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  • Editor’s Page

Embarassment of Riches

I’ve said it before and no doubt I’ll have occasion to say it again, but work in our field gets better with every passing year. Any doubts on this score can be settled by reflecting back to last July’s superb conference, organized under the direction of Seth Rockman (Program Committee Chair) and Craig Friend (Local Arrangements Chair). The breadth of topics and the dynamism of approaches was both inspiring and humbling. This is as true of work recently published as it is of work in progress. Consider the prizes awarded at the 2015 Banquet:

The Ralph D. Gray Prize for the best article published in this journal in 2014 was awarded to Shane White, for “Freedom’s First Con: African Americans and Changing Notes in New York City,” a beautifully written essay that re-imagines people and processes that we thought we understood. As Prize Committee members David Head, Reeve Huston, and Fay Yarbrough put it, “By asking how people who had only recently secured their freedom from slavery managed the dicey business of exchanging notes and dumping bogus bills—how they ‘engaged in that most American business of getting ahead’—White reveals how the antebellum monetary system played out on the ground, how it shaped and was shaped by unsteady social relations and unsettled racial hierarchies.”

The SHEAR Book Prize Committee, composed of Stephen Mihm, Brian Luskey, and Jessica Lepler, were deeply impressed by the quality and range of the submissions. They awarded the James H. Broussard First Book prize jointly to Catherine McNeur (Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City) and Brian Rouleau (With Sails Whitening Every Sea: Mariners and the Making of an American Maritime Empire). In Taming Manhattan, McNeur demonstrates that New Yorkers often understood the struggle between private interests and the public good through intense, class-inflected debates about urbanization and environmental change. In their experience, “country” and the [End Page 631] “city” were not only places but also concepts of ordering space and processes of social organization. The Committee praised McNeur for providing a combination of clean, elegant prose and a willingness to dig deeply into the muck of daily urban life and its various archives in order to situate the environment at the center of our understanding of the Early Republic. Brian Rouleau’s oceanic history of the United States begins with the observation that at a time when few ordinary Americans went abroad, hundreds of thousands of sailors became the public face of the new nation and proceeds to examine the many ways that American sailors interacted with the peoples of the globe. If rowdy sailors often proved a diplomatic headache, Rouleau convincingly shows that they also constituted a corps of “working-class diplomats” who shaped foreign perceptions of the United States. No less important, they profoundly shaped how Americans viewed the other peoples and nations of the world. Sailors, Rouleau shows, became a critical conduit of information, helping to lay a foundation for the United States’ sense of its place in the larger world. “Masterfully told, elegantly written, and spanning every continent in the world, including Antarctica,” the Committee wrote, “With Sails Whitening Every Sea never loses its way; Rouleau ultimately brings the story back home to American shores.”

François Furstenberg’s When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation, a book that teaches historians to hear the early American republic speaking French and to see the early American republic as part of the French Atlantic World, received the 2014 SHEAR Book Prize. By following the lives, networks, and intrigues of five émigrés who fled revolutions in France and St. Domingue, Furstenberg inflects the culture, the politics, and the economics of the first decade of the American republic with a distinctly French accent. Moving fluidly the politics that unfolded in Philadelphia’s elegant salons and the politics that obtained in the rugged American backcountry under the auspices of European capital, When the United States Spoke French entirely reorients the history of the Federalist era. “Based on impressive multi-lingual archival research,” the Committee wrote, “Furstenberg defamiliarizes the stories of George Washington’s fêtes, Citizen...


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