First Presidential History Network Conference (Report)

Presidential scholarship in the UK is on a roll.  Since Professor Iwan Morgan’s 2011 ranking exercise that appraised the leadership credentials of past presidents from a UK perspective, the number of publications and conferences investigating the White House has soared.  On June 27, 2014, Northumbria University joined the chorus with a one-day conference entitled “A Presidential Nation: The Presidency in U.S. History.”

The event marked the first meeting of the Presidential History Network, a group that serves the academic needs of scholars interested in the presidency, individual presidents, and corollary interests in the institutional, political, or cultural history of the American polity.  Presidential studies, once considered “traditional political history” has been rehabilitated and the PHN aims to take advantage of the new era of political history.  Interdisciplinary scholarship has renewed interest in political history and the introduction of cultural studies, gender, race, memory, transnationalism, and social sciences brings new angles.  As Julian Zelizer points out, an innovative generation of scholars aims to “explore the full range of scholarship that exists outside history departments to see and profit from all the possible partnerships.”  Unintentionally, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the PHN conference heard papers from an eclectic range of new political approaches to the presidency.

Dr. Peter O’Connor, a recent doctoral graduate from Northumbria University kicked off the event with a transatlantic view of the antebellum presidents and demonstrated how the British perception of the second party system drew on fears of mob rule and democracy as populism.  PhD candidates Belle Grenville-Mathers (Sheffield) and Chad King (University of Missouri) delivered compelling analyses of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency and his management of other branches of government.  Four-time elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt received coverage from Dr. Alex Goodall (UCL) who surveyed the open door idea as a foreign policy tradition from which FDR drew.  Professor Dean Kotlowski (Salisbury University) challenged previous accounts of FDR’s decision to seek a controversial third term.  Race featured heavily.  Dr. Kevin Yuill (Sunderland) examined the Nixon administration’s immigration policy and prevailing racial ideas.  Dr. Joe Merton (Nottingham) revealed how the boom of interest in white ethnicity shaped presidential elections in the 1970s.  The wave of scholarly interest in science policy came into focus with Professor Richard Damms (Mississippi State) evaluation of Eisenhower’s administration and Dr. Gareth Davies (Oxford) explored the way presidents from LBJ to Obama cope with “natural disasters.”  Dr. Jon Herbert and Dr. Luca Trenta considered linguistic deployments.  Herbert analyzed historical co-option and invocation of past presidents, and Trenta the complex definition of “imminent” as a means for war-making.

The conference’s keynote was Professor Sidney Milkis, the White Burkett Miller chair of Politics at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.  Prof. Milkis delivered a comparative analysis of Barack Obama’s and Theodore Roosevelt’s speeches at Osawatomie, Kansas.  As the epicenter of 1850s abolitionist activism and where John Brown skirmished with slaveholders, Osawatomie also boasts two infamous presidential speeches (Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 and Barack Obama in 2011).  Both instances are regarded by Milkis as presidential turns to progressivism.  In 1910, Roosevelt spoke of New Nationalism in his quest for a third term.  In 2011, Obama spoke of universal healthcare and launched his reelection campaign.  Professor Milkis is the former director of the Miller Center’s Democracy and Governance Studies group, which investigates the intersection and historical roots of contemporary American politics.  It is no wonder these episodes intrigue him.  Presenting Theodore Roosevelt as the leading progressive of his era, Milkis asserted that Obama hoped some of the progressive magic would rub off on his plans for social welfare programs.  It was a positive invocation, Milkis asserted.

Sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and Routledge, the first PHN conference concluded with closing remarks from Prof. Iwan Morgan (UCL).  Encouraged by the turn-out and caliber of the scholarship, plans are already underway for next year’s event.


Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane

Senior Lecturer U.S. History

Northumbria University


* The PHN wishes to thank the U.S. Embassy, Routledge, and Northumbria University for the generous support for this event.


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