Nov. 10, 2010

Jason Sharples (Photo by Martha Stewart/American Academy of Arts & Sciences )

Jason Sharples, assistant professor of history, has been appointed a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences for the 2010-2011 academic year.

Sharples was one of seven people nationally to receive the appointment, which supports scholars in the early stages of their careers who show potential in becoming leaders in humanities, policy studies and social sciences.

He will be working on a project titled "Mastering Fear: Imagination, Rebellion, and Race in Early America and the Atlantic World, 1640-1800." He says he hopes the results of his project will challenge people "to question their assumptions about how often slave rebellions occurred in colonial America, and to see that colonists' outsized dread of insurrection shaped their world far more profoundly."

L.R. Poos, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, noted that "The American Academy of Arts & Sciences' fellowship is one of the most competitive in the country, and particularly for scholars in the humanities, it provides an invaluable opportunity for recent doctoral graduates to spend a year completing a first book project. We're very proud to have recruited such a distinguished historian to our faculty."

Sharples, who received his doctorate this year in history from Princeton University, will begin teaching on campus in fall 2011. He will teach early American history for all levels of students and hands-on research seminars for graduate students and advanced undergraduates.

In his project, Sharples says he will "argue that vulnerable colonists in precarious settlements feared slave rebellion far out of proportion to the actual threat."

"Overzealous officials investigated rumors in ways that predetermined the 'discovery' of a threat and brought the execution of dozens of enslaved men," explains Sharples. "Their investigations do not reflect bona fide conspiracies so much as conspiracy panics akin to witchcraft scares or hysteria about secret Communists in the 1950s."

To research his project, Sharples will consult rare materials such as 18th-century books, personal letters, and handwritten government records at archives in London, the Caribbean, Boston, New York, and Charleston, S.C. When not traveling, he will spend time writing about what he's found, give presentations, and collaborate with other scholars.

His topic arose when he was researching slave conspiracy trials as part of a project on the social organization of enslaved people. Sharples noticed a pattern in the confessions of alleged conspirators.

"Many of these slaves, from vastly different times and places, gave eerily similar confessions about plots to set fire to a town in the middle of the night, luring out sleepy colonists to fight the fires, setting up an ambush to massacre them in the streets," he says. "I had to find out how and why enslaved informers gave such consistent confessions, and what this meant about life in colonial America."

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences is an independent policy research center in Cambridge, Mass., that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems.