Duangkamol Tantirungkij is an MCEAS Consortium Fellow at the McNeil Center and a Ph.D. candidate in History at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her dissertation, “An Act of Congress: Freedom Suits and the Emancipatory Consequences of the Northwest Ordinance (1790-1850),” examines how enslaved people encountered and engaged with the common law judicial system in Great Lakes region. We spoke with Duangkamol about her research interests and the historians who have influenced her work.
Q: How did you become interested in your dissertation topic?
Tantirungkij: I became interested in my dissertation topic through reading about the conflict over slavery during the 1850s while I was still in coursework. Colleagues who were further in the Ph.D. program than I was at the time were studying how this conflict shaped and was in turn shaped by congressional politics. I was particularly struck by how challenging it was for both historians who have written extensively on the subject and historians-in-training to find and analyze evidence linking grassroots organizing to congressional politics. This gave me the idea that, if historians want to better understand why the issue of slavery in the territories mattered to voters during the 1850, it might help to revisit the history of how federal territories came to be. If 1850s politicians on both sides operated on the assumption that control of Congress meant controlling the lever to permit or bar slavery from the territories, I believed then and still do that it is worth re-examining how Congress during the early national period regulated slavery in the territories. However, the obstacle during my first couple of years of graduate school was that no one outside of a very small group of supportive colleagues wanted to read about Congress. Yet, where there’s a will, there’s way. I realized that it was possible to approach Congress through examining how Northwestern settlers on the ground made decisions with regards to slavery – whether to abide by Congress’ prohibition, exploit loopholes, or openly flaunt the rules. I am very fortunate that these settlers left us their court records.
Q: If you could see or visit any historical artifact or site, what would it be and why?
Tantirungkij: As I didn’t grow up in the United States, I never had the chance to see many historical sites in this country. I’m rather embarrassed to say that I have never visited most of the places that I study and therefore never had the chance to interact with their twenty-first century residents. For example, I’d love to visit the Michilimackinac State Park in Michigan, particularly its reconstructed fort. I’d also like to visit the archeological excavations there. I’ve only ever engaged with the history of Michilimackinac through reading archival documents and academic monographs about war and diplomacy in the Great Lakes region. In sum, because I never had the chance to learn about this history in 3D, I would very much welcome the opportunity to see how museum curators and interpreters engage with the public today.
Q: What is something you’ve read or watched recently that other early Americanists might find interesting?
Tantirungkij: Continuing with the subject of tourism, I have a book that I think other early Americanists will enjoy. More importantly, I believe that other early Americanists will find this book useful in their own research and teaching. I recently read Katrina Phillips’s Staging Indigeneity: Salvage Tourism and the Performance of Native American History. Katrina Phillips sheds light on a phenomenon where small towns across rural America currently face dwindling economic opportunities and as a result become heavily dependent upon outdoor dramas and pageants for tourism income. Rather than dismiss these productions as historically inaccurate, Phillips uses them to tell a much more complex story about how backlash to social movements after the Second World War has influenced how large segments of the American public understand westward expansion and dispossession. Overall, this book asks a very uncomfortable but necessary question: how can we do better public history when the livelihood of entire communities continue to depend on selling a romanticized version of the past? I believe that you don’t have to specialize in Native American history to enjoy Staging Indigeneity. I was really moved by how Phillips based much of her book on interviews with ordinary people – ordinary people like you and me with bills to pay. She shows that it is possible to empathize with people in the present without condoning their misguided interpretation of the past.
Q: Who is an author that you think more early Americanists should read?
Tantirungkij: The author that more early Americanists should read is Charles King. His latest book, Gods of the Upper Air, won the Francis Parkman Prize back in 2020. It is a collective biography of cultural anthropologists whose fieldwork pioneered the use of race and gender as categories of analysis. All this played out against the backdrop of the growing popularity of eugenics during the early twentieth century. I’m not recommending just Gods of the Upper Air, although I believe it’s important for early Americanists to understand the extent to which we are indebted to other disciplines for our analytical tools and frameworks. I’m also recommending King’s other books as well. I’ve yet to read one that I didn’t enjoy. Although this may sound counterintuitive, I believe that early Americanists can discover new things about their own areas of expertise by reading about seemingly unrelated topics. From cosmopolitan cities like Istanbul and Odessa to the oil fields of Baku, King’s books will introduce you to people and places that you may not have heard of before, but their stories nonetheless speak to the all too familiar themes of race, identity, and decolonization. According to his website, King has a new book slated for fall of 2024, and I’m looking forward to reading it.
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing the field of vast early America?
Tantirungkij: The biggest challenge, I believe, remains our quest to better understand why the American Revolution happened. I’m aware that some in the field see this as an outdated research topic. However, I’m concerned that there’s a consensus taking shape around an image of the Founders as slaveholding capitalists. This interpretation tends to overlook previous histories of the American Revolution, which depict the Founders as part of a much larger broad-based political coalition. I’m concerned that the profession will be left in the long run with a story of how a clique of wealthy elite men replaced one government with another to secure better constitutional protections for their private property. The danger here is two-fold. As educators, we risk misleading the public that those living during the late colonial period all agreed over what should constitute as property. If everyone agreed and no one challenged the notion that human beings could constitute chattel property, how then would we explain the development of the abolitionist thought in the eighteenth century? Just as slavery predated the nation’s founding, so did abolition. Moreover, as researchers we risk undermining the legacy of the cultural turn by accidentally adopting a narrow top-down view of the American Revolution. I’m also aware that some of the best in the business are producing new research on the American Revolution, particularly on the coalition building aspect. Therefore, I remain optimistic about the future of the field of vast early America.
Duangkamol Tantirungkij is an MCEAS Consortium Fellow at the McNeil Center and a Ph.D. candidate in History at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Read more about her dissertation on her bio page.