Sunday, July 19, 2009

At the SHEAR History Conference: Obama History for a Multicultural Nation

Last weekend, I traveled to Springfield, Illinois for the annual meeting of the Society for the History of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). SHEAR's a great conference. It's an important enough conference that a lot of the big names show up, but not so important that anyone need feel swallowed up by the size of the event. This year's conference was relatively small because it was held in the fly-over country of downstate Illinois rather than a metropolitan area like Toronto or Philadelphia. Mrs. RSI and I enjoyed Springfield a lot. It's a good size city of about 125,000. People were friendly and helpful and we had a great dinner at a place called Kaitie's Girls (if I remember correctly).

I've posted a couple of times about the trip.

Let just add one more travel note.

"Bob Evans" restaurants are VERY popular along Interstate 65 in Indiana.

My main goal in attending SHEAR was to promote my book project, but there weren't many publishers there. So that didn't work out.

But I went to a lot of panels and they were almost all very good. SHEAR's much more of a commentator's conference than a researchers conference. A large percentage of the papers are presented by graduate students or relatively unknown scholars. What draws audiences to the panels is the star power of the scholars doing the commentary on the panels. In this way, SHEAR gives prominent academics a chance to define "the state of the field."

What I found interesting about this year's SHEAR panels was the relative weight of Lincoln history vs multi-cultural history. This year is the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth; that's why SHEAR was held in Lincoln's adult home of Springfield. There's been an enormous outpouring of worshipful writing about the greatness of Lincoln over the last year or two and much of it is deserved. As he stated in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln presided over a new birth of freedom in the United States and deserves enormous credit for the perseverance in his conduct of the Civil War and his personal growth over the years in which he engaged with the issue of race. I don't think Lincoln fully understood what he was helping bring into the world, but Abraham Lincoln was certainly one of the presiding geniuses as the idea of racial equality began to take root in American society.

But it looks like the season of Lincoln worship is drawing to a close. Historians of the Early Republic sound just as exasperated by Lincoln as they are by Thomas Jefferson. Because of his self-contradictions and limitations in perspective, Lincoln is somewhat of a boring and even mildly repellent figure as he muddled his way through the 1840's and 1850's. In many ways, historians were far more fascinated by the politics of the Indian tribes in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri than they were by the politics of the white settlers who were pressing them to abandon their traditional lands. Historians were also very interested in the abolition movement and African-American leaders like Frederick Douglass. I pressed one of the paper presenters a little bit on the role of David Walker (of "Walker's Appeal" fame) and the historian just flatly claimed that it was Walker (not Jackson, Jefferson, Lincoln, or any of the white leaders of the early Republic who turned out to be right about slavery, integration, and racial issues).

One of the things I was struck by was the easy correlation between the Obama administration and the multi-racial histories of the Early Republic that are being written. Historians have been emphasizing African-American and Native-American history for decades now and certainly don't see their scholarship as reflecting the multi-cultural ideals that are becoming more prominent during the Obama era. And they're right not to do so. What's happening instead is that American politics is catching up with the work of the historians.

Who knows. Maybe David Walker will one day be seen as one of the "founding fathers" of modern American society. There certainly would be justice in that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thought you were a political scientist?