Historian honored: Lafayette professor recognized in her field

Professor of History Deborah A. Rosen was cited for the Bancroft Prize for her recent book, “Border Law: The First Seminole War and American Nationhood.”

The Bancroft Prize is considered to be one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American History. The prize is typically given to two or three authors per year. Rosen, along with two other authors were distinguished for their books this year.

“It’s a great honor to have my work recognized in this way,” she said.

Rosen’s book details the early development of international law and the United States perceptions and applications in the early 19th century. Using the First Seminole War as a case study, Rosen explores the way that borders were drawn and how that influenced the growth of a nation. She specifically looked at the treatment of prisoners of war to draw conclusions about early American identity.

The war in question was a conflict fought in 1816 between the United States and Seminole Native American groups in Spanish-controlled Florida that ended with the American acquisition of the state and the expulsion of the Seminoles. Then-general Andrew Jackson led troops across the border, capturing and killing many prisoners of war in one of the most controversial campaigns of his career.

Rosen said present day events prompted her to ask questions that led her to writing this book. It was at the time that the United States was putting prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, during the United States presence in Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Although the context is not identical to that of the early 19th century, she said present- day events led her to examine how prisoners were treated during the First Seminole War.

“American troops’ execution of captives at that time contravened normal rules of war,” Rosen said. “What was their legal rationale? I found that while it was normally considered unlawful to execute POW’s, wartime prisoners of the Seminole War were deemed to be unlawful combatants who were outside the shield of international law, eligible to be hanged or shot at will.”

Rosen said she was curious about how people see and talk about prisoners of war. From the onset of her writing, she had an indication of what the book would be about.

“I knew it was going to be about drawing lines between insiders and outsiders,” she said.

“The most obvious one is the territorial border when they started this war. Aside from territorial borders there are other borders, like racial borders. It’s clear to me that this war draws a line that establishes whiteness for a criterion for americanness and coverage of law.”

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