“Jefferson’s Ocean: Political Thought and the Terraqueous Globe,” Colloquium with Hobart and William Smith Colleges Historian Matthew Crow


As a tune-up for the MRSEAH meeting later in the evening, Hobart and William Smith Colleges Associate Professor of History Matthew Crow will give an October 1 talk on the history and reverberations, all the way into the present, of Jefferson’s ambivalent relationship with the world’s oceans (see abstract below). The talk will be held at 3:30pm in Jesse Hall 410 and is free and open to the public.


We usually and quite rightly associate Jefferson, perhaps more than any other major figure in the political history of the United States, with territory, with land, and with the free and enslaved labor that worked it. Even so, Jefferson had a lifelong and deeply ambivalent relationship with the watery parts of the world, and there is much more at stake in the history of that relationship than just getting Jefferson right. His struggles with how to tackle problems of transoceanic commerce, maritime power, fisheries, and climate change on the traditional terms of landed rights and territorial sovereignty ran aground, but we still live with many of those struggles and problems. None of us are as free from these Jeffersonian dilemmas as we often imagine ourselves to be, and so it seems important to go back and think through some of the fundamental questions—about democracy, belonging, culture, and what it means to be human—that the world’s oceans pose to politics.

Matthew Crow is Associate Professor of History and Chair of the Law and Society program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. He received his PhD from UCLA in 2011, and in addition to several articles and essays, he is the author of Thomas Jefferson, Legal History, and the Art of Recollection, published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. He is currently at work on a second book project about Herman Melville and the idea of justice, in addition to future projects about the ocean and coasts in U.S. legal and intellectual history.