Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Defining the project

· November 24th, 2020 · No Comments

By Hannah Farber

When I help graduate students prepare applications for fellowships and jobs, we sometimes talk about the phrase “my project.” What does this phrase actually mean? Ph. D. students usually use it, reflexively, to mean “my dissertation.” Book writers often use it to mean “my book.” I prefer to think about a “project” as a bundle of interrelated questions that a scholar develops over a certain period of time, and that gives rise to various publications and presentations at its own pace.

Obviously, answering the bundle of questions is a key element of the work. Often, however, formulating the questions themselves is actually the trickiest part of the “project,” and by the time we have finished articulating the questions, the project is mostly over. It is thus with a sense of finality that I lay out a key theoretical question that emerged as I was researching marine insurance in colonial British North America and the early United States: what does governance look like if it’s not the governance of a sovereign state? This question immediately produces a successor question: If we allow that such a form of governance might exist, what is its relationship to the state’s own governance?

The early modern period is a wonderful domain in which to explore these two questions. As Philip J. Stern and Carl Wennerlind write in the brilliant essay I cite at the beginning of my article (“The Political Economy of Marine Insurance and the Making of the United States,” WMQ, October 2020), it took a long time for modern states to take shape. As they consolidated, they had to reckon with a motley group of competing institutions—churches, corporations, corsairs, insurance offices—that resisted the state’s consolidation of authority and/or defined the shape that the state eventually took.

While I have been engaged in “my project” on marine insurance for a number of years, my Quarterly article’s immediate origins are in a conference organized at the Huntington Library’s Linda and Harlan Martens Economic History Forum of 2018, which took as its topic “Political Economy in Britain’s Atlantic Empire, c. 1500-1800: Geography, Practices, and Politics.” At this conference, organized by Jacob Soll of the University of Southern California and Asheesh Siddique of UMass-Amherst, a number of scholars attempted to find connections among our works-in-progress, that is, to figure out what our collective “project,” our shared bundle of questions, might actually be. The paper I presented at that conference was entitled “Where Do You Get Your Insurance?” and it talked about the question of where early modern insurers were located and what kinds of laws they therefore obeyed and enforced on their merchant customers. After listening to the other scholars at this conference I was better able to articulate the project in terms of “political economy” as these other scholars understood it, thereby bringing my own bundle of questions into closer relationship with theirs.

Joshua Piker shepherded the conference conversation into a dedicated journal issue and I am deeply grateful for the work he, the Quarterly staff, and the outside referees did to improve the “project” that is mine and ours. The referee comments on my article were serious, challenging, and productive, and so was the editorial oversight. There is, of course, no conclusive proof that insurance was a transnational system of governance or that we have to view it through the lens of political economy. This is not the kind of thing that can be conclusively proven through empirical research; it depends on a set of definitions and so on. But what an editor can do is decide whether the approach has a payoff that is worth putting in front of a community of scholars for their own consideration. I am grateful for the outcome of this editorial deliberation. I am also immeasurably grateful for the press’s conscientious fact-checking and copy-editing, thanks to which I will always have in my mind the image of a Genuine Academic Article, of which most articles (mine and others’, now and forever) will only be pale imitations. Along the way, I have also learned some excellent facts of lesser import, to wit: that annus mirabilis ought not be italicized because it is in the Oxford English Dictionary; that Napoléon should retain his é when discussed in English because Merriam Webster’s Biographical Dictionary has ruled that he should keep it; and that, to my writerly aggravation, it is nearly impossible to state an exact page count for an early modern book.

My forthcoming book, Underwriters of the United States (Omohundro Institute/UNC Press, Fall 2021, we hope) addresses some of the same questions I discuss in this article. But whereas the article allows experienced scholars to march right into the key concerns (the principal concept, the interlocutors, the stakes of the argument), the book gives the argument a bit more air (to borrow a phrase that Cathy Kelly has often gently used when editing me). Underwriters has more pictures, more numbers, and more entertaining characters, and it covers a longer span of years. More importantly, the longer work is not “about” the political economy question in quite the same way. It has other concerns as well. It says more about how Americans (then) and historians (now) use numbers, and about how culture, politics, and economy interact. It also makes deeper connections with other related fields of study like the slave trade, early American finance and state-making, business history, and the memory of the American founding.

As a graduate student, I became interested in marine insurance because it made me laugh. Amid all the swashbuckling, the terror, the world-changing ideas, the guts and glory of the Age of Revolution, how were so many people (including so many swashbucklers themselves) engaged in such diligent and complicated bean-counting? Somehow, en route to the answer, I have found myself perseverating over another question, which may or may not become part of a new “project”: how did anyone come to believe the future would yield them anything at all? I admit that it is a bit morbid, but at the moment, this question, too, makes me laugh.

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