On the ‘Middle Ground’ and its passing: Andrew Lipman, ‘No More Middle Grounds?’ Reviews in American History, 44, 1, 2016, pp. 24-30

20Mar16

Excerpt: Richard White is a historian, not a mad scientist. Yet the career of one of his most celebrated works, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (1991), is rather like the story of Victor Frankenstein and his monster. The book’s arrival was an electric moment, thanks to its lightning bolt of a thesis. Its illuminating central metaphor of a “middle ground” charged the entire field of early American history with new energy. White’s work countered tired narratives of indigenous defeat with a stunning new portrait of shared cultural spaces that were neither entirely Native nor entirely French and that flourished on inland lakeshores from the seventeenth century to the early nineteenth.

White’s admiring readers gave his term an awkwardly lumbering life of its own. The nuanced and place-specific thesis soon became an overused “watered down idea about the mechanics of compromise in all kinds of social and political situations.” Fifteen years after its release, even White mused about how far his creation had wandered from him. In the very field The Middle Ground helped create—North American borderlands—historians now try to keep the concept contained. They argue that the crudely rampant version of the term has damaged our understanding of the past. The concept simply did not apply to every place where invaders and indigenes accommodated each other’s cultures. Before the nineteenth century, that happened everywhere on the Americas to some degree, but the balance of Native-versus-European accommodation see-sawed wildly depending on where one looked.

In more recent scholarship, “middle grounds” are hard to find. Colonists were more likely to submit to indigenous rules in Kathleen DuVal’s take on the Arkansas Valley, Juliana Barr’s study of the southern plains, and Pekka Hamalainen’s overlapping work on Comancheria. Conversely, while Natives set a lot of the initial terms of engagement on the peripheries of British colonies, they would eventually find themselves in two discrete worlds rather than a confusingly shared one in places like James H. Merrell’s Pennsylvania woods or Alan Taylor’s Iroquoia. Some new work actively challenges the concept of a “middle ground” on its home turf. Heidi Bohaker, Brett Rushforth, and Robert Morrissey each argue that White’s thesis is an incomplete characterization of French-Algonquian relations near the Great Lakes.

Yet few things speak as much to the longevity of a thesis than the fact that new books still feel the need to debate it, while others continue to echo it. Though White is never directly cited in Jeffrey Glover’s Paper Sovereigns: Anglo-Native Treaties and the Law of Nations, 1604–1664, the book is evidence of how scholars from other disciplines are still embracing The Middle Ground’s most basic point: that borderlands encounters involved compromises and reconciliations. Glover, a literary critic, prods us to see early American treaties and treaty-making not just as a process of advancing colonial rule but as dense ritual and textual moments created by both foreign and indigenous authors. He correctly points out how in the first century of English colonization, treaties were haphazard affairs that centered as much on performances and exchanges as the scratch of pens on paper.



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