Distinguished Lecturers
Benjamin H. Irvin

Benjamin H. Irvin

A social and cultural historian of British North America and the United States, Benjamin H. Irvin is the executive editor of the Journal of American History and an associate professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington. His primary research interests include national identity, the federal state, gender, disability, and law in the revolutionary era and in the early republic. His first book, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (2011), examines the material culture and ceremonies of state—including, for example, fast days, funeral processions, diplomatic protocols, and presentment swords—by which Congress promoted armed resistance and independence. Central to his study are the many ways that the American people challenged Congress and its vision of the United States. His next book project concerns masculinity, disability, class, and citizenship among veterans of the Revolutionary War. Focusing particularly on the family relations and occupational pursuits of impaired soldiers and officers as well as their efforts to obtain invalid pensions from state and federal governments, Irvin’s investigation illuminates the many ways that political ideologies, social norms, medical technologies, labor practices, bureaucratic infrastructures, and domestic arrangements shaped veterans' experiences as they struggled to subsist in Jefferson's yeoman republic. In support of this project, Irvin spent spring 2014 as the Emilia Galli Struppa Fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and 2016-2017 as the Patrick Henry Writing Fellow at the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.

OAH Lectures by Benjamin H. Irvin

This lecture explores the history of tarring and feathering, a ritualistic form of violence that, though most commonly associated with the Revolutionary War, persisted in the United States at least until the 1970s. Violent episodes of tarring and feathering punctuated most every major social crisis in U.S. history, from the Second Great Awakening to antebellum debates over slavery, from the labor wars of the early twentieth century to the aftermath of World War I, from the crusade for prohibition to the campaign for civil rights. In moments such as these, private citizens deployed tar and feathers to establish and strengthen political, moral, ethnic, and/or national boundaries. By means of physical assault and spectacular ostracization, tarring-and-feathering mobs thrust transgressors out of their imagined if not their actual communities.

This lecture examines the material culture and ceremonies of state—including, for example, funeral processions, diplomatic protocols, and presentment swords—by which the Continental Congress endeavored to rally the American people for war against Great Britain and to legitimate the infant United States. The congressmen who gathered in the Pennsylvania State House readily perceived that the former British colonists, who had long adorned their lives with emblems of Hanoverian monarchy, required a new iconography with which to imagine a nation. They likewise understood that if the United States were, in the language of the Declaration, “to assume, among the powers of the earth, [a] separate and equal station,” the upstart Congress would first have to assume the trappings of a sovereign government. Yet, the American public did not passively accept Congress’s visions of nationhood. Rather, the people out of doors often rioted or staged richly demonstrative street protests in order to challenge the symbols and rituals by which Congress asserted authority.

Captain Leonard Cooper claimed that he lost his leg after being shot in a skirmish near Paramus Meeting House, but that is not what happened. By examining the many stories that Cooper, his commanding officers, and his family members told about his amputated leg, this lecture explores the relationship between narrative and identity in Revolutionary War disability pension applications.

Moses Rollins, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, did not wish to claim a disability pension. For forty years after suffering leg wounds during the Southern Campaign, Rollins shouldered the brunt of infection and fever. To raise money for medical care, in 1785, Rollins bound himself into three years of indentured servitude. As late as 1807, Rollins begged a doctor to amputate. Not until 1812, on the eve of his fiftieth year, did Rollins at last succumb to necessity and apply for the pension to which had long been statutorily entitled. In a petition to the Virginia Assembly, Rollins explained his reluctance to apply: “I have both fought and bled for the Independence of our Country, and I still have an independent spirit.” By examining the lives of Rollins and other veterans, this lecture investigates the relationships between disability and masculinity in an age of independence.

This lecture examines the lives and pension histories of Revolutionary War veterans in order to investigate the nexus between disability and the nation-state in the early U.S. republic. After the Revolutionary War, monetary pension benefits constituted the foremost accommodation of impaired veterans. However, the state and federal governments that distributed those benefits were young and unseasoned. During the Critical Period, and after ratification of the Constitution, these governments underwent rapid but often haphazard legal, political, and fiscal transformation. Soldiers and officers impaired during the War for Independence commonly experienced disability as the construct of a fledgling, cash-strapped republic. At the same time, the administration of Revolutionary War disability pensions propelled the United States toward greater constitutional stability. The enactment and implementation of federal pension laws necessitated the prior resolution of troublesome constitutional quandaries; they forced jurists and legislators to contend with and remedy certain defects inherent in their new system of laws. The federal republic contoured the lived experience of veterans’ disability, and in turn, the lived experience of veterans’ disability contoured the federal republic. In this way, disability was fundamental to the founding of the United States.

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