Jonathan Daniel Wells is Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. This interview is based on his new book, Blind No More: African American Resistance, Free-Soil Politics, and the Coming of the Civil War (University of Georgia Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write Blind No More?
DW: Although much of my work so far has focused on southern history, several years ago I became interested in the evolution of free soil thinking. Based on the reading I did in primary sources like newspapers, manuscripts, and sermons, I concluded that the genesis for shifting antebellum public opinions on slavery was rooted in the crisis over fugitive slaves. Because enslaved people persistently and at great personal risk fled bondage, they forced white northern voters and politicians to rethink their relationship with the South and their obligations to return runaways under the Constitution.
Blind no More is the print version of the Lamar Lectures that I was honored to deliver in 2017. One of the goals for such lectures is to be provocative, so I wanted to accomplish two primary goals. I placed African Americans at the heart of our understanding of Civil War causation and I made the case that given the parameters in place after the ratification of the Constitution there was a certain inevitability to the outbreak of civil conflict.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Blind No More?
DW: The book is really about how free state voters between 1820 and 1861 came to question the value of the Constitution, and the central role of African Americans in fostering that reevaluation. We often think about the coming of the Civil War as a product of hardening of southern views on bondage, but the free states underwent their own dramatic and important shift in thinking about the Union and the Constitution, a shift that contributed significantly to the coming of the Civil War.
JF: Why do we need to read Blind No More?
DW: Over the past few years, we have benefited from a number of important works on nineteenth-century African Americans, abolitionism, and the Fugitive Slave Law by leading scholars like Richard Blackett, Manisha Sinha, Leslie Harris, and Martha Jones, just to name a few. Other scholars like Corey Brooks and Rachel Shelden have contributed important works on antebellum politics. Blind no More seeks to connect our increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the black experience with our understandings of partisan politics in the antebellum North.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DW: I was privileged in that my father was a literature professor of what used to be called the “American Renaissance,” so I knew what becoming an academic would look like. I became interested in antebellum American history mostly through curiosity about the lively political battles of the period, especially between the Democrats and Whigs. Eventually, as a North Carolina native, I also became interested in southern history, African American history, and the history of slavery. I was fortunate to work with prominent scholars at the University of Florida like the late Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Kermit Hall, Ron Formisano, and other mentors like David Colburn, to whom Blind no More is dedicated, and with Mills Thornton as a PhD student at the University of Michigan.
JF: What is your next project?
DW: I am completing a book called The New York Kidnapping Club: Slavery and Wall Street before the Civil War, a true story about how a nefarious group of police officers, lawyers, merchants, and judges conspired to kidnap black New Yorkers and send them to slavery. It also tells the epic and tragic tales of how the illegal transatlantic slave trade used New York’s harbor all the way to the Civil War.
JF: Thanks, Daniel!