OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Jason M. Opal

Portrait of Jason M. Opal

Jason M. Opal is an associate professor of history at McGill University, where he teaches a range of courses on early American history. His most recent classes have been about slavery and antislavery in the revolutionary period (1760s–1820s) and about the history of American families. He is most interested in social and cultural history and in the debates of the postrevolutionary period over what kind of nation or society the United States should be. His first book, Beyond the Farm: National Ambitions in Rural New England (2008), was about ambition among New England farm families. His current book project, Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation (2017) centers on the problem of vengeance—extra-legal violence and punishment—and a man who built his life around its pursuit: Andrew Jackson.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

The family farm--small, self-sufficient, and hard-working--holds a special place in the American imagination. It also figured prominently in early American political thought, most especially in Thomas Jefferson's famous description of farmers as the "chosen people of God." But the family farm also came under direct and explicit criticism in the early republican age, not so much from any major political figures as from a broad array of liberal pastors, school reformers, and family theorists. They argued that American society should cultivate "ambition," or the desire to escape the narrow bounds of farm and family and seek fame (not just fortune) in the wider world. This lecture explores this process by using little-known sources from mostly New English village boosters and school teachers, along with the diaries, letters, and autobiographies of those who grew up debating their own ambitions.
In September 1792, representatives from several villages of Cherokees, Creeks, and Shawnees declared war on the white settlements of eastern and mid-Tennessee. Those settlers were not sure if they belonged to the United States, nor if they wanted to be. And over the next two years of intense violence and profound trauma, they described themselves more in religious than national terms. They were "Christians" or "white people" in an epic, no-holds war with "savage" and "heathen" peoples who nonetheless qualified as nations in a way that they did not. This lecture offers a social history of these terrifying years along with a cultural and intellectual analysis of one of its major participants, a young Andrew Jackson.
In early 1818, an army of Tennessee and Kentucky volunteers, Georgia militiamen, and U.S. soldiers under the command of Andrew Jackson crossed into Spanish Florida. They fought a few skirmishes with Seminole and Creek warriors, burned several villages, and captured two British nationals. Both were executed after a makeshift court martial. This set off what one Congressman called a "Great National Question," or rather several. Was the United States bound by the so-called "law of nations," the forerunner to international law? Or were the American people victims of that law along with the allegedly "lawless" peoples of Florida? This lecture offers a close look at both the invasion and the debate that followed, along with some broader thoughts on early American ideas about law, natural rights, and the morality of vengeance.
The economic crisis of 1819 brought severe hardship to much of the United States. Especially in the western states, voters demanded "relief": moratoriums on debt prosecutions and foreclosures along with the creation of public banks to increase the money supply. Andrew Jackson was appalled. He demanded what he called "justice" for "honest creditors," citing clauses in both state and federal constitutions that prohibited any such interference into the economy. By the early 1820s, a new consensus among national-level politicians and state judges set up news walls against relief measures. How Jackson nonetheless became the "voice of the people" and President in 1829 is the subject of this talk.