are the most difficult to dissolve.” Washington would go on to champion a federal trading-house system, modeled on the “truck houses” operated by several British colonies, as a guarantor of peace after the Northwest Indian War (1790-94). His Jeffersonian successors built a dozen more factories, believing that trade and commercial debt would make Indians both friendly to the United States and pliant enough to cede their lands.

By 1802 federal officials, or at least some of them, had begun learning that Native Americans were not mere instruments of someone else’s policy. They were instead a diverse set of peoples with their own economic and social histories. The experiences of factors and their Native American counterparts in the Mississippi Valley drove this point home.

Many Indians living in the Louisiana Territory already had multiple private trading partners, like Bright & Morgan of Arkansas Post and Saint Louis’s Chouteau family. The Osages and Sauks and their neighbors used the federal factories as alternate business places, but still sold most of their peltry to their more familiar private partners. When Native Americans did come to the factories to trade, the exchange did not always go smoothly. Sometimes Indians wanted to sell things that factors refused to buy: in the late 1810s Comanches offered to sell horses (the economic base of their “empire”) to the trading house at Sulphur Fork, but the factor demurred, suspecting that his guests offered stolen property. More often, Indian hunters used the federal trading houses to dump wares that private traders wouldn’t buy, but the more conciliatory factors would. Deerskins were the most noteworthy example: in the early nineteenth century falling European demand for deer leather glutted the market with deerskins, but the Natchitoches factory at still bought 130,000 pounds of them between 1806 and 1811.

Native Americans also sold the factors goods for which there was only a local market: meat, wild rice, and baskets, for example. In this case they were not dumping a commodity but taking part in what James Carson calls a “hospitality economy,” offering food and housewares not only as exchange items but to maintain amicable relationships with the factors. The hospitality exchange was not unilateral: Indian visitors to the factories expected factors to offer them food, lodging, and gifts. One factor, George Sibley of Fort Osage, observed that he “frequently” prepared dinner for “an Osage chief or war captain” and his companions and daughters (“princesses”). Through such pleasantries Native Americans “naturalized” the federal trading houses and turned the factors into fictive kinsmen.

Indians did not hold a monopoly on agency. The factors and their superiors in the War Department made decisions that shaped the western factories’ relationship with their Native American trading partners. They closed trading houses at inconvenient locations, or which had too many private competitors, like Bellefontaine near Saint Louis. Bellefontaine’s two successor posts, Fort Osage in western Missouri and Fort Madison in modern Iowa, enjoyed a far higher volume of business: Sauks and Mesquakies annually sold the latter factory 35,000 pounds of lead, while Fort Osage’s factor George Sibley shipped about 60,000 deerskins and smaller furs over a five-year period. Factors turned both of these newer trading houses into diplomatic assets for their government. Sibley endeavored to connect the Osages, Kansas, and United States in what Andrew Isenberg described as a regional trading alliance, while Fort Madison became valuable enough to the Sauks and Mesquakies that during the War of 1812 federal officials encouraged a faction from these nations to move to central Missouri (away from British influence) by transferring their factory there. After 1815, the War Department continued to sustain advantageous alliances through its trading houses, using the new Spadre Bluffs factory to arm emigrant Cherokees whom the United States supported in their internecine war against the Osages.

In the aggregate, the Indian factories served as points of interethnic contact, reifying the borderland, the shadowy zone of contested influence, that the United States had projected across the Mississippi River. They also became places of dialogue between federal policies and Native American agendas, with the latter frequently superseding the former. Ultimately, though, the trading houses strengthened American influence and power by driving foreign competitors out of business and persuading Native Americans to become, if not clients of the United States, at least their allies. After the War of 1812 a growing white settler population would use that power to curtail Indians’ independence, offering Native Americans cash and goods not for their peltries but their lands, and threatening them with violent displacement if they refused. That those settlers no longer believed they needed to build their power through trade, that they felt the factories had served their purpose, became evident in 1822, when one of their political leaders, Thomas Benton of Missouri, led a successful campaign in Congress to shutter the trading houses. The Louisiana Purchase, or at least the eastern part of it, was changing from an empire of commerce into one of white settlement and Indian exclusion.



James Taylor Carson, Searching for the Bright Path: The Mississippi Choctaws from Prehistory to Removal (Lincoln, 1999).

Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia, 2006).

Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven, 2008).

Eric Hinderaker, Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley (Baltimore, 1997).

Andrew Isenberg, “The Market Revolution in the Borderlands: George Champlin Sibley in Missouri and New Mexico, 1808-1826,” Journal of the Early Republic 21 (Fall 2001): 445-465.