Monday, August 02, 2010

What I Saw of the SHEAR Convention (2010)

This year's meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic attracted 400 people, about 40% of the society's membership – a remarkable achievement, given the economic slump and the meeting's isolated location (Rochester, NY). I did some agreeable socializing at the conference, and attended a baker's dozen of papers, of which some of the highlights follow:

Michael Oberg, in "The Many Worlds of Eleazer Williams" (read by Daniel Richter), briefly recounted the life of Reverend Williams, a grandson of Indian captive Eunice Williams who became an Episcopal missionary to the Oneidas. Of particular interest was Williams' "discovery," in the 1840s, that he was the dauphin – the long-lost son of Louis XVI of France, supposedly spirited away to Canada in infancy to protect him from the Jacobins. Of equal interest was the investigation of Williams' claim by two Philadelphia phrenologists, who concluded that Williams was actually an Indian (despite his white ancestry) and couldn't be the Bourbon heir.

The United States' early relations with East Asia received considerable attention this year. Kim Todt, in "'Merchants Have No Country:' The Early Republic and the Importance of its Dutch Trading Partners," observed that the governor of Dutch Batavia (modern Jakarta) actively promoted American trade with the Dutch East Indies, and that the U.S. Navy was sending frigates there by the 1820s. SHEAR President Rosemarie Zagarri, in her presidential address ("The Significance of the 'Global Turn' for the Early American Republic"), pointed out that the British East India Company welcomed U.S. merchants to India in the 1780s, even before Jay's Treaty allowed them to operate there legally. There were forty American ships in the India trade by 1789, and Jacob Crowinshield of Salem brought the first elephant to the United States shortly thereafter. Dale Norwood noted, in "Fear of a British Planet: American Anxiety about British Hegemony and the First U.S. Mission to China," that Americans took an active interest in the First Opium War, a conflict described in American newspaper editorials, church magazines, even children's magazines. One of the latter featured a fictitious child asking her father if the evil British would kill Americans if they didn't buy British opium.

At the last session of the conference, Rob Harper (in "The Powerful Weakness of the Frontier State: Manipulative Mobilization and the 1786 Clark-Logan Expedition") told a great deal about the Logan expedition of 1786 that I didn't know, mentioning the raid's unpopularity among Kentuckians (who were reluctant to contribute supplies and manpower) and noting that its chief purpose was not revenge but the seizure of Indian hostages who could be traded for white captives. In the same session Robert Owens showed his good sense and taste by mentioning recent scholarship by yours truly in his paper "Vigilante for Peace: James Robertson and the Curious Case of Lame Will."

Finally, I enjoyed the privilege of having breakfast with past SHEAR president Alan Taylor, and learned from him of his forthcoming book, The Civil War of 1812, which ought to prove thought-provoking reading on the eve of that conflict's bicentennial.

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