Organization of American Historians 2017 Conference Recap

Over the weekend, I attended the Organization of American Historians annual conference. This year was my first time attending the OAH and I was honored to present, accept an award, and live-tweet some of the panels for the organization. It was quite an eventful few days!

I attended great panels on economic circulation in the Early Republic, the future of the relationship between Early American history and the OAH, and corruption and circulation of capital in U.S. history. Although conference-going can be tiring, I always really like it. I love to learn new things about history, hear how my colleagues and friends are progressing with their work, and observe successful public speaking/presenting strategies. If you are interesting in reading more about the panels I attended, I storified my tweets. See the links below.

“Economic Circulations in the Early Republic.” Saturday, April 8, 9:00 AM:

“What About Early America?” Saturday, April 8, 11:00 AM:

OAH 2017 Awards Ceremony

“Corruption and the Circulation of Capital.” Sunday, April 9, 10:45 AM:

On that last point, I had a few observations that I plan to incorporate into future engagements. I love when panelists mention other scholars’ work that has helped their own research. Not only does it acknowledge that history is very much a collaborative and gradual process, but it provides built-in recommendations for further reading and signposts the historiographical importance of their work. I tweeted this on Saturday, but it is worth mentioning again. Dr. Gautham Rao does this better than anyone I’ve seen. Not only does he mention the scholarship that provides scaffolding for his own work, but he does a great job mentioning other scholars writing about related issues, including graduate students. It’s a small, but incredibly generous gesture and one that means a lot to the student mentioned (I know from past personal experience). I am going to strive to incorporate this practice into my talks and I think it’s something we can all do more.

I also presented my own paper on Saturday afternoon. I think all Saturday afternoon panels suffered a bit of audience attrition from the food temptations offered by the New Orleans culinary scene—and I don’t blame them. I would have probably gone out to a long, leisurely lunch too if I hadn’t been presenting. That being said, the small audience was engaged, helpful, and I once again came away with great ideas for how to further develop my work.

My paper tackled a section of my dissertation I abandoned during the revision stage. The American public retained significant Anglophobia in the wake of the Revolutionary War. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention referenced the British government as a model to avoid. They also rejected proposals for an established executive council as too similar to the British cabinet. Newspaper editorials and private correspondence demonstrate that most Americans blamed the British cabinet for corrupting the King. President George Washington and his department secretaries were acutely aware of the widespread hostility to the British government. They were also extremely protective of their own reputations and personal honor (for more on this subject, the go-to text is Affairs of Honor by Joanne B. Freeman).

Given everything I’ve read about their sensitivity to public opinion (and the political culture in the 1780s and 1790s that was suspicious of Great Britain), I believe Washington and the secretaries worked to differentiate the fledgling American cabinet from the British model. I’ve just had trouble proving it. Washington never described cabinet interactions in his writings—he didn’t even use the word cabinet until he retired in 1797. The secretaries often described cabinet meetings, but they rarely discussed why the cabinet interacted the way they did. In the interest of finishing my dissertation, I abandoned this aspect of my work for a bit. But I’m stubborn and I think it’s important and deserves further attention.

That’s one of the reason I love conference papers. They are an opportunity to explore a tricky, unfinished project. In this paper, I explored a variety of circumstantial evidence that supports my claim. I discussed published editorials and private correspondence by the department secretaries defending the administration and their role in it. I also explored how Washington and the secretaries worked to keep the cabinet firmly under the President’s control and independent from Congress. At the end of my paper I asked the audience for suggestions on how I might peel back the layer of secrecy surrounding the cabinet and welcomed their comments. Based on their questions, here are the ideas I want to explore further:

  1. Further examples: When examining how Washington and the secretaries worked to keep the cabinet in the executive branch, I used March 1792 as an example. On March 27, Congress created a committee to investigate the causes of the defeat of the American Army under General Arthur St. Claire. The committee requested War Department papers pertaining to the mission and directed the request to Secretary of War Henry Knox. Washington initially considered invoking executive privilege for the first time and convened two cabinet meetings on March 31 and April 2. Washington and the secretaries decided to share the papers, but objected to how the committee shaped the request. As the head of the executive branch, the President technically controlled the War Department papers. Washington and the secretaries agreed that the request needed to go to him first. I plan to look for additional examples like this one that demonstrate that cabinet carefully considered its relationship to the executive and legislature.
  2. Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet: Dr. Denver Brunsman, the chair of the panel, recommended I consider a circular Jefferson wrote to his cabinet in November 1801. He described how he wanted the cabinet to operate and cited Washington’s cabinet as a model to follow. I use this letter to discuss cabinet precedent, but I hadn’t fully considered the ramifications for my British argument. As Denver pointed out, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then clearly Jefferson felt that the Washington cabinet did something right. I would add that Jefferson distinguished between cabinet practices in Washington’s first term and his second. In the first, the cabinet operated well and Washington served as the hub of the wheel. In the second, Hamilton seized too much power and controlled Washington. While Jefferson didn’t include this comparison in the circular, in other letters, he suggested Hamilton tried to rule like infamous British ministers, Robert Walpole and Lord Frederick North. I need to fully consider how Jefferson’s adoption of Washington’s first term practices suggests that the cabinet successfully differentiated itself from the British model—at least until the end of 1793.
  3. Cabinet’s relationship with Congress: One of the common objections to the British government was the dual roles of the ministers. They served as the King’s advisors, but also as leaders of political parties and members of Parliament. To separate the executive and legislative powers, the Constitution placed the department secretaries squarely in the executive branch and granted Congress the right to establish the legislative agenda. This idea seems foreign to Americans now because we expect presidents to craft and promote an agenda. Yet that was not the expectation in the 1780s and 1790s. When Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton advocated specific legislation to promote economic recovery and his vision for American development, he appeared to many as too similar to British ministers. I’m looking forward to grappling with this complicated relationship and examining what it tells us about how the cabinet presented itself to Congress and the public.

Thanks to everyone at the OAH for a great experience. I’d welcome your comments and questions as well.

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