What’s the worst a lame-duck presidency can do?

James Buchanan set us up for a Civil War.

And as Heather Cox Richardson reminds us in this Slate interview conducted by Rebecca Onion, Benjamin Harrison saddled Grover Cleveland with an economic disaster often described as the “Panic of 1893.”

Here is a taste of their interview:

The Republicans pulled out all the stops again for Harrison in 1892, but this time it didn’t work because everyone hated Harrison, thought he’d gone too far, and was packing the mechanics of the system to stay in power. So there was a huge backlash and in 1892, Cleveland was elected—winning the popular vote and the Electoral College. And the Democrats won the presidency, House, and Senate for the first time since the Civil War.

Of course, at the time we had a longer interregnum between election and inauguration—from November to March—and during that time, the Harrison administration deliberately ran the country into the ground. They deliberately did it! It’s in the newspapers. They say to readers, OK, you elected a Democrat. They don’t know how to run the country. They don’t know anything about money; all the money is going to drain out of this country. There’s not going to be anything left. Take your money out of the stock market; we’re headed for a terrible crash. They basically created this crash.

Foreign capital was going home at the same time as Republicans had really deliberately spent a ton of money on things like statues and courthouses and veterans benefits, because they’d been trying to get rid of what was at the time a surplus coming into the Treasury, trying to prove that they needed a tariff to bring in more money. They’d been running a surplus for years, and the Democrats kept going, We don’t need all this money! Lower the damn tariffs!

So during the interregnum, as the panic developed, the financiers rushed to Washington and said, DO something! And the secretary of the treasury, Charles Foster, and Harrison said, No, we’re good. Foster actually said publicly that, as he saw it, the administration was only responsible for the economy up until March 4, the day Cleveland took office. He didn’t even manage it—the economy actually collapsed 10 days before Harrison left office.

But if you Google anything, it’s going to say to you, It happened on Cleveland’s watch. But no! It happened on Harrison’s watch! But again—the Republicans wrote the history books.

Read the rest here.

Episode 58: The Reverse Underground Railroad

PodcastAmericans are undoubtedly familiar with the harrowing journey made by freedom seekers escaping enslavement that we have termed the “Underground Railroad.” Sadly, historians are only now becoming equally aware of a “Reverse Underground Railroad,” in which free black people from the North were kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. Historian Richard Bell tells the story of one such kidnapping in his new book Stolen, and joins John Fea to talk about it on this week’s podcast.


Solomon Northup engraving, c1853

Amy Cavender of ProfHacker reports on a brand new digital project called “SlaveryStories. She bills it as “an online home for stories about slavery, told from the perspective of the slaves themselves.” Here is more:

The project got its start shortly after Rob Walsh, one of Scholastica’s* founders, went to seeTwelve Years a Slave. He decided to read Solomon Northup’s memoir, but quickly discovered that there was no good, easy-to-read online version. Those versions that were available online were in formats that weren’t pleasant to work with, such as PDF scans of print documents, or plain-text versions full of errors.
Creating a digital version of Northup’s story that would be easy to read, and nicely formatted for any device, quickly led to a bigger project. Why not go beyond Northup’s story, and make the stories of other former slaves available as well? Moreover, why not make it a collaborative project, enabling anyone with the time and interest to contribute?
The necessary materials are in the public domain, and it doesn’t take much technical skill to do the work. All that’s needed is the ability to
  1. put the narrative in HTML format, and
  2. share it on GitHub.
If either of those sounds intimidating, not to worry: the project site provides instructions that are easy to follow, along with an HTML template.

Yolanda Pierce on Slavery, Religious Rhetoric, and "12 Years a Slave"

The commentary on the movie 12 Years a Slave continues.  The latest comes from The Christian Century website. Yolanda Piece of Princeton Theological Seminary discusses the role of religion in the film and the use of Christian rhetoric to support slavery in antebellum America.  Here is a taste:

The 1853 slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave is now a major motion picture directed by Steve McQueen.The film is a faithful rendering of the life of Solomon Northup, a free African American man who is sold into chattel bondage and brutally enslaved. Northup’s life story highlights one of the little-known facets of American slavery: the dangers that free black people faced during the antebellum era, with little legal recourse if they were cheated, harmed, brutalized or even sold into slavery.
Northup was eventually freed. But there were countless others whose names we cannot know, who never escaped the institution of slavery despite their legal status as “free” people of color. The film forces the observer to think about the various hypocrisies inherent in a system of chattel bondage—not the least of which was the religious justification used to support, sustain and reinforce American slavery.
In the film, slaveholders use Christian rhetoric and biblical passages to insist that slavery was ordained by God and consistent with being a “good” Christian. This is juxtaposed with scenes of enslaved men and women singing songs and hymns of the same Christian tradition, the very tradition used to justify their enslavement. It’s a fundamental religious question: how can the same scripture, the same songs and the same religious rhetoric be used both to justify slavery and to insist that it’s evil? The institution of slavery served as a religious battleground. Whose version of the divine and whose version of scriptural faithfulness would dominate public discourse?
There is no doubt that enslaved people were able to adapt and transform the very religious rhetoric used to enslave them. They did this largely by making a distinction between the “true” Christianity that was emblematic in the person of Jesus Christ and the “slaveholding religion” as practiced in the United States. The stories, symbols and messages of Christianity were adopted by enslaved people as polemical arguments against slavery. By using Christian rhetoric—essentially the language of early American political discourse—enslaved people vigorously participated in a theological and political conversation concerning slavery and freedom, thus undermining racist readings of the biblical text.

Can a Feature Film Be a Work of History?: The Pietist Schoolman on "12 Years a Slave"

I am sure that this will not be our last post on 12 Years a Slave.  The movie is getting positive reviews, both from film critics and the historical community.  Over at the Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz suggests that 12 Years a Slave “seems to have surpassed the standard of being a great movie, or even being essential art, and instead become a work of history.”  Here is a taste of Gerhz’s post:

We were having this debate last year because of another movie set in mid-19th century America. But while Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln received criticism from some historians for keeping African Americans largely on the sidelines of a film about the abolition of slavery, 12 Years immerses viewers in the experience of slavery itself.
The notion of the film as history is aided in part by regularly invoked contrasts to other kinds of movies about slavery that don’t achieve, or strive for, historical authenticity: “McQueen makes it impossible to regard slavery from the safe remove of TV screens (Roots), Hollywood sugarcoating (Gone With the Wind) and Tarantino satire (Django Unchained). This prickly renegade restores your faith in the harsh power of movies. You don’t just watch 12 Years a Slave. You bleed with it, share its immediacy and feel the wounds that may be beyond healing” (Peter TraversRolling Stone).
Indeed, some have wondered if the film isn’t too successful at evoking this particular chapter in American history. Richard Brody (in a New Yorker essay that also considers films about the Holocaust) frames the problem, “The question is whether the director Steve McQueen has trivialized or exploited Solomon Northup’s and other slaves’ sufferings by the very act of treating slavery as a collection of dramatic incidents no less ripe for naturalistic cinematic depiction than any novel or latter-day true-crime story.”
So what do you think?  Should we consider 12 Years a Slave a work of history?

Annette Gordon-Reed on "12 Years a Slave"

12 Years a Slavethe fictional adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s 1853 autobiography by the same name, has been getting a lot of attention of late.  Northrup was a free black man who was kidnapped in Washington D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery.  For twelve years he was enslaved in Louisiana before he was set free.  The film is directed by Steve McQueen.

Over at The New Yorker, Annette Gordon-Reed, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, reflects on historians, slave narratives, and the film. Here is a taste:
Another problem hovers over the slave narrative as a literary genre: the role that race and status played in the reception of stories told by members of a disfavored—or despised—racial group. It is one thing for a Solomon Northup to speak about individuals who are, in historical terms, unimportant in order to indict a system that most people recognize as abhorrent. It is another thing when a narrative presents information that many whites might not wish to hear or to accept.
I wrote an entire book about this issue, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” examining in minute detail one historical controversy as it plays out in family letters and slave narratives. There was, I found, a double standard in the treatment of the recollections of a powerful slave-holding family, which were memorialized in their personal letters, and those of the people enslaved on their plantation, which were given to an interviewer. It would have been a simple matter to recognize the unique concerns raised by each item of evidence and then research around the dispute to determine which version was more likely. Instead, the power that the letter writers had in life, and the relative powerlessness of those who gave the interviews, was simply reconstituted in the pages of history.
With that said, the writing that has been done in the past sixty years on slavery is, I believe, the crown jewel of American historiography. But as much good work as has been done, there is even more to do. It will be wonderful if “12 Years a Slave” not only introduces millions to Solomon Northup but propels them into libraries and bookstores to read the stories that have been told about the institution that haunts us to this day.