“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”— O. Wilde

Saturday, November 05, 2022

An Awards Speech

On Saturday, November 5, 2022, I was awarded the 2021 North Carolina Society of Historians’ Award of Excellence for Outstanding Contribution to the Preservation and Perpetuation of North Carolina History and Heritage. What follows is my awards dinner speech, parts of which were read in absentia

First, I would like to thank the North Carolina Society of Historians, its members, officers, and, especially its judges for choosing my two Jacob Henry-related papers[1] for the society’s Award of Excellence for a significant contribution to the preservation and perpetuation of the history and heritage of North Carolina. In an earlier, simpler time, we would not have to reflect on the need for such organizations. But now is not such a time—ours is a time when older certainties are not merely forgotten or questioned, but vilified. So the central task of a historical society, as with sister cultural institutions, is a critically important one: it is to remember and to preserve what can be preserved for a better future which all hope will emerge—even if we cannot clearly see it today.


Second, I should especially like to thank my home institution, Maynooth University, and my current head of department, Professor Michael Doherty, for providing me with the opportunity to take a sabbatical, which made writing these articles possible. Also, there were any number of archivists and librarians, anonymous reviewers, editors, and others who I owe thanks—especially Professor Sandeep Gopalan, my former head of department, and now Vice-Chancellor of Carolina University, Annie Miller, at the North Carolina Historical Review, and Professor Yvonne Pitts, Purdue University, at the American Journal of Legal History. As usual, my wife, Nora, reviewed any number of drafts—of both articles.


Third, I would like to express my apologies for being unable to attend your awards ceremony. My living across the Atlantic and your dinner’s timing preclude my attending and participating.


Fourth, I left the United States some eleven years ago and moved abroad, to Ireland, to find work—I teach in an Irish university. Still, one misses home. And also one’s publications, which focus on a foreign country—that is the United States, are of less interest to the Irish than they would be to other Americans. In such circumstances, one can only wonder if one’s research and writing is being well received. Although winning such an award is gratifying to any recipient, I think I can fairly state it means a bit more to an expatriate—such as myself—to know that one’s publications are appreciated in the home country. For that, I thank you.


And, finally, in my papers on Jacob Henry, I attempted to peel back a veneer of historical silence. A few have privately noted to me that in doing so, I undid (in a small way) what Henry and his contemporaries accomplished: elevating Henry to the status of folk hero in the hope of crafting a culture of American religious tolerance. That may be so. But the other view, is that in reducing Henry’s heroic status, I have elevated the accomplishment of all those other unknown North Carolinians who, in 1809, crafted our society’s culture of religious tolerance. And perhaps, it is those unknowns who are the heroes our society most needs today.


     Is mise le meas,[2]


          Seth Barrett Tillman


Seth Barrett Tillman, ‘An Awards Speech,’ New Reform Club (Nov. 5, 2022, 11:50 PM), <https://reformclub.blogspot.com/2022/11/an-awards-speech.html>; 

[1] Seth Barrett Tillman, What Oath (if any) did Jacob Henry take in 1809?: Deconstructing the Historical Myths, 61 American Journal of Legal History 349 (Dec. 2021) (peer review), <https://tinyurl.com/3etu53m3>, <https://ssrn.com/abstract=3790115>; Seth Barrett Tillman, A Religious Test in America?: The 1809 Motion to Vacate Jacob Henry’s North Carolina State Legislative Seat—A Re-Evaluation of the Primary Sources, 98 North Carolina Historical Review 1 (Jan. 2021) (peer review), <https://ssrn.com/abstract=3498217>.

[2] Pronounced: Ish mish-a leh may-os. It is an Irish phrase meaning “It is I, with respect.” 

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