Cambridge History of America and the World: May 2018 Conference


“This is the time for this project.” So began the May 17-19 conference for the second, 19th-century volume of Cambridge University Press’ ambitious, four-volume series Cambridge History of America and the World. As Kinder Institute Chair Jay Sexton described in his introductory remarks for the conference, the second volume, which he’s co-editing with longtime collaborator Kristin Hoganson of University of Illinois, provides an opportunity to disprove once and for all the misguided perception of the 19th century as the “great desert” of American foreign relations. To do this, he explained, requires destroying celebratory, Whiggish interpretations of U.S. history that anachronistically project the nation’s 20th-century power back onto its ante- and postbellum narratives. And displacing these accounts will require the dogged commitment to scholarly pluralism that both editors noted was already beginning to shine through in the volume’s first drafts, which exchange the one-dimensionality of previous approaches to understanding America and the world in the 19th century for histories that focus on volatility, unpredictability, and contingency, and that draw out the countless ways in which American politics were conditioned by external forces during this period.

Session Notes

Day 1, Session 1: “Situating the U.S. in the World,” Christa Dierksheide (Chair), Konstantin Dierks, Sam Truett, Ian Tyrrell

Fittingly, Indiana University Associate Professor of History Konstantin Dierks opened the session on “Situating the U.S. in the World” with a discussion of the commercial innovations in material culture that made it possible for the very notion of a world in which the U.S. was situated to be envisioned. As he explained, an early-century sentiment of global indifference in America was due at least in part to the fact that, in 1820, very few U.S. citizens had access to images of a world beyond their own small radii of movement. By 1850, however, mass production and competitive industry formation ensured that maps and globes were no longer luxuries of the elite classes and instead semi-fixtures in American homes and classrooms. With this, how people noticed the world and what they knew of it slowly gathered nuance. And as expectations began to form concerning what people would do with this new knowledge, a number of other outward-facing outlets emerged. The lyceum movement of the mid-19th century, for example, was imagined as an international lecture circuit; print culture increasingly placed the world in front of American eyes and vice versa, as networks of publication exchange developed; and the federal government assumed more agency in the production, collection, and diffusion of global knowledge through the creation of institutions like the Smithsonian. And as Prof. Dierks noted in concluding the summary of his chapter on “Geographic Understandings,” these advances point to a second question that his chapter must grapple with: one of distance vs. interaction and how much Americans’ greater knowledge of the world actually involved encounters with other people living in it.

In introducing his work on “Borderlands and Border Crossings,” University of New Mexico Associate Professor of History Sam Truett touched first on his overarching goal of recovering what we don’t typically associate with the idea of a borderland: how they were often amphibious, shifting shape between terrestrial and aqueous, or how they could be more ‘node’ than ‘land’ (the idea, for example, of a port as a borderland). He then went on to outline some of the eras and liminal spaces that his chapter examines and preliminary takeaways that arose in the course of his early research. For example, he noted how the primacy of national identity was called into question as he explored the post-Revolution contest for and movement across the border between Georgia and West Florida and between Spanish Louisiana and Anglo Kentucky; progressing toward the Louisiana Purchase, he stressed the possibility of the first American frontier being maritime, as well as the critical role that indigenous peoples played in negotiating and legislating the “water world” of borders in the interior, particularly the Lakota, who dictated who moved up and down the Missouri River; and he explained how, in looking southward toward post-independence Mexico, he began to consider the extent to which people were crossing borders to stay on the other side vs. the extent to which border crossing was an incorporative mechanism. And while his chapter was already close to the allotted word count, there were still many other borders that could be woven into it and subsequent issues that could be broached: questions of race and the gold rush, Asian and Mormon exclusion, and how a transnational America was knit together by the railroads, to name only a few.

To wrap up the first panel, Ian Tyrrell, Scientia Professor in University of New South Wales’ School of Humanities & Languages, laid out some of the considerations, definitions, and reservations that drove his approach to the topic of “Inter-imperial Entanglements in the age of Imperial Globalization”: that we must be careful in how we wield the term globalization in order to ensure that due attention is paid to the process’ unevenness, periods of regression, and animating forces beyond the economic; that empire is not purely legal but must be defined in terms of the use of coercive force to change the sovereignty of a people; that, while it might not be a singularly self-determining factor, technological innovation—the completion of the Suez Canal, the increasing global ubiquity of telegraph cables, the emergence of the steamship—accounts for much of why U.S. relations with the wider world sped up in the second half of the 19th century; and finally, in a point much discussed in Q&A, that conceiving of the U.S. as an empire requires acknowledgement of the vital significance of both its rivalry with, and the tutelage it received from, its British counterpart.

Day 2, Session 3: “Empire of Liberty,” Daive Dunkley (Chair), Bob Bonner, Richard Blackett, Alice Baumgartner

As Dartmouth College Professor and Chair of History, and Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor in Biography, Bob Bonner noted in introducing his chapter on “Slavery and Empire,” the binary of slavery vs. free soil must, of course, be at the center of any parsing of 19th-century political contestation both within the U.S. and between America and the world. At the same time, though, there is room for the frame to be enlarged. As he outlined both in his presentation and during Q&A, to fully understand the spatial dynamics of imperial projects during this period, we must also think beyond those that were explicitly pro-extension or pro-abolition and consider empire-building objectives not directly connected to slavery (the relationship in the United States, for example, between territorial expansion and national security).

Discussion of opposition to the evils of slavery and the slave trade would continue throughout the remainder of the panel. Following Prof. Bonner’s opening volley, Vanderbilt University Andrew Jackson Professor of History Richard Blackett’s presentation of “The Antislavery International” focused on the development of institutions capable of pressuring change through global cooperation. On one hand, this methodology of understanding “what people think by way of what they do” reveals an expansive 19th-century effort to construct a moral cordon around the U.S., with the goal of isolating America from the liberal world until it finally deemed slavery ethically indefensible (or, in the oft-used metaphor of the time, an effort to construct a ring of fire around the States until the scorpion of slavery stung itself to death). This approach, Prof. Blackett pointed out, also widens the spectrum of voices associated with the antislavery movement to include ex-U.S. slaves, Caribbean abolitionists, and working-class citizens of Great Britain who, as he notes at the beginning of his chapter, had been on the front lines of the attacking the institution since the late 18th century.

Rounding out the “Empire of Liberty” panel, recent Yale History Ph.D. Alice Baumgartner, who will assume an assistant professorship at University of Southern California in Fall 2019 after a postdoctoral year at Harvard, offered a corrective to what have become default historiographical approaches to her topic, “The Mexican-American War.” For too long, she noted, scholars have shoehorned the War into two parallel, national-historical frameworks—as a crushing defeat for Mexico, and as a harbinger of sectional conflict in the U.S. And while these approaches aren’t wholly unfit for their task, they do obscure important lines of intersection between the two sides. Specifically, more dutifully attending to the dialogue between these two historiographies unlocks the geopolitical importance of the Mexican government’s responding to the secession of Texas by abolishing slavery throughout the country. The reverberations of this 1837 (not 1829) decision were felt throughout the next three decades in the United States, most notably as a pre-Civil War philosophical and political obstacle to expansion. As Prof. Baumgartner argued, because of the abolition of slavery in Mexico, not to mention the widespread international support it garnered, the U.S. was faced with a pair of risks: the Wilmot Proviso-inspired risk of fanning the flames of sectional conflict by banning slavery in any future Mexican territorial acquisitions or the risk of enraging the global community by establishing slavery where it had already been abolished and, in doing so, violating the moral order of the world. More comprehensively acknowledging the rhetorical and tactical significance of abolition in Mexico, she concluded, thus eschews the reductive Mexican-American War-as-strength vs. weakness narrative for one in which Mexico is by no means powerless but rather serves as a key cog in understanding the structural causes of the Civil War.

Day 3, Session 7: “Cross-border Connections,” Jeff Pasley (Chair)

Leading off the panel, Michigan State University Assistant Professor of History Emily Conroy-Krutz laid out the primary thematic spokes of her chapter on “Missionary Ventures and Religious Associations,” which examines what America in the 19th-century world looked like (and what the 19th-century world looked like to Americans) through the lens of religious actors in global spaces. Though not at all a full list of what the chapter will tackle, included among the broad subject headings that Prof. Conroy-Krutz drew out were: differing visions of missionary objective, and specifically the “Christ vs. culture” or evangelization vs. civilization question; issues related to the selection of locations for missionary work—why, for example, India before Africa; missionaries as producers of knowledge about the world for Americans at home; the role of women in missionary movements of the era, both as potential converts and active participants; and missionary ventures as a means of international institution building.

Texas A&M University Associate Professor of History Brian Rouleau then discussed his work on “Mobilities: Travel, Tourism, and Expatriation,” a title that functions in some respects as a condensed, almost mathematical version of the progression through time that his chapter examines. Using three travel narratives as organizing pillars—Richard Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, and William Wells Brown’s The American Fugitive in Europe—Prof. Rouleau’s chapter tracks a critical pivot in how Americans interacted with the world, from labor-oriented travel toward tourism and expatriation. While sailors were arguably the first generation of American foreign relations conductors, this form of working-class diplomacy collapsed after the Civil War with the demise of the merchant marine and the steep decline in U.S. whaling ventures. As Prof. Rouleau explained, if tourists and ex-patriots would ultimately replace sailors as bridges between America and the world, how they did so was drastically different, with many of the latter, including ex-slaves like William Wells Brown, pushing back against the exceptionalist, sometimes jingoistic narratives that tourists from the elite classes trafficked in.

The second volume’s “Cross-border Connections” section will also include a pair of “in absentia” papers from the conference: University of Toronto Professor of History Daniel Bender’s “Flowers for Washington: Cultural Production, Consumption, and the U.S. in the World,” and Trinity College Assistant Professor of American Studies Christina Heatherton’s “Radical and Resistance Politics.”

A full schedule of events associated with the conference can be found here.