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State of American History, Civics, and Politics

SHEAR CHAOS: A Culture Wars Train Wreck for a History Organization

SHEAR Conference 2020 (New Mexico Central Railroad train wreck, ca. 1912 reddit.com)

When a history organization makes the front page of the Arts Section of The New York Times, that is big news (“Clash of the Historians Over Andrew Jackson,” July 27, 2020, print). It wasn’t because of some exciting new archival discovery. It wasn’t because of some exciting new archaeological discovery. It wasn’t because of some exciting new book or article that provided new insight into an historical puzzle. Instead it was because of a good old-fashioned knock-down culture wars encounter. As the NYT put it:

[I]t set off a firestorm that led within 72 hours, to set off the ouster of the group’s president, as well as the publication of open letters denouncing the talk and counterletters protesting the ouster. It also caused debate over whether the distinguished academics society was experiencing an overdue reckoning with racism or abandoning its commitment to robust scholarly debate in the face of a Twitter mob.

When the history of the culture wars is written, this incident is likely to be an episode in it.

SHEAR

SHEAR is the Society for Historians of the Early Republic. It was formed in 1977 to provide a focused venue or scholars concentrating on the Early Republic. As the name suggests, the starting point for the time period was the aftermath of the American Revolution. The period that comes to mind is the First Party System, the time of Federalists and Republicans, of presidents from Virginia and Massachusetts. Gradually it became a society of the Second Party System as well, the time of the Whigs and the Democrats. There was no real fixed endpoint. SHEAR drifted into the Jacksonian years and the ante bellum period but not the Civil War. It really ended wherever the roughly 600 members decided their interests took them and that no other history organization claimed.

I am not a member of SHEAR. I have attended some of the annual conferences and written about them.

The General Public and the Early Republic Historians (SHEAR Conference) August 23, 2016

“The Year without Summer” (1816): When Republicans Recognized Climate Change Existed (SHEAR CONFERENCE) August 24, 2016

Teaching Slavery: A SHEAR Perspective September 12, 2016

Universities and the Legacy of Slavery (SHEAR Session) September 22, 2016

The American Revolution: An Academic Perspective October 31, 2019.

I very well might have attended this year’s conference in geographically accessible Philadelphia if it had been held. Obviously, it too was a victim of the coronavirus.

SHEAR ONLINE CONFERENCE

With the cancellation of the in-person conference, SHEAR then had some decisions to make.

1. One Online Session

The first decision was to have one and only one online session. This decision can be questioned. Other conferences have been cancelled and/or rescheduled as virtual events without such a drastic reduction. Conferences can be held over multiple days and involve multiple sessions. SHEAR originally preferred to have multiple sessions. The now-former president of SHEAR expressed this hope:

When the 2020 program was postponed until July 2021, we wished to sponsor a few events to demonstrate that we remain a vital and important organization, even in this troubled time.

How did “a few events,” became one? The new president who normally takes office when the in-person conference concludes added some information.

At the time, we brainstormed about offering a few virtual events over the conference weekend, including the much-loved Second-Book Writers’ Workshop, and a graduate student meet-and-greet (both of which were, thanks to their organizers, great successes). We also asked the chairs of the 2020 Program Committee to recommend panels accepted for the conference that might not feel fresh a year from now. President Egerton approached the organizers of several such panels, but among them, only Professor Daniel Feller agreed to present his panel virtually.

So it was not the original intention to have one and only session. In effect, it was the SHEAR membership (panel organizers) that drove the decision. Given only one positive response, another option would have been to have no online sessions at all.

2. Which One?

At this point if SHEAR wanted to have an online session, it had only one possibility. That one topic seemed most appropriate. The now-former president of SHEAR explained:

The accepted panel on Donald Trump’s efforts to identify with Andrew Jackson struck some members of the program committee as a most timely panel, and one which may not be as relevant after the November elections. This was a stand-alone panel, and not the opening plenary, which remains scheduled for July 2021.

The new president added some information.

Although I was not privy to the specifics of this or any other proposed panel, I endorsed the plan to present it to the membership because I thought it was a timely topic and something that you, the membership, would appreciate. This was a mistake.

Exactly why is was a mistake in the mind of the new president is not clarified. Was it a mistake to have only one session? Was it a mistake to have this session? Was it a mistake to have this session with this presenter? Was it a mistake to have this session in this format? Should this person resign s one person suggested? It would help to know what the new president thinks the mistake in deciding to have this session was.

THE SESSION: JACKSON IN THE AGE OF TRUMP

The abstract for the session was:

Daniel Feller, Professor of History, Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, and Editor/Director of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee will present his [pre-circulated] paper, “Jackson in the Age of Trump,” which focuses on Donald Trump’s embrace of Andrew Jackson as his presidential model and how this has made Jackson a centerpiece for debate. Jackson has become, on both sides of the current political divide, in effect a stand-in for the American historical legacy. One side celebrates him as the progenitor of full-throated nationalism and insurgent populism, while the other condemns him as the archetype of American xenophobia, bigotry, and racism.

Neither of these portraits has much connection to the real presidential Jackson. Both reduce him to caricature not only by stripping off subtlety and nuance, but often by propagation of naked error. While Trump celebrates Jackson for purportedly raising tariffs and rattling sabers, critics decry him for originating Indian genocide, conducting public policy as personal vendetta in the Bank and nullification controversies, and propounding a uniquely vicious and virulent racism.

In short, we are now waging a public debate about Jackson—and, through him, about American history and character at large—premised upon a set of facts that are drastically oversimplified and even demonstrably untrue. Politicians and pundits have taken the lead in this distortion of the record, but historians have been acquiescent and sometimes directly complicit. Yet if we believe that the manipulation of history for presentist ends—even ones we agree with—is misguided and potentially dangerous, we should make it our business to speak out in defense of the integrity of our discipline, regardless of our present political sympathies.

This description does not match the words of the former president noted above: “The accepted panel on Donald Trump’s efforts to identify with Andrew Jackson.” Quite the contrary, the abstract posits a double dosage of Jackson misinterpretations by both sides of the culture wars.

The scope of the abstract is fairly ambitious…especially for one paper! Given the range of topics within the overall abstract, it would have made more sense to divide it into manageable parts. Each individual would have addressed one aspect of how Jackson has been used and abused by both sides of the culture war and what SHEAR should do about it. That is not what happened.

The initial portion of Feller’s presentation was on a book on Jackson by Walter Mead. Through Steve Bannon, this two-dimensional book portrait of Jackson was conveyed to Trump. At this point I thought about writing a blog on Jackson and Hamilton, Mead and Chernow, Bannon and Manuel-Miranda, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Hamilton, Trump and Obama. That probably would have made for a better session than the food fight that followed.

But the presentation didn’t stop there. My favorite response to the presentation is by the person who three times insistently asked online about Jackson and slavery. What are the odds that the president who thinks Canada burned the White House during the War of 1812, the flu pandemic in 1917 ended World War II, and who only recently learned that Lincoln was a Republican, was familiar with Jackson’s position on slavery? This question is an example of how the session spun out of control. Instead of being descriptive about what happened in last decade it became a fight over Jackson himself. I really didn’t tune in to hear people go on and on about his use of the word “pet.”

As reported by the NYT, a firestorm erupted after the session. A president stepped down. The new one apologized. The plenary speaker retired. His replacement intends to start a diverse advisory committee for people of multiple races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual preferences who share an antipathy towards Jackson perhaps with a token admirer. [I admit I could be wrong on this.] The organization that provides the free internet communication for SHEAR now is requesting a name change from H-SHEAR to something else. The notice of the change stressed the importance of moderated messages with identification of the message sender. This advisory may have contributed to the decision for the name change:

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic’s virtual plenary was the most exciting thing to happen on Academic Zoom since COVID. Read about the controversy.

As for SHEAR, it intends to have “a second, follow-up virtual panel in the coming weeks” to salvage the situation though “salvage” is not the word used. Here are some thoughts for sessions.

1. Andrews Jackson and the Culture Wars (2000-2020)

This topic apparently was the basis for the session in the first place.

1. How have people used Jackson positively in support of their current political agendas?
2. How have people used Jackson negatively in support of their current political agendas?
3. How can SHEAR contribute to a full understanding of Jackson beyond caricature and cliché?

2. Trail of Tears: What Should Jackson Have Done?

This topic generates a great deal of passionate reaction. One of the comments in the plenary was:

As a historian of Indian removal, I can assure Feller that we know it wasn’t all Jackson’s fault; historians have for over a century traced the roots of removal policy to Jefferson’s administration, or even further, to the nation’s founding documents. More recent historiography on removal has amply demonstrated how a host of other actors – from territorial governors to missionaries to land speculators – helped build the policy that Feller seems to want us to reconstruct from Jackson’s papers alone.

Here we have the possibility of an excellent session that would be of value to the American public during these culture wars by going beyond the simple-minded vituperation he receives today.

1. What was the historical context in which the Trail of Tears occurred?
2. What could have been done instead? [No kumbaya suggestions, please, real world only.]
3. What does the recent Supreme Court decision mean for understanding the Trail of Tears?

3. The Scotch-Irish and the English Weren’t Both Just Whites Then

Our racist classification system obscures the reality of life two centuries ago. Today the Scotch-Irish and the English are just white people. That combination would have made no sense in Great Britain. These two folkways brought their tensions with them to America. Jackson’s victory at New Orleans wasn’t only as an American versus Great Britain but as a Scotch-Irishman versus the English. This topic wasn’t addressed in the session. One comment alluded to it.

Is there a danger among historians — most of us liberals when it comes to racial and gender issues — of underestimating AJ’s appeal to the “working man”: just as Americans today underestimate Trump’s appeal to a similar demographic? Thereby driving that demographic into the arms of the radical right?

English elites then loved to put down the Scotch-Irish as backwards and inferior much as elites-bicoastal elites-politically-correct-people love to mock them and their kin today. As it turns out people don’t like to be relentlessly denigrated. A session on how America’s first flyover people gained the White House would be beneficial.

4. The Torch Has Been Passed to a New Generation: The Need for Heroes

During the session, Feller mentioned Jackson as a military hero for America, the first one since Washington. People needed heroes. People need larger-than-life people who fulfill that role. It’s not enough to have Hollywood super-duper heroes on the screen. They are needed in real life as we have been reminded during Covid-19 and the nightly banging of pots. Jackson filled that role for many people. Two founding father heroes died simultaneously in 1826 on the fiftieth anniversary of the experiment they had created, the journey they had started. Who would replace them? Would the next generation measure up? Would the journey continue? I don’t recall hearing much of a discussion at the SHEAR session about this topic and Jackson’s role in it.

5. The Jacksonian Age of Art, Geology, Literature, Religion

There should be more to a SHEAR conference than politics, gender, and race. The Jacksonian Age witnessed a new and unique confluence of art, geology, literature, and religion before they became divided into separate “ologies” each with their own organizations, journals, and conferences. At the 2016 conference, I asked Daniel Walker Howe about the absence of the Hudson River School in his book What Hath God Wrought covering 1815 to 1848. There should be a place for culture at SHEAR.

SHEAR has the opportunity to rise to the occasion. True, it is a volunteer organization of people scattered mostly at various colleges throughout the land. It has no particular skill or experience that I am aware of in taking a leadership position in the national conversation during a culture war. That’s not what it was commissioned to do when it was founded in 1977 after the Bicentennial. That is what America needs it to do as we approach our 250th.

4 thoughts on “SHEAR CHAOS: A Culture Wars Train Wreck for a History Organization

  1. Dear Peter,

    I hope this finds you well–I don’t assume you’ll remember, but we had the pleasure of corresponding when I was an Assistant Prof at CUNY. I continue to read your communiques with interest, though I am now a Pennsylvanian rather than a New Yorker. As I am someone whose research expertise ends around 1800, I have nothing eloquent to add to the ongoing debate about all things Jackson, but I am also an elected officer of SHEAR (Nominating Committee) and thought you might want to be alerted to a few errors in your recent piece on SHEAR.

    SHEAR does not begin in the “aftermath of the American Revolution” and end at an indeterminate time–the dates officially encompassed are 1776-1861.

    Please do confirm with the Jackson Papers, but it is my understanding that Professor Feller was already due to retire before the SHEAR Plenary took place and that the search for his replacement began last fall–meaning that his retirement is a coincidence of timing, not an effect of the SHEAR event.

    Finally, as I only just learned these last few weeks to my surprise!–H-SHEAR and SHEAR are not formally connected. H-SHEAR thus does not provide free internet communication for SHEAR, other than in the sense that anyone (as determined by the moderator) can post on such H-Net sites, including SHEAR.

    Thank you for your thoughts on scholarship in the so-called “Age of Jackson”–I particularly appreciated your points about the need to expand scholarship on topics such as art and religion.

    Best regards,
    Zara

    1. Hi Zara,

      Thank you for writing and for reading the blogs. Yes I remember you from the seminar at Columbia and for your help (and for gloves, too).

      I suspected the timing of the retirement was coincidental and not a direct consequence of the SHEAR session controversy. Having a successor that quickly would suggest it already was in the works.

      I did not realize the formal time frame encompasses such a broad period. My limited contact indicated an earlier period focus plus I don’t consider the Second Party period to be the Early Republic. I stand corrected.

      I. too, was surprised to learn that H-SHEAR and SHEAR were not formally connected.

      I hope the expanded coverage of the other topics will be part of the program next year. However if it is primarily the 2020 program pushed back one year, that probably can’t happen until 2022.

      In my political blogs which I do not send to the history community, I write more about America’s Third Civil War, the coming Battle of Gettysburg on November 3, and whether of not we will still be a single country on our 250th birthday. That is why I raised the issue of SHEAR’s opportunity and America’s need for a responsible history organization to take a leadership role in addressing the 250th. I know that it is a lot to ask but I thought it was worth raising the issue.

      I look forward to the second online presentations.

      Regards,
      Peter

  2. Peter — Another excellent column — too bad that today’s headlines about Steve Bannon may tarnish your mention of him and/or distract from the message of the NYT cancel culture operations. Thanks again for all you’re doing and reaffirming the importance of research from original sources and not a tweet. Best, Ed

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