A World Convulsed: Earthquakes, Authority, and the Making of Nations in the War of 1812 Era Public Deposited

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  • March 20, 2019
  • Hancock, Jonathan Todd
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • This dissertation examines responses to a series of earthquakes emanating from the Mississippi River shortly before the War of 1812. As the strongest earthquakes in the North American interior in the last 1,000 years, the tremors alarmed communities from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast. I consider how people across this expanse sought to explain and interpret the earthquakes in light of their own political, territorial, and cultural struggles. By incorporating all North Americans' ideas about a common event, this dissertation seeks to broaden intellectual, religious, and environmental history to include interpretive communities well beyond the Atlantic coast. In current historiography, following the American Revolution, the continent's entangled, contingent origins quickly narrow into a conflict between U.S. expansion and collective indigenous resistance. Slower to recognize contingency and a similar multiplicity of people and interests in the early national era, historians tell the story of the post-revolutionary borderlands as an almost inevitable ideological clash between self-interested land grabbing and spiritualized resistance. I argue that the dichotomy between U.S. greed and Native American spirit misses the deep connections that all early modern people drew among the human, natural, and spiritual orders. The struggle to explain the earthquakes prompted people to engage in debates about who could claim rightful authority and what sources of knowledge they could marshal to assert their visions for human order. The earthquakes and related geopolitical upheaval thereby summoned a range of responses that an over-simplified showdown between American expansionists and militant Indians cannot capture. This dissertation is an intellectual history of the borderlands. Because all people took matters of spirit, territory, society, and politics into account to interpret the earthquakes, this cross-cultural approach yields insights into structures of religious and political authority, intellectual trends, and geopolitical strategies across the eastern half of North America. And amid the rush to describe expansion and change in histories of the early republic, this dissertation ultimately invites us to slow down and re-imagine early nineteenth-century North America as a site where all of its inhabitants wrestled with fundamental human questions.
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  • In Copyright
  • DuVal, Kathleen
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Graduation year
  • 2013

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