"RAI Matters" A Letter from Nigel Bowles, Forum Speaker

With ninety events having taken place here in Hilary Term 2015, the RAI has enjoyed not just the busiest term in its history but one of its most successful. The term closed by our welcoming the Oxford Literary Festival to the RAI: we thank Sally Bayley and Sally Dunsmore for making the Festival’s event here possible.

We have throughout the term had in mind both the formative power of the institutional structures of American government and the periodic changes in political (especially electoral) behaviour. Those two themes, eloquently made by Byron Shafer in his inaugural lecture as Winant Professor, were made and developed in his weekly lectures on American Politics and Government for PPE and History and Politics undergraduates.

Themes of stability and change were prominent in the international workshop ‘Reaching Across the Aisles: Religious Alliances in American Politics’ that David Campbell (Notre Dame) and Ursula Hackett (RAI and Nuffield) organized in March. David’s keynote address, ‘One Nation Under God(s)? The Politics of Religious Diversity in the United States’, prompted much admiration and discussion. Together with the other papers given at the workshop, David’s paper will be published in a collection later this year or next. Watch this space for details.

The 2015 Congress to Campus day in the first week of March brought two former Members of Congress – Dennis Hertel (D-MI, 1981-93) and Claudine Schneider (R-RI, 1981-91) – to a packed RAI to share their rich experiences as candidates and office holders with students from local schools. We are grateful to them for a splendid day.

Further to the themes of change and stability, we have also had in mind a major legislative event of 1965, and a traumatic development just ten years later. Both continue to influence American public policy and America’s understanding of its place in the world. The first of them, whose fiftieth anniversary is marked this very week, is the signing into law by President Johnson of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Sitting beside his childhood schoolteacher Miss Kate Deadrich Loney at a desk placed in front of the former Junction Elementary School, Johnson City, Texas, Johnson prefaced his signing of the Act by quoting the words of the first President of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau B. Lamar, who had proclaimed education as “the guardian genius of democracy . . . the only dictator that free men acknowledge and the only security that free men desire” but who added that education would be a matter “in which no jarring interests are involved and no acrimonious political feelings excited”. As Johnson anticipated, and as the RAI’s own colleagues Gareth Davies and Ursula Hackett have shown in their research on federal and state education policies, the field has been no less political since April 1965 than it was before.

The second anniversary has powerful resonance for all who think about or make decisions about America’s place in the world. April 30th, 1975 ranks high among the traumatic days that the United States has known with the capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese and the Viêt Công. The event marked the end of the Vietnam War, a painful conclusion to an engagement that President Kennedy began and that President Johnson greatly enlarged. Vietnam has not moved beyond single-party authoritarianism, but it has engaged with the United States on broadly cooperative trading and political terms that seemed barely imaginable in 1975.


Much of the work of colleagues at the RAI proceeds from the premise that America must be understood in historical, international, and spatial contexts. How else to understand America’s relations with Vietnam and south-east Asia more generally? How else to understand the slave trade, security, and the flows of capital, labour, and technology across borders where America’s interests are prominent? RAI Deputy Director Jay Sexton, with colleagues Ben Mountfield and Steve Tufnell, and the collaboration of Jamie Belich of the Oxford Centre for Global History, proceed from that premise in examining the transformative power of nineteenth and early twentieth century gold rushes. What drives gold rushes, and the forms that they took? What were their effects upon markets, governments, companies, prices, trade, imperialism, security, and peoples? Whilst historians have examined gold rushes closely, they have not usually done so from global and transnational perspectives. At the RAI this week, colleagues will take on the challenge of examining gold rushes’ place in American and global history from the late 1840s to the outbreak of World War in 1914.

The Gold Rush Imperialism conference is fully booked. But the good news is that the papers will be published after the event: we will announce the publication date in a future RAI Matters. In the meantime, please make a note of three major lectures at the RAI in Trinity Term.

The 2015 Esmond Harmsworth Lecture in American Arts and Letters, ‘Experimental Fiction: Confessions of a Reluctant Practitioner’, will be given by Jennifer Egan at 5pm on Tuesday 5th May; on Thursday 21st May at 5pm, Lord Patten of Barnes, Chancellor of the University, will give the first Ambassador John J. Louis Jr. Lecture in Anglo-American Relations; and the third Sir John Elliott Lecture ‘The British Empire and the Outbreak of the American Revolution’ will be given by Professor Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy, Vice President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, at 4pm on Tuesday 26th May.

This edition of RAI Matters closes with the welcome news that William Brown, of Pembroke College, has been awarded the 2014 Peter Parish Dissertation Prize by BrANCH, the association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians, for the best undergraduate thesis in American History for his ‘Montana Improvement Company: Timber Suits and the Culture of Lobbying in Montana, 1882–1917’. Congratulations to William!

With my deepest thanks for your continuing support, and very best wishes to the entire RAI community,

Nigel Bowles