MIT Community Vigil on racial justice

My thoughts on racial justice and the state of our country, delivered as part of an MIT Community Vigil on June 2, 2021, can be found at 40:41 of the webcast, and also here in text form. If you have come this far, please also hear the other voices who spoke up at this event: in order, Rafael Reif, Danielle Geathers, Madeleine Sutherland, DiOnetta Jones Crayton, John Dozier, Corban Swain, Malick Ghachem, Sandy Alexandre, Ramona Allen, Chevy Cleaves, AudreyRose Wooden, Kelvin Green, Kendyll Hicks, Aiyah Josiah-Faeduwor, Jaleesa Trapp, and Heather Konar. Thank you to Kaijeh Johnson and Erica James for their questions and comments.

MIT and the Task of History

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege to participate in one of the most interesting and important dialogues I have been involved in as a historian.  The occasion was the second of a series of forums on the “MIT and Slavery” project, an investigation of MIT’s relationship to slavery that MIT’s President Rafael Reif commissioned at the end of last academic year.  The project has been spearheaded by my colleague Craig Wilder, who had the brilliant idea of creating an undergraduate research seminar (along with MIT archivist Nora Murphy) to undertake the investigation.  The first forum in the series featured Craig and Nora as well as T.A. Claire Kim and a genuinely spectacular cohort of undergrads, who spoke on that day with a composure and degree of insight one would expect to see from an advanced historian (video here).  The second forum, in which I was joined by Craig and MIT SHASS Dean Melissa Nobles as well as historians Tanalís Padilla and Lerna Ekmekçioğlu, was a follow-up response to questions from the MIT community about the purpose of studying this chapter of MIT’s past.  The panel opened up onto a broader discussion of “the power of historical knowledge to make a better world,” from which I learned a great deal (not least by way of the lively Q&A with the audience that followed).  A video recording of the event can be found here, and a news summary here.  The event was organized by Emily Hiestand of the MIT SHASS Dean’s office.

New laws of slavery database

A shout out to Dominique Rogers and Myriam Cottias for coordinating the just-released, massive new database on the laws of slavery and the slave trade, as part of the EURESCL initiative.  I have only fiddled with it briefly thus far, but it looks most impressive: a wide-ranging collection of statutory texts (with some “decisional” law bearing on the French colonies primarily, it seems — I was not able to see yet if there is case law from the Anglo-American jurisdictions).  Thank you Dominique Rogers and Myriam Cottias!

On “1763: A Revolutionary Peace”

This year is the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Peace of Paris ending the Seven Years War, and today marks 250 years to the day since King George III issued his Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763 reorganizing the British North American empire in the aftermath of that war.  Partly as a provocation, I sometimes tell folks that the Seven Years War and the diplomatic arrangements that ended it constitute the single most important set of events in modern Atlantic history.  Of course, on its face such an assertion is relatively meaningless: everything gives rise to everything else, back to the beginning of time.  But as a statement about the context out of which the Atlantic revolutionary era and thus the modern Atlantic world arises, it is hard to dispute.  Consider the following three massive land transfers or settlements that were occasioned by the war: “Canada” goes from the French to the British, “Louisiana” goes from the Spanish to the French, and “India” comes under the undisputed domination of the British (though the French Company of the Indies retained its principal trading ports along the Coromandel coast, most notably Pondichéry).  And that is just the beginning of the story: I am leaving out here the transformation of the Caribbean and the impact on the European sphere, for this was indeed arguably the first global military conflict.  “Things like this” just did not happen every day in the eighteenth century or in any other century.  So the next time my students react skeptically to another of my breathless evocations of the astonishing significance of the Seven Years War, I ask them to consider, as dispassionately as possible, the raw evidence!

This past Friday I went with a small group of my students from “How to Stage a Revolution” to see the Bostonian Society‘s wonderful (and now, sadly, closed) exhibit “1763: A Revolutionary Peace,” at the Old State House in Boston.  (The Bostonian Society is the organization now in charge of preserving the Old State House, the location of the Massachusetts colonial governor’s office and council chambers, and the backdrop to the 1770 Boston Massacre of John Adams fame.)  Thanks to Nat Sheidley, director of public history programs for the Society, and Donald Carlton, project director for the Peace of 1763 Commemoration, for a memorable tour, and for sharing their images of three extraordinary documents produced by the Seven Years War conflict.  The first is the signature page of Britain’s original manuscript copy of the Peace of Paris treaty, signed Feb. 10, 1763:

“Definitive Treaty of Peace and Alliance Between Great Britain, France and Spain,” principal signature page.  The National Archives of the UK, SP108/123

“Definitive Treaty of Peace and Alliance Between Great Britain, France and Spain,” principal signature page. The National Archives of the UK, SP108/123

The second is a 1755 proclamation by Massachusetts Lieut. Governor Phips setting prices on the heads of Penobscott Indians (three different prices, one for men, another for women, and a third for children of either sex under twelve).

By His Honour Spencer Phips, Esq;...A Proclamation…(Boston, 1755). Massachusetts Historical Society.

By His Honour Spencer Phips, Esq;…A Proclamation…(Boston, 1755). Massachusetts Historical Society.

And the third is the the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which, among other things, barred the American colonists from settling (further) into Indian country west of the Appalachian mountains (look to the final provisions at the lower right for the language in question):

By the King, a Proclamation (London, 1763). Massachusetts Archives

By the King, a Proclamation (London, 1763). Massachusetts Archives

There you have it.  Three extraordinary documents, one extraordinary war.  The Junto (an early Americanists blog) has an interesting post today on the Bostonian Society’s roundtable of this past Friday (Oct. 4) on the Royal Proclamation and the Seven Years War, wherein I learned of the energetic efforts of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies to recall especially the American Indian dimensions of the Seven Years War, including by way of a forthcoming conference on the December 1763 Conestoga Massacre carried out by the Paxton Boys (and denounced by Benjamin Franklin in a famous pamphlet).

“How to Stage a Revolution”

For a long time (longer than I care to admit) I have wanted to teach a history course on the Atlantic revolutionary era that would bridge the American, French, and Haitian revolutions.  Last fall, I offered a legal history seminar entitled “Law and Revolution” that was a first effort towards this end.  This fall, in conjunction with my wonderful new colleagues Craig Wilder and Jeff Ravel, I am finally doing so for an undergraduate audience.  Together, the three of us are co-teaching a mainstay of the MIT History curriculum, a course entitled “How to Stage a Revolution,” a unique offering founded some years ago by Meg Jacobs.  Each year the content of the course varies: some years, for example, the Russian and Turkish revolutions are in, and others out.  This fall the modules have converged around an eighteenth-century Atlantic focus (with a contemporary overlay featuring Egypt between 2011 and the present), and so far I am having more riotously good fun than should be legal in a well-ordered society.  (I suppose we could always rename the course “How to Quash a Revolution” if word gets out and/or this continues!)  We are part-way through the American Revolution module (taught by Professor Wilder) and, after a long hiatus from “pure” history teaching, I am re-learning things about the revolutionary era that had begun to fade from memory (when was the last time you reread your high school copies of Richard Hofstadter and Edmund Morgan?!), and learning anew many others — in this module, particularly about the intersection between American Indians and the revolutionary crisis.  You can find the syllabus here, and the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) site for a previous version of the course here.  Long live “How to Stage a Revolution”!