Intriguing ideas abound, as History grad students meet

by Frank Kuin

Was the widow of Abraham Lincoln insane, or merely eccentric? Why did the inventor of the table of chemical elements have such contempt for America? And are Canadians flattering themselves when they think of their country as a "middle power?"

Those were some of the diverse questions being discussed in workshops on the seventh floor of the Henry F. Hall Building on Saturday, as graduate students of Concordia's History Department hosted their sixth annual History in the Making conference. The event, bringing together graduate students of various disciplines related to history, is the only one of its kind in Quebec.

More than 30 MA and PhD students from across North America presented research papers on topics ranging from Buddhist temples to the revolutionary spirit of Chinese worker-students in France in the 1920s. Delores LaPratt Houseman, chair of the organizing committee, concluded that this year's edition was "the largest and most successful to date."

One of the student presenters, Denise Saia of Rutgers University, challenged the popular view of Mary Todd Lincoln as being insane, a notion that stems from two high-profile insanity trials she endured in the 1870s. Historians generally label Mrs. Lincoln, who was committed after her first trial, "emotionally unstable" and "weak."

Saia, an MA student in Public History, questioned the credibility of the trials. In them, she said, doctors testified to Mrs. Lincoln's hallucinations -- but only one of the four doctors called had actually treated her. Jewellers testified simply to her purchases -- but although she "bought excessively, she always did so within her means." Saia mused that the men may have been motivated by contempt for a fussy woman.

Saia said that "strong circumstantial evidence" from her research suggests that the insanity trials may have been undertaken "to use Mrs. Lincoln as a political pawn" to undermine the chances of her son, Robert Lincoln, for a possible run for the White House. Robert wound up as "the son who had his mother committed, and the Lincoln name never became a political force again," Saia explained.

Mark Butorac, who is doing his PhD in history at McGill, recounted a visit by Dmitri Mendeleev, the Russian chemist who constructed the periodic table of the elements, to the United States at the end of the 19th century. The ostensible reason for the trip was to study the American oil industry, explained Butorac, who spent a year researching Mendeleev's life at archives in St. Petersburg. "But what he produced was only 20 per cent about the oil industry, and 80 per cent social criticism."

Even though Mendeleev wanted Russia to westernize along the European model, he took great issue with American ways, Butorac found. "He was less than impressed with the state of American science," he said. Unlike Russia, America lacked a soul, in Mendeleev's view: "He called it a country of the almighty buck, and individualism run amok." Moreover, the scientist dismissed as downright "rubbish" the American belief that swapping political parties was the best way to resolve social ills.

Adam Chapnick, an MA student in international affairs at Carleton University, questioned the relevance of the notion of "Middlepowerhood" that "has dominated Canadian foreign policy since World War II." Not being one of the Great Powers, Canada has tirelessly sought distinction from the weaker ones in its role on the world stage. This drive has been motivated by what Chapnick called a Canadian "desire for an externally observable political identity."

However, Middlepowerhood is a myth, Chapnick argued. In theory, the status is determined by size and resources, combined with a willingness to accept international responsibilities. But in reality, Chapnick found, "there is little to distinguish Canada from smaller powers. The concept of the middle power is mere rhetoric, intended to propagate the myth that Canada is actually more powerful than it is."

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