This blog begins a series of conference reports. The series will include conferences I attended and conferences with abstracts posted on the web that I did not attend but know about and consider worth reporting on. In chronological order, the first conference is the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) held July 18-21 in Cambridge.
PRESIDENT’S PLENARY – CONSTITUTING THE UNITED STATES: LIVING IN THE WAKE OF REVOLUTION
The opening session was taped for C-Span. I missed the introductory remarks and the first presentation. Apparently Annette Gordon-Reid as president selected people who would address various aspects of the American Revolution rather than all the speakers addressing a common facet of it. There are no titles or abstracts for these presentations.
Kathleen DuVal, University of North Carolina
DuVal focused on the Cherokee Nation response to the American Revolution. The Cherokee sought to preserve their land as a free nation. They did so by adapting American and European terminology. Through such vocabulary and concepts, they portrayed themselves as an independent version of the United States. They were a nationally sovereign people with as of 1827 their own Constitution.
An earlier attempt to create a confederacy of Indian Nations had failed. In 1783, the Cherokee had sought to bring together in an alliance the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek. Part of the failure was due to the feeling by each Indian Nation that their own sovereignty would be threatened by such a grouping. The idea of the unity of the Indians as a single people was rejected.
When the Creeks violated Chickasaw land to scalp Americans, that action helped neither Indian unity nor Indian-American relationships. At that point, local concerns predominated. Eventually that would change when the American settlers arrived in numbers. For them, the Indians were a doomed people who should be cleared from the land so it could be civilized.
DuVal concluded by stressing that during the Early Republic, the Indian Nations were alive and existed as a viable concept. The Indian identity and nationhood have survived.
Rob Parkinson, Binghamton University
Parkinson took issue with Thomas Paine’s statement that the Revolution had succeeded. Specifically, the proof was the continued existence of slavery. He interpreted the debates at the formation of the country to favor union over the issue of abolition. Emancipation bills failed. The nationalist narrative blocked emancipation since blacks would not help the Union. They told Black Loyalist stories as proof while ignoring Black Patriot stories (as well as Indian Patriot stories). In this regard, he understands the subsequent Indian battles of future presidents Jackson and Harrison as a continuation of the American Revolution. Union talk trumped freedom talk. These were choices the American political leaders made in the political process of creating the country.
David Waldsteicher, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Waldsteicher also spoke on the issue of slavery to the point of even wondering how his fellow panelists were going to address the topic. During the American Revolution, the American leaders were concerned whether the slaves would be patriots or loyalists. We should recognize that blacks then were actors in their own right and forced their presence into the debate.
Waldstreicher sees emancipation in the North as an outgrowth of the American Revolution and the fight over state rights. The American Revolution and the Civil War are linked and both were civil wars. The Constitution hardwired slavery into the fabric of the newly constituted country without even using that word. With the expansion of the country the number of both free and slave states increased.
Waldstreicher cites two black people important for the telling of this story. The first was Phillis Wheatley for her anti-Stamp Act poem. As a woman and as a black she became part of the national debate. She placed the issue of slavery in the public arena during the American Revolution. The second figure was Frederic Douglas for his July 4 speech increasing interest in the subject. Celebrate the good and criticize what is missing.
For Waldstreicher the triumph and tragedy of the American Revolution is what was done and what was not. The myth of the Founding Fathers ignoring slavery should be replaced by recognizing their decisions did address slavery just not directly.
Kay Wright-Lewis, Howard University
Wright-Lewis introduced a personal dimension to the subject of slavery as a black person. She commented on the meaning of the Founding Fathers to her when she was growing up. In her historical research, she notes the persistent effort of the slaves to try to free themselves. The slave owners had made a calculated decision to perpetuate slavery. The land could not be cultivated by white people so black people were needed. That meant slavery. Nonetheless, she asks why the Founding Fathers did not take the step of abolishing slavery.
USEFUL REVOLUTION? TELLING THE REPUBLIC’S FOUNDING STORY IN ITS MOMENT OF PERIL
This session was dedicated to the topic of stories of the American Revolution that resonate today.
Philip Mead, Museum of the American Revolution
Mead, from the Museum of the American Revolution, reported that it had had 750,000 visitors since it opened on April 19, 2017. He called storytelling the most powerful form of persuasion. He asked if the American Revolution was ending. He did so because of the traditional equating of the American Revolution with heroism. He noted that one question that frequently arose with museum visitors was the complaint: where are the heroes?
Keep this comment in mind.
Rob Parkinson, Binghamton University
Parkinson, a repeat presenter from the President’s Plenary, stated that we are living in a dangerous time. Americans in power are sure they have the true identity. We must continue to tell the stories of the American Revolution and be ready to go for broke. We cannot afford to be scolds.
Note: I had a little trouble keeping up with my notetaking during this presentation so I did not get the full gist of what he said so my comments may not make sense.
Honor Sachs, University of Colorado
Sachs addressed the issue of how we present the past today. She volunteered that she is coming from an anti-Trump view but as a teacher she needed to check her opinions based on gender, sexual preference, and religion at the door.
Sachs said the calls for unity are wrong since they mean someone will be screwed.
She spoke of white nationalism and patriarchy.
She despaired that America walked away from the best solutions and options during the American Revolution with devastating consequences.
In-between, she made some comments that really struck home. They go to the heart and soul of the challenge of teaching the American Revolution today. She said it was hard to be an historian today. She sees teaching as a civic obligation. She does not want to teach despair. She embraces the narrative of hope. She sees the American Revolution as a story of possibility, as a moment when we at least tried to do the right thing.
During the Q&A, Sachs was asked about the teaching of civics. She said there was a deep-seated need to find heroes. Remember the complaint (above) by the visitors to the museum of the American Revolution: where are the heroes? College professor Sachs and Museum educator Mead both have honed in on the exact same problem confronting the country today.
Chernoh Sesay, DePaul University
Sesay focused on the African role in Atlantic history and the American Revolution. More work needs to be done in this area. He stated the easily overlooked truism that Africa is not a nation, it is a continent of nations, empires, and peoples. Revolutions occurred in West Africa too. We should examine the American Revolution from the vantage of Africa. Mentioning Crispus Attucks in the curriculum is not enough.
Serena Zabin, Carleton College
Zabin noted the tension between the past and the present that historians walk. As an example consider the notion of citizenship. Optimism does not mean denying the darkness. We need to write for the future and trust that the unknown future will need it. We need to have faith that what we write will matter someday.
No doubt I have not given full justice to these presentations. More could be written about each one. If there had been published abstracts for them I would have included them. This report is based on handwritten notes by a non-stenographer so I know I missed part of what was being said while I was writing.
In this final section to this long blog, let me address two considerations raised by these presentations – writing and heroes.
Zabin asks us to have faith that the writing of scholars will matter someday. Why not today? In the Q&A, Clifton Barry, Unpaid Labor org., expressed his optimism on race. He said he was emboldened by what scholars write for lay people meaning today. But scholars often do not write for lay people. In my blogs on the American Revolution Reborn conference (American Revolution Reborn: Missing New York), I reported on the disdain with which scholars view airport best-sellers. These are the history books non-scholars write for non-scholars that are purchased in airports and other retail outlets or online but that are not available at academic conferences. They tend to be about heroes and sell much better than academic books.
People have been voting with their wallets for stories of hope and heroes from even before the 2013 conference on the American Revolution Reborn to the American Revolution at the 2019 SHEAR conference. Why can’t scholars tell such stories? Do they think that would be compromising their academic integrity? Do they feel a professional obligation to tear things down? Do they feel a sense of righteousness when they undermine myths? How come in all these sessions on the American Revolution, no one came to praise it but only to bury it?
So let me end with the stories of optimism and hope that scholars may wish to consider. I do so knowing that undoubtedly scholars have considered them but these were not the presentations at these conferences.
1. How many viable same-race multi-ethnic republics were there in 1787? Remember Czechoslovakia? How about Yugoslavia? Do the Russians, Ukrainians, and Hungarians in the Ukraine get along? Rwanda? The list goes on. The United States in 1787 was a diverse country based on the standards of the times. The United States of America was not created to be the Diverse Peoples of America with 18 designated hyphens like Lebanon today. We were created to be e pluribus unum. How were these diverse peoples able to constitute themselves as a single country that could survive for centuries? Isn’t that an optimistic story of hope? (see American Revolution Reborn: Religion, Diversity, and E Pluribus Unum)
2. How many viable multi-racial republics were there in 1787? Cuba? Brazil? Sudan/South Sudan? Multi-ethnic and multi-racial South Africa? How are the European nations coping today? Do scholars really think that if slavery had been abolished that the newly freed people would have led lives just as white Americans did? Is that what happened after the Civil War? Is that what happened after all the civil rights legislation? Is that what is happening today? Would the world have been a better place today if the disagreement over abolition in 1787 meant there would have been no United States in the first place? Would black people have been better off in 1787 if the United States of the Confederacy had been created in the south as a separate country? There is a need to focus on the real world of what actually can be done at a given point in time. There is a difference between being in the ivory tower today and Philadelphia in 1787.
3. How many viable republics in 1787 or earlier were as large as the United States at its birth? I live near the Rye Tavern on the Boston Post Road where middle-aged non-athletic John Adams stayed as he rode his horse alone from Boston to Philadelphia. People today don’t even drive that route today save truckers or taking kids to college. And if they do drive it is more likely to be on the Interstate than U.S. 1. It isn’t as if George Washington had access to GPS or drones to track the movements of the British. Imagine if at SHEAR, everyone had to arrive by horse. There is a saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. I question whether we can really appreciate the impact of the sheer size of the proposed country on those who sought to create one centuries ago.
The countdown to the 250th anniversary of the birth of the United States has begun. There is a national commission. Some states are beginning to consider it. As soon as I finish this blog I am leaving for a meeting at the New-York Historical Society convened by the New York State Historian to discuss the state’s plans for the 250th. This meeting is one of a series of meetings he has had. My hope for this anniversary is that it is not simply a commemoration of battles and having big parades and fireworks. My hope is that we use this time to discuss the very issues raised in this blog and at the SHEAR conference. My hope is that we strive to continue the journey and not simply pass judgment on the past. My hope is that we recognize as the Founding Fathers did that the creation of the United States was an experiment. My hope is that we recognize that it is our turn now to make the experiment work even better.