Varieties of Political Practices in the Early Republic

Solicited by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR)

Friday, March 31, 2023, 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Politics; Women's History


Scholars of Black history, women, voluntarism, and social movements have examined the ways in which their subjects have engaged with politics, but these interdisciplinary strands have not been brought together to rethink what we mean by political history in the early republic. Traditional political history focuses on elections and campaigns, and so does much of the new work. Yet new work—as the papers will show—ask us both to rethink the ways in which non-white men and women influenced traditional politics and how diverse kinds of practices could wield political power.

Papers Presented

Rethinking the Gender of Politics in the Early Republic

In analyzing political practices of the early republic, scholars have followed contemporaries in their assumption that politics is an intrinsically masculine pursuit; thus, any observable female political activity is demarcated as such. For example, historians have written about “female politicians,” “republican mothers,” and “petticoat politics,” yet they make no such gendered designation for political activity conducted by men. This paper will argue that the historiography of the early American republic must unmoor itself from our own unexamined patriarchal assumptions about political power, and instead propose a way forward while simultaneously acknowledging the deeply gendered nature of politics in this period.

Presented By
Jacqueline Beatty, York College of Pennsylvania

Democracy, Signature by Signature: The Transformation of Petitioning in Antebellum North America

Petitioning exploded across North America in the early 1800s, and by degrees but massively it provided voice, organization and a modicum of power for millions of unenfranchised souls. In this paper I provide an overview of how the signed petition -- ever present in the colonial and Revolutionary periods -- was reappropriated and massively transformed by peoples whom flourishing settler democracy often pushed to the margins: women, free (and sometimes enslaved) Blacks, Indigenous nations and villages, and tenant farmers. I focus on transformations in the 1810s and 1820s that presaged the better-known mass petitions of the 1830s and 1840s, and in which influences on the United States often came from without: from Canada, from Indigenous nations, from the British West Indies, as much as or more than from Europe.

Presented By
Daniel Carpenter, Harvard University

The Practice of Black Study in Early America

Scholarship on Black history and culture has increasingly shifted to thinking about concepts like freedom, citizenship, and resistance as practices. From Saidiya Hartman’s “tactics” in Scenes of Subjection (1997) to Jessica Marie Johnson’s “practices of freedom” in Wicked Flesh (2020), this reframing has helped refocus our attention on the daily work of Black life and has given us new ways to account for the quotidian, the hidden, and, at times, the very visible but unaccounted for. This presentation will discuss some implications of thinking in terms of “practices” for our accounts of early African American history and culture.

Presented By
Derrick R. spires, Cornell University

Session Participants

Chair: Johann Neem, Western Washington University

Presenter: Jacqueline Beatty, York College of Pennsylvania

Presenter: Daniel Carpenter, Harvard University

Commentator: Reeve Huston, Duke University

Presenter: Derrick R. spires, Cornell University