Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Remembering Drew Cayton as a scholar and a friend

Two memorial funds have been created in Drew’s honor,
below are links to both funds should you wish to contribute.


Eric A. Hinderaker

I would be hard pressed to identify the one thing that best characterized Drew Cayton’s work as a scholar. He was many things: he was an extraordinarily adept reader and researcher, a gifted and prolific writer, a wildly imaginative thinker. But I was asked to consider Drew’s work as it relates to the subject of empires, which leads me to stress another of his prominent characteristics. In his interest in empires, as in so much else, Drew was ahead of his time. So many of Drew’s interests were deeply unfashionable when he took them up, and then at some later date, after he’d plowed the field, they became prolific areas of inquiry. Empire is one of those areas.

Drew was curious about the trans-Appalachian West before the trans-Appalachian West was cool, and he saw its significance in an imperial context. His dissertation book, The Frontier Republic, took the preoccupation with republicanism that was then current and extended into the so-called Old Northwest, a place no one had thought much about in a very long time. Though imperialism was not the book’s dominant frame, Drew used competing notions of empire to structure his argument about Ohio as a “frontier republic.” In talking about the Ohio Company’s plan for settlement, he contrasted the Jeffersonian idea of an “empire of liberty” with the Federalist notion of an “empire of system.”

This phrase was Drew’s own coinage, and it didn’t take root—I don’t recall him or anyone else invoking it again. But the idea it embodied was at the heart of his first book, and it was brilliantly extended in a pair of linked essays he published a few years later: one of his best-known articles, “‘Separate Interests’ and the Nation-State: The Washington Administration and the Origins of Regionalism in the Trans-Appalachian West,” published in the Journal of American History in 1992, and a less well known but equally compelling companion piece entitled “‘When Shall We Cease to Have Judases?’ The Blount Conspiracy and the Limits of the ‘Extended’ Republic,” published four years later. In these two essays, Drew sketched everything you need to know about the successes and failures of U.S. efforts to extend imperial dominion over the trans-Appalachian West in the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War. What he demonstrated was that the Ohio River was not a natural boundary between the north and the south, so much as it was the dividing line between two different approaches to incorporating new territories into the national state.

Long before anyone had coined the term “settler colonialism,” Drew recognized that there was something profoundly radical about the Northwest Ordinance, and he also helped to rescue that deeply uncool subject from the prosaic, unquestioning treatment it had routinely received, in particular in the extraordinary interpretive essay he wrote with Peter Onuf, The Midwest and the Nation.

Among historians of the field still sometimes quaintly known as “the early republic,” Drew was also an early adopter of a frame of analysis that was both imperial and comparative. With his friend Dan Goffman, Drew was thinking about comparisons between the British and Ottoman Empires in the 1990s. Not only that, he managed to convince the folks at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture to convene a conference in Istanbul in 2005. This was, I believe, only the second time the Institute had ventured overseas, and the first time it hosted an event in a non-native-English-speaking country. In the Istanbul venture, Drew’s scholarly creativity was joined to his considerable powers of persuasion; I can only imagine the conversations with Ron Hoffman that made it possible.

With the passage of time, Drew came to focus more and more sharply on the task of writing about real people and putting flesh and blood on the abstract topics that scholars sometimes mistake for the actual subjects of their inquiry. This is no small thing. Most of us, most of the time, think of our projects in terms of abstract conceptualizations, and we add in people later, to provide anecdotal color and human interest. Imperialism is exactly the kind of historical abstraction that almost explains itself. It is all too easy to distance ourselves from empire-building and demonize the people who were involved in it. In some of Drew’s best work he tried hard to make the human actors in imperial tales comprehensible and sympathetic. In Contact Points, the path-breaking book on early American frontiers that he edited with Fredrika Teute, his essay “‘Noble Actors’ upon ‘the Theatre of Honour’: Power and Civility in the Treaty of Greenville” pushes back against an entirely cynical reading of early U.S. treaty-making with Native Americans and argues for the importance of honor and civility as values informing that process.

In perhaps Drew’s least appreciated book, Frontier Indiana, he attempted something similar. Telling a story that spans a hundred and fifty years, he builds each chapter around a single, emblematic individual. This is how he explained his goal in the book’s preface: “I have tried to write a story that inquires into the nature of the process by which one group of people acquired power over others and then used that power to transform a particular physical and social environment into an idealized images of themselves. Less grandly, I wanted to write a book about people as human beings. … My hope is that readers will come to know them as real people making decisions about their lives—and living with the consequences of their actions—within the cultural boundaries of their particular worlds.”

A similar approach informed the even more ambitious exploration of empire in American history that Drew wrote with Fred Anderson, The Dominion of War. Again, they chose to rely on emblematic individuals to carry a very large story across a long span of time. And in the book Fred and Drew were working on at the time of his death, Imperial America, 1672–1764, Drew had conceptualized the middle third of the book around an especially ambitious braided narrative of ten British North American families. His intention was to use the people in those narratives as vehicles for developing key themes in eighteenth-century economic, political, social, and cultural history. Here, I think, was the pinnacle of Drew’s achievement as a historian: to connect historical abstractions with lived experience. What he wanted to do, most of all, was to reflect on the meanings of human choices—to put himself and his readers in the shoes of historical actors, and in the process to resist the constant temptation to distance ourselves from people in the past. Drew wanted to understand the past in terms that resemble our understanding of the present.

Now that Drew is gone, I find an image of him rising up in my mind from time to time, and I envision little bits of conversation that I never got around to having with him. I have heard it said that procrastination is the thief of time, but it bears noting that time is also a thief. In the end it takes everything from us. Drew was always a man ahead of his time; now, sadly, time has taken him from us much too soon.

Eric A. Hinderaker, University of Utah