Dominion and liberty, NEH 2014, day 2

Andrew Cayton was our guest for much of day two and while he was largely speaking about concepts introduced in he and co-author Fred Anderson’s book The Dominion of War, Cayton was also present to lend his expertise on early America. I first met Dr. Cayton fourteen years ago when he was the commentator for a panel on which I was speaking about early frontier communities. I remembered being impressed by his thoughts at the time and over the years followed up on his work and how is examination of frontier Ohio and Indiana could be applied to my own research on Nebraska. Somehow, I missed Dominion of War, but more on that point later.

In preparing for the day, I took a look at a recommended Peter Silver book Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America. Silver’s book is about horor and fear and how it can change entire societies as well as the politics of these places. He focuses on British North America between the 1750s and 1780s and introduces an interesting theory as to how the concept of “white people” may have helped ease some cross Euronational tensions, creating a more unified colonial opposition to native land ownership and rights. Silver’s opening section focuses on conflicts between leaders of Pennsylvania and squatters (settlers living on the frontier, often on land they did not own or that was to be preserved for natives, or both). These conflicts were often set aside as native warfare became a common threat after the 1750s.  Silver includes a fascinating story about Moravians working with Inuits and how the latter traveled to Pennsylvania briefly and then felt grief when war struck in 1755; he also features the tale of Tom Quick, discussing how fear creates prudence and a spirit of enterprise (sick though it may be in terms of turning in scalp bounties) when living among natives.  Silver concludes with the postwar that wasn’t: “a generation that was constantly haunted by war, and shaped by the moments of fear it provided, had remade Americans’ beliefs in toleration, in the desirability of overcoming inter group prejudice, and in the democratic sovereignty of the people.” (301)

Pr. Cayton’s plan was to examine the Origins of the Empire of Liberty, 1763-1783, taking a closer look at the American revolution and expansion. By tracing how British victory in the French and Indian war, a conflict provoked by expansionism, resulted in arguments over land and power in North America, Cayton discussed the continuity of expansion that led to revolution and to the establishment of an empire defined by republican polities, racial exclusion, and commercial agriculture.

Empire in the 18th century meant a big, extended, and powerful nation.  Pr. Cayton argued that generally, people want to feel secure and that is what they seek from the relationship with empire.  As an individual, you are willing to provide tribute to the center so that you might be then left alone.  In the case of 18th century North America, perhaps you supply a certain amount of manpower for the militia or feeding the populace, etc.  When Great Britain appeared to no longer supply what is needed (security) and loses its legitimacy, North America was in the latter half of the 18th century; revolution resulted in a change of polity, but the basic problem of expanding territory and providing security was exactly the same as were felt in the 1750s.

So how did Americans begin to take or manage the Ohio Valley region and get what they wanted in terms of wealth development?  The land itself played a role, including the mountains and drainage basins.  The people on that land played a big role as well, both native people and other Europeans, who may or may not have challenged the new governments’ attempts to take control.  In a way the English had been successful because of numbers, but also the nature of fur trade and alliances with Iroquois made a big influence as well with native people like the Iroquois providing a key source of stability and market through the 18th century.  By the time of the American Revolution, the North American colonies had become the general store for the Caribbean and this relationship in turn attracted a huge number of people to the regions like the Carolinas and mid Atlantic region.

After French control was wrested by the British, there were continued problems.  The British interrupted the flow of trade goods in and out of the Great Lakes region and this changed the nature of empire and the rules which caused native leader Pontiac to “rebel.”  The British General Amherst tried to change the native-empire relationship through cutting off trade of arms and altering the fur trade.  Increasingly, empires became about “likeness” with violence and war acting key to these transformations – six decades of war, 1740s through 1810s over who is going to control this region west of Appalachians.  Because no one, the French, the British, the Native population, the Spanish, nor the Americans, could provide security, there was no peace in the region – here, Cayton, made reference to a Second World War era book, Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, particularly because Snyder is describing what happens when there is no security and literally almost everyone’s life is at risk. I am currently reading Bloodlands and it is truly chilling – I can see the link Cayton was making very clearly.

As we might guess, and Pr. Cayton confirms, the American war for independence is catastrophic for native people.  Native people are the losers along with some loyalists.  During the American Revolution itself, Washington seized the opportunity to order attacks into Iroquois territory and other native peoples’ lands.  The Sullivan campaign assails Iroquois power and creates a kind of pattern in behavior followed by the American government in the years following.

Andrew Cayton and Peter Onuf discussed the concept of a “blueprint for expansion:” the constitutional origins of the empire of liberty examined how empire grew out of colonial experience and in response to native resistance.  By 1787, American leaders had constructed a new form of empire, drafting the Constitution and the passage of the NW ordinance (the document which outlines how all newly settled territories might become equal members of the American federation).  For Pr. Onuf, statehood and union are about both liberty development and union.  In Cayton’s vision of the frontier republic conflicts are replete between congress and squatters, Federalist authority and the burgeoning state of Ohio, national government authority versus local interests, etc.  It was extremely contentious in the following periods: 1807-1812, 1812-1819, and 1819-1824.  The dominant points of view were:

  1. Squatters and Jeffersonian republicans emphasizing local sovereignty
  2. Federalist seeking to bring regularity to a disordered society

But did federalists detest the American west?  Did they truly see it as an “open, dynamic, democratic, egalitarian frontier?  When one constructs analysis of the conflicts between these two above points of view, Pr. Cayton argues that both were inappropriate for the type of society growing in Ohio – “Neither absolute power nor absolute liberty could effectively govern Ohio.”
Yet, we wonder – isn’t Ohio out west? Why were Americans being kept from it?  Were these natives of the Ohio valley the civilizing project with which the new American government wanted to engage?  At this point, our discussion included references to Edmund Burke and his notion of morality becoming universal and superior.  We included a reference to the stadial theory of Scottish enlightenment discussing conjectural history as well – this theory begins classically with examining hunting and gathering societies, shifts to agricultural and perhaps eventually a commercial people, etc.  In other words this theory is about the teleological nature of history as one that is progressive and constantly moving forward.

This philosophical point pushed us towards some interesting questions – as we know from examining plays and government documents alike written texts when read out loud are sometimes interpreted differently – even when Americans believe they can draw on a “firm” constitutional heritage in order to create a government made on fundamental principles, the meanings can be somewhat confused.  In the aftermath of the revolution, Americans faced the same problems that the British had stared down.  Why was North America different from England though?  Did its residents share in that Burkean notion of universal morality?  If yes, or no, what is making a civilization then?  Is it allegiance to the Constitution or is it print culture, or is it something else entirely?

Our final element for day two was a close discussion with Pr. Peter Onuf regarding his book Jefferson’s Empire: the Language of American Nationhood.  The discussion of this groundbreaking series of essays, opened with a dialogue focused on how historians related to the theme of the institute as well as on experience and challenge of producing innovative and important scholarship.  As it was a free flowing conversation, subject to interpretation by all types in a variety of ways, I’ll close by referencing a few of the questions and observations that we raised in reference to Jefferson’s understanding of empire.

  • Jefferson and Native people – An important question is that Jefferson did not take the Marietta, OH mounds seriously, insisting that there must be another explanation for their presence.  If so, how could Jefferson conceive of Native people being part of the empire?
  • Additional questions on what Jefferson takes “seriously” or not – eg, sending Africans to Haiti  in order to keep them out of the US? Is this for real? How would you pay for it? When would they do this move? Why would others agree?
  • Why was Jefferson concerned about the possibilities of violence among freed slaves? Why does he use this notion of slaves as captives in war?
  • Are natural rights meaningless unless in a civic context?
  • One of Jefferson’s great projects was the reforming of the laws in Virginia and yet these were arguably failures despite the interest in examining them.  Could Jefferson believe that he was successfully creating union through language?  Must the polity be same? – perhaps there was a need for or at least the illusion of equality?
  • Two exclusions we discussed – one, defining the community of the people (enslaved people not included and neither are the “savages” ); two, the “ward” republic concept (perhaps evolving out of a concern that local govt doesn’t exist in VA?) leads Jefferson to talk about the individual domestic household as another exclusion
  • Jefferson emphasized that love can help create the strength of nation; Is there a paradoxical problem about federalism and regional differences that love cannot solve?
  • Federalists might call what the United States was becoming simply an empire rather than add the liberty notion at the end; could it be an empire of reason?
  • What do lines in geography and polity do? Do they cooperate with one another to a degree? The Missouri line is a different one from those drawn during the NW ordinance and the crisis reveals the “restrictionist” views as Jefferson sees them
  • One thing predicated within NW ordinance is property rights – this creates a problem because one could potentially be both human and property at the same time  Is law constituted in legislatures as well as bars and on the corners, etc?

Apologies on the long delay of these summative comments.  More to come as the summer wanes.

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