Learning to Think Like Joe Lee

In the spring of 1847, the First African Baptist Church in Richmond Virginia raised twenty six dollars and thirty four cents to aid “the suffering of Ireland.” That amount is worth about eight hundred dollars today – an impressive sum for a one-time collection by a congregation.  But the donation is even more notable, I think, because the congregation was predominantly comprised of enslaved people. So, in the midst of the Irish famine, but also at the height of the American slave system, people who did not own their own labor managed to scrape together funds for a suffering population an ocean away.

Why am I telling you this story? It’s partly because historians like to start with stories. It’s partly because a story like this began my dissertation, which Joe supervised. It was my second year in the history Ph.D. program at NYU.  I’d come across a reference in Christine Kinealy’s A Death Dealing Famine to famine donations made by Cherokees and Choctaws.  I was in Joe’s office, trying to figure out what to make of these, and I asked him if he knew of anything written on Indian Territory famine relief.  He said no, and then told me I’d found a dissertation topic. It’s partly because I think we can all agree that Joe is the undisputed master of telling stories. His prose is certainly enviable, but it seems that whenever we get together he begins a narrative which always seem to reveal some interesting historical connection or framework that we (or at least, I) had never noticed before.

But really, I started by talking about the Richmond donation because the most meaningful mark that Joe has left on my intellectual work is the ability to move from stories like these, to broader ideas and more powerful theories about the historical relationship between Ireland and the world beyond its borders.

I thought I’d use my short time here today to talk about several ways that his methods and approaches have helped me to move from the story of enslaved people raising funds for Ireland, to a broader argument about the relationship between morality, solidarity and disaster in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. I am going to say a few brief words about Joe’s use of evidence, conception of politics, his role in the quantitative turn, and finally his truly global conception of Irish studies.

One of the things I remember Joe saying to me most frequently (and I’m paraphrasing here, but hopefully getting close to the spirit of the comment) was “we mightn’t know for sure that something happened the way you say, but what you need to do is to explain why yours is the most plausible explanation given the evidence.” As a young scholar, this was an incredibly empowering piece of advice.  It didn’t ask me to leave archival evidence in flights of fancy, but it did make space to argue for connections that I suspected, but which were archivally obscured. I think that, methodologically, one of the things that Joe has contributed to Irish history and Irish studies, are theoretical leaps that allow us to see connections that we hadn’t been able to see before. So, to pick a recent example, connections between historical conceptions of gender and the practice of business (I’m referring here to his “The Guinnesses and Beyond”) that help us to see Irish economic history in new ways.  Because of Joe, whenever I am writing something new, I first turn to broader hypotheses about why something might have happened, and then – crucially – mine the evidence to determine whether there is a more plausible explanation. This deep theoretical and explanatory work is one of the thing that makes Joe’s writing relevant decades after it was first written.

Joe has also argued for a robust conception of politics. For instance, his work on the Ribbonmen in nineteenth-century rural Ireland troubled traditional conceptions of landlord-tenant conflict. He called for an economically-inflected understanding of politics that encompassed farmers as well as laborers, and which made space for the intellectual and political lives of people who traditionally are not given space in intellectual and political histories. In my own research, Joe encouraged me to think about the politics of philanthropy, and to consider apparently individual and altruistic donations in light of a broader political framework.  In terms of the Richmond donors that I began with, this approach led me to think about the intellectual lives of enslaved people, and how these donors might have conceptualized their contributions in light of the broader political currents of antebellum America.

Joe was also an early adopter of what we might call today “computational history.”  In his early works, like The Modernization of Irish Society, in his still-influential “On the Accuracy of the pre-famine Irish Census” Joe brought methods from the social and quantitative sciences to bear on Irish history.  This meant that his in-depth investigations of Irish society were always richly contextualized in terms of economic and demographic phenomena.  It also meant that he was constantly looking for ways in which the methods of other disciplines might be brought to bear on his own subjects.  When I was struggling to integrate a demographic analysis of Irish famine donors into my otherwise cultural history of philanthropy, Joe pointed me towards the work of scholars like Mary Poovey, who (I gather) had helped him to refine his use of measures and statistics.  It is in part because of Joe that, when I begin researching a new community of donors, I look to demographic analyses as well as cultural zeitgeists around giving.

Finally, Joe called for a deliberate integration of transnational and global history into Irish studies.  He was never content to let a history lapse at the boundaries of the island of Ireland. This is visible in the volume he edited with Marion on Irish America, but also in his comparisons of Irish, American and European politics. This kind of framework helped me to look at Irish famine relief not merely as a local matter, but as the entanglement of politics and ideas that spanned the Atlantic.

So, to end with another story – the ways in which Joe thinks about Irish history have led me to conceptualize the story I began with not as a local anomaly, but as an act of politics with repercussions around the Atlantic world.  Joe’s guidance has helped me to ask questions about the demography of enslaved populations in Virginia in the 1840s and about economic connections between Ireland and the United States.  These questions have led me to make positive arguments about the political lives of people held in bondage.

For these modes of thinking, and for his incredible generosity of time, publication opportunities and attention, and for giving me a model (which I strive to live up to) for mentoring my own students, I am unspeakably grateful.