Keith Grant Reports From the 2014 Omohundro Conference in Halifax

Halifax, Nova Scotia, played host to the 20th Annual OIEAHC conference, the theme of which was “the consequences of war.” The program was impressive, with a nice overlap of themes, allowing conversations to span sessions, and to spill into the hallways and onto Twitter (#OIANNUAL).

The keynote address by Jack Greene urged a reconsideration of the formative significance of peacetime for early America, and not only the convulsions of war. To make his case, he focused on the quarter century from the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) to the outbreak of the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739), and examined the non-martial explanations provided by Adam Smith (1723-1790) and David Ramsay (1749-1815), among others, for the expansion of colonial society in that period. Through his exposition of these writers, Greene suggested that peacetime reveals what an emphasis on wars obscures: America was transformed, not so much by metropolitan authority or military conquest, but by the adaptive agency of the settlers themselves. Focusing on conflict tends to shift attention to the strength of empire, and away from the profound transformations wrought by settlers adapting European societies to new conditions. The continent, he argued, was not won on battlefields, but on the frontiers of settlement.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 1.18.28 AMHowever, such a narrative can—and did—slide into a kind of “white legend”—a more benign, British, and Protestant alternative to the Spanish “black legend” of American colonization. Variations on the “white legend” can be found in Smith, Ramsay, their nineteenth century successors, and in some of what now passes as “heritage.” But, Greene argued, such a narrative did not take into account the overwhelming costs paid by enslaved Africans and dispossessed indigenous peoples (and Acadians and Jamaican Maroons).

I’m not sure if the lecture provoked the conversation Greene intended. Most of those who came to the microphone during Q & A were senior scholars who were themselves taught or mentored by Greene. They questioned whether peacetime can so neatly be distinguished from the wars that led to new treaty arrangements. They observed that “peace” did not extend to the interior of Africa. They asked about the agency and contributions of African and Native Americans. Most strongly, they insisted that in the period between wars there was no peace, but systemic violence perpetrated through enslavement and dispossession; Greene’s qualifications to that effect did not sufficiently alter the “white legend.” Although it may be that a war story obscures settler (rather than metropolitan) agency, a narrative of peace can paper over the violence on which those settler achievements was predicated.

Of course I can’t say something about every paper or session, so here are a few themes that continue to percolate as I reflect on #OIANNUAL 2014.

There were several very good papers on aspects of “loyalism,” which collectively helped to tease apart the polarity of patriot/loyalist. Christopher Minty argued that loyalism in New York was not born de novo in the heat of Revolution, but instead emerged from long-standing partisanship. With the help of social network analysis, Minty showed how DeLanceyite social mobilization (including a range of print strategies) and “everyday sociability” (i.e. racking up huge tavern tabs) brought together “would-be loyalists” in the years before the Revolution. Liam Riordan offered two surprising pairings, both of which stretch our definition of “loyalism”—a term big enough to include William Martin Johnson (a Georgia doctor and captain with the New York Volunteers) and Thomas Peters (a former North Carolina slave and sergeant in the Black Pioneers, later a leader in the Sierra Leone colony). Riordan also suggested that both loyalists also shared much in common with ordinary Revolutionary soldiers, like Joseph Plumb Martin; no matter who was victorious, all experienced the disruptions of war and the difficulties of resettling in its aftermath. Christopher Sparshott invited us to reconceptualize Revolutionary New York as a refugee camp, and “loyalists” as those who, like all displaced persons, adopted strategies of survival. By examining little-used “memorials” (claims for compensation), Sparshott demonstrated that many New Yorkers framed their loyalism in terms of practical suffering in wartime conditions.

Humanitarianism, it turns out, had a long career before Enlightenment reformers and Romantic idealists made it their own. Erica Charters traced the long development of European conventions for the humane treatment of POWs, including military, legal, nationalistic, and religious motivations. By the time of the American War of Independence, public opinion was the court that adjudicated what constituted humane treatment of POWs. Wendy Churchill argued that professional self-fashioning, as much as idealism, drove eighteenth-century military medical practitioners to adopt the rhetoric of “humanity.”

To mention just one paper from the excellent panel on religion and antislavery, Sarah Crabtree proposed a solution to the puzzle of Quaker reticence in the abolition movement. She suggested that antislavery reformers were connected through Quaker networks and influenced by Quaker ideology. While reformers continued to benefit from the infrastructure of Quaker financing and connections, Quaker trans-Atlantic cosmopolitanism did not sit easily with an increasingly nationalistic conception of antislavery. In perhaps the most quotable moment of the conference, Crabtree observed that Quakers were comfortable as subjects, but not as citizens.

The host province, Nova Scotia, was certainly not neglected in the program. Alexandra Montgomery described the enthusiastic (if not completely successful) promotion of Nova Scotia settlement schemes by Philadelphians, including Benjamin Franklin. Afua Cooper showed that the history of enslavement in Nova Scotia complicates the narrative of Nova Scotia as a refuge for freed blacks or runaway slaves. And Keith Mercer offered a brilliant cultural history of the commemoration of the Shannon’s defeat of the Chesapeake during the War of 1812.

Several papers probed the question of black and indigenous agency in the face of colonization. Maria Bollettino (in a rich plenary session on the consequences of war and the black Atlantic) explored the significance of black combatants in mid-C18 Caribbean conflicts. Although Britain armed blacks to protect slavery, rather than to abolish it, Bollettino suggests that their contributions seeded imaginations for how blacks could later play a range of imperial roles. Thomas Peace argued that colonial day schools in the eighteenth century north east (as opposed to later boarding or residential schools) were an important part of local indigenous communities. Even though the schools were part of a larger colonizing program, skills in literacy made it possible for indigenous communities to resist colonizing pressures, especially through petitions about land. Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, similarly, argued that Haudenosaunee women mitigated the effects of the early republic’s “civilization program” by appropriating those skills that were useful to them (e.g. spinning), while maintaining traditional ways.

Perhaps the best question of the conference came from Lori Daggar, who wondered how themes related to indigenous peoples (and I think this applies to African Americans) can be more fully integrated into conference programs, so that these themes are not left to specialist panels. Returning to the first evening’s conversation, the question remains, how can the narratives of professional and popular history more seamlessly include black and indigenous agency, and account for both colonial achievement and violence?

Thanks to Justin Roberts (Dalhousie University), Elizabeth Mancke (University of New Brunswick), John Reid (Saint Mary’s University), and the OIEAHC team for great hospitality and for making a space for stimulating conversations.

[This post first appeared at John Fea’s blog on early American history, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, on June 21, 2014.]


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