SHEAR Announces the Winners of the 2021 Book, Dissertation, and Article Prizes

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic is proud to announce the following winners of the 2021 book, article, and dissertation prizes.

James H. Broussard Best First Book Prize

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 Christopher James Bonner’s Remaking the Republic: Black Politics and the Creation of American Citizenship, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.  The prize committee, composed of Professors Kelly Carter Jackson, Cynthia A. Kierner, and Christine Sears, wrote the following citation:

Remaking the Republic is about “black politics,” with a focus on New York, beginning in the 1820s and ending with the adoption of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Drawing primarily from the printed records of black activists, including the earliest African American newspapers, Bonner shows how black northerners relentlessly exploited the flexibility of post-revolutionary legal and constitutional definitions of “citizenship” to seek specific protections and rights. They protested disenfranchisement in court and in print and denounced taxation without representation. They challenged discriminatory laws on constitutional grounds; they cogently rejected Chief Justice Taney’s interpretation of both the Constitution and American history, condemning the Supreme Court’s infamous decision that denied Dred Scott’s claims to citizenship.

Bonner shows that when attempts to fight state restrictions had mixed results, black activists sought a national citizenship in which the federal government conferred and protected the people’s civil rights. In the process, he argues persuasively, these activists played a decisive role in redefining American citizenship as the “cornerstone of individual rights.”

Far from being a narrowly conceived legal or constitutional history, Remaking the Republic traces interstate and even transnational networks among black activists and their associations. While Bonner’s cast of characters predictably includes well-known figures—such as Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet—his story also embraces less well-documented people (especially women) as he carefully explicates the complicated relationships between and tensions among activists, especially divisions between those who linked citizenship to uplift, contending that African Americans merited legal equality because they were equal to whites in morality and virtue, and others who embraced a more radical ideal of universal human rights.

Beautifully written and forcefully argued, Remaking the Republic is a scholarly book that we hope finds an audience among non-academics. A real pleasure to read, Bonner’s excellent and timely book changes the meta-narrative of the political history of the early republic by making free African Americans influential players in a system in which they often lacked basic civil rights.

James Bradford Best Biography 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 Lorri Glover’s Eliza Lucas Pinckney: An Independent Woman in the Age of Revolution (Yale University Press, 2020). The prize committee, composed of Professors Jeff Pasley, Christopher Grasso, and Laurel Shire, offer the following praise of this work:

One of the great challenges that faces scholarly biography-writing is how to effectively take the “life and times” format beyond its traditionally public subjects: statesmen, activists, writers and others who participated in or commented on important public events or the creation of notable artistic works. Lorri Glover’s new book provides a model of how this can be accomplished. While her subject Eliza Lucas Pinckney never sat for a portrait or had much to say about politics or culture, as the head of a wealthy and powerful South Carolina family and a leading businesswoman in her own right, she was also far from ordinary or obscure. Drawing on a vast archive of family accounts and correspondence plus extensive research into the context of Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s life in Antigua, South Carolina, and England, Glover presents us simply with the life of an “independent woman,” taken on its own influential terms.

Occupying neither a separate sphere nor an alternative culture, Pinckney, and many of her friends and kinswomen, took up the same roles as their absent, deceased, or politically distracted husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. In the process, they achieved far more than “deputy husbands” or “Republican Mothers” and Glover argues, became “planter-patriarchs” while also fulfilling the expectations of the women of their class. Such women managed multiple properties and plantations, directing male managers and overseers, and squeezing profit from the forced labors of hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children.

Antigua-born and English-educated, Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s career as a planter-patriarch began when she was just shy of 17. W­ith her father called to military service, her mother too sick and brothers too young, it was up to Eliza to shoulder the burden of managing the family’s vast agricultural enterprise, making the key choices and fully exploiting the opportunities that came her way. In great contrast to those below her station in life, and in spite of her gender, Pinckney had choices and opportunities, because she had education, wealth, her father’s confidence, and connections among the elite colonial families of the Atlantic World.

A few choices and opportunities stand out in Glover’s account of Pinckney’s 71 years. Her interest in botany encouraged her to try growing indigo in South Carolina (along with a handful of other planters), a choice that saved her family’s fortune and reshaped South Carolina’s economy in the early 1740s. She was also reluctant to marry, and waited until she was officially a “spinster” of 23. She chose a wealthy and politically connected widower, Charles Pinckney, whom she already knew extremely well. Together, they had four children, although one died in his first month of life. Contrary to her father’s advice, she did not cede the management of the Lucas properties to Mr. Pinckney after marriage. After widowhood came in 1758, she added her late husband’s extensive holdings to her duties, and ably shepherded a great deal of wealth for her kin and children, never relying on a male trustee.

To her credit, Glover never flinches from the reality that all of these achievements depended on slavery, practiced on a larger scale and with more enthusiasm by the Pinckneys of South Carolina than by almost anybody anywhere else on the North American mainland. She narrates Pinckney’s life against the backdrop of enslavement and resistance, mapping her story alongside the enslaved people who defied their bondage in revolts both quotidian and collective, beginning in her case with the Antiguan slave conspiracy of 1736 that hustled the Lucas family off the island to South Carolina.

At every major life event, even as Glover commends her subject’s intelligent choices, she also remarks on what each meant for the people she held in bondage. When Eliza Lucas famously begins to experiment with indigo production, Glover explains how indigo created more, harder, and smelly work for enslaved people. Eliza’s experiments with silk worms were carried out by very young enslaved children. When Eliza’s own children came, Glover notes that it was not she, but several enslaved women who would have risen every night to nurse and care for the babies. During the Revolutionary War, Eliza was frustrated to lose control of her landed and human property in the face of British invasion, but muddled through by loaning out her money at interest and waiting for the status quo to be restored. An important moment came when elder son Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (later a Federalist presidential candidate) served in South Carolina’s delegation to Congress and used his time to argue that racial slavery would have to continue in any new nation that emerged from the war.

In the end, it matters little that no authentic image of Eliza Lucas Pinckney exists. Lorri Glover has skillfully painted a full and complex portrait that will stand for the ages. Written at a lively pace and with sparkling prose, Glover’s Eliza Lucas Pinckney is the winner of the 2021 James Bradford Best Biography Prize.

Mary Kelley Book 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 Katie M. Hemphill’s Bawdy City: Commercial Sex and Regulation in Baltimore, 1790-1915. The prize committee, composed of Professors Serena Zabin, Nora Doyle, and Kabria Baumgartner wrote:

Far from being a marginal industry, Hemphill persuasively argues, commercial sex in the early republic was an integral part of the expansion of both city government and of the market economy.  Investments in the sex trade flooded Baltimore with cash, and the city had little incentive to shut it down so they chose instead to control it.  The result was the visible presence of a place where Baltimoreans publicly considered questions from property rights to gender, while reinforcing racial divides in both labor and space. The book’s focus is on the business model of brothels, a choice which allows Hemphill to reveal the way that the city of Baltimore structured its government, regulations, and even (using impressive spatial analysis) zoning around prostitution. Building on the work of scholars like Clare Lyons, Hemphill’s economic history of brothels reveals two vital and interconnected insights:  the profitability of sex work, particularly for men, and the racialization of sex work in Baltimore.

The committee found much to admire in Hemphill’s extensive and fine-grained research, her thoughtful incorporation of scholarship from many fields and periods, and her clear exposition of complicated arguments. Particularly remarkable is Hemphill’s ability to carry this complex story from the 1790s into the early twentieth-century without sacrificing depth of research or historiography at either end of this long nineteenth century. Readers of this gendered history of capitalism will never tell the story of the market revolution in the same way again.

Best Book Prize

The Best Book Prize, awarded to an original monograph that makes a significant contribution to the historiography of the early American republic, goes to William G. Thomas III’s A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War (Yale University Press, 2020). The prize committee, composed of Professors Jeff Pasley, Christopher Grasso, and Laurel Shire, offer the following praise:

Resistance to slavery in the courtroom has been a major theme of recent historiography. In A Question of Freedom, William G. Thomas III has produced an instant classic of the genre, accessible, moving, infuriating and humane. Thomas exposes “a central myth of American slavery: the idea that slavery rested on solid foundations in American law and constitutionalism.”

He does so through a profound and penetrating analysis of freedom suits brought by enslaved families themselves from the 1780s through the 1850s.  Although freedom suits are sometimes dismissed as exceptional cases unable to challenge slavery itself, Thomas argues that they were instead a powerful weapon against the institution, “a public counterpart to the Underground Railroad.”

At center stage in Thomas’s account are a group of enslaved Maryland families, from Prince George’s County, who took their captors to court to win their freedom. T­he defendants included some of America’s most powerful families and the Society of Jesus. This is not dry legal history but a series of human stories linking lives “from the tobacco fields of Maryland to the mud-filled streets of Washington, D.C., to the sugar districts of Louisiana.” The Butler, Queen, Mahoney, and Shorter families, among others, filed dozens of lawsuits, arguing that a free ancestor or one who had spent time on England’s free soil invalidated their bondage. Charlotte DuPee brought a similar suit against outgoing Secretary of State Henry Clay in 1829, and then while the case was pending hired herself out to Clay’s political opponent Vice President Martin Van Buren to emphasize the point.  Slaveholders like Clay understood the danger of these suits.  Procedures allowed enslaved petitioners to control their own depositions by asking questions of their enslavers.  A court acknowledging a free ancestor could free hundreds of descendants with the stroke of a pen.  And legal arguments in these cases exposed the flimsy legal foundations of slavery itself.

Thomas’s cast of characters also includes whites who struggled with or scrambled to uphold slavery.  Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, represented enslaved petitioners in court; his fellow signer, Charles Carroll, fought zealously to protect the alleged property rights of himself and other slaveholders. Prominent attorney Francis Scott Key brought freedom suits to court early in the nineteenth century, but by the 1830s had decided that the greater moral and political evil was the existence of free Black people in the United States.  Chief Justice John Marshall, who personally held more than 150 human beings in bondage, made freedom suits far more difficult to win with an 1813 decision that privileged the slaveholders’ evidence (documents and testimony) over that of the enslaved (such as genealogical depositions based on oral history).  The Jesuit priests at Georgetown College, some of Maryland’s largest slaveholders, battered by freedom suits for twenty-five years, briefly pondered emancipating their slaves to avoid further cost and trouble, but that moment passed.  When they finally decided to get out of the slaving business in 1838, they simply sold their 272 bondspeople to Louisiana, dividing parents from children to maximize profit.

Weaving court cases from Maryland and the District of Columbia into a larger national story, Thomas shows how slavery’s defenders propped up their peculiar institution.  They changed legal procedures to impede the suits, bought off attorneys with retainers, passed state constitutional amendments affirming slavery, and expanded and packed the U.S. Supreme Court with proslavery justices.  They also lied about the past, as Maryland’s Roger B. Taney did about the rights of free Blacks when he was Attorney General in the 1830s and in his notorious Dred Scott Supreme Court decision in 1857.  Some of the lies about slavery still hang in the air, all these years later.

Between Thomas’s historical chapters are short, poignant interludes set in the present.  He meets with Black ­descendants of the families split by the Jesuit slave sale, now reuniting and learning about their shared past.  Thomas here also grapples with some hard facts about his own family history uncovered while doing the research for this book: one ancestor was the lawyer for the Jesuits in the Queen family suit; another continued to hold Queen family members in bondage until the end of the Civil War.

Deeply researched, beautifully written, and powerfully resonant with our current politics, William Thomas’s A Question of Freedom was the unanimous choice of the selection committee and a deserving winner of the 2021 SHEAR Best Book Prize.

Ralph Gray Article Prize

The Ralph Gray Article Prize for the best article published in Volume 40 (2020) of the Journal of the Early Republic goes to Emily J. Arendt’s “ʻTwo Dollars a Day, And Roast Beef”: Whig Culinary Partisanship and the Election of 1840,” published in Volume 40, Number 1, Spring 2020.  The Prize Committee, composed of Professors Rachel Hope Cleves, Robert Murray, and Beverly Tomek, wrote the following prize citation:

Emily J. Arendt celebrates the “rigmarole,” “ballyhoo,” and “hullaballoo” of the Election of 1840 in her exploration of Whig culinary partisanship. She argues that food was “central to the process of partisan identification” that brought voters and nonvoters together to debate the merits of their candidates while enjoying cakes, puddings, and other culinary delights. Using manuscript cookbooks, newspapers, and material culture, she offers an engagingly written description of the ways in which women’s culinary activism helped to usher William Henry Harrison into the executive office by linking the party’s economic platform to the politics of food. Arendt masterfully blends women’s history, social history, and political history to tell a fascinating and fresh story.

SHEAR Dissertation Prize

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 Elaine Lafay’s “Afflictions of the Tropics’ Brink: Medicine, Meteorology, and the Cultivation of Place in the Antebellum Gulf South.” The prize committee, composed of Penn Press Senior Editor Robert Lockhart, and professors Spencer McBride and Kathleen Brown, offer the following praise for this dissertation:

Lafay, who is Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University New Brunswick, completed her dissertation in the history and sociology of science department at the University of Pennsylvania under the direction of David Barnes. In this wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary dissertation, she investigates how medical geography, topography, and meteorology produced knowledge that was simultaneously medical and political. Making use of nineteenth century studies of wind, weather, soil, botany, agriculture, and urban planning, Lafay brilliantly analyzes contemporary beliefs about how these “atmospheric” factors affected health. Pushing beyond the scientific implications of such assessments, Lafay demonstrates how they were also always shot through with political aims and racial hierarchies. Lafay recounts the differential reckoning of the impact of heat and pathology on Native Americans, white Americans, Mexicans, and people of African descent. Overall, the dissertation is a fine work of scholarship with real promise of advancing multiple subfields of history through the author’s creative approach to the effects of weather on place and societies. The committee is thrilled to award this important work the SHEAR Best Dissertation Award.

Congratulations to all the winners!