OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Scott Reynolds Nelson

Portrait of Scott Reynolds Nelson

Scott Nelson is the GAA Professor of History at the University of Georgia and the author of Iron Confederacies (1999); Steel Drivin' Man (2006), which won the OAH Merle Curti Prize; and A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America's Financial Disasters (2012). A children's book entitled Ain't Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry (2007) is based on his research. He is a coauthor of A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America's Civil War (2007) and is currently working on a history of the international wheat trade, the Panic of 1873, and the Russian Revolution.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

This lecture is about the emergence of the American branded foods industry behind the lines in the Union. Armour, Swift, Van Camp, Pillsbury and Borden all created the small, tinned can (sealed with lead) with food inside. Union soldiers consumed, sometimes bought from sutlers, sometimes from the quartermasters' corps. I show how the "manufactured food" was possible by the consolidation of railroads between Chicago and New York, and how they emerged after the war as the nation's biggest industries.
Why did Southern Democrats most hate Republican Governor Underwood: he had created the first black and white jury in the history of Virginia. Mrs. Robert E. Lee complained in a letter to a friend, “Have you read Underwood’s charge to the grand jury, five of whom are Negroes?” This was the first real test of Black civil rights in the Virginia and it might have led to a drastic and revolutionary change in the way that Virginia operated. But it was not to be. In September of 1866, Justice Salmon P. Chase pointed out that Davis could not be tried because the Judiciary Act of 1866 did not specify the new boundaries for the district court. Jefferson Davis had committed treason and escaped execution; but on the same day John Henry received a ten year sentence for shoplifting. This became a death sentence.
How did a ballad about a black man who challenged a steam drill become one of the first blues songs, one of the first country songs, and the most recorded song in American history? Nelson explains how a terrible crime became a folksong, and how a folksong became an American legend.
Richard Scarry's children's book, What Do People Do All Day, gets children to think about how the world works - how factories operate, how flour is made, how electricity is produced. While most people put away those nosy questions as adults, historians continue to worry about them. We obsess about the little details and narrate and re-narrate stories about the past until they make sense, and that narration leads to new questions. In this sense history is more like the traditional sciences (physics, chemistry, and biology) than the social sciences. When historians are unwilling to give up the Richard Scarry questions, they can discover things they never intended, and can bring about change, often in ways that are difficult to understand.
Nelson's lecture demonstrates the eerie parallels between the 2008 downturn and the six-year-plus financial crash in the late 1800's. Using dozens of engravings from the time, Nelson shows the giddy highs and the scary lows of the first international Great Depression, and its lessons for today. He also covers the peculiar range of government responses that followed, including tariffs and militant nationalism. The problems had emerged around 1870, starting in Europe. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire formed in 1867, in the states unified by Prussia into the German empire, and in France, the emperors supported a flowering of new lending institutions that issued mortgages for municipal and residential construction, especially in the capitals of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris. Mortgages were easier to obtain than before, and a building boom commenced. Land values seemed to climb and climb; borrowers ravenously assumed more and more credit, using unbuilt or half-built houses as collateral. The most marvelous spots for sightseers in the three cities today are the magisterial buildings erected in the so-called founder period.