William Bergmann received his doctorate in history from UC in 2005. He is now an assistant professor at Slippery Rock University in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. Prior to this appointment, he taught for seven years at Northern Michigan University. GradCURRENTS conducted the following interview with Dr. Bergmann through email.
I'd like to know more about your recent book. Could you talk a little about the research that went into it?
The American National State and the Early West (Cambridge University Press, 2012) turned out to be a project very different from the one I initially imagined. When I began my dissertation research, I was working on a very different project that had to do with the middle class in the Ohio Valley during the first half of the nineteenth century. One day, an archivist misread my document request and brought me a transcription of a diary of a soldier at Fort Defiance from 1794 to 1795. While I waited for the correct document, I scanned the diary and became fascinated by the rudimentary economy that emerged around the new fort in the northern Ohio country following the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Initially I imagined that I might write an article about it, but I soon realized that my interests had shifted; I now wanted to write a dissertation that examined the emerging commercial economy in the Ohio Valley during the 1790s. After a brief discussion with my advisor – Wayne Durrill in the Department of History – I did just that. I spent the next couple years visiting regional archives, piecing together the conflict between Native Americans, American settlers in the Ohio Valley and British settlers in Upper Canada (today: southern Ontario), and how that conflict contributed to the commercial economy.
When I defended my dissertation in 2005 (Commerce and Arms: The Federal Government, Native Americans, and the Economy of the Old Northwest, 1783-1807), I had constructed an argument that the federal government contributed greatly to the economic development of the early West. This argument challenged prevailing notions that economic development in the Ohio Valley occurred spontaneously through entrepreneurial activities of settlers with little to no government involvement. I was fortunate that year to be awarded the Allen Nevins Prize in American Economic History, awarded annually by the Economic History Association on behalf of Columbia University Press for the best dissertation written in a given year in United States or Canadian Economic History. From 2005 through 2011 I revised and expanded the scope of the manuscript, and went to more archives to gauge change and influences. In the end, I visited the national archives in Washington, DC and Ontario, and state and private archives in Ohio (including the Cincinnati History Library and Archives at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal), Indiana and Kentucky.
What does your work have to say about the early national state? In what ways does your narrative challenge the existing or dominant ones?
The book The American National State and the Early West goes beyond the dissertation to challenge the widely held myth that the American national state was weak in the early days of the republic. Rather than view pioneers and settlers as shaping the nascent Ohio Valley economy, I reveal how the federal government used its fiscal and military powers, as well as bureaucratic authority, to enhance land acquisitions, promote infrastructure development and facilitate commerce and communication in the early trans-Appalachian West. Energetic federal state-building efforts prior to 1815 grew from national state security interests as Native Americans and British imperial designs threatened to unravel the republic. I, of course, consider both white westerners and western state governments and show how they partnered with the federal government to encourage commercial growth and emigration to assert American sovereignty in the region. Taking a regional approach, this work synthesizes the literatures of social history, political science and economic history to provide a new narrative of American expansionism, one that takes into account the unique historical circumstances in the Ohio Valley and the southern Great Lakes.
What classes do you teach at SRU? Is it the way you imagined a teaching position would be when you were a PhD student?
At SRU each semester I teach American History survey and Pennsylvania History. I also have a rotating set of upper division courses that include history methods, Native American history and U.S. manhood and masculinities. I also plan on developing a course on the American Revolution.
In some ways my teaching position is what I imagined. As a graduate student, I had the opportunity to teach survey courses during the summer and during the school year I watched my professors and modeled my teaching on theirs. Since then, I have settled into a style of teaching of my own that feels very comfortable to me. In this sense, teaching has met my expectations. Over the years, I have been surprised that I have found pedagogy to be so interesting and rewarding. I enjoy helping students to overcome hurdle. As a graduate student I was so focused on my own research, I could not have imagined that I would find such inspiration in the classroom.
And finally, could you say a few words about your time here at UC?
I began at UC in 1998 as an MA history student. I chose UC to study women’s history and hopefully work Joanne Meyerowitz, who left the university a few years later. After completing my MA I continued on in the PhD program in American History, working with my advisor Wayne Durrill. While there I really appreciated the dedication of the history faculty to their graduate students as well as the support and camaraderie of my fellow graduate students. I remain friends with many of my former professors and graduate colleagues today. Although my dissertation took me away from the grounding in gender I built through my education, I continue to use that knowledge today, especially in my course on manhood. I also built a minor with Dr. Geoffrey Plank (who has since left the department) on Native American history, which I also teach today.