Dispatches from the Historical Society Conference


Randall Stephens is associate professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College and editor of the Historical Society blog.

HNN, in conjunction with the Historical Society blog is pleased to bring to you dispatches by Randall Stephens from the 2010 Historical Society conference at George Washington University.


Day 1

It is hot in Washington, D.C.  I flew into our nation's capitol on Wednesday and wilted immediately.  The heat and humidity, the residue of a former swamp, didn't keep away historians who came to explore the present and future of historical inquiry.  On Thursday I attended a few wonderful sessions that explored some of the basic themes of the 2010 Historical Society conference, held at George Washington University, and organized by Eric Arnesen.

The panel on "Historical Inquiry Outside the Traditional Undergraduate History Classroom" considered"past inquiry" outside of the typical history classroom.  The question of"who are we teaching, how are we teaching them, and why?" animated the session.

John Thomas Scott (Mercer University) used the term"past" rather than"historical" to indicate the interdisciplinary nature of honors courses and general classes populated by non-history majors.  Scott and other panelists looked into the possibilities and perils--perils for historians at least--of working more broadly and reaching out to a larger audience.

How does one get students to think historically about any number of subjects?  In what ways do courses primarily taught for non-majors differ from typical history classes?

Sarah E. Gardner (Mercer University) spoke about some of the classes that make up Mercer's honors program.  Baseball and American culture, a real draw, includes a class trip to a Florida spring training camp.  Gardner teaches a course on gangster Films in the 1930s.  These classes tend to use primary sources.  Student engagement with documents, she noted, has been key.  Gardner pointed out that these classes typically leave out historiography and the widely differing views of historians.  She ended by considering some of the downsides of this omission:  There will be some lack of contextualization and argument, among other things.

Doug Thompson (Mercer University) related the institutional dynamics of Mercer and talked about how various disciplines engage a critical question or problem.  Mercer's Great Books program, Thompson said, is a major recruitment tool.  Great Books curricula ranges over historical material but is not bound by the rigors of the historical profession.

John Thomas Scott rounded out the panel by speaking about the research projects honors students and non-majors complete as part of Mercer's program.  He highlighted the proliferation of on-line resources in the last 15 years.  That has made it possible for undergrads, even at a smaller liberal arts university like Mercer, to do quality research, as undergrads have countless journals, newspapers, and original sources at their fingertips.  Scott also focused on how Mercer faculty encourage undergraduate publication and paper presentations.  Mercer publishes a couple of excellent in-house undergrad research publications that showcase student work.

There were several intriguing threads that came out during the Q & A.  One that struck me was a conversation about what a non-history major really should or shouldn't know.  Katrin Schultheiss (George Washington University) asked what an engineering major really needed to know about in depth historiographic debate.  In this case, are the basic skills history teaches more important?  How does history content fit in with that, too?  It left us with much, much to consider.

Day 2, Part I

This Friday session, which I chaired, took place after lunch, when bellies were full and eyes were heavy.  Attendees trickled in until we had a good number.  The presenters engaged us on historical-theological change and continuity in modern Germany.

Ryan Glomsrud (Harvard University) asked:  How do we summarize and describe the context of theologians and philosophers?  What counts as appropriate contextualization for a theologian a cultural critic, or a moral philosopher, like Karl Barth?  How do we concretize some of these ideas with social and theological context?

In Glomsrud's view, pietism is the forgotten religious context for nineteenth century religion and Weimar Germany.  Glomsrud challenges the abstract categories—imminent, gnostic, transcendent—used to describe theologians and public intellectuals.

Pietists organized themselves around projects—youth conferences and the like.  Barth launched his career in this world.  Journals attached to the Pietist nineteenth century movement served as the bridge between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Glomsrud finds a continuity in this model from one century to the next.  And he asks historians to think about how this continuity might reshape what we think of the tumultuous changes of the twentieth century.

Late nineteenth century ecumenism certainly drew on new sentiments in Europe.  Thomas Albert Howard (Gordon College) focused on the return of religious history in the ecumenical and confessional age.  His paper “Christian Unity in a Secular and Confessional Age: Ignaz von Döllinger, Vatican I, and the Bonn Reunion Conferences of 1874 and 1875,” answered questions about why these conferences took place, what occured at them, and what they tell us about the era.  The theological consensus fell apart, commented Howard, when Catholics questioned the participation of Anglicans.  The center could not hold.

So what does this tell us about the era?  Howard noted the severe limits of thinking of the nineteenth century as a second confessional age.  But it was no secular age, either.  Ecumenism was limited for a variety of reasons.  Still, the legacy of the Bonn conferences lived on into the twentieth century.

Nicholas Brooks (University of Virginia) began with a quote,"Paul has become fashionable again."  Perhaps that is in response to the postsecular age, or to his reimagining/reevaluation by Gary Wills and others.

Brooks's paper “Interpreting St. Paul for the New Germany:  Martin Heidegger and Karl Barth, 1920-22,” considered the views of Barth and Heidegger on Paul. Those views, said Brooks, revealed a very specific pattern in 20th century thought and marked a break with the previous century. Where Glomsrud saw continuity, Brooks saw discontinuity.  In Brooks's words: "Barth's and Heidegger's readings of Paul might be situated in the history of Paul interpretation, and how in invoking Paul's writings, Barth and Heidegger in similar ways signaled their divergence from the intellectual and cultural heritage of the nineteenth century while providing footing for the beginning of a new era in Weimar and European culture more broadly."

Heidegger viewed Paul as an existential type that took on greater relevance in the twentieth century.  Paul's religion was not the religion of Jesus, thought Heidegger.

The Paul Heidegger and Barth offered was different from the liberal version, argued Brooks.  Paul's religion does not look to a unified whole, Heidegger thought.  Real religion presents the world in a kind of radical chaos.  It is mutable.  Barth and Heidegger launched very different projects using Paul.  Heidegger takes a very serious vision of finitude.  Barth conceives of God as wholly other and takes on a"post-metaphysical" outlook.  The work of both Barth and Heidegger on Paul had special resonance for Westerners in mid-century.

Tal Howard used Freud's term"the return of the repressed" to speak about the trouble in intellectual history with regard to religion.  Each of the panelists was thinking through how theologians, divines, and philosophers reenvisioned faith or belief in a supposedly increasingly secular era.  Religion has returned, though, and religious studies and religious history is strong (See the theme for the 2011 AHA!).  And these papers were great examples of the strength of the field.

Day 2, Part II

On Friday morning, Allan Kulikoff (University of Georgia) was offering a provocative proposal to solve the crisis in the history profession that included wholesale changes in the way graduate school programs are structured (Audio from this session will be added later).  And two rooms down the hall, sociologist Ricardo Duchesne (University of New Brunswick) suggested that"restlessness" was at the heart of Western uniqueness.  Duchesne's presentation couldn't have been more different from Peter Coclanis's (UNC-Chapel Hill) plenary address the night before (which should appear soon on C-Span).  And it is perhaps indicative of the culture of open conversation that the Historical Society works hard to foster that Coclanis, a past Society president, engaged Duchesne rather than dismiss him.

In the afternoon, there was a terrific session on the"Comparative Ways of War," featuring Brian McAllister Linn (Texas A&M and current president of the Society for Military History), Robert Citino (University of North Texas), and Peter Lorge (Vanderbilt).  They combined formidable expertise in (respectively) American, German, and Chinese military history with healthy doses of caffeine-enhanced humor.

In the evening's Christopher Lasch Lecture, Adam Hochschild traced the development of two views of World War I in Great Britain that continue to confront each other today.  One considers the war as noble and necessary (An audio file of the talk will be uploaded soon).  It was the dominant view during the war and throughout most of the 1920s.  But there was a minority view of the war during the same period that saw it as senseless slaughter inflicted by an incompetent military leadership.  In the 1930s this second view gained ascendancy.  World War II took center stage in the 1940s and 1950s, but since the 1960s the senseless slaughter view is almost universally held in Great Britain—save among academic military historians who have been influenced by Fritz Fischer's findings of Germany's bellicose intentions prior to 1914 and who have a greater appreciation for British generalship.  As we approach centennial commemorations of WWI, Hochschild predicts that the competition between these two views will be on full display.

Day 3, Part I

A well-attended session on Thursday afternoon here at George Washington University dealt with what we can know or generalize about on a local level.  What does the information at the local level tell us about slavery and freedom in the antebellum South?  It deserves attention here.  I include videos below of the presenters (due to YouTube's 10 minute limit, I've only included the first 9 minutes or so from each):

"Does It Take a Small Window to See the Big Picture?"
Chair and Commentator:  Melvin Patrick Ely, College of William and Mary


Nancy A. Hillman, College of William and Mary
“Drawn Together, Drawn Apart:   Biracial Fellowship and Black Leadership in Virginia Baptist Churches Before and After Nat Turner”

Jennifer R. Loux, Library of Virginia
“How Proslavery Southerners Became Emancipationists:  Slavery and Regional Identity in Frederick County, Maryland”

Ted Maris-Wolf, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture
“Self-Enslavement in Virginia, 1856-1864:  How Two Free Black Men Shaped a Law That Fueled the National Debate Over Slavery”

Melvin Patrick Ely, College of William and Mary
“What the Reviewers Should Have Criticized about Israel on the Appomattox, But Didn’t”

Ely summarizes the session as follows:

Histories of localities have won considerable attention over the years.  Examples range from Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou and several important books on New England towns to Charles Dew’s Bond of Iron and Melvin Patrick Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox.  Some distinguished reviewers have recognized the assiduousness of the research that underpins certain of these studies and even praised the “sophisticated” analysis they may offer—yet these critics tend to write off the stories these works tell as atypical, and to deprecate their local perspective as inherently unreflective of broader realities.  Eric Foner has added that “local histories, so valuable in bringing into sharp relief the details of daily life, seem to have an inherent bias toward continuity as opposed to historical change,” especially when the locality in question is rural.  Such critics typically go on to praise canonical histories of entire regions (for example, “the American South”) because they “allow far more scope for generalizations.”  But how useful are generalizations that turn out to be contradicted on the ground in one locality after another?

The members of this panel recognize that the historian’s job is to gather, organize, and interpret data in ways that yield reasonably broad, meaningful conclusions.  But we also contend that sweeping conclusions that cannot account for the complexities pervading the lives of real people are not worth very much.  A signal challenge for historians in the twenty-first century is to ferret out the particulars of life as people really lived it and to draw from those details conclusions that are both well founded and widely significant....

Each of us finds that local realities seriously complicate and sometimes contradict received generalizations.  Laws passed following the Nat Turner rebellion did not end black preaching and church leadership in Virginia, thanks to the assertiveness of black Baptists supported by more than a few of their white brethren (Hillman).  Whites in western Maryland, far from identifying instinctively with the North at the onset of the Civil War, wrapped themselves in the mantle of Southernness and of proslavery orthodoxy—yet within less than two years, two-thirds of the white men of Frederick County came to support Lincoln and Emancipation (Loux).  The Virginia law of 1856 allowing free blacks to enslave themselves to white masters was not an expression of spiraling antipathy toward free African Americans or of a general desire among whites to reduce them to bondage; in fact, the law’s framers formulated it in concert with free blacks themselves as a measure to protect certain black individuals (Maris-Wolf).  And in a society of profound inequality, many whites nevertheless adopted a live-and-let-live attitude toward free blacks (Ely).  Ely chaired the panel; after the other panelists offered presentations of their work on the subjects just named, Ely offered a closing comment, drawing on those presentations and on his own work to address what this proposal has called the big questions.

Day 3, Part II

Historians of the last two generations have been fascinated by the question of what race amounted to, or, how race was made.  How was racial inferiority constructed and how did slavery take root in the early modern era?  This panel, fitting with the umbrella theme of the conference, looked at some recent trends in the study of race and slavery.  The three presenters skillfully spanned the centuries and ranged over several continents (See the YouTube videos here, which record the first ten minutes of each presentation).

Room 413-14

Chair: Mark Smith, University of South Carolina

Joyce Malcolm, George Mason University School of Law, “Slavery in 18th-Century Massachusetts and the American Revolution”

Robert Cottrol, George Washington School of Law, “Race-Based Slavery and Race-Based Citizenship: How Brazil and the United States Became Different”

Amy Long Caffee, University of South Carolina, “Hearing Africa: Early Modern Europeans’ Auditory Perceptions of the African Other”

Joyce Malcolm (George Mason University School of Law) spoke about the legacy of slavery in the North during the Revolutionary War.  She began by describing the surprising number of slaves in Massachusetts.  Military service and its link to freedom varied widely between the North and the South.  Malcolm called on historians to closer examine what happened to black soldiers after the war.  She also pointed to the need for greater scrutiny of the possibilities and limits of freedom in the emerging nation (The last New Hampshire slaves, noted Malcolm, died in the years before the Civil War).

Robert Cottrol (George Washington School of Law) invited historians to think of the issue of slavery and its legacy beyond the antebellum narrative and beyond the South.  He called on historians to look at Latin America, opening up a bigger, hemisphere-wide picture.  Slavery in Brazil, for instance, took place for a much longer period and was much more intensely tied to the African trade.  Comparisons and contrasts between national legal systems explain some basic differences between North and South America.  America's egalitarian ideals were embarrassed by slavery.  Slavery's justification in the U.S. revolved around race and black inferiority.  Brazil, by contrast, was not a liberal society and was not as contradicted by the institution of slavery.  Cottrol also asked several larger questions that are part of a broader project, including: "What is slavery's impact in terms of race relations?" And, he wondered: "How has slavery continued to shape the Western Hemisphere up to the present?"

Early in the European-African encounter white perceptions of Africans were shaping ideas of racial difference.  Amy Long Caffee (University of South Carolina) discussed the auditory notions English traders had of Africans in the early modern period.  White traders and travelers reported their views to a larger public back in England. The documents of such venturers, observed Caffee, are"rich with sensory details."  These reports speak volumes about what Englishmen thought of as a"barbarous land and people."

Summarizing the panel Mark Smith (University of South Carolina) commented that slavery was not an anomaly in the nineteenth century.  It was the norm. Smith also linked the stereotypes, sensory and otherwise, of the nineteenth century to similar ones in the twentieth century.

During the Q & A session, participants considered where the field is headed.  Malcolm thinks that more connections will be made between regions and eras.  She also believes that the stereotypes of the antebellum period will be challenged more.  Cottrol suggested that changes in graduate education—encouraging students to ask larger questions and requiring language work—could shift the field.  Smith finally pointed out that emancipation and questions of slavery and freedom will possibly become a greater part of how historians in the area work.

Day 3, Part III

The Historical Society's 2010 conference came to a close at George Washington University with a final plenary session on Saturday night dealing with the nature of America's two-party system (Listen to the audio file embedded below.  It will take a moment to load.  The quality is not the greatest, but the words can be made out OK).  Heather Cox Richardson (University of Massachusetts Amherst) introduced Michael Barone (American Enterprise Institute), who spoke on “The Enduring Character of America’s Political Parties in Times of Continual Change.”  These two parties, ancient in the world of modern politics, have long diverged sharply, said Barone.  Some deeply consistent themes have defined the Democratic and Republican parties since the mid-nineteenth century.  The two distinct parties represent very different constituencies and have, since the nineteenth century, upheld rather distinct political ideas.  For instance, Barone described the outsider aspect of the Democratic Party, which tended to represent immigrants, saloon keepers, and many on the margins.  The party of Roosevelt, populated by interest groups and factions, Barone remarked, lacked the cohesion of the Republican Party.

Commenters Sean Wilentz (Princeton University) and Leo Ribuffo (George Washington University) both praised Barone's extensive knowledge of political history, but each had serious critiques of Barone's key arguments.  Ribuffo thought Barone overemphasized the differences between the parties.  The two parties were, argued Ribuffo, less like a donkey and an elephant and more like kissing cousins, even incestuous cousins at times.  Wilentz argued that Barone had not paid appropriate attention to class.  Wilentz and Ribuffo also questioned Barone's insider-outsider thesis.  The white democracy of the South hardly fit that pattern. At other points the commenters took issue with the continuities Barone saw.

The lively discussion was a fitting end to an intellectually engaging, vibrant conference that gave attendees much to ponder about the state of the profession and the future of historical inquiry.

Day 3, Part III, Addendum

The Saturday night plenary session of the Historical Society conference got me wondering about the larger contours of history. The main speaker was Michael Barone currently of the American Enterprise Institute, who delivered a presentation on “The Enduring Character of America's Political Parties in Times of Continual Change.”  Leo Ribuffo of George Washington University and Sean Wilentz of Princeton commented. (Listen to full lecture and comments here.)

Barone revealed his past career as a pollster (he was a vice president at the polling firm of Peter D. Hart Research Associates from 1974 to 1981).  He outlined the percentages of the vote for each party in elections spanning the twentieth century to point out that elections were decided by quite small margins.  To win, parties had to mobilize pivotal constituencies: quite small populations that determined the electoral votes of large states or regions to swing elections one way or another.

Ribuffo responded to this analysis by pointing out that Barone’s numbers imposed an order on electoral politics that simply wasn’t there.  Elections were often decided by quirky contingencies that no one could have foreseen.

Wilentz also poked holes in Barone’s analysis.  He pointed out that Barone had utterly neglected a discussion of the role of class in determining voting patterns.  Any analysis of American politics without that element included was simply missing the point, he suggested.

And listening to these three distinguished scholars, I couldn’t shut up the voice in my own head whispering that the role of ideas in politics was absent from this particular discussion.  Surely the parties stand for something, and people vote according to their beliefs about what the parties will do in office.

Each of these arguments has merit, and is probably, at some level, right.  So how can they be reconciled to produce a definitive account of American political history?  Or is it the nature of deep historical research to produce a number of accounts from which individuals pick as most important the ones that resonate most closely with their own unique experience?

This is a different question than that of the postmodernists, who ultimately argued that there was no such thing as “truth” or “history” because each perspective was different and equally valuable.  The question of reconciling the different perspectives of cliometrics, contingency, class, ideology, and so on, is fundamentally a question of what constitutes good history.

Forced to think this one through, I would throw my weight behind the idea that all of these different factors matter in general, but that individual ones take the lead in different eras.  They also might matter in every era, but answer different questions.  For me, though, the question Barone, Ribuffo, and Wilentz raised remains an open one.

comments powered by Disqus