SHEAR Announces the Winners of the 2020 Book, Dissertation, and Article Prizes

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic is proud to announce the following winners of the 2020 book, article, and dissertation prizes.

The James H. Broussard Best First Book Prize, awarded annually to the best “first book” by a new author dealing with any aspect of the history of the history of the early American republic  goes to Kellie Carter Jackson, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019). The prize committee, composed of Professors Ronald Johnson, Cynthia A. Kierner, and Christine Sears, wrote the following citation:

Kellie Carter Jackson’s Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence, represents a definitive shift in the intellectual history of Black resistance, offering a fresh look at the intellectual foundations of black violence, black abolitionists’ diverse methods, and their role in debates over slavery across the United States. Carter Jackson takes the discussion of black resistance into new and largely unwritten territory, showing people of color as vital participants of the abolition of slavery in the United States. As other scholars rightly expand our knowledge of the American abolitionist movement, Carter Jackson underscores the necessity of the enslaved and free black people to use violence in their engagement with the abolitionist movement.

While we know that there were black and white abolitionists, Force and Freedom is the first book to detail the ways these often groups worked together—and often did not. In so doing, Carter Jackson not only tells the stories of black abolitionists who, unlike Frederick Douglass and others among their more famous contemporaries, employed and accepted violence as a way of opposing slavery, she also carefully parses the spectrum of white anti-slavery activists. Her detailed excavation of black resistance to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act helps to reframe John Brown, a product of period political violence, as an ally of the most assertive African American champions of black freedom.

By focusing on black abolitionists and the philosophy of political violence, Carter Jackson adds another compelling piece to the history of abolition in America. Her argument that the politics of violence helped prepare the nation to view black people as equal Americans with unalienable rights is elegant and persuasive. She adeptly situates her narrative in the context of milepost events, from the American Revolution and Haiti to the U.S. Civil War. By centering violence, as both rhetoric and political strategy, within the abolitionist movement, Carter Jackson integrates antislavery ventures as part of a centuries-long—ongoing—fight for freedom and equality.

Lucidly written and powerfully argued, Force and Freedom is a real page-turner. Kellie Carter Jackson’s riveting book will have a profound impact on the history of slavery and abolition, and on the historiography of the early republic generally. Therefore, it is with great admiration that we award her efforts the James H. Broussard Best First Book Prize.

The James Bradford Best Biography Prize, awarded annually to the author of an original biography, broadly defined, of a person active during the era of the early republic, goes to Mary V. Thompson, “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (University of Virginia Press, 2019). The prize committee, composed of Professors Manisha Sinha, Jeffrey L. Pasley, and Christopher Grasso, offer the following praise of this work:

When Mary V. Thompson began working at the Mount Vernon historic site forty years ago, no one spoke of “slaves”—George Washington’s enslaved workers were called “servants.”  The decades of pioneering work in the history of slavery that she had learned about in college and graduate school went unacknowledged.  As she progressed from tour guide to curator to staff historian, Thompson  and other scholars brought the burgeoning historiography of slavery and African American life to Mount Vernon in an effort to tell a truer story of the past to the millions who visited. Their painstaking archival and archeological research transformed the public presentation of Mount Vernon, which (as Thompson points out) provides many of its visitors with their only first-hand experience of a southern plantation. With this volume, Thompson records and demonstrates their signal contributions to the broader scholarship on slavery and freedom in eighteenth-century Virginia.

 The product of decades of work, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret is more than a remarkable synthesis. While not a traditional biography of Washington, the book is an essential contribution to the study of his life, revealing his character through his practice of slavery, the cultural and socio-economic foundation of his identity as an elite eighteenth-century Virginian.  The book will be a starting point for all future conventional Washington biographies.  The focus of Washington’s attention and passion throughout his life, the management of Mount Vernon and the other plantations tell us as much about him as his military and political careers, and reflect a harsher light back on those, too.  Thompson does not let her admiration for Washington in other contexts make her flinch from portraying the everyday and perpetual cruelties of Washington’s slaveholding, which included whipping, shackles, tracing escapees with dogs, and selling people away from their families.

Understanding Washington as a slaveholder requires a comprehensive reconstruction of life at Mount Vernon, and this book provides it as only an author who has spent their career directly immersed in a subject can do.  Thompson analyzes the work regimes of the various hired, indentured, and enslaved workers that kept the plantation functioning. Several chapters reconstruct life in the slave quarters, from the details of their material surroundings and diet to their social relationships and cultural practices. Other sections consider the process through which Washington’s concern for his and the country’s reputation eventually led him to reconsider slavery, despite his avid and successful efforts to profit from it to his last breath.

Along the way, the evidence is weighed and judicious answers are provided for every major question and controversy regarding the Washington family and slavery. Taken as a whole, the book provides a valuable view from Mount Vernon the historical institution that shows just how well academic studies, public history, and material culture can mesh and enrich each other.  

In short, Mary V. Thompson’s book amounts to new required reading on the first subject in American biography. Slavery at Mount Vernon was fundamental to George Washington’s character and life, and those in turn have the broadest implications for how we approach the Founders in general.  General readers and scholars alike are Thompson’s debt, and her book richly deserves the 2020 SHEAR Bradford Prize.

The Mary Kelley Book Prize, honoring the best the best book published on the history of women, gender, or sexuality in the early American republic, goes to Kabria Baumgartner, In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women’s Educational Activism in Antebellum America (NYU Press, 2019). The prize committee, composed of professors Kate Haulman, Leigh Fought, and Nora Doyle, applaud the work:

It is a moment for activism, and one for thinking about activism historically in all of its forms. Kabria Baumgartner’s excellent, powerful book helps us do just that, offering a fresh perspective on struggles for school desegregation in the antebellum northeast. Through centering the lives of African American women and girls, Baumgartner encourages readers to think capaciously and differently about education and education reform as activism. Fashioning the concept of “purposeful womanhood,” Black women put their ideas into practice through pursuing, insisting upon, and advocating for education, as well as fighting legal battles, Baumgartner shows, correcting their exclusion from these narratives. Expertly combining social, cultural and legal sources and methods, carefully researched, and strongly argued, In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women’s Educational Activism in Antebellum America is a book about the early nineteenth century, but in its stories of women’s activism and resistance to it, one for our time.  

The Best Book Prize, awarded to an original monograph that makes a significant contribution to the historiography of the early American republic, goes to Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (Yale University Press, 2019). The prize committee, composed of Professors Manisha Sinha, Jeffrey L. Pasley, and Christopher Grasso, offer the following praise:

An innovative and revelatory work, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South redefines the history of southern white slaveholding women and sets a new standard for the historiography of slavery. In this field-defining book, Professor Jones-Rogers explores both the intimate gendered dimensions of mastery as well as the role slaveholding women, long overlooked as serious economic actors in slave society, played in the making of slavery’s capitalism.

Professor Jones-Rogers culls a variety of sources, court records, newspapers, government documents, slaveholders’ papers, and most significantly, the recollections of former slaves in the WPA interviews to narrate a new history of slaveholding women. Not just single and widowed women, but even married women she shows exercised the independent prerogatives of slave ownership. They were active participants in plantation management and the daily economy of violence and terror that sought to subjugate enslaved populations and make them labor for slaveholders’ profit. As Professor Jones Rogers puts it, “mastery was an objective that male and female slave-owners and their delegates aimed to acquire.” In short, slaveholding women were not just cogs in a patriarchal and hierarchical slave society as much of the previous historical literature on them would have us believe. They were active co-creators and co-producers of slavery’s brutal political economy.

Perhaps the most original part of Professor Jones-Rogers’ path breaking work is her discussion of slaveholding women’s active participation in slave trading. As mistresses of not just the plantation but also the slave market, they participated in the daily violence of slavery and in the hiring and purchase of the enslaved. In a riveting chapter on wet nurses, she illustrates how southern white women dominated this “niche market” by further “commodification of enslaved women’s reproductive bodies, through the appropriation of their breast milk and the nutritive and maternal care they provided to white children.” In doing so, they perpetrated “maternal violence” on enslaved women who were forcibly separated from their own children to cater to the needs and whims of their mistresses and their children. As Professor Jones-Rogers shows the sordid world of slave trading was never apart or distinct from the world of plantation slavery as generations of slavery historians argued. In fact the market in human bodies exemplified the nature of slavery and slaveholding women were active sellers and buyers.

During the Civil War, these women refused to let go of the prerogatives of slaveholding. They hunted down runaway slaves and actively supported the Confederacy, a far cry from the interpretation that would have us believe that southern white women opposed the Confederate political project. In fact, hundreds of them received special pardons from Andrew Johnson for actively aiding and abetting the slaveholders’ rebellion. Not surprisingly, they remained committed to the regime of white supremacy long after the demise of slavery.

Bold and ambitious in conceptualization, beautifully and vividly written, They Were Her Property recreates the hitherto hidden world of women as slaveholders and slave traders. Professor Jones-Rogers’ research is impeccable. It lays bare slaveholding women’s creation of the political economy of slavery at both the micro and macro levels. Her book makes a seminal contribution to the gendered dimensions of the recent historical literature on slavery and capitalism.  We are happy to announce that it is the recipient of the SHEAR Best Book prize for 2020.

The Ralph Gray Article Prize for the best article published in Volume 39 (2019) of the Journal of the Early Republic goes to Robert Murray, “Bodies in Motion: Liberian Settlers, Medicine, and Mobility in the Atlantic World.” The Prize Committee, composed of Professors Michael Zakim, Monica Najar, and Michael Witgen, wrote the following prize citation:

Robert Murray’s “Bodies in Motion” tells a vivid tale of racial identity moving back and forth between America and Africa in the mid-nineteenth century.  His imaginative reading of a discrete archival source – the personal correspondence of a Liberian settler named Samuel McGill – teases out a rich web of associations and implications which present readers with a lived experience of what is more commonly recounted in the highly abstracted terms of the cultural construction of race.  In following McGill’s migration to Liberia, his return to the United States for medical studies, and his subsequent resettlement in Africa, we become witness to how the ostensible dichotomy between American and African identities – between white and black – could be exploited by African-Americans and recast as its opposite, that is, as an insistently porous boundary.  The dialectics of such “passing” are complex indeed as McGill, born a “negro,” became a “white man” in western Africa, and then a “colorless foreigner” back in New England.  Murray consequently reveals a double movement in which an “African” identity invented in America was transformed into an American identity once, in fact, removed to Africa.  As such, “Bodies in Motion” also helps us to engage with categories of “race,” “persons of color,” and “identity” that dominate contemporary discourse no less so than they fill the historical record.  

The SHEAR Dissertation Prize, awarded in cooperation with Penn Press to an exceptional unpublished dissertation pertaining to the history of North America from 1776 to 1861, goes to Julia Lewandoski, “Small Victories: Indigenous Proprietors Across Empires in North America, 1763-1891” (University of California, 2019). The prize committee, composed of Penn Press Senior Editor Robert Lockhart, and professors Amy S, Greenberg and Daniel Richter offer the following praise for this dissertation:

The 2020 SHEAR Dissertation Prize has been awarded to Julia M. Lewandowski, Assistant Professor of History at California State University San Marcos, for her dissertation titled “Small Victories: Indigenous Proprietors Across Empires in North America, 1763-1891,” completed at the University of California Berkeley under the direction of Brian DeLay. “Small Victories” argues that, across North America, small Indigenous nations seized the unique legal conditions created by imperial transitions to defend territory as state-sanctioned property. The dissertation makes three major interventions. First, by focusing on small polities, rather than the large Native nations that dominate eighteenth and nineteenth-century historiography, it offers an alternative to familiar narratives of military conquest, land cession treaties, and reservation confinement. Small polities transformed settler legal processes into the diplomatic channels they lacked to defend land and articulate political authority. Second, it reconceptualizes the development of territorial state sovereignty in North America as a process of accommodation and negotiation, in which multiple imperial legal regimes continued to play unpredictable roles long after geographic borderlands disappeared. Third and finally, it casts property ownership itself as a malleable and diffuse set of practices across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Rather than a self-evident and stable legal entity, property was a highly local and deeply social set of negotiations. During imperial transitions, it was contested, exploited, and ultimately transformed by Indigenous peoples. The committee is thrilled to award this important work the SHEAR Best Dissertation Award.

Congratulations to all the winners! The winners will be honored in person at the 2021 conference in Philadelphia.

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