SHEAR Announces the Winners of the 2023 Book, Dissertation, and Article Prizes

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic is proud to announce the following winners of the 2023 book, article, and dissertation prizes.

headshot of Kathryn Olivarius leaning on a railing over a river.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 Kathryn Olivarius’s Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom, published by Harvard University Press.  The prize committee, composed of Professors Christopher Bonner, Kellie Carter Jackson, and Karin Wulf, wrote the following citation:

Through the history of yellow fever in New Orleans, Kathryn Olivarius’s Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom speaks to key questions about class, identity, and public health in the early republic. Tracing the persistent neglect that characterized responses to the disease, Olivarius uncovers new sources of inequality in the Deep South. At the center of the book is the concept of immunocapitalism – the ways that white survivors of yellow fever “used their own alleged immunity as proof they deserved success.” Even the many who died hoped to leverage its cyclical horrors by solidifying hierarchies of race and class specifically through ideas about disease. Olivarius’s wide-ranging book offers a creative history of rebel southern identity through disease denialism. Moreover, it examines the concrete ways people constructed a racist and classist medical order as well as how marginalized people tried to survive that order. Her impressive book adds to our understanding of the human history of capitalism in the early republic. Focused on New Orleans, Olivarius both shows how the city was indicative of broader trends in the class and racial politics of public health and how New Orleans became such a multi-faceted American urban exemplar that was fundamentally shaped by its regular, ongoing confrontation with yellow fever.  Based on an extensive analysis of hard-won archival materials that include municipal and other public records and medical and other memoirs, Olivarius maintains her reader’s attention with compelling arguments and an engaging style. Her vivid narratives invite readers to walk the streets of New Orleans alongside recent migrants, workers, plantation owners, ministers, and others as they navigated outbreaks of yellow fever across the period that came to define the city and beyond. The James H. Broussard Best First book prize celebrates the first major publication of an author writing history of the early American republic. The committee is thrilled to select Necropolis as the 2022 winner. It will be a pleasure to see how Olivarius’s work will continue to transform the field of history and public health.

headshot of John Wood Sweet with a smile on his face.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 John Wood Sweet’s The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America, published by Henry Holt and Company. The prize committee, composed of Professors Craig Friend, Marcus Nevius, and Laurel Shire, offer the following praise of this work:

When Lanah Sawyer awoke the morning of September 5, 1793, she processed the trauma of the night before. She arose disoriented in a bawdy house run by Mother Carey, an infamous brothel operator in New York City. Sawyer had been sexually assaulted by Harry Bedlow, whom Sweet writes was a “very specific kind of man: an elite sexual predator” more akin to Satan than to Prince Charming. (13-4) Born into prosperous Dutch families in New York, Bedlow had seduced Sawyer with the promise of marriage, and he had gained Sawyer’s confidence by presenting himself as “Lawyer Smith.” Bedlow’s interest was for the seventeen year old Sawyer the stuff of a dreamy romance; Sawyer’s interest was for the twenty-six year old Bedlow an opportunity to take advantage of a young woman of middling means.

A seamstress, Lanah Sawyer was daughter of Jane Callanan, and stepdaughter of John Callanan, a harbor pilot. As with most working-class and enslaved women in the early republican United States, Lanah Sawyer’s circumstances resulted in a severely limited primary source record. Sawyer was not recorded in John or Jane Callanan’s early nineteenth century wills. No record of her life exists apart from her prosecution of Harry Bedlow for rape, John Callanan’s subsequent seduction suit on her behalf, or Bedlow’s public campaign to impugn her reputation for self-vindication. We learn of her primarily from her own limited account of the rape recorded during several depositions, and from the accounts of various community members given during her trial. In the early aftermath of her rape, she hid, then shrank away from public harassment during two high profile trials. In the end, she moved away from New York and disappeared again from the public record.

Bedlow sexually assaulted Sawyer in an early American republic in which men who preyed upon young women were known as rakes. Because of his higher social standing than Sawyer and the Callanans, Bedlow was confident he would get away with the crime of stealing Sawyer’s innocence. Upon trial for the sexual assault, Bedlow was found not guilty of rape. Amid public outrage in response to that verdict, John Callanan brought a civil suit against Bedlow for seduction. In the gendered patriarchal context of late eighteenth-century legal culture, seduction was a crime against the laws of coverture that, as Sweet writes, “amounted to an absolute claim of a man’s sexual ownership of ‘his’ women — his daughters, his servants, his wife.” (233) In the seduction suit, the jury ordered Bedlow to pay restitution to John Callanan. It was the first such decision against a scion of New York wealth.

Bedlow dodged paying restitution in full for nearly five years, until in July 1798 a circuit court decided in Callanan’s favor on grounds that Bedlow had failed to appear during three separate hearings. The final judgment amounted to the second half of a £900 sum, plus interest and court costs, agreed in late 1796. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, we will not tell you any more about what happens to Bedlow or to Lanah Sawyer – but there is some time in debtor’s prison and a near-death moment.

John Wood Sweet has masterfully navigated the challenges of archival silence to produce Lanah Sawyer’s biography, and, more broadly, to write an exemplary (and gripping) social and cultural history of early republican New York City. To give this story the rich context of Sawyer’s New York City down to the neighborhood, Sweet created four key databases. Sweet also compiled an impressive source base of diaries, letters, novels, court records, tax lists, wills, inventories, and material culture — paintings, sewing tools, and clothes. The result is a standard-setting biography that balances well the demands of deep character development, riveting narrative, and citation of important secondary materials.

The Sewing Girl’s Tale fulfills Sweet’s intent to turn the focus of Sawyer’s story away from old labels — naïveté, ambition, and discontent. In late eighteenth-century context, such labels demeaned and disparaged women. Instead, Sweet has penned a biography that honors, as he notes, a “young woman’s faith in herself.” (271). Furthermore, what’s remarkable about Lanah is not how little we know about her life, but instead, how much we do know. That Lanah entered the public record was the “result of damage done to her by a man — a man she resisted and stood up against.” (271) That she and her stepfather finally called Harry Bedlow to some measure of account is a captivating story worthy of recognition.

The committee is delighted to award the SHEAR Best Biography Prize to John Wood Sweet for The Sewing Girl’s Tale. Congratulations Professor Sweet!

headshot of Rachel Walker smilingMary 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 Rachel E. Walker’s Beauty and the Brain: The Science of Human Nature in Early America, published by the University of Chicago Press. The prize committee, composed of Professors Kabria Baumgartner, Cassandra Good, and Tamika Nunley wrote:

Well-written and skillfully researched, Rachel Walker’s Beauty and the Brain offers a fascinating history of phrenology and physiognomy—two serious and wildly popular sciences in the nineteenth-century United States and Atlantic world. Walker explains why “people were obsessed with each other’s brows,” namely because phrenology and physiognomy —now dismissed as pseudoscience—were “intellectually flexible” fields of study with doctrines and practices accessible to many people who sought to understand human nature. Far from being the exclusive province of white American leaders, physiognomy and phrenology appealed to women and people of color who used these fields of study to make claims to their own rights and declare their capacity for civic participation. In that sense, these sciences, in particular, could be marshaled to justify or undermine hierarchies of gender, race, and class in the new nation.

What makes Beauty and the Brain so powerful and innovative is not only Walker’s persuasive argument about the dangers of uncritically accepting scientific claims, then and now, but also her sophisticated analysis of gender. Walker analyzes mountains of evidence, from photographs and letters to diaries, newspapers, and scientific journals, to highlight the gendered dimensions of concepts such as intellect, beauty, and character. By citing letters and speeches from women, she reveals that white women deployed science, sometimes in subversive ways, though they still upheld white female standards of beauty.

The book contains wonderful surprises and deep insights about the interplay between science and culture, gender and oppression. Walker has offered a revelatory new frame through which to read the imagery and language of faces and beauty pervasive in the early American republic.

headshot of Laura EdwardsBest 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 Laura F. Edwards’s Only the Clothes on Her Back: Clothing & the Hidden History of Power in the 19th-Century United States, published by Oxford University Press.  The prize committee, composed of Professors Craig Friend, Marcus Nevius, and Laurel Shire, offer the following praise of this work:

“In the decades following the Revolution, the law connected clothing to the person who wore it. . . . Claims to textiles did not erase other restrictions: they were not recognized as property rights, nor did they lead to the recognition of other rights. Even so, people of marginal status assumed distinct legal forms when draped in textiles: they could own this form of property; they could trade it; and they could expect courts to uphold their claims to it. It was the property that most Americans had, if they could claim anything of value at all, because the law made possession possible.” With this, Laura Edwards lays before the reader the premise of Only the Clothes on Her Back.

How did ordinary people of the Early Republic, many of them marginalized without full citizenship rights, participate in the American economy and legal system? Cloth. Most historians have run into this reality in the archives where clothes and ther textiles appear in estate sales, commonplace books, store ledgers, shipping logs, factory inventories, lists of annual rations to the enslaved, runaway advertisements for indentured and enslaved laborers, and so on. In the economy of the early United States, tradition connected clothes, bedding and curtains, uncut textiles, accessories such as shoes and hats, and even rags to whoever wore them, produced them, or traded them. A shirt no longer useful to its owner might have been transformed into clothes for children, carved up and marketed as handkerchiefs, or gifted or resold as is. Whether manufactured clothes or raw textiles, cloth acted as currency, credit, and capital, empowering its users—many of them marginalized women and enslaved peoples—as economic actors.

Whether enslaved Blacks, free Blacks, Indigenous peoples, unmarried White women, or the White working poor, cloth did not change anyone’s legal or citizenship status, but it did mitigate their legal limitations. For example, cloth subverted coverture. Inherited from English law, coverture gave husbands legal control over their wives’ properties, and yet, coverture law seldom applied to women’s own clothes and accessories. Coverture laws may have limited women’s ability to sell land or chattel property, but they traded and sold cloth and clothes with little interference, making it possible for poor women to live by the needle and the more enterprising of middle- and upper-class wives to make a business out of cloth. As Edwards points out, “while textiles could not extinguish the structural inequalities in their lives, they offered a means to reshape them.”

But how could those without rights resolve disputes over textiles? Without the legal protections accorded White men, marginalized peoples’ legal claims to any property did not go without significant challenge. They found recourse by bringing cases through public law, which focused on safeguarding communal order and the people’s peace. Because cloth functioned as currency and credit, items were frequently stolen or borrowed and never returned. By going through courts, those without rights made space for themselves in the legal system. Even enslaved people went to court when their clothes, homespun cloth, or accessories went missing, or when customers refused to pay. Were there times when the courts rejected their appeals? Absolutely. Courts enforced customs attached to cloth selectively. Yet, the right to be heard and the occasionally successful petitioners demonstrated how, through cloth, marginalized people stretched the social and legal fabric of the new nation.

Industrialization eroded these legal traditions and economic possibilities. Large-scale production and falling prices undermined individuals’ abilities to use cloth as capital or credit. Law became more standardized, reducing the flexibility of local traditions. Greater emphasis on White men’s self-making and legal protections came at the expense of others’ rights. By the mid-nineteenth-century, as Edwards writes, “Conceptions of dependence, once attached to an individual’s structural place within households, had become more firmly linked to an individual’s race and gender.”

As we have learned with recent Supreme Court decisions, telling American history as a progressive narrative in which increasing numbers of people gain greater equal rights is a fool’s errand. In her study of cloth, economic opportunity, and legal rights, Laura Edwards reminds us that “the extension of rights cannot be told as a straightforward narrative of inclusion and progress.” As their legal claim to cloth disappeared and their economic opportunities narrowed, many women and men of all races were left with only the clothes on their backs.

The committee is delighted to award the 2022 SHEAR Best Book Prize to Laura F. Edwards for Only the Clothes on Her Back. Congratulations.

headshot of Andrew DiemerRalph Gray Article Prize

The Ralph Gray Article Prize for the best article published in Volume 42 (2022) of the Journal of the Early Republic goes to Andrew Diemer’s “The Business of the Road: William Still, the Vigilance Committee, and the Management of the Underground Railroad,” published in Volume 41, Number 1 (Spring 2022).  The Prize Committee, composed of Professors Mark Boonshoft, Ann Marsh Daly, and Amanda Bowie Moniz, wrote the following prize citation:

This exemplary essay at once offers a behind-the-scenes look at the operations of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia and a new take on the man who managed it, William Still. In Diemer’s telling, the Underground Railroad’s name is appropriate for describing how Vigilance Committees had to do their work. Efficiency, more than secrecy, was paramount for moving as many people as possible from slavery to freedom. This was especially true by the 1850s, when the UGR’s workload increased with the number of fugitives from slavery, as did the challenges they encountered—a harsher Fugitive Slave Act and increasingly sophisticated slave-catching operations. Readers come away from this article also with a fuller understanding of William Still, as someone committed to the cause, but also as a rare professionalabolitionist. Still made his living as an employee of the movement, and he appears in this article as an ambitious, aspiring-middle-class man on the make, one of the very few Black clerks in the United States.

In his analysis of both man and movement, Diemer is alive to contradiction—contradictions between the adoption of capitalist business practices in radical humanitarian reform; contradictions in how treating the work of Vigilance Committees as a business obscured the critical contributions of women; and most of all, how prioritizing efficiency could reduce to “packages” in need of movement the very people whose humanity the UGR aimed to restore. Diemer’s article, then, is a quintessential JER piece. It makes an important historiographical intervention. It changes what we know about the immediate topic in fundamental ways. And, along the way, it also shows us something about the major structural shifts—in communications business, information, transportation, and so on—that define our shared field of study.

Headshot of Emily GowenSHEAR 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 Emily T. Gowen’s “On the Margins: Steady-Sellers and the Problem of Inequality in Nineteenth-Century America.”  The prize committee, composed of Penn Press Senior Editor Robert Lockhart, McNeil Center Director Emma Hart, and Professor Dael Norwood, offer the following praise for this dissertation:

This year’s SHEAR Dissertation Prize is awarded to Emily T. Gowen, lecturer on History and Literature at Harvard University, for her dissertation “On the Margins: Steady-Sellers and the Problem of Inequality in Nineteenth-Century America,” completed at Boston University.

A brilliant analysis of the trans-Atlantic history of the novel, “On the Margins” tracks the long afterlives of canonical “steady-sellers” to reveal how the material coherence and literary meanings of “the novel” were formed and renegotiated through the practical churning of the nineteenth-century marketplace. Gowen argues that “canonical” texts like Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, and Pamela found ready buyers across decades and centuries, and through that consumption, these “steady-selling” texts formed the heart of print culture (as well as the basis for later theories of the origins of the novel). Gowen demonstrates how the demands of marginalized readers – poor, female, Black, and juvenile – kept these works in print; and through careful archival work, she unearths how these readers, and the authors of later defining literary works in conversation with them, responded to “steady-sellers,” chewing them over (sometimes literally) to develop contested, divergent interpretations. Instead of an “ossifying, interpretively settled canon,” Gowen finds that these texts endured in fame and influence because of the ways “printers, booksellers, and common readers” continually reimagined them in nineteenth-century print. A superbly written and methodologically innovative intervention, Gowen’s work speaks to scholars in fields and disciplines across the broad world of early American studies, from literary studies and the history of race to material culture and economic history. This project demands to be as widely read – and as steadily sold – as the subjects of its investigations.

The finalists for the award included Yoav Hamdani of Columbia University, for a dissertation titled “The Slaveholding Army: Enslaved Servitude in the United States Military, 1797-1861,” Jazma Sutton, of Indiana University, for “Borderline Freedom: Rural Black Women and the Transition from Slavery to Freedom in East Central Indiana, 1816-1865”; and Jessie Vander Heide, of Lehigh University, for “Schooling Intimacy: Lessons in Love, Romance, and Sexuality at American Female Academies, 1780-1870.”

Congratulations to all the winners!