The Material Politics of Revolution and Government

AHA Session 246
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Zara Anishanslin, University of Delaware
Adam Erby, Mount Vernon

Session Abstract

The papers on this panel explore the intersection of material culture and political history during the American Revolution, the Early Republic, and the antebellum period. Moving chronologically from the years leading to the Revolution to the 19thcentury remembrance of Washington’s “Republican Court,” Holmes, Chervinsky, and Henderson’s papers consider the way politics were shaped by landscape, architecture, and objects. By highlighting the material circumstances of these different periods and the way they influenced ideas and made action possible, the papers challenge narratives that focus on the exceptionalism of particular leaders and instead emphasize the circumstances – the work of enslaved African Americans, vitriolic political battles, and antiquarians preserving the “Republican Court” – that made their achievements possible.

The papers cover nearly a century of early American political history, from the decades that led to the Revolution to the one immediately prior to the Civil War. Holmes’s paper considers the extent to which the lived experience of the colonial landscape made revolution possible and the manner in which the planter class then used that landscape – and the buildings and objects within it – to reconcile slavery with the rhetoric of liberty, becoming a critical part of the way citizenship was defined during the Early Republic. Chervinsky goes into the private space of the President’s cabinet office, comparing the way Jefferson and Washington used their offices to shape discussions of policy and politics. As a political historian, Chervinsky draws attention to the way the personalities of these leaders shaped their personal spaces as well as the office – political and physical – that they inhabited. Henderson explores the political motivations behind the early movement to preserve the material culture of the founding generation in the midst of rising nationalism and sectionalism, demonstrating how the material lives of the founders reveal as much about the generation of Americans who collected and treasured them as it can about the founders themselves.

As Henderson observes, “social and political history—just like public and private spaces—are more often than not overlapping and intimately connected.” With this in mind, all three papers also expand the discussion of political history beyond its traditional boundaries to incorporate social history, bringing women and enslaved people more fully into the picture. Maurie McInnis, Executive Vice President and Provost at the University of Texas at Austin, and a scholar of the cultural history of American Art in the colonial and antebellum South will chair and Adam Erby, an associate curator at George Washington’s Mount Vernon who has worked extensively to interpret a site where social and political history routinely intersect with material culture, will provide the comment.

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