Blog

One of the books I’ve come to rely on while thinking about my dissertation is Deborah A. Rosen’s Border Law: The First Seminole War and American Nationhood. An examination of the major debates surrounding General Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Spanish Florida in 1816, the book describes “how law shaped military conduct and how the United States used doctrines of laws to rationalize actions that the government deemed to be in the national interest” and established itself as “a member of the law-abiding community of nations while at the same time successfully contending that the law did not restrain its conduct in Florida” (9). While Border War convincingly illustrates the connections between legal thought and American nationalism, questions remain regarding whether these connections shaped or were shaped by racism and notions of citizenship on the ground.

Border Law offers more than a survey of the legal arguments and counter-arguments put forth by the Monroe administration and its various opponents. What continues to fascinate me the most is Rosen’s assertion that legal justifications for the maltreatment of Seminole and Creek Indians helped develop and institutionalize the use of violence by “civilized” peoples against “savage” ones.

This is, of course, not an entirely new argument. Historians have studied how notions of race and civilization shaped the discourse of citizen and alien. What is new (and extremely informative) is Rosen’s argument that justifications for Jackson’s campaign laid the legal and cultural groundwork for violent expansion during the rest of the nineteenth century. “American believed,” she asserts, “that their extraterritorial activity in pursuit of geographic expansion was justified by their right to conquer territory inhabited by ‘uncivilized’ people, because such conquest would make the land more productive and would spread American values of liberty and republican government” (7).

Rosen’s research grounds many of the tenants of settler colonialism in legal history.  “Civilizing” is a central theme withing settler colonial discourse, and history shows the great lengths colonists will go to intellectualize and codify their claim to new territory. While Border Law focuses on what might be called the legal and intellectual history of settler colonialism the early nineteenth century, works like Benjamin Allen Coates’s Legalist Empire: International Law and American Foreign Relations in the Early Twentieth Century and Nicholas Guyatt’ Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened American Invented Segregation extend the historiography forward and backwards in time. Historians interested in questions of race, violence, and nationalism can also learn a great deal from Corey Robin’s treatment of the conservative political theories since Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre.

Taken together, these works can help highlight the legal and intellectual underpinnings of settler colonial history in the United States. Settler colonialism served as a lingua franca spoken by a transatlantic population determined to advance a discourse about civilization, imperial power, and racial supremacy. It was neither liberal or conservative, nor was it a product of a unique American environment; rather, it was a culture shaped by the global ramifications of a bevy of local and transnational phenomena like (and not limited to) the Enlightenment, the Age of Revolutions, and American expansionism.

Of interest to me is where the American Civil War fits into this wider history. Recent histories by Elliot West, Kate Masur, and Steven Hahn have suggested that the Civil War and Reconstruction are essentially bound to a transnational history of American expansionism and settler colonialism. Rosen’s work appears to support their arguments, and a very clear connection between the questions about citizenship, tribal sovereignty, and civilization runs between her narrative and the Civil War era. However, I believe that there are important distinctions need to be sussed out now that we’ve placed the Civil War in a wider temporal context.

First, all of these works focus on the legal and intellectual elites of their times. While it is now clear that the legal arguments and the political philosophy behind them shaped American notions of race and sovereignty, it is less clear whether or not the debates and ideas shaped the culture of everyday Americans. Rosen argues that American international legal thought “forged a stronger, more unified national identity at home,” but I wonder if these ideas and arguments should be seen as a product of nationalist and expansionist thought and practice among everyday Americans.

In other words, was an strengthening sense of white American nationalism shaped primarily by above (as Rosen, Guyatt, and others argue) or did it simply reflect the racial and cultural realities on the ground? These works make it clear that American racism, nationalism, and law are deeply intertwined, but complicated nature of these connections remains fertile ground for future study.

 

Blog

Earlier this summer I was named one of three graduate student guest bloggers at the American Historical Associations “AHA Today” blog.  It was a wonderful learning experience, and it was great working through the editorial process with the blog’s editor, Kritika Agarwal. Writing’s a painful process, but receiving edits is particularly agonizing, so I appreciate her patience, advise, and support. Big thanks for helping me with these blog posts go out to my adviser, Dr. Susannah Ural, as well.

I’ll let the end-of-season reflections I submitted speak for themselves:

Writing for AHA Today has been a more difficult but rewarding experience than I initially thought it would be. I usually discuss my work in class or at conferences with people who are already familiar with what I do, so writing succinct posts for AHA Today’s larger audience forced me to really refine how I described my research and experiences. With the help of the blog’s editor, I struggled with the hard task of tightening up my writing, staying focused on the series’ overarching theme, and parsing out aspects of my research readers would be able to relate to. The task of writing about my research for a wider audience also helped me develop new conclusions and lines of inquiry about my topic. Time and time again, I found myself returning to my primary sources with new questions while I composed drafts for my monthly AHA Today posts. In the end, this experience has made me more confident with my research and excited about writing more in the future.

My blog posts for AHA Today can be found via these links:

 

Press

[X-POST: The Society of Civil War Historians]

The American Historical Association (AHA) is pleased to announce Allan Branstiter as one of the the winners of our 2016 AHA Today Blog Contest. Over the course of the summer, he will be writing for AHA Today about the archival research process and historical documents relevant to his dissertation.

Allan Branstiter is a history PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi. His dissertation examines resistance to Reconstruction’s racial reforms through the lenses of postcolonial and settler colonial theory. Allan’s blog series will be centered on his discovery of the records of a sexual misconduct investigation at the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum in 1871 and the impact these records have had on his research.

The AHA Today Blog Contest is designed to highlight the voices of graduate students and to emphasize the importance of communicating the work of historians, broadly defined, to a variety of audiences and in a variety of media. Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing posts introducing each blogger along with a description of their research and the issues they will be exploring this summer.

The original contest announcement

The AHA is the largest professional organization in the United States devoted to the study and promotion of history and historical thinking, bringing together historians from all specializations and professions. With a diverse network of 12,000 historians, the AHA advocates on behalf of the discipline and provides leadership on current issues such as academic freedom, access to archives, and the centrality of history to public culture. Learn more at www.historians.org.

Follow the series at blog.historians.org, @AHAhistorians, or facebook.com/ahahistorians.

Press

[X-POST: AHA Today]

The AHA is pleased to announce the winners of our 2016 AHA Today Blog Contest. Over the course of the summer, each of these historians will be writing for AHA Today about the archival research process and historical documents relevant to their dissertations.

Erin Holmes is a doctoral candidate at the University of South Carolina and a fellow at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. She is currently working on a dissertation titled “Within the House of Bondage: Constructing and Negotiating the Plantation Landscape in the British Atlantic World, 1670–1820.” Erin will be blogging about how she “reads” buildings and plantation landscapes across Virginia, South Carolina, and Barbados as historical documents.

A PhD candidate at Syracuse University’s Department of History, Jesse Hysell is finishing a dissertation on Muslim-Christian relations in the early modern Mediterranean. His blog series will examine surprising and fascinating documents that highlight how material exchanges prevented and promoted conflicts between subjects of Venice and Egypt.

Allan Branstiter is a history PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi. His dissertation examines resistance to Reconstruction’s racial reforms through the lenses of postcolonial and settler colonial theory. Allan’s blog series will be centered on his discovery of the records of a sexual misconduct investigation at the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum in 1871 and the impact these records have had on his research.

The AHA Today Blog Contest is designed to highlight the voices of graduate students and to emphasize the importance of communicating the work of historians, broadly defined, to a variety of audiences and in a variety of media. Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing posts introducing each blogger along with a description of their research and the issues they will be exploring this summer.

For the original contest announcement, please visit http://blog.historians.org/2016/03/want-to-write-for-the-aha-apply-today-to-become-a-summer-blogger/

Portfolio

In 2014, Dr. Susannah Ural asked me to develop an interactive map of the routes veterans from Hood’s Texas Brigade took home after their surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. After months of mining the journals and memoirs, I created this interactive map using the Neatline software developed by the Scholar’s Lab at the University of Virginia Library.

This map conveys not only the length of the journey and the destruction caused by the Civil War, but the alacrity and resilience of youth in the wake of great hardship. Despite the human toll of the previous four years and their intense desire to get home, these young veterans still found time to go fishing, flirt with girls, and take in the sights. For many, this final march was only the beginning of a longer journey towards national reconciliation and personal healing. For others that day would never come. Please click on the image below to access “The Long Road Home.”

The Long Road Home
The Long Road Home