A Man of His Time and the Methods of White Supremacy: #SHEAR2020 and the Plenary Debacle

Dawn Peterson and Laurel Clark Shire

Starr Hardridge, Summer Long (acrylic on canvas). Used with permission of the artist.

On July 17, 2020, the Society for the History of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) held a plenary session online in lieu of the cancelled annual conference. The speaker was University of Tennessee professor Daniel Feller, the editor of Andrew Jackson’s papers. The plenary, based on a pre-circulated essay, was a debacle. By giving an apologist for slavery and Indian removal a large platform, SHEAR highlighted ongoing weaknesses both within the society and in the historical profession writ large regarding the histories of African American and Indigenous people, and of race and white supremacy more broadly.

Feller’s defensiveness was evident from the start. During the session, he excoriated journalists and historians for misrepresenting Jackson as a “hardcore racist” and the originator of “Indian genocide.” He dismissed scholarly interrogations of Jackson’s policies as being part of a politically motivated campaign to decry Donald Trump, who claims Jackson as a personal hero and inspiration. The essay demonstrated a stubborn refusal to engage scholarship by Indigenous and African American historians or even by other scholars of their histories. Instead, he misrepresented and caricatured recent work on Jackson—most of it by women historians—as he excused and defended Andrew Jackson’s policies. During the Q&A session, he refused to address Jackson’s slaveholding (lack of time, he said) and, at the end of the plenary, he even spoke aloud, and then repeated, a racist slur. Feller’s arguments were directly contradicted by respondent David Waldstreicher, which we and many others appreciate.[1] Yet the speaker’s essay and its delivery, combined with the senior, all-white panel of respondents, indicated that SHEAR had failed to ensure that this panel would represent its own policies on diversity, equity, and inclusion. As we are two of the people whose scholarship Feller mocked, the editor of The Panorama asked us if we would like to respond, and we do so here.[2]

Andrew Jackson was not only a racist, but was also a person who made his career, his money, and his reputation on his steadfast commitment to racial slavery and genocide.[3] He held some 150 people in bondage, separated kin on the auction block, and profited from the trade in human beings. He sent U.S. troops into sovereign Indian nations and ordered them to execute the residents of entire villages. He also advocated for and directed the forced eviction of thousands of Indigenous people from their lands, a removal that was carried out with violence and had terrible immediate and long-term human costs. Many respected historians of that policy note that if Indian removal had happened in the twentieth century we would recognize it as an “ethnic cleansing.”[4] Historians also recognize that the eviction of Native peoples cleared the way for the expansion of slavery in the early republic, an economic boon for the white families of Jacksonian America, and one that expanded and perpetuated Black servitude.[5] All of these things are historical truths acknowledged long before Trump occupied the White House.

These truths are not under dispute, not even by longstanding defenders of Jackson. Instead, Jackson’s apologists diminish their significance in light of what they consider to be Jackson’s other “accomplishments” in U.S. political and economic history. When historians write of Jackson as a white supremacist, defenders question the integrity of that research, arguing that it either ungenerously judges this historical figure by “presentist” standards or finding ways to undermine decolonizing methodologies or the documentary record writ large.

Jackson’s apologists argue that he did not act individually, but rather that his decisions were shared and approved by a collective. He was simply “a man of his time,” the argument goes. It is true that many other white Americans engaged in and supported racial slavery and ethnic cleansing. But rather than seeing them as “people of their time”—a term used to excuse racism and violence—it is correct to view them as part of a national racial project that sought profits from the theft of land and labor by establishing and maintaining white supremacy, one that was consistently and openly challenged by people of Native American and African descent, as well as some U.S. whites. Jackson and his like-minded peers had to engage in a great deal of ideological work in light of such ongoing dissent against slavery and Indian removal in order to normalize the violence within their plantation households as well as their desire to expand racial violence across the Southeast. In fact, the reason why some scholars have recently focused on Jackson is because he played a pivotal role in the justification of a proslavery empire, while his “domestic” behaviors exemplified the racial paternalism that served to both legitimate and enable the subordination of people of American Indian and African descent within the U.S. “national family.” In trying to redeem Jackson—as many scholars do—by highlighting his contributions to American democracy, we need to fully integrate his commitments to inequality into any analysis. The very core of Jackson’s contribution to democracy was the idea of “universal citizenship,” which, for Jackson and “the men of his time” simply meant that white men of all classes could vote. His vision for democracy was contingent upon patriarchal and white supremacist thinking.Ultimately, the “man of his time” framing of history is useful to ongoing racist structures of power. Failing to critique past actors in our present moment particularly serves the white supremacist visions of Donald Trump, and we denounce nationalist histories that prove useful to fascist politicians.

Burning of the town Pilak-li-ka-ha by Gen. Eustis (Charleston, 1837). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The “person of one’s time approach” is so intellectually shortsighted that it takes real historiographic effort to sustain. Often in concert with this move, critics grab hold of small factual errors—errors that have no bearing on the actual content of the arguments presented—to indict the increasingly influential and substantiated story of violence, settler colonialism, and racism exposed by recent scholarship in the field. Defenders of white supremacy play the “gotcha” game. They focus on a small historical error or documentary omission in order to disregard wholesale scholarship seeking to centralize the gendered and racialized structures underpinning U.S. nation formation. “Gotcha,” you got the battle wrong (it was actually the other slaughter of Native people he oversaw that you mean to cite) ,[6] or “gotcha,” Jackson actually believed white women and Native Americans were dependents in need of white male authority, therefore your analysis of Jackson’s racial paternalism towards Native people is illegitimate.[7] By focusing on facts that have no bearing on the overarching argument, historians who themselves swear by empiricism and positivism refuse to acknowledge the “facts” of slavery and U.S. Indian policy. Misrepresenting the arguments of critical historians also allows them to paint such scholars as so driven by historical activism that they have left facts behind. Critical histories of Jackson, like those that praise him, are political, but the reality of his actions is not up for debate. In fact, in colonial history’s obsession with written documentation, Jackson’s policies and behaviors toward Black and Indigenous people are well-sourced by Jackson and his peers’ own pens, recorded and reproduced in the volumes that Feller himself has edited.

The move to discredit scholars critical of the U.S. national project is nothing new. It has just reached broader attention in recent months, both within the profession and on a national stage as some white male historians have been called to task for their more public and overt disregard for critical, intersectional, and decolonizing histories of early colonial settlements and the formation of the United States. [8] Indeed, discrediting the methods and findings of innovative work committed to social, economic, and political equity has been a central tactic in keeping Black, Indigenous, and other scholars of color out of conferences, out of citational records, and out of academic departments. This gatekeeping process is how white supremacist history got created and how it continues to endure.

We encourage our colleagues to engage directly with the “person of their time” approach, “Gotcha gatekeeping,” and the difficult and important work of decolonizing U.S. history. In recent years, scholars in the historical profession have carefully outlined a wealth of new narratives that put slavery and U.S. Indian policy in critical perspective within U.S. nation formation and that centralize the efforts of Indigenous, African American, and other people of color in generating and sustaining North American struggles for freedom and autonomy. Their struggles are, we believe, the best place to find inspiring histories of democracy and freedom. We believe that scholars should engage ethically with this collective project. This means refraining from mischaracterizing, caricaturing, or ignoring the scholarship that disagrees with their own, but instead engaging with it directly and saying why, exactly, they disagree. Organizations, such as SHEAR, can and should support all of us as we seek to do this work.

If SHEAR intends to stay relevant, it will need to support the efforts of scholars (including many members of SHEAR) to decolonize the history of the early U.S. republic and support antiracist scholarship. Their voices were clearly in favor of these efforts in the social media response to Feller. In so doing, however, it should also prepare for more conflicts like the one that followed its recent plenary session. Decolonizing history deeply unsettles the narratives that settler-colonial nations, such as the U.S., have relied upon to justify their existence and their violent histories. Antiracist and anti-colonial scholarship makes some people—especially white people—uncomfortable, because it forces them to reckon with the legacies of racism and dispossession in the historical narratives written in the present, and with the inequalities that still shape our society (and our Historical Societies).

When a scholar makes racist comments, or tries to normalize white supremacy in the past, or displays clear sexism (or ableism, or homophobia), treating these comments as legitimate opinions to be debated makes it seem as if they are reasonable and must be engaged with. When people choose to respectfully debate racism it preserves “white comfort” at the expense of people of color and other marginalized groups. For a historian to claim that Indian removal and slavery were “overstated distractions” or “details we don’t have time for” was alienating and hostile to scholars of Indigenous and African American descent. It appeared that, with one exception, the goal of the panel assembled by SHEAR was to keep things “civil” as the speaker tacitly acknowledged the harms done to people of color as unfortunate, necessary evils along the way to American democracy. As Indigenous studies scholars have repeatedly argued, this call to “civility” stages white supremacy as both normal and legitimate and makes any refusal to support it beyond the pale of legitimate engagement or “civilization.”[9]

Rather than supporting “both sides” approaches we urge SHEAR to no longer amplify histories that justify racism and violence and instead prioritize and emphasize the work of scholars committed to equity, particularly that of scholars of color. Giving historians who seek to defend white supremacy platforms equal to (or, often times, even greater than) those who highlight the individual and collective resilience of those targeted by the colonial state supports the idea that white supremacists actually have a legitimate argument. If SHEAR, for example, was committed to exploring Donald Trump’s fascination with Jackson—as was the stated intention—then why not create a plenary session with scholars who could speak to that in the context of both men’s devastating policies toward Black and Indigenous communities and the political mobilizations that arose and strengthened as a result?

As white scholars who write about U.S. expansion and southern paternalism, we should not even be invoked in this controversy, because our work builds on that of excellent scholars who write about the histories of Indigenous peoples, the history of slavery, and African American struggles for freedom, and those who have written about slavery in Indigenous history—both the ways in which some Indigenous people experienced enslavement, and how some Indigenous people enslaved other Indigenous or African peoples. The plenary speaker elided their scholarship while attacking ours. Their work is not hard to find. Please go and read it. Engage with it and cite it.[10]

This piece has been revised to remove reference to Professor Feller serving as tour guide to the Hermitage for President Trump.  Professor Feller had no involvement in planning for the visit and played no role in the tour.


[1] David Waldstreicher gave a forceful condemnation of Feller’s celebration of Jackson and his disregard of the current historiography on Jackson, racial slavery, and Indian removal. Subsequently, Andrew Shankman, Co-Editor with Waldstreicher of the Journal of the Early Republic, also issued a statement that defended the value of critical scholarship and condemned Feller’s performance. We thank them and the many others who protested vociferously online and to the leadership of SHEAR.

[2] Daniel Feller claimed that we called Andrew Jackson a bigoted racist. While we do not see this as an incorrect portrayal of Jackson, it is not a direct citation of our work. In our publications on Jackson, we opt for the terms racist or white supremacist over bigot as the latter is typically someone who is intolerant toward those holding different opinions. We do not know whether Jackson ever listened to or tolerated other points of view (although in our research on his interactions with Black and Indigenous people, he did not). We instead focus on his commitments to racism as a systemic and institutionalized set of policies that supported and reinforced white supremacy. While Jackson did behave as a “homicidal maniac” towards Indigenous people in his campaign orders in the Upper Creek Nation, this is also not a direct quote from our respective publications. Neither of us has ever argued that Indian removal policies only began in 1830 and were solely Jackson’s project as Feller suggested. See Dawn Peterson, Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion (Cambridge, MA, 2017); Laurel Clark Shire, The Threshold of Manifest Destiny: Gender and National Expansion in Florida (Philadelphia, 2016), Shire, “Sympathetic Paternalism and Sentimental Racism: Feeling Like a Jacksonian,” Journal of the Early Republic 39 (Spring 2019), 111‒22; and Laurel Clark Shire and Joe Knetsch, “Ambivalence in the Settler Colonial Present: The Legacies of Jacksonian Expansion,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly (Fall 2017), 258‒75.

[3] We are drawing here from Patrick Wolfe’s articulation of structural genocide, which includes assimilation, reservation, and removal policies as well as military assaults against Indigenous communities, as collectively part of the exterminatory project orchestrated by settler-colonial states such as the United States.  See Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8 (Dec. 2006), 387‒409. For another more recent analysis of Andrew Jackson’s genocidal intentions, see Jeffrey Ostler, Was Indian Removal Genocide,” in Panorama, Aug. 4, 2020.

[4] U.S. Indian policy has historically been genocidal in its intent, even when those making it understood themselves as well-intentioned. It often violated both U.S. and international law, as a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision points out (McGirt v. Oklahoma, 2020). Indian removal in the nineteenth century was paternalistic and a form of ethnic cleansing. See Julie L. Reed, Serving the Nation: Cherokee Sovereignty and Social Welfare, 1800‒1907 (Norman, OK, 2016), 1, 225; Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears (New York, 2007): 42; Paul R. Bartrop and Samuel Totten, eds., Dictionary of Genocide (New York, 2007), 208.

[5] Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York, 2014); Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA, 2013); Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York, 2006); Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South (Cambridge, MA, 2007).

[6] “Lyncoya” (not his real name, but an “Indian-sounding” name given to him by whites) was taken from the aftermath of the Battle of Tallushatchee in November 1813, not Horseshoe Bend in March 1814 as Shire cites based on the work of earlier scholars. This correction does not change the crux of Shire’s argument.

[7] Jackson’s use of the word “pett” to describe his own granddaughter and perhaps “every cute little kid” only reinforces rather than negates his paternalism. This use of “pett” proves that he saw young Indigenous children, young girls, and perhaps all children as beneath him and under his power.

[8] For another recent example of a white male historian disregarding decolonizing methodologies, see Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, “Contexts for Critique: Revisiting Representations of Violence in Our Beloved Kin,” American Historical Review125 (Apr. 2020), 533–36. For an example of how conservative politicians mobilize white supremacist versions of history, see U.S. Senator Tom Cotton’s (R‒AR) recent introduction of a bill to outlaw the teaching of the 1619 Project, an ironic—but consistent—move from the party that also claims to protect the freedom of speech. Free speech is only relevant when it protects the racial order of things: https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/27/politics/tom-cotton-slavery-necessary-evil-1619-project/index.html

[9] See, for example, “Civility and its Discontents,” http://inthesetimes.com/article/18588/civility-and-its-discontents

[10] These fields are wide and exciting. This list is incomplete and not intended to be comprehensive, but we want to highlight the work of some of the scholars who have influenced our own work. Apologies to anyone we missed. In Indigenous history, please see work by Ned Blackhawk, Lisa Brooks, Cathleen Cahill, James Taylor Carson, Brenda Child, Margaret Connell-Szasz, Kathleen DuVal, Robbie Ethridge, Patricia Galloway,Laura Gómez, Susan Hill, Angela Pulley Hudson, J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Clara Sue Kidwell, Tsianina Lomawaima, Malinda Maynor-Lowery, Martha Menchaca, Melinda Micco, Susan Miller, Devon Abbott Mihesuah, Ann Marie Plane, Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, John-Paul Nuño, Jean M. O’Brien, Michelene Pesantubbee, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Claudio Saunt, Jameson Sweet, Daniel K. Usner, Jace Weaver, Michael Witgen, and Patricia Wickman.On indigenous slavery, see work by James Brooks, Alan Gallay, Barbara Krauthamer, Tiya Miles, Celia Naylor, Theda Perdue, Claudio Saunt, and Christina Snyder. On slavery and antebellum Black communities, see work by Edward Baptist, Daina Ramey Berry, Stephanie M. H. Camp, Adrienne Davis, Deborah Gray White, Thavolia Glymph, Annette Gordon-Reed, Leslie Harris, James O. Horton and Lois Horton, Tera Hunter, Walter Johnson, Jacqueline Jones, Martha Jones, Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, Ibram X. Kendi, Jennifer Morgan, Deirdre Cooper Owens, Elizabeth Pryor, and Larry Rivers. For an impeccable history of Jackson’s early career see Deborah Rosen’s Border Law: The First Seminole War and American Nationhood(Cambridge, MA, 2015).

7 August 2020

About the Authors

Dawn Peterson is an author and historian.

Laurel Clark Shire is associate professor of history at Western University.

Recent Contributions to the JER
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