Conference Review: The Biennial Symposium in American History – In Pursuit of Law and Order: American Governance in Historical Perspective, Queen Mary University of London, 21 June 2019
Commentators observing the Trump presidency have repeatedly described the current moment as an era of ‘unprecedented’ change in American political, cultural and social life. Many scholars, journalists, and politicians have contemplated how the United States could have reached this transformative moment. Many Americans, in turn, feel that long-standing views about American citizenship, voting rights, and individual freedoms have increasingly come under attack. The Biennial Symposium in American History at Queen Mary, University of London, hoped to shed some light on the contemporary moment by illustrating that state actors have a long history of using the law and political governance for nefarious purposes.
The conference focused on the theme of American governance, and how it has shaped various moments in the nation’s history. Eric Foner’s (Columbia University) keynote, ‘How the Supreme Court undid the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and why it still matters today,’ explored the history and impact of the ‘Second Founding.’ The three amendments, passed after the American Civil War during the Reconstruction era, were crucial in reshaping what it meant to be American. After slavery was eradicated from the nation, formerly enslaved people gained citizenship, and men the right to vote; thus, for this group of Americans, it indeed was a ‘Second Founding.’ However, Foner, by focusing on the Supreme Court, examined the various ways that this Second Founding was dismantled, and how it still impacts legal jurisprudence today. By charting the history of the 14th amendment, which granted citizenship to all persons, as well as equal protection under the law, Foner explained how the Supreme Court disassembled the role this amendment would play in the fight for Civil Rights. As he noted, the Supreme Court did not use the reconstruction amendments to uphold citizens’ civil rights – rather, the Court used other laws to denounce civil rights violations. For example, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was justified because segregation interfered with the Interstate Commerce Clause, rather than because of its mass violation of the 14th amendment. Foner’s talk thus demonstrated the importance of the amendment in the creation of the Second Founding, but also how the Supreme Court declined to use it in formulating its majority opinions, with the result that the amendment itself has tended to be side-lined in the history of American jurisprudence.
Threads from Foner’s keynoted continued through the rest of the conference, as various speakers investigated the relationship between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches and unconventional state actors. For example, Andrew Short (University College London) highlighted the importance of Protestant Missionaries in creating Christian schools for Native Americans with the blessing of the State, while Dayna Barnes (City, University of London) discussed the importance of American diplomats in Japan after Pearl Harbour, concluding that these officials would become important in rebuilding American relations with Japan after the War had ended.
One question that remained important throughout the day was ‘who constituted a state actor?’ This was a particularly prominent question that was raised in Lisa McGirr’s (Harvard University) keynote, the second of the day. McGirr’s presentation, entitled ‘100 Years since Prohibition,’ investigated the 19th amendment from inception to repeal. McGirr examined the lasting impact Prohibition had on the regulation of vice. In her talk, she used the example of civilian enforcement agents, like the Ku Klux Klan, who were fundamental to the implementation of the 19th amendment. The Ku Klux Klan portrayed themselves to Protestant evangelicals as the people who could ‘clean up’ the cities and make sure that no alcohol was being consumed during the Prohibition period. She argued that a group which had no official state-backed authority was performing the actions of the government. McGirr highlighted that state actors are not always those in political office; sometimes they are ordinary citizens who want to enforce the State’s ideology.
The Ku Klux Klan was hardly a benevolent state actor. They may have enforced the law, but it was done at a cost to immigrants and other citizens who enjoyed the cultural activity of drinking alcohol. It became increasingly evident as the conference progressed that keeping law and order did not always work to the benefit of certain groups of Americans. As Foner pointed out, many African Americans suffered at the hands of Supreme Court jurisprudence, which refused to enforce the 14th amendment. Similarly, state actors did not always support the citizens under their jurisdiction. This was also a theme that emerged in Oenone Kubie’s (University of Oxford) paper, which looked at child-saving institutions in Progressive-Era Chicago. Kubie found that the states’ attempt to ‘save’ children from unruly behaviour by sending them to reform schools frequently backfired. Many young boys tried to escape these schools, only to be returned once caught. They then often received corporal punishment for their actions – from the very state actors who were meant to protect them. Elizabeth Barnes (University of Reading) followed in a similar vein while presenting her research on sexual violence in Union soldiers’ camps in the Occupied South during the American Civil War. Barnes presented the stories of multiple black women who sought refuge in Union camps only to face sexual violence at the hands of the men meant to liberate them. The state actors discussed in this conference, then, frequently appeared as ominous rather than compassionate figures, posing a threat in particular to women, immigrants, and people of colour.
The conference theme was one that was well chosen by the organising committee — Joanna Cohen, Daniel Peart, and Noam Maggor. It allowed scholars from different subfields and periods of American history to converge on essential questions about governance and how its development over time has impacted the political, cultural and social landscape which exists in modern-day America. The thematic threads brought together in this review represent only a few of the exciting topics, themes, and questions which evolved over the course of the day, but they provide an insight into some of the fine work being done in the field of American History. At a time when the current occupant of the White House seems to be violently changing the social, cultural and political spheres of the United States for the worse, it is an incredibly opportune time to delve into the past of American governance.
 Michael Knigge, “Two years in, Donald Trump remains the ‘unprecedented president’”, Deutsche Welle, https://www.dw.com/en/two-years-in-donald-trump-remains-the-unprecedented-president/a-47113128 [Accessed: 25/07/2019]