Highlights from the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Washington D.C.Historians/History
- Transcript of Jesse Lemisch's introduction to session"From the Bottom Up: Sailors and Democracy"
- HNN Coverage: Past AHA & OAH Conferences
- OAH President Elaine Tyler May's Fascination with Domesticity
- Beverly Gage: The New Intellectual History of Conservatism
- Angus Burgin: The New Intellectual History of Conservatism
- Jennifer Burns: The New Intellectual History of Conservatism
- Angela Dillard: Ronald Reagan's Neshoba County Speech in National Memory
- David Chappell: Ronald Reagan's Neshoba County Speech in National Memory
- Hew Strachan: Clausewitz and the First World War
- Nathan Perl-Rosenthal: From the Bottom Up: Sailors and Democracy
- Jesse Lemisch: From the Bottom Up: Sailors and Democracy
- James Boyden: Explaining the Apocalypse: The Impact of Hurricane Katrina
- Jason Friedman: Rethinking the Carter Administration
- Eduardo Canedo: Rethinking the Carter Administration
- Matthew Sutton: Rival Revivals: Religion, Politics, and Labor in the Great Depression
- Jared Roll: Rival Revivals: Religion, Politics, and Labor in the Great Depression
- Alison Greene: Rival Revivals: Religion, Politics, and Labor in the Great Depression
- Todd Holmes: Political Networks: Coalition Building on the Left in the Late 1960s and 1970s
- Melissa Estes Blair: Political Networks: Coalition Building on the Left in the Late 1960s and 1970s
- Ernest Freeberg: A.P. U.S. History Roundtable: The 2009 Exam, Teaching Social History, and Future Directions.
- William Tinkler: A.P. U.S. History Roundtable: The 2009 Exam, Teaching Social History, and Future Directions
Editor's Note: This piece has been corrected.
The biggest story at this year’s OAH Annual Meeting has been the sweltering heat. Highs today approached 90 degrees – a perfect afternoon for attendees to either take in the sites of the nation’s capital, or lounge around the hotel in blissful air conditioning!
Although most of the expected 2,000 participants at this year’s conference are still in the process of arriving, a symposium on the Teaching American History program, sponsered by Gilder Lehrman and H-NET, met this morning at 7:30. Brue VanSledright of the University of Maryland gave the major presentation, and Alex Stein of the Department of Education was on hand to comment during discussion. After Dr. VanSledright spoke, the meeting broke into a series of small groups to facilitate discussion. The major topic for conversation, according to Boston University’s Peter Gibbon, was about how to evaluate TAH grants “scientifically,” as opposed to the current anecdotal assessment.
Another issue taken up for debate centered on the very nature of TAH’s mission – should the program concentrate on improving the knowledge of American history by high school teachers, or should academics seek to help teachers in the classroom? One participant noted that many academics had to be cajoled into the classroom, particularly in public schools. Indeed, the same participant observed that TAH benefits schools that already have strong history teachers and not school districts that truly need improvement, especially in the inner city. How the program will develop to meet these challenges remains to be seen.
High school teachers continued to be well-represented in today’s schedule of events. The College Board’s William Tinkler led an “A.P. U.S. History Roundtable” early this afternoon, presenting the broad strokes of the new Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum to an audience of about 30 teachers and historians.
The greatest change is in how the program is organized. Until recently, the U.S. history curriculum was organized into 28 chronological topics and 12 different themes. The new standards divide the course into 9 chronological periods with 27 key concepts, 7 course themes, and a series of taught skills. The biggest departure is the introduction of periodization as a theoretical concept to A.P. U.S. History students. The A.P. World History course has already been revised an posted online at http://www.host-collegeboard.com/ap/coursechanges/, with the U.S. History changes expected to be posted in September.
Ernest Freeberg, who teaches American history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, followed Mr. Tinkler with a presentation on the development of social history on the A.P. U.S. History exam. Prof. Freeberg, who regularly grades the exam, explained to the audience the process of developing the document-based question (DBQ), using the latest DBQ on the development of slavery during the early Republic as an example.
Using actual examples from the A.P. U.S. History exam, Prof. Freeberg illustrated the most common difficulties students have in understanding social history. The biggest problem is the tendency to generalize (i.e. all women in the 1920s were flappers, all women in the 1940s worked in the war factories, etc). Two other significant – and related – issues are that students often fail to recognize that race, class, and gender all operate simultaneously, and that the concept of agency is poorly understood. The problem, ultimately, is that students write morality tales centered around injustice and oppression instead of good social history.
After Prof. Freeberg finished his presentation, the audience saw an example of one teacher's World War II lesson plan, courtesy of Ted Dickson, a history teacher from Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Mr. Dickson, recognizing that much, if not most, of what he says to his class will be quickly forgotten, uses carefully selected anecdotes and media to imprint upon their impressionable minds. When discussing the treatment of Japanese-Americans during the war, for example, he draws from his own family’s history and the story of Daniel Inouye, Hawaii’s current senior senator who lost his arm fighting in Italy.
The session drew to a close with some brief remarks by the Education Testing Service’s Uma Venkateswaran, who discussed in further detail the process of preparing questions and grading.
Easily the busiest late afternoon session was led by Rice University’s Allen Matusow. Entitled “Political Networks: Coalition Building on the Left in the Late 1960s, the session consisted of three papers presented by two graduate students and a newly minted professor. The first, by Melissa Estes Blair, who just recently began teaching at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, explored the feminist movement in Colorado. Prof. Matusow was certainly surprised by this paper, as he hadn’t had the chance to read it beforehand! According to Prof. Blair, the feminist movement in Colorado had a historically close and broadly bipartisan relationship to state government, with the number of female Republicans in the state legislature often outnumbering Democrats. The bipartisan consensus on women’s rights, however, was sundered by the end of the 1970s – Prof. Matusow, in his comments on the paper, said this was the most intriguing unanswered question the paper raised.
Rachel Piece, who is an the process of writing her M.A. thesis on New York congresswoman Bella Abzug, presented some innovative ideas about why a male dominated Congress passed such sweeping feminist legislation in the 1960s and 1970s. Although her most controversial contention, that the influence of the feminist protest movement has been overstated, was not terribly well-received by the chair, her provisional research suggests that congressmen’s perception of women was heavily influenced by their staffers and secretaries.
The final paper of the day was presented by Todd Holmes, a PhD candidate at Yale and a personal friend of the chair. Apparently, Mr. Holmes “rescued” Prof. Matusow when he forgot his driver’s license during a research trip in southern California. It was fitting, then, that Mr. Holmes presented on the remarkable success of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers union in mobilizing the support of a remarkable cross-section of American society. Mr. Holmes, in a deliciously pithy moment, dubbed Chavez’s base of support “hippies, hardhats, and housewives.”
The day ended on a high note, with a wonderful cocktail reception in the bunker-like basement of the Hilton. At least it was air-conditioned! The heat is predicted to break on Friday.
The heat in Washington seemed less stifling this morning, but high temperatures and high humidity remained the watchword. An intense evening downpour cooled things down considerably – tomorrow’s high is predicted to be in the low sixties, a high far better suited to tweed-clad historians than seersucker sporting senators.
The seminal morning session, chaired by Harvard’s Lizabeth Cohen, brought together a panel of young historians to discuss religious radicalism in the Depression-era South. Alison Greene, a PhD candidate at Yale, regaled the audience with the story of Joe Jeffers, a traveling Baptist preacher who, in a career punctuated by bizarre spectacles, reputedly jumped out of an airplane over Washington D.C. and incited a riot in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Greene used Jeffers as an example par excellence of premillennialist, apocalyptic preachers who were extremely far to the right theologically but far left socially and politically. It was Protestant preachers like Jeffers who hoped both to craft a radical political agenda and lead a spiritual renewal. More mainstream Religious leaders had long defined politics in religious terms: during the war, during Prohibition, and during Al Smith’s 1928 campaign. The Depression, however, sapped mainstream churches of their income – many African Baptists, for example, stopped funding their missionary programs, either delegating missionary work to women or cutting their programs entirely.
Jarod Roll, a senior lecturer (the equivalent, he assured the audience, of an advanced associate professor in the American lexicon) at the University of Sussex, tried to make sense of the explosion in the membership of political groups by both poor whites and poor blacks. Dr. Roll believes that the answer is in obscure local records dotted throughout Southern towns, detailing the meetings of “new sect” churches, i.e. unaffiliated Pentecostals and schism Baptists, that tended to the needs of the rural South.
Roll took pains to not that these unaffiliated Pentecostals were apocalyptic in nature, but were not as otherworldy as some historians insisted. Indeed, messianic prophets incited a kind of nationalism in rural black communities. Indeed, one premillenialist preacher claimed that Japan would lead a crusade to defeat white imperialism. He used the Book of Ezekiel to claim that Japan would drop poisonous bombs on the U.S. that would kill all American whites and apostate blacks, save for 144,000 chosen.
Washington State University’s Matthew Sutton closed by presenting a masterful account of the rise of evangelical Christianity as a viable political force. His narrative centered not on Reagan or even Nixon, but on the fears of Protestant evangelicals during the 1930s that FDR was a tool of the anti-Christ. Evangelicals looked for signs of the immanent return of Christ everywhere in the 1920s, and with the rise of Mussolini, Hitler, and Zionism, the signs were easy to find.
Fundamentalists believed that the rise of dictators in Europe the perceived dictatorship of FDR would pave the way for the one-world dictatorship of the anti-Christ. The NRA, for example, was viewed as the prelude to the “mark of the Beast.” Evangelicals, hence, lined up with big business, therefore, to fight against the New Deal reforms.
Although Protestant fundamentalists remained fierce opponents of New Deal liberalism, evangelicals as group were not explicitly partisan until Reagan, but, as Prof. Sutton put it, modern liberalism and fundamentalist anti-liberalism sprang from the same seed.
Thanks to the efforts of our intrepid intern Dave Lieberson, HNN now has the enviable distinction of being in two places at once for the remainder of the OAH meeting! Your humble reporter took advantage of this by attending the conference’s first off-site session at the National Building Museum in Judiciary Square.
The National Building Museum was certainly a refreshing breath of air to punctuate the generic hotel format of the convention. A red-brick building with an interior deliberately reminiscent of Venice, the building brought a cheerful countenance to an otherwise grim subject: the housing crisis.
The session gathered a surprising turnout considering the traveling time, with about 20 people in attendance. Shirley Wajda, an independent scholar, presented the scrapbook of Joseph Fennell, a house builder in Connecticut, as well as pamphlets from Herbert Hoover’s own-your-own-home campaign from his tenure as Secretary of Commerce in the 1920s. The roots housing crisis, according to Wajda, stem back to Hoover’s campaign, a contention supported by the other two panelists.
David Fruend, who teaches at the University of Maryland, noted that while federal housing policy is undergoing renewed scrutiny by historians, it remains an “un-sexy” field that is poorly understood by the media and the general public. The post-war housing explosion, said Fruend, was indeed facilitated by increased demand and technological/managerial innovation, but it was also born and sustained by federal policy.
Until the 1940s, home ownership was generally restricted to those who could afford to pay 50 percent up front or to those who built their own homes. Under the new policies implemented by the Roosevelt administration, a middle class worker could pay 10 percent of the total and pay off the loan for the next 25-30 years. These programs did not resuscitate a housing market that had been choked by the Depression – they created, in essence, a new market by assuming considerable private sector risk.
By the 1980s, restructuring of the mortgage industry allowed lenders to “punt” shorter-term variable-rate mortgages, often to poorer whites and minorities who were denied access to more secure loans. Agencies and lenders targeted these groups aggressively.
Mark Bokovoy, an editor with the University of Nebraska Press, had perhaps the most difficult task of the panel as he attempted to make sense of the dizzy array of policy acronyms and incomprehensible economic jargon. Indeed, part of the problem, according to Bokovoy, is that economists and historians often talk past each other.
Bokovoy also emphasized the intense racial discrimination in government housing policy since the 1930s. One of the unfortunate effects of the financial meltdown has been the tendency to blame the groups – typically poorer whites and minorities – that had been previously been excluded from the housing market, but the causes of the meltdown were much more complicated.
Meanwhile, back at the Hilton on Connecticut Avenue, Mary Anne Heiss of Kent State University led a panel with the verbose title “American Civil Society and United States-Middle East Relations, from the Cold War to the War on Terror.” F. High Wilford, who is affiliated with CSU – Long Beach, presented a paper on the American Friends of the Middle East, a NYC pro-Arab lobby group. The group found its greatest successes in the 1950s under the pro-Arab Eisenhower, but after the Arab catastrophe of the Six Day War and revelations that the group received money from the CIA, AFME folded in 1967.
While Eisenhower was generally pro-Arab, Richard Nixon was deeply concerned about the potential for a Palestinian Munich-style attack in the United States. According to UC – Santa Barbara’s Salim Yaqub, Nixon’s concern over Arab-American loyalties ironically facilitated Arab assimilation into American politics by raising Arab-American awareness of their political rights and political power.
The afternoon came to a close with two packed sessions, both covered by C-SPAN. One, chaired by Hunter College’s Jonathan Schoenwald, put conservatism in the 1960s under the microscope. The other, with the Library of Congress’s John Earl Haynes, revisited the HUAC hearings, focusing on the lesser known investigators and witnesses.
Vernon Pederson presented the saga of Jerry O’Connell at the HUAC meeting, a “premature anti-Fascist” who fought in Spain, testified before HUAC in 1955, and died of a heart attack the following year. HUAC’s hounding of a sick man helped turned public sympathy against the committee. Veronica Wilson focused on FBI informant Herbert Philbrick, an upright Baptist who posed as a Communist for nine years to gather information.
At the session on conservatism, Stephanie Rolph, associated with Georgia Southwestern State University, presented a fascinating paper on the “white resistance movement” in the early 1960s. Using the television program Forum as her primary source of anecdotes, Rolph showed how white conservatives reacted to the independence movement in Africa. By dismissing “Congo tribes” as unworthy of being dealt with seriously by the United States, white reactionaries undercut the prestige of the United Nations, where “colored” nations outnumbered white countries.
Dan Williams, another Georgian, albeit affiliated with the University of West Georgia, took up the banner of Matthew Sutton by examining the transformation of Protestant anti-Catholicism in the early 1960s to a broad anti-secular coalition of Protestants and Catholics. The sexual revolution and the proliferation of drug use brought Protestant and Catholic interests together, but Richard Nixon cemented the relationship. He received 84 percent of the white evangelical vote in 1972, and more Catholic votes than any other Republican up to that time.
With a full day of conventioneering behind them, participants scrambled to take in the city before the rains came! With tomorrow being quite possibly the busiest day of the convention (and considerably colder), who could blame them?
Check back tomorrow for more updates!
It is not often that historical conventions take place at historical venues, but this year’s OAH has the distinction of being held at the Hilton Washington, the same venue where the White House Correspondents Dinner is held, as well as the hotel where John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan. Oddly enough, a wax figure of Reagan from Madame Tussauds is on display in the hotel lobby. At least Reagan has a connection to the hotel – why Lyndon Johnson is standing next to him remains a mystery. Perhaps it is because the hotel opened in 1965.
The morning dawned blissfully cooler than it had been on Wednesday and Thursday, a perfect day for participants to enjoy Washington’s blooming cherry blossoms. For those who preferred more productive and intellectually stimulating mornings, however, the OAH did not disappoint. In a session entitled “Rethinking the Carter Administration” led by The Ohio State University’s Susan Hartmann, a distinguished group of panelists re-examined some of the longstanding assumptions and interpretations of the Carter years.
John Mini, a major in the U.S. Army and instructor at West Point, detailed Carter’s attempts to micromanage the Pentagon’s budget for the fiscal years 1978 and 1979. Carter believed that, as a Naval Academy graduate and a nuclear engineer, he was uniquely qualified to comment on the military budget. He got his way in ’78 and ’79, but by 1980 an alliance between the Pentagon and Congress forced Carter’s retreat. Even so, Carter remained one of the last “liberal” presidents in terms of the defense budget.
One of the major public relations initiatives of the Carter presidency was the attempt to remove some of the more ostentatious elements of the office. Michigan State’s Jason Friedman detailed Carter’s botched attempt to sell the presidential yacht, the U.S.S. Sequoia. Carter failed to appreciate that the yacht was a political tool that could be used to cajole congressmen, and Larry Flint’s attempt to buy the yacht didn’t help public perception.
In a final irony, the sale of the yacht ended up costing the country money. Presidents still took vacations on the sea, but now they had to rent their boats.
Neil Young – the professor at Princeton, not the rock singer – commented on the withering away of Carter’s evangelical support from 1976 to 1980. Young convincingly argued that a “purge” in the Southern Baptist Convention of moderates was the decisive moment in Carter’s dramatic loss of religious support.
Eduardo Canedo, another Princeton professor, ended the session with a provocative paper arguing that the deregulation most commonly associated with Ronald Reagan actually began under the Carter administration. Unlike Reagan’s “guilt free anti-statism,” however, Carter’s deregulatory initiatives were touted as consumer rights initiatives designed to align fiscal conservatism with social liberalism.
The second round of morning session saw an invigorating session on Hurricane Katrina. Led by Leiden University’s Adam Fairlough and featuring two Tulane professors, discussion focused primarily on the politics of Katrina.
In keeping with the trend towards religion at this year’s convention, James Boyden, one of the Tulane professors and the former chair of Tulane’s history department, drew attention to the number of conservative Christians who declared that the destruction of New Orleans was God’s punishment for the city’s sins. Although Prof. Boyden did not emphasize this point, he did mention that even secular Europeans subscribed to a moralistic interpretation of Katrina, substituting George W. Bush for lasciviousness as the root evil.
Sexuality remained a major theme of the panel in Randy Spark’s remarks. Prof. Sparks, who also teaches at Tulane, defended the city’s decision to hold Mardi Gras celebrations in 2006 by describing the centrality of the holiday in New Orleans history and culture. A NOLA without Mardi Gras, he decried, would just be another bland Southern city like Houston or Atlanta. No residents of Houston or Atlanta were available to comment.
Romain Huret, professor at the Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, closed by offering several explanations of why the disaster happened: personal failures by Michael Brown and George W. Bush; the 24 media cycle that was quick to portray New Orleans as “the Baghdad of the South… A short step from the Big Easy to the Big Mess”; the providential explanation explored by the previous commentators; race; and the rational explanation. According to Prof. Huret, too many people misunderstood FEMA’s role, as disaster relief had been drastically militarized since 9/11.
Carl Weinberg, one of the organizers of this year’s conference and the editor of the OAH Magazine of History, led a session on the changes in history education since 1985. In response to a government report in the 1980s that declared “the education foundations of our society are being eroded,” several initiatives were rolled out to improve high school history education, including the Teaching American History grants and the national history standards of the 1990s.
These programs have come under bitter attack. Rush Limbaugh, delivering a trenchant criticism with his trademark scintillating intellect, declared that “history is real simple. It’s what happened. It’s no more. Guys try to skew history…” Dr. Weinberg"agrees" with the skewed part: When the Virginia governor issues a statement on Confederate History Month without mentioning slavery, he is trying to skew history. Limbaugh's problem is that he does not understand that history is far from simple -- it is an interpretative, contested process, and it is this failure to understand that caused Dr. Weinberg to call his view of history"just goofy."
One of the biggest problems in trying to improve history education is the focus most academics have on reaching honors and Advanced Placement students. Billie Jean Clemens, a teacher at Swain County High School in the North Carolina hill country, argued that the best way to improve history standards is to take an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to secondary education. Arizona State professor Linda Sargent Wood agreed, noting that students’ cognitive development is harmed by the traditional memorization, multiple choice, and essay format. Critical thinking skills are vital for the demands of the 21st century world.
John Jay College’s Jesse Lemisch ran a wonderfully witty and erudite afternoon session on American sailors during the Revolution and early Republic. He certainly had done his homework on the panel – he regaled attendees with details from the Facebook pages of the presenters, down to their friend counts!
Staughton Lynd was also on hand to comment, but the real stars of the show were the presenters. Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, a graduate student at Columbia, described in a witty and informative treatise how the records of the U.S.S. Boston illustrated the contested democratization of the Continental Navy. While arbitrary and corporal punishment remained the norm, at one point the captain of the Boston polled his crew to determine his next course of action.
Christina Sears, a professor at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, used the example of William Bainbridge, a genuine naval hero who commanded the U.S.S. George Washington, to illustrate the arbitrariness of naval discipline during the early Republic. Bainbridge was accused by one of his subordinates of undue harshness, a matter that was dealt with through legal channels. Penn State’s Hester Blum also examined the case of William Rae, a poet who served in the Barbary Wars, wrote an account of the wars entitled “The Horrors of Slavery,” and later tried to solicit $100 from both Presidents Jefferson and Madison.
While Lemisch et al were discussing sailors during the Revolution, Virginia Commonwealth’s Timothy Thurber lead a roundtable discussion about how historians should study conservatism “now that studying the Right is trendy.” UW – Milwaukee’s Glen Jeansonne launched a passionate defense of Herbert Hoover, noting that had been smeared by historians under the mistaken belief that FDR ended the Great Depression. World War II and postwar consumerism ended the Depression. Hoover should be compared to his predecessors, Jeansonne argued, and by that measure Hoover was a truly progressive president, even accepting the necessity of a social safety net.
Sarah Mergel of Dalton State College, mirroring the discussion of yesterday’s panel on conservatism in the 1960s, talked about Nixon’s racial policy. Nixon, according to Mergel, did not neglect civil rights as an issue, but instead tried to desensitize it, angering many conservatives. Mary Brennan, a teacher at Texas State, San Marcos, noted that Nixon and Hoover trouble pre-existing notions of what conservatives stand for because of their relative moderation.
The two locals, Leo Ribiffo of GWO and Georgetown’s Michael Kazin, discussed the historiography of American conservatism, with Ribuffo declaiming liberal historians’ tendency to demonize the Right, distorting our understanding of the past. Kazin, for his part, called for increased research into the anti-income tax movement, noting that modern conservatism is defined more by what it opposes than by what it proposes.
NYU’s Thomas Bender chaired today’s plenary session entitled “The United States in the World.” One of the participants, Columbia’s Matthew Connelly, baldly declared that trans-national history is in crisis. Since the 1970s, historians have been saying that U.S. foreign relations had to be understood in a more international context, but until recently historians of U.S. foreign relations relied on American archives, not on those overseas. Diplomatic history also remains an overwhelmingly masculine discipline.
Nan Enstad, who teaches at Madison, noted that 53 of the world’s top economies in the year 2000 were corporations. Why have corporations remained so unstudied? Prof. Enstad described corporations as embedded in modern culture and, indeed, as an art form.
The evening came to a close with usual OAH extravagance. Several societies held cocktail receptions, Staughton Lynd led a memorial service to the late Howard Zinn, and Hew Strachan, one of the foremost authorities on World War I in the world, gave a lecture on Clausewitz and the First World War to the Society for Military History and the George C. Marshall Foundation. Because the meeting hall had been divided for another reception, the lights abruptly went off halfway through Prof. Strachan’s remarks, but he took it in stride.
It’s been a busy day, but only one more until the end of the convention!
Although today was the last day of this year’s OAH convention, you wouldn’t know it by the turnout this morning! The weekend certainly has drawn out the crowds at the Washington Hilton – a noticeable rise in attendance on Friday mushroomed into a veritable explosion in the number of attendees this morning. With the high qualities of the panels today, it was no surprise!
Race played a prominent role in the discussions this morning – Emory’s Joseph Crespino chaired a panel on Ronald Reagan’s infamous “states’ rights” speech at the Neshoba County Fair during the 1980 campaign, and Peter H. Wood of Duke University led a “State of the Field" panel on the history of slavery.
At the latter, Ira Berlin discussed the last quarter century of slavery historiography, explaining how a more internationalist framework developed that incorporated Europe, Africa, and the Americas in slavery studies. Indeed, the history of slavery as it exists today is noteworthy for being so interdisciplinary, incorporating studies of capitalism, religion, and labor.
Jennifer Morgan, who teaches at NYU, discussed the need to conduct more research into the plight African American slave women. Only six monographs have been published on the subject since 1985. In keeping with the interdisciplinary approach of the field, Morgan spoke of the need to incorporate histories of sex and the body, resistance, and economics into the broader narrative. Emory’s Leslie Harris also spoke of the need to analyze slavery as a Northern as well as Southern phenomenon, and that Northern slavery, like the institution in the South, was predominantly rural, not urban, in nature, a challenge to current perceptions.
Edward T. Baptist, a professor at Cornell, wondered how historians can reshape the master narrative. The biggest trouble, according to Baptist, is incorporating slavery into the broader narrative of American slavery. How does the public confront public historians calling plantations “slave labor camps”? Cornell called for more serious thought on this matter by academic historians of slavery.
Meanwhile, Prof. Crespino, Oberlin’s Renee Romano, Oklahoma’s David Chappell, and Michigan’s Angela Dillard dissected Reagan’s 1980 speech. Prof. Chappell worried that criticizing Reagan lets Democrats off the hook for their own racially charged scandals. He drew attention to several Carter gaffes, including a 1976 remark in which Carter stated support for keeping neighborhoods “ethnically pure.” Angela Dillard, for her part, focused on the Neshoba County Fair’s status as a more or less exclusively white social space.
Renee Romano, in her comments on the presented papers, used the bizarre story of James Meredith, the first black student at Ole Miss who later endorsed former Klansman David Duke in the 1991 Louisiana governor’s race, to illustrate the dangers of viewing events like Neshoba too simply. She recounted how two British journalists, who had preconceived notions about the civil rights icon, were taken aback in an interview with Meredith by his vehement hostility to civil rights as an issue.
The second round of sessions proved to be even more popular than the first. Vanderbilt’s Daniel Usner chaired an incredibly lively panel (covered by C-SPAN and local Washington newspapers) reassessing Andrew Jackson. Daniel Feller, a professor at the University of Tennessee, underscored how imperative the Indian removal was to Jackson. Some have held that his has been overplayed because of recently sensibilities, but Jackson really was as anti-Indian as he has been portrayed.
Prof. Usner disagreed with Feller’s analysis, saying that while Jackson was central to Indian removal policy and probably its most zealous advocate, new historical research should focus on exploring hitherto unexamined Indian voices.
Cumberland University’s Mark Cheathem discussed the distortion of Jackson’s relationship with his slaves by the novelist Dorothy Price-Haskins. Jackson, according to Haskins, among other things father a child with one slave, who kept a journal about their relationship. This affair has no evidence to substantiate it. Indeed, little is known about Jackson's slaves, according to Dr. Cheathem, but much is known about Jackson as a slave master. He quoted James Parton, who described Jackson as a “walking paradox” on the topic of slavery. These stories remain more or less untouched in the Jacksonian canon, and help to fuel the kind of distortion exemplified by Ms. Haskins.
Florida International University’s Kirsten Wood talked about the need to further study gender and women in Jacksonian politics, noting that Jackson’s relationship with women defined the scandals of his administration. Women also played an essential role in the political process of the early Republic.
Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek and author of a recent Jackson biography, talked briefly about the use of Jackson by twentieth century politicians – FDR in particular had, in Meacham’s words, a “man crush” on Jackson and believed that the New Deal represented a continuation of the best of Jacksonian democracy.
More recently, Sarah Palin explicitly stated that the common person, the Joe Six Packs of America, need to be represented in high office. But while Jackson is remembered as a populist, he was a lawyer, a judge, and a general. When Palin evokes Jackson, she is implicitly – and paradoxically – arguing that elitism, or at the least the mixture of elitism and populism that George W. Bush exemplified, isn’t such a bad thing after all. At any rate, Meacham summarized Jackson thusly: paranoid, obsessed with criticism, and obsessed with his own reputation, just like 43 other presidents.
Just down the hall from the Jacksonian spectacle, Gillis Harp, professor of history at Grove City College, moderated a discussion with three leading scholars of modern conservatism in America. Jennifer Burns, the author of a recently released intellectual biography of Ayn Rand, talked about new potential avenues of research in conservative intellectual history. She expressed the desire to more thoroughly explore the intellectual impact of the non-intellectual conservative movement. Extremists like the Birchers (and Ayn Rand until recently) do not have a single scholarly monograph to their name, despite their obvious importance to the development of conservative ideology and the conservative movement. Why, too, is not Bill Clinton included in conservative studies? His policies drew as much from conservative thinkers as it did from New Deal liberalism.
Angus Burgin also offered his thoughts on where the future of the field lies:
Finally, Beverly Gage, in a wonderfully witty and energetic presentation, argued that the narrative of conservative history was largely developed in-house at the National Review.
Later that afternoon, Frank Costigliola, who teaches at the University of Connecticut and is affliated with the Institute for Advanced Studies, led one of the final regularly scheduled panel of the convention, exploring American post-war experiences after the Philippine-American War, World War I, World War II, and Korea. Vanderbilt’s Paul Kramer argued that the Philippine War represented the first major protection of American military power beyond U.S. shores, although much of the legacy of the war is confused with that of the Spanish-American War.
Stanford’s David Kennedy followed with a discussion of the American experience in the post-WWI period, an era notable more for what did not happen than for what did. The United States was handed the world’s economic leadership by the devastated European economies, an offer that was refused, as the United States was more important to the international economy than the international economy was to the United States.
World War II, according to Queen’s University’s Wendy Wall, galvanized the United States and other powers to lay down the framework of international law, justified federal intervention in the economy, and shaped and solidified the postwar consensus. WWII saw the end not of “isolationism,” but of 150 years of American unilateralism. Indeed, the postwar emphasis on multilateralism ties directly into the Korean conflict.
The University of Chicago’s Bruce Cumings examined the impact of the Korean War on American popular memory. Most are still unaware that 30,000 American troops are still stationed on the peninsula. A true testament to containment policy, North Korea has become one of the most isolated societies on Earth.
This evening saw a reception held in honor of outgoing OAH president Elaine Tyler May, but your intrepid reporter unfortunately had a flight to catch! To all of the participants now headed back home, bon voyage and see you next year in Houston!
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Gary Ostrower - 4/12/2010
David Walsh misstates the name of the historian who chaired the "incredibly lively" session about Andrew Jackson on Day 4. It was John Belohlavek, the author of "Let the Eagle Soar." Belohlavek's book, published nearly 25 years ago,remains the outstanding account of Jackson's foreign policy.
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- Building a digital archive for decaying paper documents, preserving centuries of records about enslaved people
- The Radical Lives of Abolitionists