Focusing on his dissertation may have practical value to Brett M. Palfreyman, but he doubtless is missing his spot behind the lectern this year. “I love teaching history on the college level because we’re free from restraints like standardized testing and strict curriculum requirements,” he says. “It’s not about memorizing names and dates and places anymore. That’s the kind of approach that makes people think they hate history. At Binghamton, at the college level, we get to ask bigger questions about why things are the way they are.”
Palfreyman, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Boston College, came to Binghamton in 2010 to study the American Revolution and the early Republic. His dissertation ponders what happened to the Loyalists — the American colonists who stayed loyal to England — after they lost the American Revolution.
“My research indicates that the vast majority of Loyalists who chose to stay in the states after the war reintegrated back into American society,” he says. The process was never simple or uncontested, but most former supporters of the king quietly became Americans. There was no ongoing, systematic violence in the early republic, as is so often the case in the aftermath of civil war — no permanent political cleansing, no stubborn pockets of insurgents to root out.
“We like to think of the revolution and the founding as unanimous decisions made by a united people,” Palfreyman says. “We often forget that this country was founded, in part, by people who had never wanted to be independent, and never wanted to create a new nation.”
Diane Miller Sommerville, an associate professor of history at Binghamton, predicts that Palfreyman’s research “will constitute a significant contribution to our understanding of the processes of how the new, young government incorporated not only political opponents into the electoral system but also former enemies of the Revolution.”
Because he so enjoys teaching, Palfreyman seeks out a variety of opportunities to educate, including a summer 2013 contribution to the Civil War blog of The New York Times. His article described the 1863 draft riot in Boston, an event not as well known or documented as a larger protest in New York City.
“The draft riots piece definitely gave me an opportunity to write for a different kind of audience,” he says. “It was about setting a scene and letting the natural drama unfold. And that’s what historians really love to do. We love to tell good stories.”
The Red Hook, N.Y., native discovered one downside to expanding his audience. “The online format does provide a kind of instant commentary that is a new thing in scholarly fields,” he says. “And, in my case, not all of the comments were flattering.
“But first and foremost, I’m just happy to see that people care enough to read and comment. I think it’s a mistake to let serious discussions about history be cloistered in scholarly journals and college classrooms. … I hope to be able to do both in my career — to put in my time in conversation with the specialists in my field but also to tell stories in such a way that makes other people interested in the same things that interest me.”