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.

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.

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.

Interview with Manisha Sinha, 2016 SHEAR Book Prize Winner

Manisha Sinha holds the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. She is the author or editor of several works, including The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (2000). In addition to winning the 2016 SHEAR Book Prize, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (2016) was awarded the Organization of American Historians’ Avery O. Craven Award for Best Book in the Civil War Era (2017), was a finalist for the 2017 Frederick Douglass Book Prize (Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, Yale University), and made the long list for the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

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

Manisha Sinha (MS): The Slave’s Cause is a comprehensive history of abolition that extends its boundaries back to the revolutionary era and employs a social movement perspective to highlight the roles of ordinary men and women, black and white. Challenging conventional historical wisdom, it argues that slave resistance rather than bourgeois liberalism defined the movement and that the abolition overlapped with other contemporary transnational radical movements such as feminism, utopian socialism, pacifism as well as the struggle for labor, immigrant, and Native American rights.

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

MS: If I was to be flippant, I would say that I chose to write about abolitionists because I wanted to write a book about people I liked, my first book was on southern slaveholders. But in a way my first book did lead me to this project. I had written about South Carolinian slaveholders, who were at the vanguard of secessionist and proslavery ideology and I wanted to explore the opposite of that ideological position, which led me to the abolitionists. Ironically, many US historians have been far more respectful of the ideas and words of slaveholding politicians and constitutionalists than abolitionists, whose ideas were commonly dismissed as rhetoric and who were caricatured as unthinking extremists and fanatics. I wanted to engage the words and ideas of these men and women, many of them former slaves, who proved to be a match for the slaveholding class. Of course, it helped that I taught at Massachusetts and many of my archives were near me!

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

MS: The idea for this book was perhaps born in my advisor Eric Foner’s class The Radical Tradition in American History, when he bemoaned that the abolitionists still lacked a good book. Probably most influential were African American writers and historians like W.E.B. Du Bois, Archibald Grimke, Charles Wesley and Carter G. Woodson who had a very different perspective on abolitionists than mainstream American historians, many of whom like David Donald were southerners and quite biased in their view of abolition.

I was also inspired by many recent historians, who had written about various aspects of the movement and groups of abolitionists like John Stauffer, Nell Painter, and David Blight that pointed the way to reimagining the abolition movement as a radical, interracial social movement. I found the work of David Brion Davis to be foundational even when I disagreed with him.

TR: The recent controversy over Confederate monuments has reignited the debate about slavery’s role in the Civil War. While the historical consensus on this topic has been settled for decades, it doesn’t appear that many Americans are aware of the historical evidence that speaks to the institution’s centrality to white southerners’ society. Why do you think the American public is so historically unaware when
it comes to this topic?

MS: I think the public perception and memory of the Civil War and the history if slavery has long been at odds with that of professional historians. That is changing now as more and more prominent historians engage with the public and write books meant to reach wider audiences. But that can be a painfully slow process and here I think one must give credit to public history sites and museums, journalists and writers, who are now making a serious attempt to convey the latest in historical scholarship to larger audiences. There will always be some people who will outright reject information that challenges them and deeply rooted beliefs, a parallel perhaps is climate change deniers. Perhaps we are partly to blame for not conveying our scholarship to broader audiences. I have recently written about this in an anthology, The Future of History, put out by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

TR: What is your current/next project?

MS: I am currently writing a book about Reconstruction. I want to explore what happened to the abolitionist project after the war and why the success of their program for black citizenship was so short lived.

Interview with Donald F. Johnson, 2016 Manuscript Prize Winner

Dr. Don JohnsonAt the 2016 SHEAR conference, Donald F. Johnson, assistant professor of history at North Dakota State University, received the SHEAR Manuscript Prize for his Northwestern University dissertation, “Occupied America: Everyday Experience and the Failure of Imperial Authority in Revolutionary Cities under British Rule, 1775-1783.”

The Republic (TR): How would you summarize the argument of your dissertation?
Donald F. Johnson (DJ): “Occupied America” argues that everyday experiences of military occupation fundamentally changed Americans’ attitudes towards the British Empire in port cities. Occupations began with high hopes on both sides: city residents who remained expected a return to the prosperity of the pre-Revolutionary British Empire, while soldiers and officials expected a pliant population base eager to their allegiance to the king. Although occupation provided opportunities for many civilians to better themselves socially and financially, however, military rule utterly failed to bring about a restoration of imperial authority. Despite its promise, the lived experience of occupation – material hardships brought on by the army, insults to colonists’ perceived position in the Empire, and mismanagement of civil government ultimately alienated many who had once been among the Empire’s most vehement supporters. Thus, when the British army finally evacuated its posts in American port towns, the majority of civilians were happy to see them go.

TR: What led you to choose this topic to research?
DJ:  I was drawn to the topic by watching the failed US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan in the 200s and early 2010s. Touted as nation-building projects and the use of the military as protectors of civil society, these occupations actually sparked or worsened civil wars as they continued. As a student of Revolutionary America, I wondered whether British military occupation in America may have had the same effect, and, after doing a small exploratory study on occupied Charleston, South Carolina, found a much more interesting story.

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

DJ: My first influence has been my doctoral advisor, Tim Breen, who taught me how to ask hard questions of my sources, how to “read between the lines” of primary documents to find previously unheard voices, and how to think like a historian while remaining relatable to a more general audience. Over the course of my research, my biggest influences have been Franklin Jameson’s conception of the Revolution as a social movement, John Shy’s perceptive insights into the social and political dynamics American Revolutionary War, Gary Nash and Benjamin Carp’s studies of the popular politics of Revolutionary cities, David Waldstreicher and Benjamin Irvin’s work on the connection between social ritual and politics, and Ethan Shagan’s insightful study of popular politics during the English Reformation, although countless other works and minds have also informed my own thinking.

TR: Once your dissertation is published, what do you think your next project will be?

DJ:  I’ve got a few projects in mind, but the one that interests me most is an investigation of the Revolutionary War as a transformative event in its own right, rather than simply a War for Independence that followed an already-effected political Revolution. As many scholars have demonstrated recently, the war fundamentally changed the way people in North America thought about their relationship to authority, and these changes did not fall simply along the lines of that elite politicians expected, or their descendants deigned to recollect in their early histories. I’d like to explore how the war itself pushed and twisted the course of the Revolution in different ways, and how taking it seriously as a Revolutionary War, rather than simply a War for Independence, changes our conceptions of that event.

Interview with April R. Haynes, 2016 James H. Broussard Book Prize Winner

April R. Haynes is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her book, Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America, was co-winner of the James H. Broussard Best First Book Prize.

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

April R. Haynes (AH): Riotous Flesh tells a new story about how proscriptions against the “solitary vice” of masturbation became a dominant sexual discourse in the northern United States between 1830 and 1860. Prior historians have analyzed antimasturbation discourse as a means of instilling white men with the restraint required of republican citizens and middle-class economic actors. I argue instead that white female moral reformers and black abolitionist women led the campaign against the solitary vice as part of their larger quests to dismantle the sexual double standard and racialized ideals of femininity.

Women became interested in the solitary vice because crowds of men and boys rioted outside of lecture halls wherever they gathered to listen to Sylvester Graham speak about sexual physiology. Graham gave women the same advice he offered to men, and some of the women’s lectures were racially integrated. The crowds who tried to shut them down overlapped in significant ways with those who participated in both brothel riots and proslavery riots during the 1830s.

In 1837, moral reformers and abolitionists created the Ladies’ Physiology Society of Boston and began to sponsor lectures on sexual physiology by and for women. Members traveled to small-town female moral reform societies, where they persuaded thousands of women that all bodies—male and female, black and white—were subject to a universal set of God-given laws of life and health. The dominant sexual discourse revolved around binary concepts of race and gender, despite the very real presence of people living beyond those binaries in the antebellum North. Reformers strove to erase the sexual line that purportedly separated these poles. They insisted that each individual possessed both the physiological capacity for desire and the moral imperative to restrain it.

The sexual universalism of evangelical physiology contradicted the twin stereotypes of passionless white “ladies” and licentious black “Jezebels” that rationalized so many aspects of white patriarchy. It sparked an interracial moment in moral reform between 1835 and 1840. Black activists such as Sarah Mapps Douglass, Lavinia Hilton, and Nancy Prince urged white women to stop conflating passivity with innocence and act as politically, morally, and sexually accountable beings—particularly by joining the abolitionist movement. Some white reformers, notably the Grimké sisters, Sarah Townsend Smith, and Paulina Wright Davis, embraced active virtue and spurned passive purity. This distinction became fundamental to the nascent women’s rights movement and blossomed into a call for “sovereignty of self.” But other white moral reformers clung to the doctrine of passionless, with its promise of moral superiority. The female moral reform movement fractured over race and sex in the early 1840s.

When moral reform women were the main popularizers of antimasturbation discourse, few Americans took heed. But as the movement splintered, more and more white women turned inward and focused on their own sexual redemption. The word spread from a small, interracial corps of “ultra” reformers to the predominantly white mass culture. In the process, warnings against the solitary vice became a kind of screen behind which white, middle-class women could discuss a broad range of sexual issues without risking their protections and privileges.

Urban entrepreneurs sold tickets to secular anatomy and physiology lectures by appealing to married women’s longing for reproductive control and sexual satisfaction. It became possible to justify graphic public depictions of “amativeness” (heterosexual desire) by warning against the solitary vice. The amative orgasm in women was increasingly considered natural and healthy—yet all agreed that the masturbatory “paroxysm” caused debility, insanity, and death. The solitary vice made heterosexual desire into a social virtue.

The popular physiology lectures of the 1840s also incorporated scientific racism in the form of comparative anatomy. Lecturers and writers represented white women’s amativeness as essentially moderate, black women’s bodies as tending naturally toward “excess.” The sexual universalism promoted by earlier activists faded from memory. Black women and men responded by creating separate institutions that could empower younger people in their communities to develop their own politics of embodiment. The last chapter of the book details Sarah Mapps Douglass’ education of young black girls for anatomical literacy and sexual health. She counseled them toward amativeness, reproductive autonomy, and self-love—but away from the solitary vice.

The marketing of solitary vice discourse dovetailed with its institutionalization in medical practice, asylum administration, and public schools during the 1850s. As medical feminists and educational reformers, women once again led the charge. But over the next two decades, the focus of antimasturbation discourse shifted away from adults of all genders and toward male youth. The “spermatorrhea” diagnosed by mid-nineteenth century American physicians echoed the masculine “onanism” scare of mid-eighteenth century England. Because of women’s agency, Americans paid more widespread attention to such warnings than they had prior to 1830. But the counterdiscursive possibilities that had inspired women to crusade against the gender-neutral solitary vice had disappeared.

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

AH: While doing dissertation research, I stumbled across evidence of the riots at Graham’s “Lecture to Mothers.” I had heard of his Lecture to Young Men on Chastity, but not of the lecture to women only. At the time, I had no interest in writing about moral reformers. I was interested in sex radicals, and I thought female moral reformers represented the most boring aspects of nineteenth-century sexual culture. But the riots really surprised me. Why would men riot to prevent women from hearing a lecture that counseled chastity? What was so threatening about the possibility that women were learning not to masturbate?

When I began following newspaper coverage of the physiology riots between 1833 and 1837, it became clear that women in multiple cities persisted in organizing those lectures and physically resisted the rioters because they recognized that it wasn’t Graham who was being targeted but themselves. Anti-Graham editors argued that the lectures exposed innocent wives and daughters to indecent words and images, but the women in each city invariably denied that the men in the crowd were their husbands and fathers. Rather, they said that the ringleaders were editors of racy papers, actors at scandalous theaters, and brothel proprietors. To test these claims, I began tracking down some of those editors and the men named by reformers as having “gotten up” a particularly violent 1834 riot. I discovered that the female moral reformers were basically right about the composition of the crowds and the motivations of their enemies. The editors who defended the riots overtly stated that white men deserved sexual privileges over and above white women and people of color. They claimed that the lectures promoted “amalgamation” (interracial intimacy), deprived white women of their “freedom from debasing passion,” and threatened to make men into genderless “monsters.”

So the reform women had a point. This was the last thing I expected to find, so profoundly opposed to the whole moral reform project was I. That tension created a puzzle that I wanted to pursue. How could these smart, activist women have been so right about their enemies and also (in my view) so very wrong in the sexual discourse they ultimately produced?

TR: Americans typically think of this period as prudish and private when it came to sexuality. Is that a misconception?

AH: Yes and no. It is a misconception that sexuality has ever been a strictly private matter in the United States. However, there have definitely been moments of extreme pressure to conform to a specific sexual standard, usually one correlated with purity and righteousness—pressure to perform prudery, as it were. What I tried to do in Riotous Flesh was to trace the process by which one such norm came to be accepted by so many people, at least superficially. Writers across the entire spectrum of political, intellectual, and religious beliefs pronounced that masturbation killed tens of thousands of people each year. These were people who could agree about absolutely nothing else! Even the editors who had sparked the riots against women’s physiology lectures eventually declared their opposition to the solitary vice (they told male readers that it would be better to pay for sex with any woman than to masturbate). In order to manufacture consent on such a scale, publicity was absolutely necessary.

That said, one of the great ironies in the construction of modern heterosexuality has been a consistent refrain that “prudery” must be overcome in order to purge society of its “perversions.” Marriage manuals of the early twentieth century educated readers about how to have “wholesome” sex while denouncing prudish women as frigid. Similarly, moral reformers of the early nineteenth century railed against “false delicacy,” which killed women silently by keeping them addicted to the solitary vice. Women masturbated because they simply had not been taught the dangers of masturbation, reformers said, which was why popular science lectures and medical institutions must teach them.

TR: Did white women and African American women differ in their views on masturbation?

AH: In the 1830s, both groups saw antimasturbation physiology as having the potential to challenge strictures of passionlessness. White moral reformers saw how their opponents manipulated passionlessness to claim that white women need to be protected from sexual information, by violence if necessary. Black abolitionist women in New York City saw an opportunity in the moral reformers’ declaration of war against “licentiousness in all its forms” to urge white women to come out against the “licentiousness of slavery.” They also wanted white women to face the sexual aspects of northern white supremacy, such as the sexual harassment of black domestic workers in white homes. While forging this delicate and temporary alliance, they attended physiology lectures and moral reform meetings and learned to deploy the language of solitary vice to their own ends. If white women who appeared “pure” could secretly be sexually vicious, then the whole racialized virgin/whore dichotomy could be turned on its head. In order to demolish the Jezebel stereotype, the assumption that white women were naturally passionless had to be obliterated—the two ideologies must stand or fall together.

But as growing numbers of white moral reform women became obsessed ridding themselves and their families of the solitary vice, many stopped hearing the deeper call for accountability and activism. They reverted back to a claim of moral superiority, now based on cultivated virtue rather than essential purity. Black abolitionist women, in turn, moved on to other projects. That isn’t to say that they stopped believing that masturbation was physically harmful—Sarah Mapps Douglass told her students that it was—but as a counterdiscourse, the solitary vice lost its utility earlier for them than for white women. It had always been only one of many layers of African American sexual counterdiscourse, anyway. I can only imagine how distressing it must have been for black abolitionist women to watch that particular strand of sexual thought gain such traction while racist ideas about gender and sexuality remained deeply entrenched.

TR: What is your current/next project?

AH: While working on this project, I became very interested in the dynamics between moral reformers, abolitionists and the women they purported to rescue. They used the sexualized word “traffic” to describe both prostitution and slavery. The solution, according to diverse reformers, was to channel formerly trafficked women into waged domestic labor. Doing so often meant geographic displacement, family separation, and public inspection of workers’ bodies—in a way, an authorized form of trafficking. So I have another puzzle regarding intentions and outcomes to work out. I’m currently researching the ways in which some women began marketing the feminized labor of others during a pivotal era in the history of American capitalism, 1789 to 1860.

Interview with Shane White, 2016 SHEAR Book Prize Winner

Shane White is the Challis Professor of History and an Australian Professorial Fellow in the History Department at the University of Sydney specializing in African-American history. His book, Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire, was this year’s SHEAR Book Prize winner.

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

Shane White (SW): In Prince of Darkness, I recount the story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton’s life. Hamilton, born in 1808, first turns up in New York in 1828 running counterfeit coin to Haiti for a consortium of merchants. He moves permanently to the city in the early 1830s, struggles for a while, and then begins to establish himself as a guy who can make money for you on Wall Street. He always sailed rather close to the wind. Initially he had a reputation, deserved, for over-insuring boats and then arranging to have them scuttled. He invested his first fortune in real estate, in 1836 buying houses, a 400 foot-long wharf, and land in Poughkeepsie. The 1837 “panic” ruined him and he went bankrupt. But Hamilton bounced back and made another fortune on Wall Street, dispensing advice on what stocks to buy to white investors. Although Hamilton was hardly pure as the driven snow (but then who was on antebellum Wall Street), he also faced considerable discrimination. The second stock exchange in NY passed a resolution in the mid-1840s that anyone who dealt with Hamilton would be expelled. In 1863, during the Draft Riots, a mob invaded his house—the intention of its members had been to hang him from the lamppost out the front of his house on East 29th Street, but he, sensibly had hightailed it over the back fence. When he died in 1875, he was reportedly worth some two million dollars.

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

SW: I have been reading New York nineteenth-century newspapers and court cases for decades and I kept on coming across references to him. It took a while for me to realize that the person I had found running counterfeit coin in 1828 was the same person suing Cornelius Vanderbilt in the 1850s. But once I did, I started to pursue him actively not quite knowing what I was going to do with the material. In the end the challenge of writing a book about someone about whom absolutely nothing was known drew me in and took a couple of years out of my life.

TR: By the time you were finished writing, were you satisfied that you knew the real Jeremiah G. Hamilton?

SW: Absolutely not!! Prince of Darkness is an unusual book. By dint of a lot of hard work, I found surprising amounts of material on some parts of his life. But I haven’t a clue what he was doing for years at a time. And he did not leave a diary or letters somewhere convenient for biographers. I almost never have any indication of what JGH was thinking. This means that there is a lot of “context” in the book. By my lights, and by using JGH’s life, I think the book ends up developing a new version of what it meant to be African American and walking the streets of NYC in the 1830s and 1840s. Some readers like this—others, several “Amazon” commentators come to mind (does anyone but the author of the book in question ever read Amazon readers’ comments?) have been bored to tears by it. On this count I was particularly gratified that the SHEAR prize committee awarded it the best book prize and not the biography award.

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

SW: In my view, there are two major influences on the way I write history. The first is the “Melbourne School” of ethnographic historians, notably Rhys Isaac, Greg Dening, Inga Clendinnen and Donna Merwick. The other important influence is the work of my friend Larry Levine. From these scholars I learned how to approach and exploit sources in such a way that I could write stories about African Americans who had been left out of other historians’ accounts. More specifically, in terms of writing about JGH, I always had in mind such classic books as Natalie Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (1983), Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh (2007), and particularly the wonderful Al Young’s brilliant The Shoemaker and the Tea Party (1999). As well, some of the recent archive-rich work on slavery was helpful: most obviously, James Sweet, Domingo Alvares (2011) and Rebecca Scott and Jean Hébrard Freedom Papers (2012).

TR: What is your current/next project?

SW: At the moment I am half way through writing a book about black confidence men and women. This is another subject where the African American “contribution” has been erased from American history. For most people, confidence men, the “aristocrats” of the criminal world, were white and male. Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting are, for many people, the only con men. My argument is that there were two golden ages of the black con in New York history, one in the 1830s and first half of the 1840s and the other in the 1920s and 1930s. Not coincidentally, both periods were particularly important and exciting in African American history. My conceit is that I can use the patter of con artists, how they fooled their marks, to write African American economic history not from the top down but from the bottom up. My intention, then, is to utilize black confidence men and women as a point of entry into Black Manhattan’s underground economy.

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.