A Q&A with Johann Neem & Ronald Angelo Johnson, Editors of the Journal of the Early Republic

We are very excited to be working with the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) to publish the Journal of the Early Republic (JER). The journal publishes work covering the period from Independence to the Civil War. SHEAR recently transitioned to a new institutional home at the Omohundro Institute, an independent research organization sponsored by William & Mary. In this Q&A, John McLeod, Chief Operating Officer and Director of the Office of Scholarly Publishing Services, discusses the journal with editors Johann Neem, Professor of History at Western Washington University, and Ronald Angelo Johnson, Associate Professor & The Ralph and Bessie Mae Lynn Chair of History at Baylor University.

Omohundro Institute logo in grey and red to left. Cover of the Journal of the Early Republic Volume 44, Number 1, Spring 2024 in the center. SHEAR logo in black and white to the right of journal cover.

Visit Project MUSE to see the Volume 44, Number 1, Spring 2024, issue.

Q: The JER was first published in 1981 and is now in Volume 44. How has the journal changed through the years? Is there a specific contribution to the development of the field that you think it has made?

Neem and Johnson: The Journal of the Early Republic helped define the early American republic as an era of significance on its own terms, and not just as a placeholder between the Revolution and Civil War. Prior editors have done so much to make the JER a journal of record. From the very beginning, the JER explored the political, economic, cultural, and social changes that transformed the new United States. At the heart of the story were narratives concerning the rise of democracy and the market revolution. 

Today, if you look at our recent articles, the JER has become a leading source for Indigenous history and the history of Black freedom and slavery. It has also focused on the broader world in which the early republic is situated. There is more contention around how to narrate and evaluate the changes that transformed American society. Even as we continue to evolve and to bring in more perspectives, there is continuity. We remain deeply committed to the existence of a journal that tries to understand the history of the United States and the people within and around it in all their diversity and complexity. We also remain deeply committed to the premise that diversifying the topics and ways we talk about the early republic does not mean displacing old conversations that remain relevant not just for historians but for the broader public. 

Q: What new scholarly directions will you be engaging with in the coming years? 

Neem and Johnson: As editors, one of our jobs is to help the JER remain at the field’s cutting edge. That means being aware of new academic interpretations and bringing them into our pages. We rely on submissions by scholars to populate the bulk of the journal, and this means that the JER reflects, at some level, what people submit to us. We want authors at all career levels to submit work to us that pushes the boundaries of our field. But we are also committed to serving historians by looking around and seeing what is not represented in our pages that we think scholars of the early republic need to know. Other than a commitment to understanding the early republic, however, as editors we are not seeking to move the field in a particular direction, but to ensure that the JER provides scholars opportunities to do so.

Q: People sometimes look to history and historians to contextualize our contemporary political, economic, and cultural life. Do you think historians provide useful context? And how do you see the journal playing a role in those discussions?

Neem and Johnson: It is both the opportunity and responsibility of historians of the early republic to help our students and the broader public contextualize the present in relation to the past. Recently, US Supreme Court decisions have relied on justices’ understandings of the early republic, and as such, what historians write about could shape legal briefs and decisions. That’s just one way of pointing out that the early republic really matters more than ever! 

For historians to speak to the public, they need the best knowledge. By publishing peer-reviewed scholarship, the JER ensures that when historians write for the public they can draw on the best research. But sometimes historians need to connect the past to the conversations happening in the world. For that, we hope that people will read (and submit to!) the JER’s online magazine The Panorama, where we seek to use the past to inform broad public conversations about the present. The past is often called into service for various political—and partisan—ends. As historians, our job is to demonstrate how an understanding of historical context (or contexts) can challenge simple or naïve claims about the American past.

Q: Do you have any special issues planned? And can you tell us a bit about what the journal will be engaged with at the 2024 SHEAR Conference?

Neem and Johnson: We have so much going on! At SHEAR 2024, we’ll be offering two exciting panels! A Saturday plenary entitled “Women at the Center” will examine how new scholarship on women, gender, and sexuality challenges longstanding narratives in women’s history. Our second panel on early republic music brings together historians and musicologists. We use these panels to develop material for the print journal. Just after the conference, the JER sponsors a “From Conference Paper to Journal Article Workshop” that brings together small, encouraging cohorts of prospective authors to move conference presentations toward becoming peer-reviewed publications. 

We’re also going to have a special issue coming out this year on the American Revolution at 250 featuring a conversation among five scholars and an essay on changing interpretations of the Critical Period. We’re hoping to show how new understandings of the past might support efforts to teach and to commemorate the Revolution in classrooms, public history sites, museums, and elsewhere.

Q: How might the partnership with OI provide some exciting new opportunities?

Neem and Johnson: While the JER remains an independent journal published by SHEAR, we are excited to be working with the OI. We think there are synergies between the William & Mary Quarterly and the JER that will allow readers of both journals to get to become even more engaged with early American history. This is also a time of real change in scholarly journal publishing—fewer tenure-line jobs, declining academic library budgets, new digital technologies, etc. We need to think about how we continue to serve the field, but also be aware that the people who are in the field, and the kinds of work that they are doing, is increasingly diverse. 

The JER published a forum recently on the material conditions of historians’ labor that allowed us to dig deeper into what are the challenges scholars face, especially those who are not in tenure-line jobs or even in universities. We are hoping to work with the editors of the William & Mary Quarterly to find creative responses to this changing world, including new ways to allow diverse voices into our pages and to support the scholarship of historians who are not professors. As editors, we’ve been particularly concerned about all the PhDs who do not get tenure-track jobs but who have written groundbreaking dissertations. The field cannot afford to lose their insights!