Founding Villains: Liars, Scoundrels, and Thieves in the Making of America

AHA Session 231
Sunday, January 6, 2013: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Preservation Hall, Studio 7 (New Orleans Marriott)
Scott A. Sandage, Carnegie Mellon University
Scott A. Sandage, Carnegie Mellon University

Session Abstract

In The Historian’s Paradox (2008), Peter Charles Hoffer remarks that history is both impossible yet necessary. Impossible because no historical documents adequately substitute for the vanished human experiences they claim to represent. Yet necessary because individuals identify as members of a community through shared stories about their community’s past.  National memory necessarily privileges particular, often celebratory, stories, which, as Hoffer implies, never truly represent the past. Hoffer invites scholars to take up the impossible storytelling task of telling better, truer historical stories.

One place to start this project is by reconstructing the image of those who are too easily and conveniently vilified. Our panel, “Founding Villains: Liars, Scoundrels, and Thieves in the Making of America,” aims to complicate standard accounts that have cast certain historical actors into playing the role of villain in early U.S. history. In doing so, we would like to pose the following questions: What kind of ideological needs are served in the social construction of villainy and/or heroism? Might analysis of the villain’s function in the collective national memory allow for new and subversive storytelling practices to flourish? What happens when one begins to read the villain not only as figure to be scapegoated, but as one whose “singling out” authorizes a group’s shared sense of identity?

English professor Joe Conway reads the memoirs of the infamous criminal Stephen Burroughs beside the Autobiography of Ben Franklin to show how Burroughs, like Franklin, frames many of his nefarious deeds in the discourse of disinterested public service.  Historian Christine Sears explores Captain William Bainbridge's move from "pirate's lackey" and villainous captain to War of 1812 hero. While Maria Moncur, who is a graduate student, considers the role villain stories played during and after the War of 1812 in shifting blame and building national unity--American or Canadian.

Taken together, our papers investigate the social construction and meaning of villainy as it relates to national identity constructed in the nineteenth century.

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