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 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.

SHEAR 2017: Reflections on Creating the Past

This year’s SHEAR conference was my first, and as I reflect upon it I cannot help but note my appreciation for its intellectually invigorating atmosphere. As a junior scholar, it was exhilarating to see this community of historians jump off the pages of print and into the flesh, where they shared their work with candor and zeal. I consider myself fortunate to have attended SHEAR 2017, from which I departed with fresh ideas and lenses for future projects, not to mention the energy and inspiration necessary to reignite projects of the present. For those that were unable to attend this year’s conference, I and a few others provided live-tweet coverage of multiple panels under the #SHEAR2017 hashtag on Twitter.

At the conference I covered three panels, and although they spanned across a vast array of topics — from the complexities of marriage to embroiled frontier legal trials — one panel in particular prompted me to reconsider what these varied presentations all shared in common. It was panel 16, Creating the Past in the Early Republic: Critical Perspectives on the Cultural Production of History and Memory, that inspired me to look at this variety of presentations not as connected through their examination of the same American past, but through the shared present moment in which they were produced. By the time Creating the Past concluded, I found that the panel had shifted my framework for examining the presentations I had and would see at SHEAR; for me, the panel accomplished this in two specific ways.

First, Creating the Past’s discussion of historical methods in the Early Republic asks us to interrogate how we produce history in the present. The presentations of Michael Hattem (Yale University) and Karin Wulf (College of William & Mary) examined histories of antiquarians and genealogists, agents of the past who we still see in our present. The critical eye that both scholars lent to their subjects and to their subjects’ own interpretation of the past provided a crucial take-away for modern scholars of history — specifically one that asks us to take a similarly critical eye to the structures within which we “do” history. This point was perhaps most evident in Hattem’s presentation, which dissected intricate networks of exchange between historians, antiquarians, and their sponsors in the Early Republic. The network was a system of storing and sharing sources that imparted distinct challenges and biases upon historians of this period. As I listened to his paper, I wondered about how future historians will examine and critique our present methods of “doing” history, a question that only tugged at me further during Wulf’s paper on early New England genealogists. I found myself asking how we’ve come to define the parameters of real history in our present moment — a definition that often omits genealogy — and how valid these parameters actually are. How will historians 200 years from now sit in panels and turn a critical eye to our methods? Perhaps the more productive question to ask is whether or not historians of the present can take their ability to scrutinize the past and apply it to the current state of the field.

Second, the panel redefined the way we should consider the connections between the past and the contemporary moment. To this point, I found Whitney Martinko’s (Villanova University) presentation particularly thought-provoking. Focused on rethinking the production of historic space, Martinko’s paper demonstrated that the current of change flows in more directions than one, a departure from the notion of a set past and an influenced present. Through her discussion of how historic spaces can take on near-sacred dimensions, Martinko shows an alternate way of conceiving of understanding the past/present dichotomy. It is an alternative that blurs the distinctions we typically assume of both. Instead of belonging to a static past, Martinko’s historic spaces only become a part of “history” by way of later periods when businessmen, preservationists, and the visiting public bestow value upon them — and it is a type of value that is defined less by the historical past itself, and more by the contemporary moments in which it is interpreted.

This was a notion that held true to me when I thought beyond Martinko’s topic, and it began to bleed into my impressions of the other panels I attended at SHEAR. Even as I departed from the conference, I found myself mulling over fewer questions that were directly about the past itself. Struck by the wonderful complexities introduced by Creating the Past, I instead considered the tensions between different types of history, the growth to be achieved by greater self-reflection within the field, and the weighty influence of the present upon the past. Taken together, these considerations form the base for the newest critical lens I plan to carry with me as I approach fresh scholarship. As for my fellow scholars who are all focused on the past yet stuck living in the present, perhaps you will consider adopting it too.

Makiki Reuvers is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the spaces of interaction between indigenous peoples and settlers on the southern Appalachian frontier in the late 18th century.

SHEAR: A Model of Community, Engagement, and Support


When I was asked to serve as a designated live-tweeter and write a blog post for SHEAR 2017, I was thrilled. I had been to SHEAR once previously and had enjoyed the experience. Moreover, I looked forward to helping share some of the exciting new scholarship on Twitter, having benefitted from others who live tweeted the conference in the past when I was unable to attend.

While at SHEAR, I attended some truly invigorating panels, focusing on everything from transnational speculation and state formation to imagining native futures, from life insurance and minimizing risk to the class dimensions of negotiating marital boundaries, and from the president’s cabinet to how to teach the early republic in the age of Trump. (You can find my live tweets by clicking on the Twitter hashtags #PN15, #PN22, #PN29, #PN36, #PN42, and #PN45.) I left SHEAR invigorated, with great suggestions and inspiration for my own work – and new ideas for teaching the early republic.

Initially, I planned to write a blog post recapping one of the panels I had attended and focusing on some of this new scholarship that was particularly fascinating for me. But, as I planned out this blog post and spoke to friends and colleagues about my experience at SHEAR, I kept returning to one aspect of the conference in particular: the level of engagement, community, and support at SHEAR is unparalleled, particularly for graduate students and early career scholars. I soon realized that this aspect of the conference deserved attention.

Most conferences, even the ones that consciously work to support graduate students, don’t come close to the level of engagement and support that SHEAR provides. When I attended my first SHEAR (in Raleigh in 2015), I was impressed by the turnout to different panels – some were standing room only, though I noted that much of the draw seemed to be “big names” on the panels. This year, I paid more attention to the makeup of the panels and the resulting audiences and was even more impressed. Rarely do you find a conference where senior scholars are not only chairs of panels or participating in roundtables but also actively attending other panels and engaging with the work of graduate students and other early career scholars.

As a graduate student who is in the depths of writing my dissertation, I am greatly appreciative of opportunities to receive this level of feedback, engagement, and advice. Following in Lindsay Chervinsky’s shoes, I’d like to offer a few observations about SHEAR’s high levels of engagement, community, and support and why graduate students and early career scholars in particular benefit from attending.

  1. Support of graduate students. This seems like an easy thing to do, and many conferences offer similar graduate lunches or reduced conference registration rates for graduate students. However, one of the things that stands out about the SHEAR experience as a graduate student is the fact that panels that are largely (or wholly) made up of graduate students are just as well attended as panels with more senior scholars. Not only are the panels well attended, but the audience is engaged, providing graduate students with the opportunity to get some real feedback.
  2. The participants. Like Lindsay said in her blog post about the roundtable that she attended, this aspect of the conference is not as easy to replicate. SHEAR brings together a group of scholars who are excited about new scholarship, open to new and diverse approaches, and supportive of scholars just starting out. From discussions that I was privileged to have with some scholars who have been attending SHEAR for years, I’ve realized that this level of support for new fields and ideas was a conscious effort by many individuals within SHEAR to change the status quo. Because of these individuals, SHEAR is a place where a graduate student or early career scholar working in an area that is new (and perhaps not fully understood by the profession as a whole) can present and receive valuable feedback. Not only that, but reflecting on the president’s plenary reveals that SHEAR’s commitment to supporting new approaches extends to a space typically reserved for very senior scholars.
  3. Support of early career scholars. One need look no further than the second book workshops and the roundtable on how not to write your second book to recognize that SHEAR is committed to supporting the careers of younger scholars. While I may not have attended either of these, I heard from others who did attend how helpful they were – and how invigorating the experience was.
  4. Opportunities to network with senior scholars. What stands out about the opportunities that SHEAR offers for networking with senior scholars in the field is that they are all relatively low-stakes. Perhaps the best example of this (although it is limited to women!) is the Boydston Women’s Breakfast. Having breakfast with a host of other scholars, both early career and established, is an informal way to start to form relationships, to hear about the experiences of older scholars, and to receive some advice. The different receptions that SHEAR hosts feel much the same, with more established scholars open to in-depth discussions with junior scholars – whether about research and writing, life balance, or the job market. In fact, one of the best and most productive conversations that I had at SHEAR was actually a conversation on the shuttle returning from the presidential reception on Saturday night, a conversation that gave me new ideas about how I might apply my research to the job market. Opportunities like this abound for graduate students at SHEAR.

The level of engagement, support, and community at SHEAR deserves recognition. Graduate students and early career scholars in particular have the potential to greatly benefit from attending SHEAR. Moreover, other conferences can and should build on SHEAR’s example and actively work to build an engaged, supportive community of scholars.

Mandy Cooper is a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University. Her dissertation research focuses on the role of families in the larger project of nation building in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War.

A Roundtable Done Right: The Art of History in an Age of Revolutions

Now that I am back from a very exciting SHEAR weekend, I have been reviewing my notes and processing all of the ideas that percolated during three days of panels. Not only do I have great suggestions for my own work, but I am inspired by other projects and methods I observed over the weekend.

While I enjoyed all of the panels I attended, one in particular grabbed my attention. Panel 20: The Art of History in an Age of Revolution was fantastic. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw presided over a panel that included Zara Anishanslin (University of Delaware), Jane Kamensky (Harvard University), Cathy Kelly (University of Oklahoma and the Journal of the Early Republic), and Paul Staiti (Mt. Holyoke College). Ann Fabian (Rutgers University) provided an insightful comment at the end.

Yet this was no ordinary panel, it was really more of a roundtable. Each participant shared a piece of art, or a few, from their work and then explained how they use it to unlock a story or approach to history. Anishanslin shared a portrait of Anne Shippen Willing. She explained how she used the portrait to create an imagined community between the subject (Willing), the painter (Robert Feke), the weaver of the silk (Simon Julins), and the artist behind the silk design (Anna Garthwaite). By exploring these individuals, she was able to reveal deep connections between various communities in the eighteenth century Atlantic World. Jane Kamensky showed a portrait of John Singleton Copley and told the story of his life in the middle—the middle of communities, the middle of families, and the middle of empires. Paul Staiti showed a portrait of George Washington and compared many of its features to a famous portrait of King George III. These pictures replaced the images that defined the British Empire and suggested what a republic should look like. Cathy Kelly ended by exploring a republic created from taste by also showing a series of portraits. Kelly argued that “taste” told Americans where to look, how to view things around them, and to read text. For example, a portrait of George Washington guided citizens how to shape their identity and replicate his greatness.

After the short presentations Ann Fabian asked a few questions to start the conversation. How do visuals differ depending on what artist or figure we consider? When analyzing an image and its historical significance, how do you get from looking and seeing to fighting and working? Who and what do visuals leave out? Given the deluge of image in today’s society, are students good interpreters of visuals? How have they surprised you with their interpretations?

The conversation with the audience largely centered around how to use visuals in the classroom and why more historians need to engage with visuals (and do so more effectively). The discussion was riveting and I encourage you reach out to the panels for their thoughts and read the tweets on the panel by many of the audience members. (See #PN20 on Twitter). I also storified my live tweets from this panel.

As an audience member, I had some observations about why this panel was so compelling. This panel was the last of a long day of sessions and stood in between the audience and cocktails. Yet, the audience was captivated, so clearly the panelists did a few things right. I have four take-aways for future panels.

  1. The participants. Unfortunately this suggestion makes the panel hard to replicate. The panelists were special. They are established, successful historians that can speak to both scholarship and teaching. They were funny, engaging, passionate, and some of the smoothest presenters I have seen. The combination of art historians and historians that use art proved to be particularly useful to the conversation as well.
  2. It was clear the panelists had discussed the structure and goals of the panel beforehand. Or the organizer did a fantastic job laying down the law. Each presenter spoke for no more than a few minutes and with the common goal of using art to show research methods, teaching strategies, and make an argument about the “Age of Revolutions.”
  3. The audience asked questions, they did not proselytize or provide comments. I know this complaint is evergreen, but it was refreshing to hear an audience that genuinely wanted to engage the panelists.
  4. The commenter provided open-ended questions for the panelists to consider and the panelists actually responded to them and to one another. They did not ramble off topic. One person did not dominate the conversation. They gave thoughtful, detailed responses, but were mindful of the length at which they spoke.

There has been much discussion in SHEAR and other organizations about how to liven up conferences and move away from the paper presentation format. This panel demonstrated one option for alternative formats that although difficult to recreate, can be wildly successful when done right.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis in January 2017 and is currently working on her manuscript titled “The President’s Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.”

SHEAR 2017: HSP Hours & Free Admission

As in the past, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania will open early (10am) on the Thursday of SHEAR, July 20.  On both Thursday and Friday, library admission will be free to registered conference attendees; please show a conference badge or registration confirmation along with a photo ID when you sign in. (General admission is always free for students with ID, and $8.00 for others.)

If you haven’t been to HSP within the last five years, you’ll need to fill out a new registration form; you can download and print the form here to fill out ahead of time if you wish.

HSP has scheduled extra staff for paging but wait times may be longer than usual due to a high volume of researchers.

General Information:

  • Research hours on Thursday and Friday will be 10am to 5:30 pm, with last admission and last call slips accepted at 4:45.
  • You may bring in anything that opens on three sides like a book: laptops, loose papers, notebooks, legal pads, index cards, phones, tablets, etc.
  • No pens, highlighters, food, or drink in the library.
  • Anything that closes like a backpack, briefcase, or purse may not enter the library (except in cases of medical need); HSP has approximately 80 lockers in the lobby, but if you have a room at the Doubletree it would be best to leave bags there if you can.
  • Microfilm machines accept flash drives for saving images from film.
  • Photography without the use of a flash is permitted for non-commercial use.
  • Photocopies are $0.50/page, and may not be available on the same day depending on the volume of researchers.
  • HSP has a café area available for researchers with a fridge, microwave, water cooler, and a Keurig coffee maker (pods available at the front desk for $1.00)

#SHEAR17 Social Media Recommendations

For attendees who use Twitter during the annual meeting this week, we recommend using the official conference hashtag #SHEAR17 to make conversations easy to follow.

In addition, if you tweet about an individual session, we recommend adding a second hashtag in the form #PN[number]. Tweets about, e.g., Panel 53, “The Public Language of Class in America,” should end in the hashtags #SHEAR17 #PN53. Using both tags will make it easier for other users to follow and engage in the conversation.

Please also remember to respect panelists’ wishes regarding social media broadcasting. If they or the session chair ask that a presentation not be shared on social media, please respect their request.

SHEAR 2017: Less Than One Week Away!

Dear SHEARites, it’s less than a week until our 39th annual meeting opens in Philadelphia and I have a few updates and reminders to share with you.

  • Pre-registration is now closed. You may register on-site but please remember that we can accept only cash or checks, no credit cards.
    • Thursday registration from 5:00 to 7:30 pm at Golkin 100, Michael A. Fitts Auditorium, UPenn Law School, 3501 Sansom St.
    • Friday, Saturday, Sunday registration at the DoubleTree
  • For Saturday’s Presidential Address and Awards Reception:
    • Free shuttle vans will make a continuous loop between the DoubleTree and the Independence Seaport Museum, 211 S. Christopher Columbus Boulevard, from 5:00 until 8:00 p.m. Return trolleys will begin shuttling back to the hotel between 9:00 pm until 10 pm.
    • If you prefer to make your own way:
      • Subway: Take the Market Street Line east to 2nd Get off and walk south two blocks to Walnut Street, turn left, and walk across the Walnut Street bridge.  The Independence Seaport Museum is the building on the right once you have crossed the bridge.
      • Bus: Walk to Chestnut Street and take either the 21 or 42 bus east.  Get off at 2nd Street, walk south one block to Walnut Street, turn left, and walk across the Walnut Street bridge.  The Independence Seaport Museum is the building on the right once you have crossed the bridge.
      • Walking from the Doubletree: Walk one block north to Walnut and turn right.  Follow Walnut for fourteen blocks; once you have crossed the Walnut Street bridge, the Independence Seaport Museum is the building on the right.
    • A reminder that HSP is offering free admission to conference-goers next week and the Museum of the American Revolution is offering discounted tickets to registered conference-goers from 19 to 23 July.

I send you traveling mercies and look forward to seeing you in Philadelphia next week. If you need anything before then, please e:mail me at

Warmest regards,

Robyn Lily Davis

SHEAR National Conference Coordinator

SHEAR 2017: Conference Pre-Registration Ends This Friday

If you are planning to attend SHEAR’s annual meeting in Philadelphia later this month, remember that pre-registration closes this Friday, July 7. Please also note that on-site registration is possible, but you must pay with cash or check (no credit cards), and there is an additional $30 fee as well.