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“What About Early America?”: Panel Recap

As an Early Americanist, I’ve noticed the relatively few panels that deal with my subject matter at recent Organization of American Historians gatherings and articles that tackle Early America in the Journal of American History. I’m clearly not the only one, because the OAH asked Dr. Karin Wulf, Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, to pull together a panel titled “What About Early America?”

The panel originally formed to discuss why so few Early Americanists seem to engage with the OAH and its journal, the JAH, but quickly moved beyond a “why don’t they like us?” conversation. In her opening remarks, Dr. Wulf astutely pointed out that Early Americans have many other institutional homes: the Omohundro Institute, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, Society of Early Americanists, and the McNeil Center were just a few of the centers and organizations mentioned. Dr. Wulf suggested that perhaps the question should be better phrased, “Do we not want them? Or do they not want us?” The existence of the panel itself, and board member audience participation, suggests that the OAH is working to rectify the dearth of Early American scholarship in the organization and is hopeful that the new JAH editor, Ben Irvin, will bring more Early American submissions to the journal.

To further the conversation, Dr. Wulf asked each of the panelists to share an image or item and briefly discuss how their picture relates to an area of historical focus that deserves greater scholarly attention.

Dr. Cathy Kelly shared a letter written in 1802 from Thomas Jefferson to William Hamilton. Kelly used the letter to share just one loyalist experience after the war and to demonstrate that loyalists have largely gone overlooked. Several new studies challenge the “loyalist reintegration” myth, but the vast majority of loyalists still escape historians. Kelly suggested that historians have trouble seeing loyalists because they don’t fit neatly into the founding story and they are difficult to find in the archives, as they themselves were eager to bury their past. The loyalist postwar experience has two important lessons for society today. First, the fragmentation of the war didn’t disappear after the Treaty of Paris, but instead the new nation was founded on fractures. Second, it is important for us to remember what loyalists had to forget into order to make peace.

Dr. Peter Mancall presented a photo of a mountain range in western Massachusetts and shared a number of myths integral to Native American culture that explain the formation of the natural world and its relation to ancient spirits. Over the last several centuries different cultures used different stories to explain similar natural phenomenon and challenge the basic picture of Native American culture taught in elementary curriculum.

Dr. Jennifer Morgan shared an image of the Partus Act (1662), which established that slave status passed onto children through the mother. The decision that slavery followed the women’s status was made at different times through the Atlantic world, but scholars haven’t fully examined the process that led to those decisions and why laws were passed at specific moments. By exploring these moments more fully, scholars should try to uncover the female slavery experience and the relative flexibility of those moments when legal status didn’t always represent daily existence. The Partus Act situated women as producers of commodity and wealth, not kinship, which resonates in black communities today.

Dr. Claudio Saunt shared a map of OAH conference meetings across the United States and the percentage of papers on Early America. The largest percentage occurred in Boston in 2004 with 14% of papers. The theme of that conference was American Revolutions, but very few papers explored Early America west of the Mississippi River. Saunt argued that the first half the early American survey takes place before the United States actually existed, which causes students and Americanists to disproportionately focus on the European population and declining native populations. Now would be a good moment to turn away from study of the nation state and focus on history of land, food, and biology that produced America. He suggested four themes for future study: resource intensification; climate change; social stratification; and human health.

Dr. Wulf’s final comment emphasized role of history in today’s current moment and what Early America can offer.

The audience, which was the largest I personally witnessed at any of the panels, eagerly embraced these topics and circled around a few themes:

  1. Early America, especially the topics that the panelists discussed, has so much to offer for our modern society and teachers in all fields. Museums can do a better job at grasping the array of American experiences, teachers at all levels can incorporate these complicated stories into their curriculum, and scholars need to engage with these themes in light of the polarization and conflict in the present United States. Many in the audience expressed a belief that Early Americanists could do a better job of offering their research and knowledge to their colleagues in other fields. One suggestion was to create panels that included U.S. historians from all centuries to facilitate a conversation between the centuries.
  2. Interdisciplinary Approaches. The audience posed several questions about the value of interdisciplinary work and whether new and established scholars should seek out these avenues. The panel had a bit of a mixed response to this point. On the one hand, Morgan emphasized how valuable she’s found black feminist scholarship to be. And all panelists agreed that Early Americans have benefited greatly from new research approaches pioneered in fields like Indigenous Studies and Archaeology. They also agreed that Early Americans are perhaps most open to these methods of research because you have to great creative when your research subjects didn’t leave much a written record. But both Kelly and Wulf had a few reservations. Kelly suggested that she’s learned so much from material culture conferences, but wouldn’t recommend to graduate students or junior colleagues that they seek out those avenues (because there is already so much to consider), unless it would specifically benefit their work and careers. Wulf also pointed out that it’s great to consider new journals and fields for avenues for publication, but that we have to be realistic about how much information are we actually disseminating. People don’t read journals cover to cover anymore, instead they conduct keyword searches online. So if Early Americanists are trying to facilitate a dialogue between disciplines, publishing in other journals probably isn’t sufficient.
  3. #VastEarlyAmerica: Much of the discussion operated under the assumption that Early America is much broader, both chronologically and geographically, than covered in the U.S. survey classes and many conversations about the period. The story of the United States tends to consume and overshadow the story of America the continent. But many in the audience recognized that we were very much preaching to the choir. The point of the four primary sources shared by the panelists was to demonstrate how much work still needs to be done to uncover the vastness of Early America. The Omohundro is spearheading the effort to expand the definition of what Early America means through the #VastEarlyAmerica online movement.

The conversation was lively, engaging, and the time flew by. The panelists are putting together their materials into a syllabus in the hopes that they might be helpful for other Early Americanists looking to expand the conversation. Dr. Wulf also acknowledged that the “What about Early America” conversations had occurred before and so they hoped the syllabus would help move the conversation forward, rather than just repeating itself over and over again. The materials should be online soon.

I also storified my tweets covering the panel. You can see the coverage here.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis. She is starting a postdoctoral fellowship in the fall at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and is working on a manuscript, tentatively titled, “The President’s Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.”