Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sexy History, Legal History and History Departments: Part 1

“Why is this not about slavery?”  So rang another skeptical question during a campus visit approaching its 12th hour.  I think it was clear within the first hour or so to both job seeker and employer that this was not the right fit.  But the show must go on.  And there is nothing quite like the experience of a campus visit gone awry to make one rethink their choice of profession.  Thankfully I already had a good job.  I muzzled my instincts to answer combatively, and responded.  In short, the story of the federal government’s relationship to slavery deserved its own treatment.  With that I offered a few examples of how federal customs officers dealt with slaves before pointing to some really good books that did a better job on the broader subject of slavery and governance (books by George Van Cleve and Sally Hadden, for instance).  I also hurriedly mentioned that my second project was entirely about the regulation of runaway and fugitive slaves, but nothing seemed to sway my audience, which had grown increasingly shifty and distracted.

This was not the first time a campus visit did not go my way.  I had thus developed an appropriately unhealthy way to deal with it: go over every second in my head and yell at myself for not doing things better.  (As a side note, the experience of serving on search committees over the years has taught me that most times with searches, things are really not in any one individual’s control.)  In any case, once I went through my tried and tested bout of self-flagellation, I kept coming back to the question of why my book was not about slavery.

The question pointed to a difficult reality: as a matter of demand, some topics are more marketable and desirable than others.  I do not think I will surprise anyone when I say that there is less demand in history departments for commercial regulation, the law of administration, and political economy, than for the history of slavery.  How would I make the manuscript that became National Duties: Custom Houses and theMaking of the American State, more attractive and marketable?

The book itself is about the relationship between the state and the marketplace between the American Revolution and the antebellum era.  I argue that the challenge of governing Atlantic capitalism transformed the early federal government from a diffuse structure patterned on the British Empire toward a modern central government.  Starved for revenue and desperate for political legitimacy in the shadow of the American Revolution, the architects of the first federal government emulated the British Empire’s practices of governance that emerged after the Glorious Revolution.  In the nation’s capital, Alexander Hamilton built a central Treasury and put into motion the power to tax.  But in practice, at the customhouses on the maritime frontier, federal officers negotiated their authority with the merchant capitalists whose taxes would constitute the lion’s share of the federal government’s revenue. In exchange for their taxes, Atlantic merchant capitalists secured the power to shape how federal officers collected taxes and administered commercial regulations.  Though this negotiated authority created reliable revenue for the new federal government, it gave merchant capitalists profound influence over the inner workings of the state.  This much became clear during the Jeffersonian era, as waterfront communities thwarted the embargoes and commercial restrictions that aimed to punish European commerce during the Haitian Revolution and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.  After the War of 1812, legal and political reformers too aimed at the moral and material problems posed by merchant capital’s ostensible capture of the federal state.  By 1836, officeholders, jurists, and politicians who contemplated the problem of the customhouse had established a key axiom of the modern liberal state: the necessity of separating the state and the marketplace.  The stage was set for a bureaucratic expansion of federal governance that would occur gradually over the next century.

Can’t get less sexy than that, or so my recent experiences led me to think.

During a meeting with one of the biggest university presses the acquisition editor offered me one solution: go ‘founders chic.’  This would require gutting the argument and most of the evidence about the custom houses themselves and making the stewards of federal governance in the early republic—especially Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Albert Gallatin, and Thomas Jefferson—the main exhibits.  What the ‘founders’ thought about what was going on with the custom houses, in other words, would have more appeal to readers than what was actually going on at the custom houses.  The sheer prospect of rewriting basically every page of my book made this a most undesirable possibility. 

A second option was to take the capitalism turn.  In what I view as a generally salutary development for the historiography of eighteenth and nineteenth-century economic and cultural life, capitalism has returned to the lexicon of many seeking to make sense of multiple revolutions in transportation, communication, and market culture.  This was a far more attractive option because of the incredible quality of leading works in the field: Jonathan Levy’s Freaks of Fortune and Michael Zakim’s works writ large for instance.  But these books seemed so different from mine because they were far more invested in ideological and cultural problems. 

Ultimately the problem that came into view after that dismal question-and-answer-session-for-a-job-I-was-never-going-to-get was a problem with a solution.  Perhaps it was not a problem at all.  I would have to write the book that I wanted to write and people would either be interested in it or they would not.  But for a junior scholar in a field without a huge footprint in history departments throughout the country it was difficult to avoid asking it nonetheless.  Indeed, even now that the book is out, and I find myself in a wonderful, supportive department, I still sometimes feel that same insecurity.

In my next post I’ll seek to explain why this uncomfortable feeling persists. Here’s a preview: aside from my personality, one reason for this insecurity about my own work is about the place of legal history within history departments.