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 2022 book, article, and dissertation prizes.

Headshot of Vanessa Holden against a backdrop of trees.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, was named in memory of Jim Broussard, who was largely responsible for the creation of SHEAR.  This year’s James H. Broussard Best First Book Prize goes to Vanessa Holden’s Surviving Southampton African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community, published by the University of Illinois Press.  The prize committee, composed of Professors Karin Wulf, Kellie Jackson, and Christine Sears, wrote the following citation:

We think we know Nat Turner’s Rebellion and the enslaved in antebellum Virginia. Vanessa Holden’s Surviving Southampton new monograph tells us how much we didn’t know.

Holden masterly teases out the silences in history that have been overlooked or dismissed. She centers her work on women and children while building a compelling case for the need to focus on community before, during, and after the rebellion.

We have, she rightly points out, seen “violent rebellion” as the “prerogative of enslaved men” (5) but she works against this gendered binary where “enslaved men rebel while enslaved women resist” (6). Her approach documents the “community-constituted practices of resistance and survival” that beg for a new name for the event: the event: the “Southampton Rebellion.”

Holden writes with care, skill, and rigor. She demonstrates the centrality of women’s labor and care and how women were “agents of resistance and survival in their communities” (38). Women were “uniquely placed to learn, move through, and act within the layered physical and social geographies of” the Virginia farms (34) because they worked in domestic and outside spaces—they did domestic tasks, agricultural processing work, and field labor. They crossed the boundaries between field and house, sometimes daily. During the Southampton Rebellion, women passed information, provided food, and were present during the violence.

Southampton was a generational event, as Holden eloquently demonstrates. Children witnessed, participated in, and testified in the Rebellion. And they suffered the results of the rebellion just as they contributed to reconstituting a geography of resistance and survival in its aftermath.

For the Southampton Rebellion was one event in a “survival trajectory” (120) the enslaved engaged in daily.  Often the rebellion, evasion, and resistance are cloaked in silence as these actions were “most successful when whites did not detect them or keep records about them.” Those silences should be “trusted and celebrated:” Holden does just that in this superb first book that shows how “an entire community off African Americans, free and enslaved, adults, and children, produced the Southampton Rebellion” (120), which is something we know much more about due to her work.

Headshot of Carolyn EastmanJames 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 Carolyn Eastman’s The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States’ First Forgotten Celebrity, published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture through the University of North Carolina Press. The prize committee, composed of Professors Christopher Grasso, Laurel Shire, and Craig Friend, offer the following praise of this work:

If you’ve never heard of James Ogilvie, you’re not alone, although Carolyn Eastman’s biography of Ogilvie will surely change that. An educated man from a well-connected but relatively poor family in Scotland, twenty-year-old Ogilvie arrived in the new United States in 1793 to teach school in Virginia. After fifteen years instructing sons of wealthy landowners in classical languages, literature, and philosophy, he turned to a less exhausting profession, becoming a nationally famous orator with peculiartalents, meaning both unique and strange. A tall, slender figure, Ogilvie draped himself in a toga to lecture on a variety of topics, including education for girls and women, the importance of supporting charitable causes, compassion for the suicidal, and the immorality of duelling, often following his addresses with entertainingly dramatic recitations. An arresting speaker, the Scot who came to be known simply as “Mr. O” imagined an educated citizenry that would contribute to a more moral politics in the new republic.

Mr. O’s celebrity was built on self-promotion: networking, use of new print media, and even investment in facilities’ improvements at the theaters that he rented. In search of new audiences who could afford a dollar for a ticket, he traveled extensively throughout the Early Republic, visiting seventeen of nineteen states, as well as several territories and into Canada.

Following Mr. O’s life and career, Eastman takes us along on a tour of early America, not just geographically but of its people and their culture, especially among the educated elites who had enough money for Ogilvie’s theatrics. His is not an easy life to reconstruct. In fact, among historians, he remained rather obscure despite increased historiographical attention to the rising American cult of celebrity. Commendably, Eastman cobbles together the evidence he left behind in print and correspondence in dozens of disparate places, putting it into multiple contexts, and even uncovering the myths that arose about him, some self-perpetrated, others generated by fans and competitors. Hence, The Strange Genius of Mr. O is more than biography: it is a life-and-times study in which, as Eastman puts it, “celebrities hold up a mirror to culture, displaying not only who we admire but also who we are and what we hope to become.” Ogilvie’s biography illuminates the character of a nation, from education, Native Americans, the War of 1812, the evolution of the nation’s capital, togas, classics, and democracy to elocution, opium use, anxieties about provincialism, the motivations behind Americans’ fascination with celebrities, and the contest between private and public lives that continues to frame American celebrity.

In public, Ogilvie was a philanthropist who advocated for education and a “national culture of eloquence” to support American democracy. He became known for often dedicating his earnings to local charities and libraries. In private, Ogilvie’s inflated sense of his own importance, and his deep need for excessive attention and admiration evidenced a narcissism which masked a fragile self-esteem vulnerable to the slightest criticisms. Sadly, but not unsurprisingly, he became a melancholic laudanum addict who lived close to the bone.

Like most celebrities, Mr. O had his critics, including an early one who condemned him as a charlatan who preyed on women’s naïveté. He faced repeated criticisms for hinting that he might not be a faithful Christian. He finally fell from grace in 1817, after he published a book in which his rhetorical genius appeared rambling, illogical, and intellectually anemic. An autobiographical essay at the end of the volume was embarrassingly egotistical and pretentious. Felled by his own hubris, as quickly as his star had arisen, the public turned against him. He committed suicide in 1820 in Perth, Scotland. One of his peers, Sam Patch the “Jersey Jumper,” who died nine years later, had a grave marker that read “Here lies Sam Patch—Such is Fame.” Ironically, Patch lived on, a popular folk hero in poetry, stories, and theatrical productions. It was Ogilvie whom Fame killed and relegated to obscurity.

With her intriguing biography of Mr. O, Carolyn Eastman has brought him back from the dead to expose much about the popular culture of the Early Republic. Although Ogilvie’s reputation preceded him, perhaps it was that reputation that he worked so hard to create, rather than the quality of his orations, that propelled his career. Provincial Americans, Eastman suggests, understood how their receptions of Ogilvie reflected on their own tastes, refinement, and education. Consequently, celebrity was not something necessarily earned but imposed by a young nation trying to define itself. For thousands of Americans who did not travel or see as much as Ogilvie did, admiring Mr. O became part of expressing a cosmopolitan world view. Her success in recovering that world, the world of Mr. O, is the not-so-strange genius of Dr. E.

Congratulations to Carolyn Eastman on receiving the James Bradford Prize for Best Biography for 2021.

Headshot of Tamika Y. NunleyMary 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 Tamika Y. Nunley’s At the Threshold of Liberty: Women, Slavery, and Shifting Identities in Washington, D.C. The prize committee, composed of Professors Nora Doyle, Kabria Baumgartner, and Lucia McMahon wrote:

At the Threshold of Liberty is an elegantly written and carefully argued work that examines the strategies Black women used to imagine and enact liberty for themselves in nineteenth- century Washington, D.C. One of the most important contributions of this work is Nunley’s nuanced handling of concepts that have been central to scholarship on the history of slavery, including freedom, resistance, and self-definition. Nunley’s analysis revolves around her definition of liberty as a process untethered to the legal conditions of either slavery or freedom. She shows that liberty was imagined and made by Black women–enslaved, free, and often in-between–who dreamed, planned, and took action within the constraints of a society and an economy defined by slavery and racial capitalism. Her concept of liberty offers an alternative to the ways that scholars have conceptualized resistance. In Nunley’s analysis, liberty could be achieved through the processes of self-making and navigation and did not require that women engage in acts of resistance, though many did. Self-making could begin with the simple act of imagining a different life and planning for change, while navigation involved the myriad strategies that women deployed in their encounters with the spaces, laws, and customs of the city in their quest to create lives that more closely matched their identities and desires. By highlighting the concepts of self-making and liberation, Nunley moves beyond a focus on women’s actions to give weight to their subjective experiences and sense of self.

Black women’s opportunities for self-making and liberation were shaped by the places they frequented, and Nunley’s book is deftly structured around the urban spaces of Washington to show how women sought self-definition in the homes, streets, schoolhouses, and courts of the nation’s capital. The city itself thus played a central role in Black women’s pursuit of liberty, affording them both opportunities and obstacles. Nunley uncovers evidence of Black women’s accumulated knowledge of the city and of networks of free and enslaved Black residents that helped make Washington a key starting point and way station for fugitives. In addition to highlighting Black women’s efforts to escape slavery, one of Nunley’s most powerful chapters focuses on schools for Black girls and shows that education played an essential role in self-making and the pursuit of liberty. Black girls and women enjoyed few opportunities for social mobility, but the educational institutions created by Black residents and their allies allowed Black girls to engage in strategies of self-making that embraced notions of feminine virtue and uplift and prepared them for activism.

A major strength of Nunley’s book is the evocative way in which she centers Black women and their voices, illuminating the numerous obstacles they faced as well as their often- circuitous pathways to both freedom and liberty. Nunley takes the reader on this journey, too, from the first seeds of liberty that sprouted in women’s imaginations to the paths they walked to realize their ambitions. This book is both a skillful synthesis of scholarship on the history of Black women in the era of slavery and a brilliant work of original research and interpretation.

Headshot of Peter WirzbickiBest 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 Peter Wirzbicki’s Fighting for the Higher Law: Black and White Transcendentalists against Slavery, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. The prize committee, composed of Professors Christopher Grasso, Laurel Shire, and Craig Friend, offer the following praise:

Transcendentalists have long been central to nineteenth-century American intellectual and literary history.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, and other writers, mostly in New England, creatively combined insights from English Romantic poetry, German metaphysics, and theologies of subjective religious experience to shape a new intellectual movement.  It was the beating heart of what the literary critic F. O. Matthiessen famously dubbed the “American Renaissance.”  The Transcendentalists have inspired a deep and rich tradition of scholarship and interpretation, one very much alive and vibrant a century and three-quarters since Thoreau left Walden Pond.

However, as Peter Wirzbicki notes in Fighting for the Higher Law, “we have long been told that [the Transcendentalists’] political vision was obtuse, self-indulgent, and irresponsible.”  They came late to the central moral crusade of their times—abolitionism.  Theodore Parker, Transcendentalist High Priest of a purified, idealized Christianity, admitted later that when William Lloyd Garrison was attacked by an anti-abolitionist mob in Boston in 1835, Parker hardly noticed because he was too busy studying Hebrew, Greek, and German metaphysics.  Into the early 1840s, Emerson and Fuller could still sniff that abolitionism was narrow-minded and tedious.  Some subsequent critics have condemned Transcendentalists “for privileging personal expressions of righteousness over the properly political task of public engagement and democratic compromise”—of becoming, as Wirzbicki puts it, “a self-congratulatory gang of Beautiful Souls.”

Wirzbicki’s Fighting for the Higher Law deftly demonstrates that this is a flawed view.  Abolitionism and Transcendentalism had considerable common ground when both took off in the 1830s, and subsequently each movement influenced the other. As Wirzbicki writes, “both Transcendentalists and abolitionists sought to respiritualize a world that seemed to have been conquered by cotton, compromise, and formalisms.”  Wirzbicki sketches the parallel intellectual development of Emerson the Concord sage and Alexander Crumwell the Black intellectual as each explored the potential of intuitive non-instrumental forms of reasoning to unlock a deeper wisdom.  Other black abolitionists such as William Cooper Nell, Henry Highland Garner, Thomas Sydney, and Charlotte Forten, drew directly from Emerson, as well as other sources, such as Schiller and Coleridge, to turn away from Lockean and Scottish Common Sense philosophy and create a distinctive Black Transcendentalism.  They harnessed philosophical idealism to on-the-ground efforts to create a better world.  Jeremiah Burke Sanderson, a Black abolitionist minister, delivered sermons “laced with quotations from” Emerson, Carlyle, and Parker.  Frederick Douglass sprinkled his newspaper with Emerson quotations.  Influence flowed in the other direction, too.  Karl Follen, the Transcendentalist lecturer and professor of German at Harvard, had his political life transformed by reading radical Black abolitionist David Walker’s famous Appeal.

Four months after the White Transcendentalists began their famous club in 1836, radical Black intellectuals in Boston founded the Adelphic Union Library Association.  The Black club was soon sponsoring lectures by Garrisonian abolitionists and Transcendentalists such as James Freeman Clarke and William Henry Channing.  “When black boosters of the Adelphic Union celebrated elevation as the key to personal and communal empowerment,” Wirzbicki writes, “they were participating in and contributing to the same broad conversation about the relationship between individual fulfillment and social regeneration that Emerson was in Self-Reliance and Thoreau was in Walden.”  In the later 1830s, Transcendentalists and abolitionists began collaborating on religious reform, and ties thickened by mid 1840s.  Black abolitionists helped politicize and radicalize the White philosophers.  Emerson gave his first full-throated antislavery address in 1844 and was a regular at antislavery rallies by the end of the decade.

Transcendentalism helped abolitionists think philosophically about politics, and abolitionism helped translate philosophical ideals into political action.  Abolitionists drew on Transcendental thinking as they appealed to a Higher Law supporting acts of civil disobedience resisting the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.  Transcendentalists, Black and White, supported John Brown before the raid on Harper’s Ferry and defended him afterward.  Ultimately the Radical wing of the Republican Party in Massachusetts “almost to a man,” Wirzbicki writes, was connected to both Transcendentalism and abolitionism.  The idealism of both movements continued to inspire them through the long, bloody years of the Civil War.

This book beautifully fulfills the author’s intention “to take seriously the traditional history of ideas—texts, arguments, writers—while simultaneously examining how those ideas left the page, so to speak, went out in the open air, and rambled around in the world of people and things.”  Cogently argued and gracefully written, it brings new life to old topics.  It details the confluence of two movements that, fueled by “nonconformist humanism and social optimism,” together pushed the possibilities of democratic progress.

The committee is delighted to award the SHEAR Best Book Prize for 2021 to Peter Wirzbicki for Fighting for the Higher Law. Congratulations.

Headshot of Ann Marsh DalyRalph Gray Article Prize

The Ralph Gray Article Prize for the best article published in Volume 41 (2021) of the Journal of the Early Republic goes to Ann Marsh Daly’s “‘Every Dollar Brought from the Earth’: Money, Slavery, and Southern Gold Mining,” published in Volume 41, Number 4, Winter 2021.  The Prize Committee, composed of Professors David Gellman, Sharon Murphy, and Emily Arendt, wrote the following prize citation:

In “‘Every Dollar Brought from the Earth’: Money, Slavery, and Southern Gold Mining,” Ann Marsh Daly has produced a remarkable piece of scholarship. With skill and erudition, she connects the use of enslaved labor in the mining and refining of southern gold to divisive national political battles over banking, money, and international exchange in the early republic. The transformation of ore into specie was essential to competing paper and hard money visions of political economy. Turning mineral into money involved grueling labor, financial investment, and sharp dealing from mine to mint, as Daly compellingly details. Along the way, her essay reminds us of the adaptability of slave labor regimes to industrial conditions and the ways race and gender feed into misleading distinctions between skilled and unskilled labor. In sum, Daly offers a profound, carefully grounded, intervention into ongoing debates about the role of slavery in the history of U.S. capitalism and provides new ways to frame classic early republican topics like the Bank War.

Headshot of Cory YoungSHEAR 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 Cory Young’s “For Life or Otherwise: Abolition and Slavery in South Central Pennsylvania, 1780-1847.” The prize committee, composed of Penn Press Senior Editor Robert Lockhart, and professors Dan Richter and Serena Zabin, offer the following praise for this dissertation:

This year’s SHEAR Dissertation Prize is awarded to Cory Young, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, for his dissertation titled “For Life or Otherwise: Abolition and Slavery in South Central Pennsylvania, 1780-1847,” completed at Georgetown University under the direction of Adam Rothman. Based on a previously almost untouched archive of county slavery registries in Central Pennsylvania, “For Life or Otherwise” is deeply researched and persuasively written. Its central insight—that “gradual abolition programs were both slavery regimes and emancipation schemes,” but most profoundly the former—transforms our understanding of race, labor, and citizenship in a state that Philadelphia-centric historians have lauded for passing the continent’s first gradual abolition statute. For Young, there is no paradox here, once one realizes that when Pennsylvania voted in 1780 to gradually abolish the institution of slavery, it was really creating a new slave regime, one that exploited arcane differences between “statutory term slavery” and “hereditary term slavery.” Young’s careful analysis of legal texts, political records, and account books, as well as the slave ledgers themselves, tells a genuinely new story of slavery in what we are learning not to call the “free states.”

The finalists also included Ann Daly for “Minting America: The Politics, Technology, and Culture of Money in the Early United States;” Sean Gallagher for “Slaves of the Revolution: Enslaved Public Labor in the War for Independence;” Gabrielle Guillerm for “The Forgotten French: Catholicism, Colonialism, and Americanness on the Early Trans-Appalachian Frontier;” and Naomi Sussman for “Between the River and the Sea: The History of California’s Native Heartland, 1781-1931.”

Congratulations to all the winners!

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