“Dealing with Disaster Before ‘Disaster Politics,’ 1789-1850,” MRSEAH with Oxford (St. Anne’s College) Prof. Gareth Davies


The second Spring 2020 meeting of the Missouri Regional Seminar, set for April 9 in Columbia in conjunction with the BrANCH conference, will feature discussion of “Dangerous Republic: Dealing with Disaster Before ‘Disaster Politics,’ 1789-1850,” a draft chapter from St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford Associate Professor of American History Gareth Davies’ book-in-progress on the evolution of American responses to natural disasters (see abstract below). Parties interested in attending should contact Thomas Kane, KaneTC@missouri.edu, for more information.


Recent scholarship has argued that the federal government had an active role in responding to disaster during the early Republic. This draft chapter finds that to be inaccurate, arguing instead that the General Government lacked either the capacity or desire to respond to disaster. More than that, before the advent of the telegraph even major calamities normally remained local events. In this world, there was abundant mutualism in the aftermath of disaster, but it normally happened at the local levels. Urban fires present a partial exception to this generalisation.

Gareth Davies is Associate Professor of American History at St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford. A political and environmental historian of the United States, he is the author of See Government Grow: Education Politics from Johnson to Reagan (University Press of Kansas, 2007) and From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism (University Press of Kansas, 2006). He is also co-editor, with Julian Zelizer, of America at the Ballot Box: Elections and Political History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) and, with Cheryl Hudson, of Ronald Reagan and the 1980s (Palgrave, 2008). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of American responses to natural disaster, from the early Republic to the present day. In it, he explores when, why and how American expectations of government have grown, and seeks to understand why natural disasters have become vastly more costly during the past half-century. In that last context, he is particularly interested in the paradoxical ways that governmental efforts to protect Americans from catastrophe have sometimes had the opposite effect.