The Author’s Corner with Anna Mae Duane

educated for freedomAnna Mae Duane is Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut. This interview is based on her new book, Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Slave Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation (NYU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Educated for Freedom?

AMD: I was exploring the archives at the New-York Historical Society and I came across a skit included in the records of the New-York African Free Schools. This 1822 skit depicts two students, one student chastising the other for having a slothful mother who keeps him from getting to school on time. I wanted to know what it was like to be a nine–year-old child, and to stand on stage and act out a script that depicted your mother–and by extension the other mothers at the school–as being too lazy, or too ignorant to understand the great importance of getting to school on time. Since that day, I’ve been told many times that this is, perhaps, the wrong question to ask. We can’t ever know how any historical person really felt, and in this case, the evidence made it seem like a particularly futile question to ask. These were children, Black children in a slave nation no less, reading words written for them by white adults, which they dramatized before a public that would judge them on their performance. In other words, we must recognize that these two schoolchildren were utterly subaltern: it’s a fool’s errand to try to hear them speak.

Educated for Freedom is a response to that objection. As I’ve researched the work of the school, and the lives of the two of the remarkable people who have attended it (one of whom, Dr. James McCune Smith, turned out to be one of the kids in the skit), I’ve realized that the historical and the literary documents offer ample proof that these children and others like them were part of broad conversations about the nation, about power and, most particularly, about the future.

So while this book is a biography of two men who became giants of Black abolitionism, I wanted to keep the dialogue open between their lives as adults and their experiences as children by pausing at moments when their “adult” work–in medicine, science, and politics—was shaped by Black children in their lives, sometimes strangers, sometimes fugitives, sometimes their own children. Much work on Black abolitionism has stressed the ways in which the activists sought, understandably, to gain access to a citizenship that was coded both male and adult. I sought to structure the book in a way that braided the personal with the political, the needs of a child, with the demands of a citizen, to reflect how mutually constitutive these terms were in the process of determining how slavery was defined, attacked, and defended in the years leading to the Civil War.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Educated for Freedom?

AMD: The book begins with Black students being told that they could never be fully American, and ends with one of those students speaking before Congress: that journey helps us understand the power of Black political organizing both in the public and private realms.  We can’t understand how the intertwined concepts of freedom and Americanness were transformed in the nineteenth century without fully recognizing the revolutionary work of African American students, parents and activists: people who were never meant to claim the role of free American citizens. 

JF: Why do we need to read Educated for Freedom?

AMD: Well, to start with, the lives of James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet are incredibly exciting!  Smith and Garnet are far from household names, but they were players in many of the century’s most momentous events. The  impoverished sons of enslaved mothers, they managed to meet the Marquis de Lafayette, earn a Medical degree, fight off angry mobs, influence John Brown and his fateful raid, speak before crowds of thousands, challenge the terms of white abolitionism, and address Congress. Their lives and work allows us to reimagine  how we imagine the scope of African Americans’ influence in pre-Civil War America.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American Historian?

AMD: At first I thought I’d be a literary critic of the Renaissance! And then I enrolled in an early American literature class, and I was hooked. I was immediately intrigued by  how the New England settlers worked so diligently to place their suffering–and the suffering they imposed on so many others–within a coherent symbolic framework. Since then I’ve been fascinated with the stories we tell ourselves about the past, particularly about how often those stories return to the tableau of an endangered child.

JF: What is your next project?

AMD: I have two projects that I’m in the process of developing. The first, tentatively titled “American Orphans” builds on Educated for Freedom‘s argument that children are not bystanders in American history or rhetoric. Instead, they have been key to how the U.S. has explained itself symbolically. I’ll be researching schools, prisons, and other sites to chart how their  subjection to, and resistance of, their national role has shaped definitions of citizenship and freedom. I’m particularly interested in exploring how  the trauma of orphanhood became celebrated as an American rite of passage on the way to independence in ways that justified–even glorified–separating children of color from their homes and communities

My second project–in the very early stages–will be a developing series of biographies of the New York African Free School students aimed for younger audiences.

JF: Thanks, Anna Mae!

The Faith of Harriet Tubman

Tubman

Colorado State University history professor Robert Gudmestad reflects on the Christian faith of Harriet Tubman. Here is a taste of his piece at “The Conversation”:

A horrific accident is believed to have brought Tubman closer to God and reinforced her Christian worldview. Sarah Bradford, a 19th-century writer who conducted interviews with Tubman and several of her associates, found the deep role faith played in her life.

When she was a teenager, Tubman happened to be at a dry goods store when an overseer was trying to capture an enslaved person who had left his slave labor camp without permission. The angry man threw a two-pound weight at the runaway but hit Tubman instead, crushing part of her skull. For two days she lingered between life and death.

The injury almost certainly gave her temporal lobe epilepsy. As a result, she would have splitting headaches, fall asleep without notice, even during conversations, and have dreamlike trances.

As Bradford documents, Tubman believed that her trances and visions were God’s revelation and evidence of his direct involvement in her life. One abolitionist told Bradford that Tubman “talked with God, and he talked with her every day of her life.”

According to Larson, this confidence in providential guidance and protection helped make Tubman fearless. Standing only five feet tall, she had an air of authority that demanded respect.

Once Tubman told Bradford that when she was leading two “stout” men to freedom, she believed that “God told her to stop” and leave the road. She led the scared and reluctant men through an icy stream – and to freedom.

Harriet Tubman once said that slavery was “the next thing to hell.” She helped many transcend that hell.

Read the entire piece here.

The African American Women of the Underground Railroad

Tubman

Harriet Tubman, the subject of a movie now showing throughout the country, was just one of many African American women who labored on the Underground Railroad.  Over at Process, historian Jazma Sutton explains:

This November, Focus Features will release the anticipated movie Harriet in theaters worldwide. In promoting the film, the company characterizes Harriet Tubman as “one of America’s greatest heroes.” The website further asserts that “her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.” Kasi Lemmons, the film’s cowriter and director, in an interview addressing the film’s contemporary relevance, reminded the public how “important it is to remember what singular people were able to accomplish in turbulent times.” Undoubtedly, Harriet Tubman deserves credit, and her biopic is long overdue. But Harriet did not toil alone. Rather, her work as an Underground Railroad conductor was part of a national movement of free and enslaved black persons dedicated to the liberation and advancement of their race. Countless African American women, in addition to Harriet—young and old; free and enslaved; alone, pregnant, and with family; in the South, the North, and the Midwest—risked their lives to obtain freedom. Unfortunately, we know very little about the actions and sacrifices of other black women who liberated themselves or worked as assistants and operatives on the Underground Railroad. Who were these women? What motives did they have for escaping and aiding in the escape of others?

Surviving historical records suggest that several factors influenced African American women’s determination to flee slavery. These included the prospect of a better, more autonomous life; the threat or reality of family separation; the fear of being sold to the Deep South; and the hope of joining family members who had successfully escaped. Underground Railroad testimonies overwhelmingly describe African American women fleeing in the company of their children, husbands, and other family members. Their visions of freedom were inseparable from the responsibility they felt for family, especially their children. In the 1840s or 1850s, fifteen self-liberated people appeared at the Union Literary Institute (ULI), an integrated school established for the education of black students in the Greenville settlement of East Central Indiana, the region I study. The party consisted of a woman, her ten children, her son-in-law, a grandchild, and two others. The entire family was enslaved by one man and comprised his entire human property. When asked, “Were you not used well…why did you run away,” the mother responded, “My children were my master’s, and the mistress and the white children wanted us to be sold, and we thought it time to quit.” This particular woman appears to have eventually fled to Canada, but that was not the only promised land for African American women seeking freedom. Some chose to live permanently, or at least for extended periods, in free black communities on the Kentucky border; others preferred secluded communities in the rural Midwest, particularly because the threat of being captured was significantly lessened by the presence of cooperative Quakers. Still others chose remote or protected destinations convenient to them: Native American communities, the Great Dismal Swamp, and distant Mexico, for example.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with John Brooke

there is a northJohn Brooke is Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of History and Professor of Anthropology at Ohio State University. He is also Director of the Ohio State University Center for Historical Research. This interview is based on his new book, “There is a North”: Fugitive Slaves, Political Crisis, and Cultural Transformation in the Coming of the Civil War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write “There is a North”?

JB: I am thrilled that my book is out, and want to thank the University of Massachusetts Press for doing such a nice job with the production. I began thinking about this project in 2010 for two reasons: I wanted to write about how people experience “events,” and I wanted to address the central issue of the history of the republic. Here, I was dissatisfied with the dominant narrative, which focuses on why the South seceded. The new literature on the politics of slavery during the American Revolution and Early Republic makes it plain that the South would secede whenever the slaveholders faced a fundamental threat to “the institution.” 

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of “There is a North”?

JB: The central question regards how and when the fundamental threat to slavery emerged. It is equally clear that, while the abolitionists worked long and hard, they had not before the 1850s convinced a strategic block Northern opinion to stand up against slavery.

JF: Why do we need to read “There is a North?

JB: Readers should consider “There is a North” because it describes this conversion between the fall of 1850 and the spring of 1856, focusing on the way in which the Fugitive Slave Law was turned into a cultural weapon against slavery through the efforts of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but also the efforts of hundreds of other authors, musicians, and theatrical producers and performers. This process involved a fundamental though fleeting creolizing encounter of black and white American cultures, unfolding in a contested by real confluence of black and white interest against slavery and the Slave Power. By the time that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854, this drawn out “media event” had reshaped public opinion. While both the political and cultural dimensions of this story have been the subject of important works, “There is a North” is the first to focus on both equally, and on their synergies.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JB: My interests in American and also world history have their origins in my childhood, and were nurtured at Cornell and then at Penn, where I became an early American historian, eminently advised by Michael Zuckerman and his many colleagues. “There is a North” is my fourth book on society and culture in the American North from the Age of Revolution to the Civil War.

JF: What is your next project?

JB: Teaching global environmental and climate history at Tufts and Ohio State led to my global book, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey. The next several years will be devoted this project, producing a 2nd edition and a spin-off undergraduate text.

JF: Thanks, John!

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Fox-Amato

exposing slaveryMatthew Fox-Amato is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Idaho. This interview is based on his new book, Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Exposing Slavery?

MFA: I was (and still am) interested in how social movements have used the power of culture to effect change. I also wanted to better understand the role that images of suffering have played in shaping modern experience and, more specifically, American politics. Initially, a project about abolitionist photography seemed the way to pursue these interests. I was aware of the many photos of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth as well as certain images that abolitionists circulated during the Civil War, such as the “Scourged Back” (1863), in which a fugitive slave poses with his flagellated back towards the camera. My plan was to examine how abolitionists drew upon this new visual technology to fight racism and expose the violence of bondage.

But the project changed as I began finding evidence in the slave South. I came across a few digitized photographs, commissioned by enslavers, of enslaved people in the 1850s. I found written sources suggesting enslaved people actively engaged the medium, as in, for instance, a newspaper article about African Americans purchasing photographs from an itinerant daguerreotypist in a small town in Alabama. These and other sources led me to revise how I was conceptualizing antebellum photography. The medium was more than simply a tool for abolitionists: it served as a cultural middle-ground, through which various historical actors–in both the North and South–made claims about themselves and the world. How, I now asked, did photography influence the culture and politics of slavery? And how was the medium shaped in the process? My book aims to answer these questions.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Exposing Slavery?

MFA: Photography exacerbated the political crisis over slavery. In turn, those most invested in the potential futures of slavery–enslavers, enslaved people, abolitionists, and Civil War soldiers–turned photography into a political tool.

JF: Why do we need to read Exposing Slavery?

MFA: It is abundantly clear that the digital world has reshaped the intertwined relationship between media and U.S. politics–whether one looks to changes in newspapers or the influence of platforms like Facebook and Twitter. To make sense of these changes, we need a more textured understanding of how media have shaped politics in the past. My point in Exposing Slavery is not that the emergence of photography simply helped promote freedom and equality and diminished anti-black racism. It is, instead, that photography catalyzed conflict, because actors from across the political spectrum seized on it for different political goals–much like we see with social media today.

I also want readers to come away with a new approach for conceptualizing historical actors. Exposing Slavery puts visual culture at the center of American history in a very specific way. Not only does it analyze images as evidence (rather than simply illustrations), but it also foregrounds how non-artists helped produce images and delves into the ways in which they circulated, displayed, and gazed upon those images. I show, for instance, how some enslaved people preserved photographic portraits of their loved ones, a practice that enabled them to maintain familial ties amidst the disruptions of the domestic slave trade. Likewise, I reveal how white Union soldiers helped craft interracial scenes during the Civil War. These images, which routinely pictured black men kneeling beneath and serving white soldiers, reinforced racial hierarchy as slavery crumbled. These and other instances demonstrate how non-artists shaped history through photography. We see the past anew once we begin to grapple with the many consequential ways that ordinary historical actors (not just trained artists) have used and made meaning from images.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MFA: I was riveted by my first serious work in an historical archive. When I was writing my undergraduate thesis about the Hollywood Production Code (film censorship enacted in the 1930s), I spent time at the Margaret Herrick Library in LA, poring over letters between Code executives and studio producers. I was captivated by the letters I read–documents full of conversation about what should be kept, altered, and cut in various film scripts. I felt like I had a front-row seat to the creation of popular culture, and was struck by the idea that my thesis would be dramatically shaped by the questions I asked about these sources. It was in this moment that I knew I wanted to study the past for a living.

JF: What is your next project?

MFA: I’m beginning a new book-length study about the historical relationship between visual journalism and the White House. The project examines how sketch artists and photojournalists have visualized the presidency, and how administrations began to create and disseminate their own news pictures. I’m fascinated by connections between visual media and the uneven development of democracy. This book explores one part of that larger story.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

The Author’s Corner with Stanley Harrold

American AbolitionismStanley Harrold is Professor of History at South Carolina State . This interview is based on his new book, American Abolitionism: Its Direct Political Impact from Colonial Times into Reconstruction (University of Virginia Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write American Abolitionism?

SH: For years I concentrated my research and writing on the physical clashes between antislavery and proslavery forces on both sides of the North-South sectional border. Particularly in writing Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), I came to appreciate how these confrontations influenced the sectional politics that led to the Civil War. Those involved included escaping slaves, black and white abolitionists who encouraged and aided the escapees, and defensive white southerners who pursued the escapees. But, in focusing on these clashes and those involved, I limited the book’s scope to a restricted region and a relatively brief time period. As a result I began to wonder about other ways that abolitionists directly impacted American politics and government over a much more extended period, stretching from the late 1600s into the late 1860s. Also the recent upsurge in interest among historians regarding the abolitionists’ impact on politics has emphasized their indirect political impact through preaching, holding public meetings, and circulating antislavery propaganda in attempts to influence public opinion. Because other broader forces than these influenced northern popular opinion, this is an impressionist enterprise. Therefore American Abolitionism focuses precisely on direct abolitionist impact on colonial, state, and national government, through petitioning, lobbying, and personal contacts with politicians, as well as the direct impact of abolitionist physical action on northern and southern politicians.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of American Abolitionism?

SH: American Abolitionism argues that, beginning during the Colonial Period and extending through the Early National period, the Jacksonian Era, the 1850s, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, abolitionists’ direct political tactics helped influence the course of the sectional conflict. The book emphasizes that even those abolitionists who emphasized moral suasion and refused to vote engaged in effective efforts directly to influence formal politics.

JF: Why do we need to read American Abolitionism?

SH: As I suggest above, the book provides a much more precise understanding than previous studies of the abolitionist impact on American politics and government over an extended period of time. It begins with Quaker abolitionist petitioning and lobbying from the 1690s into the 1770s. It discusses expanded efforts to influence politics, undertaken by the first antislavery societies, mostly at the state level, during the Revolutionary and Early National periods. It covers the expanded direct tactics undertaken by immediate abolitionists, aimed at Congress and begun during the late 1820s. It explores the relationships between abolitionists and the Free Soil and Republican parties from the late 1840s through the Civil War, including increasing abolitionist efforts to personally influence Radical Republicans and President Abraham Lincoln. The book concludes with an evaluation of such efforts.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SH: For me becoming an American historian was a gradual process. I enjoyed a fine liberal arts undergraduate education at Allegheny College, where I took courses in art, literature, philosophy, as well as history, and did not decide to major in history until the middle of my junior year. I graduated in 1968, while the Vietnam War was raging. I decided to go to graduate school at Kent State University in part because I was not sure what else to do and hoped being a graduate student might provide a continued draft deferment. At first I was not sure that I wanted to be a professional historian or continue in graduate school after earning a master’s degree in American history. But, as I learned more about the historical profession, and came under the influence of my adviser John T. Hubbell, I finally committed myself to a career as a professor of American history, with a concentration on the Civil War Era and the abolitionist movement.

JF: What is your next project?

SH: For the first time, I have not begun a new book project after completing one. I shall, though, remain co-author, with Darlene Clark Hine and Willian C. Hine, of the African-American Odyssey, the leading black history textbook, which is currently in its seventh edition. I shall also remain co-editor, with Randall M. Miller, of the Southern Dissent book series, published by the University Press of Florida.

JF: Thanks, Stanley!

The David Walker Memorial Project

Title page and portrait from manuscript by David Walker

A friend recently shared this with me.  Does anyone know if this project is still active?  It looks like a fascinating public history project about one of America’s great abolitionists. Devout evangelicals like Walker were important anti-slavery voices in early America

Here is a taste of Walker’s bio at The David Walker Memorial Project:

Walker was a leader in the African American community in Boston, Massachusetts. He is best known for writing and distributing a pamphlet called David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. This was a passionate espousal of black liberation; a call to his “afflicted and slumbering brethren” to rise up and cast off the chains that bound their minds as well as their bodies.

An evangelical Christian, Walker was a deeply religious man. In his Appeal, he takes white Christians to task for supporting slavery and its savage and unchristian treatment of fellow human beings. Such treatment was not only inhumane, Walker asserted, it was also hypocritical: after fighting for emancipation from Britain and founding a nation based on equality, white Americans continued to enslave and degrade Black people throughout the Republic.

The Appeal was published at a time of growing resistance to slavery. Free Black communities were expanding, and slave rebellions were on the rise. Walker used underground networks to circulate copies of his pamphlet throughout the South. This effort has been called “one of the boldest and most extensive plans to empower slaves ever conceived” in the U.S. before the Civil War.

Read the rest here.

What if Great Britain Purchased Texas in 1843 and Freed all the Slaves?

Lone Star

This is a fascinating short piece on Stephen Pearl Andrews, a lawyer in the Republic of Texas who wanted to sell large portions of Texas to Great Britain in the hopes that these new landowners would end slavery.  Here is a taste of Mark Sussman’s piece at JSTOR Daily:

In 1843, a New England lawyer almost managed to sell Texas to Great Britain. A convinced abolitionist practicing law in what was then the independent Republic of Texas, Stephen Pearl Andrews got it into his head that, in an attempt to free Texas’s slaves, he would invite a foreign power into North America and hand over a massive chunk of it. Andrews’s attempt to free Texas’s slaves by way of an invitation to foreign interference illustrates the strange bedfellows created by “the slavery question” in the nineteenth century. Andrews, in his quixotic vision, in his idealism, ambition, and occasional crankery, was an exemplary nineteenth-century American figure.

Andrews spent his late teens and early twenties teaching at a girls’ school in New Orleans opened by his brother and sister-in-law, where he was exposed to the reality of slavery. He grew close to a man named George, a slave at the Andrews’s school, who went about his work with a cheerful attitude until, one night, confiding as to the true nature of his condition. George’s reports of his own sorry treatment at the hands of his owners, from the everyday indignities to whippings, left Andrews with “a profound impression… of the tremendous power of that great national machinery of oppression, American Slavery.” That impression never left him.

Read the rest here.

Court Evangelical Eric Metaxas Continues to Play Fast and Loose With American History

Eric Metaxas is one of the court evangelicals in attendance tonight at the White House.  Here he is with Mike Pence:

Metaxas at Party

Earlier tonight, Metaxas tweeted this:

Metaxas Tweet

I am thankful to several folks who sent this tweet to me.  Eric Metaxas blocked me from seeing his Twitter feed after I wrote a multi-part series criticizing his fast-and-loose (and mostly erroneous) use of American history in his book If You Can Keep It.  You can read that series, and Metaxas’s dismissal of it, here.

Just a few quick responses to this tweet

1. There were some founding fathers who might be described as “evangelical.”  They included John Witherspoon, John Jay, Roger Sherman and Samuel Adams.  But just because a given founder was an evangelical does not mean that he was indispensable to the American Revolution or that his evangelical faith informed the quest for independence from Great Britain.  I have written extensively about the myth of an evangelical founding in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  But perhaps Eric Metaxas is suggesting, as he did in If You Can Keep It, that there was a direct correlation between the First Great Awakening (an evangelical revival in the 1740s) and the American Revolution.  I critiqued that view here.  The bottom line is this:  The American Revolution would have happened with or without American evangelicals.

2. Evangelicals were very active in the abolitionist movement, but so were non-evangelicals.  The question of whether abolitionism would have happened without evangelicals is a debatable point.  For a nuanced picture–one that treats religion fairly–I suggest you read Manisha Sinha’s excellent book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.  We also interviewed her on Episode 16 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

3.  The idea that the Civil Rights Movement would not have occurred without evangelicals is absurd.  While there were certainly black preachers involved who might be labeled “evangelical,” most of the clergy who led the movement were deeply shaped by the Black social gospel.  White evangelicals in the South defended segregation.  White evangelicals in the North did not have a uniform position on civil rights for African-Americans.  The white evangelicals associated with magazines like Christianity Today did little to advance the movement.  Some good stuff on this front comes David Chappel in A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Chappel’s student, Michael Hammond, has also done some excellent work on this front.  Mark Noll’s God and Race in American Politics: A Short History also provides a nice introduction.

4. If you are a fan of the Reagan Revolution, I suppose you could make the argument that conservative evangelicals had a lot do with it.  The 1980s was the decade in which evangelicals made an unholy alliance with the Republican Party.  There are a lot of good books on this subject.  I would start with Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right.  I also write about this story in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Don’t get me wrong–evangelicals have played an important role in the shaping of our nation.  I recently wrote about this in a piece at The Atlantic.  You can read it here.

Author’s Corner with W. Thomas Mainwaring

P03434.pngW. Thomas Mainwaring is chair of the Department of History at Washington and Jefferson College. This interview is based on his new book, Abandoned Tracks: The Underground Railroad in Washington County, Pennsylvania (University of Notre Dame, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Abandoned Tracks?

WM: I wrote Abandoned Tracks: The Underground Railroad in Washington County, Pennsylvania, because I was dissatisfied with the popular portrayal of the local Underground Railroad – a portrayal dominated by myths, legends, and hoary stereotypes. I wanted to write a scholarly study of the Underground Railroad based upon historical evidence and to establish the context in which the Underground Railroad emerged. I also wanted to bring to light discoveries that I had made about unknown individuals and networks, largely African Americans.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of  Abandoned Tracks?

WM: The argument of Abandoned Tracks is that the popular understanding of the Underground Railroad has long been dominated by myths and legends that fixate on subterranean hiding places and secrecy. It attempts to bridge the gap between popular perceptions and recent scholarship on the Underground Railroad.

JF: Why do we need to read Abandoned Tracks?

WM: I hope that Abandoned Tracks offers a good model of how to study abolitionism and the Underground Railroad in one locality. Abandoned Tracks is particularly relevant for studying the “border” North – areas that were contiguous to or near slaveholding states.

JF: When and why did you decide to become a historian?

WM: I decided to become an American historian when I took two junior seminars on the history of the American South. I was hooked!

JF: What is your next project?

WM: I would like to examine the causes of the American Revolution from a British perspective.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

Teaching Liberty

Liberty Appeal

Over at The Junto, Tom Cutterham writes about his course on the “meaning of liberty” from the American Revolution to Civil War.    Here is a taste:

The truth is, I find it hard even to begin thinking collectively about freedom. Our starting point is unfreedom. It was the same for Thomas Jefferson. His Declaration of Independence gives meaning to liberty by listing its violations. When we read David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs in my class, we try to glimpse freedom by looking deep into its absence. But it’s too easy for students to assume that because slavery has been abolished in America, the problem of liberty has already been solved. Spend too long pondering slavery, and just about anything else starts to look like liberty.

There were critics of abolitionists who tried to raise the same problem. In my class, we read William West’s series of letters to The Liberator, describing “wages slavery” as a system of dependence, abjection, and poverty which West calls “worse” than chattel slavery. It is wage slavery that can most truly claim to be the “sum of all evils,” West writes, because it is only this variety of slavery that hypocritically appropriates “the name of liberty.” We read West critically, of course. But when I ask my students if they ever felt like their boss was a tyrant, that’s when they begin to understand that freedom is a problem of the present, not just of the nineteenth century.

It’s the curse of such a topic—the meaning of freedom in American history!—to be so deeply bound up with progress. Didn’t things just keep on getting better; sometimes faster, perhaps, and sometimes more slowly, but basically, better? We read Judith Sargent Murray in the second week, then Sarah Grimké in the seventh, the Seneca Falls declaration and Lucretia Mott in the tenth. One of my students noted how depressing it is to see the same good arguments repeated, periodically, over sixty years of alleged progress. The way we raise and teach our children, the way they imbibe the ideology infused in their surroundings—as those women powerfully described—is an unfreedom none too easily abolished.

Read the entire post here.  I love the way Cutterham challenges his students to think historically about the “meaning of liberty.”  History teachers take note.

White Supremacy in the History of American History Textbooks

pictoralhistory00goodrichHarvard’s Donald Yacovone has an interesting piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education on the history of American textbooks and their representation of race.  Here is a taste of “Textbook Racism: How scholars sustained white supremacy“:

There it sat on a library cart with 50 other elementary, grammar, and high-school history textbooks, its bright red spine reaching out through time and space. As I opened the book’s crisp white pages, it all came back. My loud gasp startled those near me at the special collections department of Harvard University’s Monroe C. Gutman Library. Exploring the New World — published repeatedly between 1953 and 1965 — had been assigned in my fifth-grade social-studies class in Saratoga, Calif.

As part of a broader study of the legacy of the antislavery movement and the rise of the modern civil-rights era, I wanted to assess how abolitionism had been presented in textbooks. I imagined a quick look. Instead, I found myself immersed in Harvard’s collection of nearly 3,000 U.S. history textbooks, dating from about 1800 to the 1980s. Without intending, I had become engaged in a study of how abolitionism, race, slavery, and the Civil War and Reconstruction have been taught for generations.

After reviewing my first 50 or so textbooks, one morning I realized precisely what I was seeing, what instruction, and what priorities were leaping from the pages into the brains of the students compelled to read them: white supremacy. One text even began with the capitalized title: “The White Man’s History.” Across time and with precious few exceptions, African-Americans appeared only as “ignorant negroes,” as slaves, and as anonymous abstractions that only posed “problems” for the supposed real subjects of history: white people of European descent.

Read the rest here.  To the extent that American history textbook publishing reflected the concerns of the larger society, this should not surprise us.

Happy Birthday Frederick Douglass

frederickdouglass01

Today marks 200th anniversary of the birth of slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass.  On his birthday I want to call your attention (HT: Library of America) to Douglass’s April 1865 address to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston.  Here is a taste of “What the Black Man Wants

I have had but one idea for the last three years, to present to the American people, and the phraseology in which I clothe it is the old abolition phraseology. I am for the “immediate, unconditional, and universal” enfranchisement of the black man,in every State in the Union. [Loud applause.] Without this,his liberty is a mockery; without this, you might as well almost retain the old name of slavery for his condition; for, in fact, if he is not the slave of the individual master, he is the slave of society, and holds his liberty as a privilege, not as a right. He is at the mercy of the mob, and has no means of protecting himself.

It may be objected, however, that this pressing of the negro’s right to suffrage is premature. Let us have slavery abolished, it may be said, let us have labor organized, and then, in the natural course of events, the right of suffrage will be extended to the negro. I do not agree with this. The constitution of the human mind is such, that if it once disregards the conviction forced upon it by a revelation of truth, it requires the exercise of a higher power to produce the same conviction afterwards. The American people are now in tears. The Shenandoah has run blood—the best blood of the North. All around Richmond, the blood of New England and of the North has been shed—of your sons, your brothers and your fathers. We all feel, in the existence of this Rebellion, that judgments terrible, wide-spread, far-reaching, overwhelming, are abroad in the land; and we feel, in view of these judgments, just now, a disposition to learn righteousness. This is the hour. Our streets are in mourning, tears are falling at every fireside, and under the chastisement of this Rebellion we have almost come up to the point of conceding this great, this all-important right of suffrage. I fear that if we fail to do it now, if abolitionists fail to press it now, we may not see, for centuries to come, the same disposition that exists at this moment. [Applause.] Hence, I say, now is the time to press this right. It may be asked, “Why do you want it? Some men have got along very well without it. Women have not this right.” Shall we justify one wrong by another? That is a sufficient answer. Shall we at this moment justify the deprivation of the negro of the right to vote, because some one else is deprived of that privilege? I hold that women, as well as men, have the right o vote [applause], and my heart and my voice go with the movement to extend suffrage to woman; but that question rests upon another basis than that on which our right rests. We may be asked, I say, why we want it. I will tell you why we want it. We want it because it is our right, first of all. [Applause.] No class of men can, without insulting their own nature, be content with any deprivation of their rights. We want it again, as a means for educating our race. Men are so constituted that they derive their conviction of their own possibilities largely from the estimate formed of them by others. If nothing is expected of a people, that people will find it difficult to contradict that expectation. By depriving us of suffrage, you affirm our incaPacity to form an intelligent judgment respecting public men and public measures; you declare before the world that we are unfit to exercise the elective franchise, and by this means lead us to undervalue ourselves, to put a low estimate upon ourselves, and to feel that we have no possibilities like other men. Again, I want the elective franchise, for one, as a colored man, because ours is a peculiar government, based upon a peculiar idea, and that idea is universal suffrage. If I were in a monarchical government, or an autocratic or aristocratic government, where the few bore rule and the many were subject, there would be no special stigma resting upon me, because I did not exercise the elective franchise. It would do me no great violence. Mingling with the mass, I should partake of the strength of the mass; I should be supported by the mass, and I should have the same incentives to endeavor with the mass of my fellow-men; it would be no particular burden, no particular deprivation; but here, where universal suffrage is the rule, where that is the fundamental idea of the Government, to rule us out is to make us an exception, to brand us with the stigma of inferiority, and to invite to our heads the missiles of those about us; therefore, I want the franchise for the black man.

Read the entire piece here,

As always, I am looking forward to teaching Frederick Douglass’s Narrative later this semester in my U.S. survey course.

Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Abolitionist

laySalon is running an excerpt from Marcus Rediker‘s new book The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.  Here is a taste:

Lay is little known among historians. He appears occasionally in histories of abolition, usually as a minor, colorful figure of suspect sanity. By the nineteenth century he was regarded as “diseased” in his intellect and later as “cracked in the head.” To a large extent this image has persisted in modern histories. Indeed David Brion Davis, a leading historian of abolitionism, condescendingly called Lay a mentally deranged, obsessive “little hunchback.” Lay gets better treatment by amateur Quaker historians, who include him in their pantheon of antislavery saints, and by the many excellent professional historians of Quakerism. He is almost totally unknown to the general public.

Lay was better known among abolitionists than among their later historians. The French revolutionary Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville gathered stories about him almost three decades after his death, during a visit to the United States in 1788. Brissot wrote that Lay was “simple in his dress and animated in his speech; he was all on fire when he spoke on slavery.” In this respect Lay anticipated by a century the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, who was also “all on fire” about human bondage. When Thomas Clarkson penned the history of the movement that abolished the slave trade in Britain, in 1808, a moment of triumph for that country, he credited Lay, who had “awakened the attention of many to the cause.” Lay possessed “strong understanding and great integrity,” but was “singular” and “eccentric.” He had, in Clarkson’s view, been “unhinged” by cruelties he observed in Barbados between 1718 and 1720. When Clarkson drew his famous graphic genealogy of the movement, a riverine map of abolition, he named a significant tributary “Benjamin Lay.” On the other side of the Atlantic, in the 1830s and 1840s, more than seventy years after Lay’s death, the American abolitionists Benjamin Lundy and Lydia Maria Child rediscovered him, republished his biography, reprinted an engraving of him, and renewed his memory within the movement.

Lay is not the usual elite subject of biography. He came from a humble background and was poor most of his life, by occupation and by choice. He lived, he explained, by “the Labour of my Hands.” He was also considered a philosopher in his own day, much like the ancient Greek Diogenes, the former slave known for speaking truth to power. (He refused Greek nationality and insisted that he was, rather, “a citizen of the world.”) Lay lived a mobile, far-flung life, in England, Barbados, Pennsylvania, and on the high seas in-between, all of which shaped his cosmopolitan thinking. Unlike most poor people, he left an unmediated record of his ideas, most significantly in his own book, “All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates,” a rich and remarkable body of evidence by any measure.

Read the entire excerpt here.

 

 

 

Trump’s War on the Press in Historical Context

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Over at “Made by History,” a history blog at The Washington Post, University of Alabama history professor Joshua Rothman offers some historical context for the Trump administration’s attacks on the news media.

Here is a taste:

Accused of being purveyors of “fake news,” journalists who write stories critical of the Trump administration regularly receive warnings on social media that they or members of their family will be killed. The Twitter feeds of Jewish reporters are bombarded with images of gas chambers and ovens. Female reporters get emails telling them they will be raped. Black reporters are assailed by racial epithets and threats of lynching.

In some measure, the public’s antagonism toward the press is not new, and presidents going back to John Adams have expressed frustration with and pursued action against media coverage they believe biased or unfair. But sustained rage directed at reporters has not reached the current level of ferocity since the 1820s and 1830s, when members of the anti-slavery press faced violence and suppression as a matter of course.

Then, as now, reactionary forces aimed their vitriol and hostility at the wrong targets. Many white Americans believed that the increasingly loud voices calling for the abolition of slavery were destabilizing the United States and imperiling white lives. In reality, the problems were the injustices and distortions of democracy wrought by slavery itself. Abolitionists claimed that slaveholders and their supporters ruthlessly stifled opposition to preserve their own power. Trying to intimidate and terrorize reporters who revealed slavery for what it was only proved the point.

Read the entire piece here.

“The Impending Crisis”

Hinton_Rowan_Helper_(1829-1909)Over at Time, National Book Award winner and historian Ibram X. Kendi introduces us to Hinton Rowan Helper, the author of The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857). Kendi compares the influence of Helper’s book to Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Helper pierced the heart of slaveholding society in The Impending Crisis of the South. He knew that the small group of enslavers of four million people depended on the loyalty of the roughly five million non-slaveholding whites to keep their system going. Helper tried to mobilize these poor and humble white people against this small slaveholding aristocracy.

Helper was no antiracist. He did “not believe in the unity of the races,” and he called for black people to be sent back to Africa. But Helper was an abolitionist. Slavery shackles industrialization, he argued, holding back economic progress and the opportunities of non-slaveholding whites.

Horace Greeley, the nation’s most powerful editor, promoted the book in the nation’s leading newspaper, the New York Tribune. On March 20, 1858, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts cited the book in a Senate debate on slavery. Energized, Helper and Greeley partnered in soliciting funds and Republican endorsements to produce a smaller, inexpensive version to distribute during the political campaign of 1860. Published in July 1859, the mass-market version became an instant bestseller in antislavery circles and an instant dartboard in proslavery circles, polarizing the nation as have few books in American history.

By December 1859, the New York Tribune, the main distributor of The Impending Crisis, was mailing off 500 copies a day. Some of those copies reached southern towns where the book became like an illicit drug. Southerners were arrested and jailed for possessing a copy. Southern Congressmen spent the winter of 1859-1860 denying Ohio Representative John Sherman the Speaker of the House position because he had endorsed the “insurrectionist and hostile” book.

The Impending Crisis gave secessionists the proof they needed to argue that the Republican Party, which had branded itself as the party of free white soil, was on its way to forming “an Abolition Party in the South of Southern men,” as the Charleston Mercury feared. If that happened, “The contest for slavery will no longer be one between the North and the South. It will be in the South, between the people of the South.”

Read the entire piece here.

Free Blacks as Refugees

Slave_kidnap_post_1851_bostonStephen Kantrowitz is the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History, African American Studies, and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In a recent essay at Boston Review he compares the racial plight of escaped slaves and free blacks in the antebellum North to 20th and 21st century immigrants to the United States.

Here is a taste of this piece “Refuge for Fugitives“:

The struggle of the 1850s began in and drew its animating energy from African Americans’ analysis of their own circumstances. Slavery hung a shadow over the lives of free black people, even in places where slavery had long been legally abolished, such as Massachusetts. There, African Americans possessed nearly every formal right on the same basis as the “free white persons” legally eligible for immigration and naturalization. But African Americans commonly experienced northern freedom as mocking, hostile, and violent. For the fugitive slave Frederick Douglass, liberty in Massachusetts included a constant, oppressive awareness of being perceived as an inferior. “Prejudice against color is stronger north than south,” he declared; “it hangs around my neck like a heavy weight. . . . I have met it at every step the three years I have been out of southern slavery.” Even in Massachusetts, African Americans were barred from nearly every avenue of economic or educational advancement. Railroad companies segregated black passengers in Jim Crow cars, a policy their conductors enforced with violence. State officials ejected free blacks from official processions, and ruffians chased them from Boston Common. The foremost form of popular entertainment, the minstrel show, mocked their appearance and aspirations. No wonder northern black activists bleakly called themselves “the nominally free,” or “the two-thirds free.” One African American newspaper was entitled the Aliened American.

In this sense, the free black people of the mid-nineteenth century prefigured the struggles of later generations of what historian Mae Ngai calls “alien citizens.” Ngai’s analysis reveals how the U.S. citizenship of native-born Americans of Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, and Muslim background has in practice been limited or nullified by what many consider to be their unalterable foreignness. The radical black activists of a century and a half ago well understood that their compatriots regarded them mainly through the prism of their racial association with slaves. So it has been since, for Chinese Americans figured as unassimilable aliens, Japanese Americans assailed as members of an enemy race, Mexican Americans dubbed “illegals” and rapists, and Muslim Americans branded terrorists. Even those formally vested with citizenship cannot escape the gravitational drag of their racialized association with a dangerous and foreign otherness. Even the mildest formulation of alien citizenship tells the tale: “Right, but where are you really from?”

Instead of seeking to overcome their association with slavery, antebellum African American activists built their activism around it. Defiantly dubbing themselves “colored citizens,” they pursued twin and inseparable projects: freedom to the slave and equal citizenship for all. Some embraced this course because they had been slaves themselves. Others did so because they understood that they could only escape from slavery’s stigmatizing shadow by asserting their common unity, dignity, and equality.

In one sense, the conditions of black freedom left them no choice. Most states that had abolished slavery did not require black people to prove they were free. But the U.S. Constitution’s Fugitive Slave clause curtailed this presumption of freedom. In theory, a 1793 law that gave teeth to this clause provided only for the capture and return of escaping slaves. But the law did not guarantee those accused of being fugitives the right to testify in their own defense, which made it quite possible to enslave a free person. Nor was this the only existential risk free black people faced: the demand for slaves birthed a kidnapping industry with hundreds (possibly thousands) of victims, among them Solomon Northup, who authored Twelve Years a Slave (1853) based on his experience of being illegally enslaved.

Read the entire piece here.

The Daring Women of Philadelphia

Daring Women

I am in Philadelphia today.  This morning I was interviewed for a documentary film on women, religion, and anti-slavery in the early American Republic (1789-1848) titled “The Daring Women of Philadelphia.”  The Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmakers at History Making Productions are producing the film.

I don’t pretend to be a historian of women in the early republic.   There will be many other historians in the film who will speak authoritatively on this topic.  I was asked to participate for the purpose of providing general background information about the Second Great Awakening, benevolent societies, and the religious impetus behind moral reforms movements in the early 1800s.  I have no idea if anything I said was useful or will make the cut, but it was fun talking about Charles Finney’s visit to Philadelphia, the Orthodox-Hicksite Quaker schism, Lucretia Mott, “moral suasion,” and the American Bible Society (of course).

Stay tuned.

Episode 16: Abolitionism

 

podcast-icon1Two weeks ago, we discussed the Civil War. But the Civil War didn’t just occur
spontaneously. Instead, it was a reaction to many larger political currents that had their roots in the very foundation of the United States. One such current was abolitionism. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss this issue and connect it to John’s own work on the American Bible Society. They are joined by the highly decorated historian Manisha Sinha (@ProfMSinha), who has just released The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.