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Potsdam's Baker awarded fellowship at Center for Jefferson Studies
SUNY Potsdam Associate Professor of History Dr. Thomas N. Baker recently was awarded a month-long fellowship at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, the former home of third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.
During SUNY Potsdam’s semester break, Dr. Baker will work in the Jefferson Library and the library at University of Virginia, reading anonymous letters to Jefferson and delivering a lecture about his research at the center.
Currently, Dr. Baker is researching various aspects of Jeffersonian America, including anonymous letters to the president, deism in the early U.S. republic, and what he calls “secret service” in the era.
He said the fellowship is a great opportunity to tap the knowledge of the center’s scholars and librarians who specialize in these topics.
“I applied for the fellowship for a chance to spend a month’s worth of intensive research and thinking at a place that has many resources,” said Dr. Baker. “Jefferson was a complex man whose public reputation and persona was highly contested, in his own era and in historical memory generally.
“In the project covered by the fellowship, I'll be exploring the meaning of the many anonymous letters sent to Jefferson to see what they tell us about Americans’ engagement with him and with the political trends and cultural currents he could be said to represent. The function of anonymity in correspondence itself is another question I'll be considering,” he said.
Dr. Baker’s presentation will draw upon research and thinking he does in residence, but also will include his general thoughts on the problem on anonymity with intensive attention to one or two exemplary letters.
“The opportunity to do historical research is a chance to contribute to our ongoing fund of historical knowledge,” he noted. “In this case, it is a chance to interact with scholars from across the globe. I hope that the work I do at the Center for Jefferson Studies will lead to a publication on anonymous letters and Jefferson, but also that it will help invigorate my teaching at SUNY Potsdam.”
Dr. Baker teaches broadly in 19th-century U.S. history, with courses titled “Civil War America” and “American Victorian Culture”; and in cultural history generally, with courses such as “Race and U.S. Film History” and “American Popular Music.” He also teaches “New York State History” and a course called “Black Diaspora” about the history of the Atlantic slave trade.
“In the future, I'd like to develop a course focused on the United States in the year 1800, which will allow students insight across a range of topics into the American experience at the time. Anonymous letters and Jefferson could be one lesson in that course; additional lessons would draw on my other ongoing research projects,” Dr. Baker said.
The purpose of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies is research and education – to foster Jefferson scholarship and to disseminate its findings. It is a residential site for individual Jefferson scholars and teachers, as well as a venue for lectures, seminars and conferences.
The center was created in 1994 by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the private, nonprofit corporation that owns and operates Monticello, in cooperation with the University of Virginia. In 2004, the Center was endowed in perpetuity through a very generous gift from Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Smith.