April 8, 2016

“Welcome to Providence, an adorable, quirky, transforming, antique city, where the public art is plentiful, the cocktails are amazing, and the rules of the road are exciting and unclear,” says local resource committee co-chair Matthew Guterl of Brown University. “The place is small and walkable, with history on every block. Get out into the city.”

Day one of the 2016 OAH Annual Meeting started out with seasonal temperatures, but heavy rain, so many historians were happy to stay indoors at the capacious Rhode Island Convention Center, no doubt intending to heed Guterl’s invitation another day. Those staying in the Omni Providence especially appreciated the skybridge connector to the convention center. Exhibitors and attendees began to stream steadily through the registration area shortly after 8:00 am, with a predictable but manageable rush of pre-registered attendees before noon and the start of the first sessions upstairs in the convention center.


The registration desks are situated on the front edge of an enormous exhibit hall space, which opened to attendees at 3:00 pm. In addition to housing four museum displays, the exhibit hall featured projects of several local middle- and high-school students who participated in last year’s National History Day competition. Their projects ranged from documentaries to poster displays.

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The sessions “The View from Main Street, U.S.A.: American History and Cultural Constructs through the Eyes of the Walt Disney Company,” “The Strange Career of Black Liberalism,” and “Ares and Eros: War, Emotion, and Sexuality in American History” drew large audiences among the afternoon concurrent sessions.

The exhibit hall featured a couple of welcome additions this year: the Library Bar and Lounge, sells snacks and drinks all afternoon and offers cafe-table seating for conversation and perhaps the occasional book pitch. And a large theater was set up in the back of the exhibit hall, and was the site of both of the afternoon’s plenary sessions.

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The first plenary “Worst. President. Ever.” drew hundreds of attendees. Claire Potter of the New School, David Greenberg of Rutgers University, Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University, and Jacob Weisberg of The Slate Group–who, Potter noted, had “all written about presidents who were bad in their own special ways”–led a conversation about the personal and historical judgments rendered on past presidents. Greenberg set the scene by describing a few different criteria for evaluating who was the “worst”: the insignificant or forgettable presidents (say, Fillmore), those who faced crisis and did a terrible job (Hoover), those who were effective in setting and accomplishing wrong-headed goals (perhaps Reagan), and those whose damage to the country transcended party and politics (Nixon). Gordon-Reed concurred that her choices for “worst” president were those who had set the country back, singling out Buchanan and especially Andrew Johnson, and adding that George W. Bush might be a candidate for the “worst,” but it’s too soon to tell. Weisberg expanded the inventory of consideration to include bad character, describing Nixon as possessing a nearly Shakespearean villany. Questions from Potter and audience brought up several other issues: how U.S. presidents’ best or worst actions are viewed through the lens of African American or Native American history or from abroad; if it’s easier to be “great” or “awful” during war or periods of great unrest; the difficulty of separating the actions of a president from the actions of a president’s administration; how much we love a president’s great 3rd act as a former president; if great presidents are better at adapting to shifts in media forms; and presidents’ senses of humor as welcome indication of spontaneity. Perhaps worth quoting is David Greenberg, who said at the beginning of the session: “This whole panel could be rendered moot by the next election.”

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The second plenary session of the evening was “Historian Presidents.” Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard University, Ed Ayers, former University of Richmond president, and Earl Lewis, Mellon Foundation composed the panel. @JimGrossmanAHA tweeted the gist of one of  Earl Lewis’s interesting points: “Historians are good admins b/c we study change and we study everything: by definition multidisciplinary.”

C-SPAN was on hand to tape both of the day’s plenary sessions, so watch this space for further information about air dates.

The first day closed with the Opening Night Reception in the Exhibit Hall, which lasted until 8:30 and saw large numbers of attendees socializing and looking over the many book and product displays.

Storify panel and plenary highlights:

We’ve put together storify collections of some of the panels that #twitterstorians live tweeted. Did we miss a panel you live tweeted? Let us know by tweeting @The_OAH and we will add it here.

Some tweets that caught our eye: