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Interview with Michael Blaakman, 2016 SHEAR Manuscript Prize Winner

Michael Blaakman is an assistant professor of history at University of St. Thomas. His Yale University dissertation, “Speculation Nation: Land and Mania in the Revolutionary American Republic, 1776-1803,” won the 2016 SHEAR Manuscript Prize.

The Republic (TR): Since most SHEARites won’t be able to read your dissertation until it is published, would you please provide a synopsis?

Michael Blaakman (MB): Certainly! Speculation Nation is a political and cultural history of the frenzied wave of land speculation that swept the new republic in its first quarter-century. As folks who’ve spent time swimming around in family papers from the 1780s and 90s know all too well, this was an era when thousands of elites were buying up millions of acres of claimed or expropriated Native American land—what Euro-Americans considered their own “public” domain—expecting that they’d be able to resell it for astronomical profits. The speculative market grew so furious, and so unprecedented in scale, that contemporaries and historians alike have described it as a “mania.” My study asks what that meant, why a “maniacal” market in lands emerged, and what it has to tell us about the outcome of the American Revolution and the origins of U.S. empire.

I find that the answer lies in the explosive connection Americans forged between expropriated land and the fiscal and political constraints of revolutionary state formation. Speculation Nation uncovers a nationwide pattern: in the years following independence, state and national U.S. governments framed settler-friendly policies for converting the Native lands they claimed into public revenue. But by the 1790s they had changed tacks and were selling vast tracts to speculators with alacrity. My manuscript follows land speculators “in action” to understand that shift—why speculators chose to invest so deeply in the imagined future of an American empire, and how they managed to do so. I reconstruct their strategies for lobbying and bribing governments, for hounding veterans to sell their depreciated land bounties, and for exploiting loopholes in land policies and the money system and federalism’s multiple sovereignties. I trace their attempts to grapple with Native American resistance, to develop the legal and cultural tools to commodify land, to market the yeoman ideal while waiting for land values to rise, and to court European investors and migrants.

Ultimately, Speculation Nation argues that land became a mania when Americans cast the sale of Native land to speculators as the basis of revolutionary statebuilding. By financializing the land that undergirded the settler-colonial early American “dream,” speculators inserted themselves into the process of expanding a republican empire.

TR: What led you to choose this dissertation topic?

MB: It was a convergence of things. I had encountered lots of revolutionary-era chatter about land speculation in prior research, and always felt mystified by it. So questions about it were banging around the back of my head. But I had arrived at grad school interested in political culture; I was intimidated by anything that smacked of economic history, and wished not to touch it with a ten-foot pole. My entering cohort, however, included a handful of brilliant students of twentieth-century labor history and political economy. I became excited by the questions they were asking—the ways they sought to cut across the boundaries that have typically divided the study of politics from the history of economic life.

At about the same time, in our own field, innovative studies of capitalism were moving past a prior body of work (Gordon Wood et al.) that had posited the American Revolution as the origins of a democratic capitalism. While prepping for orals, I grew concerned that this newer scholarship had altogether abandoned the Revolution as a causal turning point. Reading in other fields helped me see that literature with a skeptical eye; it convinced me that the state is essential to capital formation, and that periods of state-building—like the American Revolution—*must* therefore matter to the economic stories historians tell.

Then I finally read Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town. I devoured much of it on a road trip and can still remember the towns we passed through as the chapters flew by. I was fascinated by Cooper; I sensed he had this thumb on something central to the contested history of American democracy and statecraft and capitalism, and wanted to know more about folks like him. But when I surveyed the historiography—elite biographies, social histories of settler communities, studies of borderlands conflict—I realized that the goals and methods of land speculators appeared different in every regional study I read. I couldn’t find the overarching, national account I sought, the one that would explain why Federalists and Republicans and others, from Maine to Georgia to Amsterdam, understood themselves as part of a single “mania” for lands, and why it emerged when it did. That was when I realized I’d landed on a problem I’d be excited to grapple with for a decade.

TR: Which historians and/or writers most influenced your research?

MB: One of my favorite parts of being an historian is trying on approaches that I admire in other researchers and writers. This could be a very long list, but to name just a few of the people whose work has influenced my own: my mentor, Joanne Freeman, is my guiding light when it comes to reading evidence to unearth the human stories and unspoken rules that can help us comprehend prior worlds. I try to follow the examples of Jane Kamensky, Seth Rockman, and Stephen Mihm, who’ve managed to spin histories of economic life that normal humans might be interested in reading—no easy task. I’m inspired by new studies of early American political economy by Brian Murphy, Honor Sachs, Gautham Rao, and others, and I look to Steve Pincus, Max Edling, and Peter Onuf to understand how empires and state institutions function. I learned to think about markets, culture, and commodification by reading historians of slavery like Stephanie Smallwood and Walter Johnson, and my analysis is also informed by scholars of settler colonialism like Lisa Ford and Patrick Wolfe. Dan Richter makes me feel like it’s okay for serious scholarship to revel in a bit of wordplay, and serves as my model for centering the moral stakes in history. And by their example, two of my undergrad mentors—Carol Sheriff and Camille Wells—remind me of the joy of historical inquiry and the imperative to get it right.

TR: What is your next project?

MB: For the next couple years I’ll be trying to make Speculation Nation the best book it can be. But as that project winds down, I plan to turn my focus to a book I’m calling “Simcoe: Enemy of the Revolution.” John Graves Simcoe was a globetrotting British official, governor of Upper Canada in the 1790s, and one of the new nation’s most persistent antagonists. He disparaged the new republic as too democratic, and some of the land speculators I’m currently studying considered him the bane of their existence. But his policies in Canada—refugee aid, abolition, state-driven economic development, amicable Indian diplomacy—make him seem modern, even revolutionary, compared to many U.S. founders. I’m interested in that paradox. Both Simcoe and his wife, an artist and diarist named Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe, left sources that provide a rich window on the North American borderlands and the Atlantic world—not just their own experiences, but those of a host of others affected by the emergence of a republican U.S. empire: women and men, settler, Native, free black, and enslaved. Less a dual biography than a character-driven narrative history, this project will use the Simcoes’ lives to probe the meaning of the American Revolution from the outside in.