John MacArthur’s views on slavery sound eerily familiar

MacArthur

Someone just sent this to me. Here is Grace Community Church pastor John MacArthur, the subject of the recent controversy over the opening of churches during the COVID-19 pandemic, talking about the benefits of slavery. The video was posted in 2012.

I hope MacArthur has changed his views on slavery, but I am not holding my breath. MacArthur sounds exactly like an antebellum Southern intellectual making a case for slavery. Any student who has taken me for a U.S. history survey course or a Civil War course will recognize this rhetoric.

Here is George Fitzhugh in 1857 on the “blessings of slavery“:

The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care or labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, no more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. Besides, they have their Sabbaths and holidays. White men, with som muh of license and abandon, would die of ennui; but negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose. With their faces upturned to the sun, they can sleep at any hour; and quiet sleep is the gretest of human enjoyments. “Blessed be the man who invented sleep.” ‘Tis happiness in itself–and results from contentment in the present, and confident assurance of the future.

And this from the same document:

To insist that a status of society, which has been almost universal, and which is expressly and continually justified by Holy Writ, is its natural, normal, and necessary status, under the ordinary circumstances, is on its face a plausible and probable proposition. To insist on less, is to yield our cause, and to give up our religion; for if white slavery be morally wrong, be a violation of natural rights, the Bible cannot be true. Human and divine authority do seem in the general to concur, in establishing the expediency of having masters and slaves of different races.

And this, also from the same document:

The civilized man hates the savage, and the savage returns the hatred with interest. Hence West India slavery of newly caught negroes is not a very humane, affectionate, or civilizing institution. Virginia negroes have become moral and intelligent. They love their master and his family, and the attachment is reciprocated. Still, we like the idle, but intelligent house-servants, better than the hard-used, but stupid outhands; and we like the mulatto better than the negro; yet the negro is generally more affectionate, contented, and faithful. The world at large looks on negro slavery as much the worst form of slavery; because it is only acquainted with West India slavery. But our Southern slavery has become a benign and protective institution, and our negroes are confessedly better off than any free laboring population in the world. How can we contend that white slavery is wrong, whilst all the great body of free laborers are starving; and slaves, white or black, throughout the world, are enjoying comfort? . . 

Here is a defense of slavery from Thomas Dew, president of The College of William and Mary:

When we turn to the New Testament, we find hot one single passage at all calculated to disturb the conscience of an honest slaveholder. No one can read it without seeing and admiring that the meek and humble Saviour of the world in no instance meddled with the established institutions of mankind; he came to save a fallen work, and not to excite the black passions of man and array them in deadly hostility against each other. From no one did he turn away; his plan was offered alike to all—to the monarch and the subject, the rich and the poor, the master and the slave. He was born in the Roman world, a world in which the most galling slavery existed, a thousand times more cruel than the slavery in our own country; and yet he nowhere encourages insurrection, he nowhere fosters discontent; but exhorts always to implicit obedience and fidelity.

What a rebuke does the practice of the Redeemer of mankind imply upon the conduct of some of his nominal disciples of the day, who seek to destroy the contentment of the slave, to rouse their most deadly passions, to break up the deep foundations of society, and to lead on to a night of darkness and confusion! “Let every man,” (says Paul) “abide in the same calling wherein he is called. Art thou called being a servant? Care not for it; but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather” (I Corinth. vii. 20,21). . . . Servants are even commanded in Scripture to be faithful and obedient to unkind masters. “Servants,” (says Peter) “be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle but to the froward. For what glory is it if when ye shall be buffeted for your faults ye take it patiently; but if when ye do will and suffer for it, yet take it patiently, this is acceptable with God” (I Peter ii. 18,20). These and many other passages in the New Testament most convincingly prove that slavery in the Roman world was nowhere charged as a fault or crime upon the holder, and everywhere is the most implicit obedience enjoined.

More Dew:

Every one acquainted with Southern slaves knows that the slave rejoices in the elevation and prosperity of his master; and the heart of no one is more gladdened at the successful debut of the young master or miss on the great theater of the world than that of either the young slave who has grown up with them and shared in all their sports, and even partaken of all their delicacies, or the aged one who has looked on and watched them from birth to manhood, with the kindest and most affectionate solicitude, and has ever met from them all the kind treatment and generous sympathies of feeling, tender hearts. 

Now go back and listen again to MacArthur. This also reminds me of recent comments from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler.

The Author’s Corner with Warren Milteer

North Carolina's Free People of ColorWarren Milteer is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This interview is based on his new book, North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write North Carolina’s Free People of Color?

WM: North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 is derived from my interests in my family history. My passion for researching my family roots led me to conduct research in archives and courthouses. The information that I uncovered encouraged me to ask broader questions about the experiences of free people of color, both my ancestors as well as others who shared the same status. Free people of color became the focus of my academic research during my undergraduate studies. I continued my work through graduate school and wrote my dissertation on the topic. North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 is a revised and expanded version of my project from graduate school.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of North Carolina’s Free People of Color?

WM: The book argues that intersections among freedom status, racial categorization, gender, wealth, occupation, reputation, and other forms of hierarchy created a wide range of experiences for free people of color in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North Carolina. The story of North Carolina’s free people of color challenges previous understandings of the American South as a place organized under a strict racial hierarchy, suggesting instead that free people of color lived in a society with a much more malleable social order that permitted some free people of color to become relatively successful while others struggled for their subsistence.

JF: Why do we need to read North Carolina’s Free People of Color?

WM: North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 offers us a fresh understanding of the origins and status of free people of color in North Carolina and to some extent the South more broadly. I provide readers with a careful analysis of the development of “free people of color” as a sociopolitical category in addition to exploring the diverse experiences of free people of color. Unlike most studies of free people of color in the South, I focus not only on the African origins of free people of color but also consider the importance of Native peoples in the growth of the population. This study of free people of color bridges the divide between the histories of people of African and Native descent in the South. My book highlights the importance of various forms of hierarchy in the daily lives of free people of color. The rights and privileges of free people of color were defined by their racial categorization but also by whether they were men or women, rich or poor, or considered respectable by their neighbors. Life for poor free persons of color differed significantly from the experiences of financially successful free people of color. Free men of color enjoyed privileges unavailable to free women of color. Furthermore, nearly one in eight of the South’s free people of color lived in North Carolina, making North Carolina a particularly appropriate site to examine in order to understand how freedom and slavery coexisted in pre-1865 America.

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

WM: I have been interested in history since childhood. As a teenager, I developed a passion for historical research, which continued through college. During college, I decided to pursue the study of American history as a career.

JF: What is your next project?

WM: My next project focuses on free people of color in what would become the U.S. South from the colonial period through the Civil War. The project examines the evolution of the political debates concerning free people of color and how free people of color responded to the back and forth of social acceptance and political attacks.

JF: Thanks, Warren!

The Author’s Corner with Daniel B. Rood

the reinvention of atlantic slaveryDaniel B. Rood is Associate Professor of History at the University of Georgia. This interview is based on his book, The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery: Technology, Labor, Race, and Capitalism in the Great Caribbean (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery?

DR: Arguments over the role of enslaved people in the growth of modern western capitalism had always intrigued and inspired me, but I found contemporary scholars often lapsed into abstract phrases when actually making the case.  Sugar plantations were “industrial,” planters were “rational” and “innovative,” there were railroads and machines in slave societies, etc., etc. I felt like, in depending on these loaded terms, there was a bit of a black box effect going on. What does “industrial” mean, exactly?  What is that machine in the artist’s rendering of a plantation?  What is it doing there?  Why do we care? So, I wanted to open that box back up and re-build arguments about slavery and capitalism from the ground up, i.e. from examining and reflecting upon the micro-processes of labor, technology, and ecology on plantations and in workshops, factories, warehouses, transport systems, and markets.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery?

DR: In an age of industrial growth and expanding antislavery movements, ambitious planters in the Upper US South, Cuba, and Brazil forged a new set of relationships with one another to sidestep the financial dominance of Great Britain and the northeastern United States. Hiring a transnational group of chemists, engineers, and other “plantation experts,” they sought to adapt the technologies of the Industrial Revolution to suit “tropical” needs and maintain profitability, while depending on the know-how of slaves alongside whom they worked.

JF: Why do we need to read The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery?

DR: First, my book shows that a cotton nexus connecting the Deep South to Lancashire mills and Liverpool banks was far from the only story to tell about antebellum slavery and capitalism. I also demonstrate that sustained attention to how commodities are made and moved around can generate broader insights into the histories of slavery, the African diaspora, and race. Among other things, the book shows that changes in racist ideology were profoundly entangled with changes in capitalist productive technologies.  Modern “white” commodities like sugar and flour emerged together with transformed “white” and “black” racial categories in the same mid-19th century Atlantic World matrix. It is a flashy thing to assert, but I work hard to substantiate it. I think the journey is worthwhile for the reader, whether or not they are always convinced.

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

DR: I’m not sure I ever did. I was an English major as an undergrad. I only remember taking one history class; I mostly remember reading lots of Keats and Wordsworth.  A faculty mentor encouraged me to do American Studies at NYU, which was a deeply generative, if sometimes cringe-inducing, time for me. That was when I first spent a lot of time with Marx’s writings, and where I was introduced to scholars like Eric Williams, CLR James, and Sidney Mintz who centered the African Diaspora in the making of the modern world. I was fascinated by the questions they were asking, and wanted to explore more.  Becoming a historian, and becoming an Americanist, happened accidentally on the way.

JF: What is your next project?

DR: I am currently writing a book on the history of plantations from 1500-present. I have also been working sporadically over the past few years on a micro-history of post-emancipation black landowners in and around Athens, Georgia. Finally, I plan to write a history of southern forests from pre-Columbian times to the present. After that it’s back to Keats and Wordsworth.

JF: Thanks, Daniel!

The Author’s Corner with Christopher Leahy

President without a partyChristopher Leahy is Professor of History at Keuka College. This interview is based on his new book, President Without a Party: The Life of John Tyler (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write President Without a Party?

CL: This book is a dramatic revision and expansion of my doctoral dissertation. To start, I wanted to focus my attention on a president most people knew nothing about, thinking that might help my publishing prospects. There had been no full-scale biography devoted solely to John Tyler since 1939, so I thought a fresh look at his life and career was warranted. As a political historian, I had always been interested in the dynamics of the two-party system, and by how that system both energized and constrained our presidents. That led me to the larger thematic question of what it meant to be a president who had been excommunicated by his party. I wanted to know how President Tyler’s banishment from the Whig ranks affected him personally, how it impacted his agenda, how exactly it affected his chances to win election in his own right, and what all of this had to say about the importance of political parties to presidential politics in the mid-nineteenth century.

I also became fascinated by how a former president of the United States, one whose father (whom he idolized) had played a small role in creating the Union out of the American Revolution, could have turned against the country he once led and formally ally himself with the government of the Confederacy.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of President Without a Party?

CL: John Tyler was portrayed by his contemporaries and by many historians as an ideologue whose rigid devotion to states’ rights and strict construction of the Constitution forestalled compromise and made him a failed president. While the view of him as an ideologue contains merit for his pre-presidential career, I argue that he largely favored a middle-of-the road, bipartisan approach to the nation’s problems once he became president, and that it was his status as a president without a party and rejection by both the Whigs and opposition Democrats that doomed his presidency.

JF: Why do we need to read President Without a Party?

CL: I don’t think we can fully understand the long process that led to secession and civil war without understanding John Tyler. For one thing, his career-long defense of the South and slavery provides a case-study of why the planter class turned against the Union and led the South to secede in 1860-61. Moreover, his successful pursuit of the annexation of Texas as president re-ignited the sectional controversy over slavery’s expansion into the nation’s territories and served as a long fuse for the start of war in April 1861.

There is also an aspect to Tyler’s experience that speaks more broadly to the presidency itself. All of the nation’s chief executives have maintained that the press has harassed them and that they suffer unfair attacks at the hands of their opponents. John Tyler, however, likely wins the prize for partisan abuse—and his opponents could be found in both parties. My book demonstrates the lengths to which the Whigs and Democrats went to undermine his presidency.

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

CL: I became interested in American history, and specifically American presidents, as a child. I went to college, however, intent on becoming an attorney. When I was an undergraduate, I read the first volume of William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion. The book sparked my interest in antebellum politics, and it made me think that I’d like to research and write and become an historian. I was fortunate to take courses in college with professors who were riveting lecturers as well as demanding instructors. In speaking with them over the course of my college years, I got to understand the life of an academic historian and decided that I wanted to pursue that career.

JF: What is your next project?

CL: My wife, Sharon Williams Leahy, and I are collaborating on a biography of First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler. Sharon has published an academic journal article in New York History that overturns a key piece of the historiography on Julia Tyler and we have published book chapters for two anthologies that re-orient the historiography on her. So, we are off to a great start on our work!

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

The Author’s Corner with Michael E. Woods

Arguing until DoomsdayMichael E. Woods is currently Associate Professor of History at Marshall University. Starting in August 2020, he will be Associate Professor of History and Director/Editor of the Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This interview is based on his new book, Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Arguing until Doomsday?

MW: Initially, I envisioned Arguing until Doomsday as an article, not a book. The inspiration came from two sets of sources I encountered during the research for my first book (Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States [Cambridge, 2014]). The first surfaced in the archives: I spent some time exploring Stephen A. Douglas’s papers at the University of Chicago and was struck by the amount of supportive mail he received from Republicans, including staunchly antislavery Republicans, during the late 1850s. The second appeared in the Congressional Globe, a staple for anyone doing work on antebellum political history: the extended debate between Douglas and Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis in May 1860, which unfolded just as their Democratic Party was tearing itself apart over selecting a presidential candidate and writing a platform. Together, these sources suggested that we needed to rethink the relationship between antebellum sectionalism and the Democratic Party. Specialists are familiar with the Democratic split in 1860, but in some narratives it appears almost out of nowhere. Yet there were portents of the rupture—such as Douglas’s rather surprising fan mail in 1857 and 1858—that appeared well before 1860. I decided to use Davis and Douglas’s careers to tell the longer history of that intraparty conflict. And because I wanted to situate both men in the contexts of their home states, I realized that I would have to write a book-length study.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Arguing until Doomsday?

MW: The 1860 rupture of the Democratic Party was the product of long-term conflicts over balancing property rights and majoritarianism: Stephen Douglas’s primarily northern faction pressed for localized white men’s majority rule, while Jefferson Davis’s primarily southern faction demanded the federal defense of slaveholders’ property rights. In the context of rapid expansion and heightened pressure from pro- and antislavery activists, Democrats like Davis and Douglas could not permanently reconcile these competing agendas, and their efforts to control the party ultimately tore it apart.

JF: Why do we need to read Arguing until Doomsday?

MW: The book reexamines a vital topic—antebellum sectional strife and the origins of secession and the Civil War—from a fresh perspective, enlivened by a dual-biographical approach. Davis and Douglas are typically paired with Abraham Lincoln, but Arguing until Doomsday revisits them from the vantage point of a rivalry that played out within the Democratic Party but across sectional lines. This perspective helps us to understand how sectionalism and partisanship intertwined in sometimes surprising ways. Some southern Democrats, for instance, called for secession in the event that Lincoln or Douglas won the 1860 presidential election. Simultaneously, there were southern critics who denounced Davis as too soft on defending slavery, even as northern Democrats worried that Davis would destroy the party by forcing a proslavery platform on them. These dynamics become much easier to understand if we trace the long rivalry between Davis and Douglas, who began speaking for frankly sectional constituencies when they entered Congress in the mid-1840s.

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

MW: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by American history, but my inspiration to make a career of it came near the end of my undergraduate studies, when I took a seminar (on Chinese history, actually). History is all about conversations, whether carried out in person in the classroom or in print, from one scholar to another. I relished participating in both types of conversations in that seminar and I decided I wanted to continue with them, as a teacher and a scholar.

JF: What is your next project?

MW: I’m working on another biographical project that focuses on John H. Van Evrie, a shadowy figure who was one of the most extreme and outspoken racist propagandists of the mid-nineteenth century. Born in Canada, Van Evrie built a twenty-five year career in New York City as a writer, newspaper editor, and publisher who dedicated himself to promoting white supremacy—a phrase he actually introduced into popular usage. Van Evrie is neither sympathetic nor inspirational, but I think he can help us to trace precisely how ideas about race and slavery and freedom circulated at a time when information was moving more cheaply and swiftly than ever before. We usually think of the nineteenth-century communications revolution, made possible by innovations like the telegraph and the rotary printing press, as a good thing. But Van Evrie’s career exposes a sinister side of that revolution. New communications technologies are only as edifying as the messages they carry and the people who use them.

JF: Thanks, Michael!

The Author’s Corner with Ryan McIlhenny

To Preach DeliveranceRyan C. McIlhenny is an independent scholar living and working in Shanghai, China. This interview is based on his new book, To Preach Deliverance to the Captives: Freedom and Slavery in the Protestant Mind of George Bourne, 1780–1845 (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write To Preach Deliverance?

RM: To Preach Deliverance is a substantial revision of my dissertation from the University of California, Irvine. I have had quite a diverse journeyman experience since completing my PhD in 2008, making it difficult for me to devote my time to the manuscript. A few years ago, however, I was offered an exciting opportunity to work in Shanghai, which has provided the much-needed time for research and writing. Within a couple months of relocating to the Middle Kingdom, historian James Brewer Stewart, a leading historian of abolition, author of Holy Warriors, and founder of Historians Against Slavery, sent me an encouraging email about a review I did of a new anthology on Wendell Phillips for the Journal of the Early Republic. Knowing that Jim, a Phillips scholar, was editor emeritus of LSU’s reputable “Antislavery, Abolition, and Atlantic World” series, I asked if he would be willing to get his thoughts on my work. He enthusiastically agreed and read it. This has led to a very fruitful correspondence over the last couple years. Jim’s very constructive suggestions encouraged me to rewrite the introduction and conclusion and include a whole new chapter (Chapter 1). Jim remained supportive throughout, as did historians Richard Blackett, Edward Rugemer, and Mark Noll.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of To Preach Deliverance?

RM: To Preach Deliverance is an intellectual biography, written in the mode of cultural history, of George Bourne (1780-1845), the pioneer of immediate anti-slavery as well as the pioneer of the anti-Catholic escaped-nun genre in American literature. Bourne’s radicalism, his uncompromising opposition to slavery, shaped by a conservative Protestant outlook that became increasingly hostile to Catholicism, allowed him to formulate a unique concept of liberty that rested not on evangelical revivalism, which had a profound impact on reformist movements, but upon historic-confessional Protestantism.

JF: Why do we need to read To Preach Deliverance?

RM: There are only two biographies on Bourne. One written by his son Theodore in the late 1880s and another by John Christie and Dwight Dumond in the late 1960s. These biographies, however, focus on Bourne’s antislavery activities, ignoring for the most part his anti-Catholic sentiments. Contemporary historians have, for the most part, dismissed anti-Catholicism as either irrational or symptomatic of some kind of paranoid style in American life. I find such explanations unconvincing. My work attempts to make sense of what may seem to be in the contemporary mind two conflicting issues: a battle against human chattel bondage with an equally virulent battle against Catholicism.

Bourne was a highly influential polymathic figure engaged in a variety of nineteenth-century American issues: slavery, race, and citizenship; the role of women in abolition; Christianity and republicanism; the importance of the Bible; and the place of the church in civil society. To Preach Deliverance provides a small window into the complexities of revolutionary liberalism, the place of the Bible in antislavery, and the centrality of religious tolerance to a free society. It peels back yet another layer of the complexities of religious reform in nineteenth-century America.

Another important goal of the book—as it is for most historical monographs—is to show the relevance of the past on the present. In one important sense, history has more to do with the present than the past. In the case of To Preach Deliverance, I want readers to consider the continued legacy (or perhaps the “unfinished” realities) not only of slavery, its existence in new forms, but also religious intolerance, especially anti-Catholicism, in American culture.

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

RM: I wish I could tell you that I had always aspired to become a professional historian. I’ve always been interested in a number of disciplines—the arts, theology, political science, history, and philosophy. I had an opportunity to choose graduate studies in at least three of these areas. I eventually chose a program that allowed me to combine most of my interests. Graduate school added to my interdisciplinarity in that I came to appreciate the material dialectics and cultural texts that produce both ideas and identity. Despite my success during those formative years in grad school, it wasn’t until my mid-30s, a few years after completing my PhD, that I finally understood what it meant to be a historian. And notwithstanding the challenges that many of us face in securing a tenure-track position, given the market’s (and neoliberal administrators’) aversion to all things humanities, I don’t regret becoming a historian, a cultural historian at that. Given the cultural/linguistic turn in scholarship that often conflates artifice with artifact, fact and fiction, the historian, I believe, is needed to sift through these distinctions today more than ever.

JF: What is your next project?

RM: I’m not sure how long I’ll be here in China; indeed, I look forward to securing a position at a college or university in the states. But, for now, life in Shanghai has afforded me the time to maintain a healthy schedule for writing. I’m working on a more focused study of Spiritualism in the antebellum period and another on some of the forgotten features of American pragmatism at the turn of the twentieth century, employing a similar methodology used in To Preach Deliverance. I’m also working on two larger works—one related to religious intolerance in American history, the other on the dialogue between religion and radicalism.

JF: Thanks, Ryan!

The Author’s Corner with Robert Churchill

The underground railroad and the geography of violenceRobert Churchill is Associate Professor of History at the University of Hartford. This interview is based on his new book, The Underground Railroad and the Geography of Violence in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Underground Railroad?

RC: When writing my first book on the militia movement, To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face, I came across some abolitionist responses to the rendition of Anthony Burns from Boston that argued that the state militia, rather than assisting Burn’s master in carrying Burns back to slavery, should have used force to release Burns and protect his liberty. Once the book was done, I began to read about the Underground Railroad, a movement by which I had long been fascinated, but which I realized I knew little about. Clearly Underground activists dedicated themselves to defying the law, in some cases by armed force, in support of what they saw as the higher cause of human freedom. How, I wondered, did the inhabitants of the North respond to this movement? How did those responses change over time?

As I began to read primary accounts of Underground operations, it became clear to me that violence was at the center of this story. Fugitives from enslavement fled the systemic violence embedded in the system of slavery and in the South’s culture of honor, a particular culture of violence that I refer to as the violence of mastery. That violence followed fugitives into the North, wielded by slave catchers who asserted a right to use whatever violence they saw fit to capture fugitives, intimidate sympathetic bystanders, retaliate against Underground activists, and carry African-Americans back to slavery.

How then did Northern residents and communities respond to this violence, which many found shocking and culturally alienating? It seemed to me that understanding these responses offered insights into the way the Underground Railroad operated and also into the politics of the fugitive slave issue and into the growth of sectional alienation. And the more I looked, the more it became clear that those responses followed a clear geographical pattern.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Underground Railroad?

RC: The Underground Railroad argues that the movement operated within a cultural geography of violence in which different regions of the North offered very different responses to the presence of fugitives and to the intrusions of slave catchers. These regions exhibited different cultural norms governing violence, and Underground activists adapted their organization and methods to these norms.

JF: Why do we need to read The Underground Railroad?

RC: The book offers insights into two questions that have bedeviled historians. It explains the remarkable regional variation in the organization and operation of the Underground movement. Historians have long noted the discrepancy between stories of tightly organized, stealthy nocturnal operations in some times and places and accounts of a much more open, even boastful approach in others. My analysis of the geography of violence explains these variations across time and place, and illuminates the Underground Railroad as a living organism responding to local stimuli. The focus on violence also explains why the sectional conflict over fugitive slaves proved so explosive and alienating. Shared norms of violence are fundamental to building and a sense of community. In discovering just how different their norms governing violence were, the North and the South began to view each other as fundamentally different peoples.

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

RC: I have known since high school that I wanted to be a history teacher. History just made sense to me, and I realized from tutoring my peers that I could explain it to others in a way that made it comprehensible. After college, I enrolled in a Masters in Teaching program and received certification as a public secondary school teacher. I then joined the faculty of Longmeadow High School in Longmeadow, MA. After four years, I decided that I wanted the chance to engage history on a deeper level, so I returned to graduate school and received my Ph.D. in early American history from Rutgers University.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: The Underground Railroad describes a process of sectional alienation. This leads to a fundamental question: given that by 1860 both the North and the South had in essence given up on each other, why did the project of peaceful secession fail? This is a question that rarely gets addressed in the narrative of American history, in which war seems to follow naturally from secession. But clearly there were some, and perhaps many, in the North who were willing to contemplate parting with the South. What deprived this option of a hearing? And, given the South’s actions during the secession winter of 1860-1861, was peaceful secession in fact their objective? In answering these questions, I hope to undertake a much more complete assessment of Northern public opinion than has been offered up to now, and I hope to investigate where peaceful secession stood vs. the lure of a “short victorious war” in the preferences of Southern policy makers.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

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.

The Author’s Corner With Thomas Balcerski

BalcserskiThomas J. Balcerski is Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Connecticut State University.  This is interview is based on his new book Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Bosom Friends?

TB: Bosom Friends began as the first chapter of my dissertation at Cornell University. One of my central research questions since graduate school has been the role of bachelors, and more generally the unmarried, in U.S. politics before the Civil War. From bachelors, I came to the historical category of friendship, about which I wrote my first article, published in Pennsylvania History in 2013. In the dissertation, I looked at several examples of intimate male friendships in the antebellum period, but for the book, I decided to dig deeper into the relationship of James Buchanan of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King of Alabama. Given that the focus had shifted from a range of actors to just two individuals, I decided to write the book as a dual biography.

Famously, James Buchanan is our only bachelor president (or more properly, the only president never to marry, since Grover Cleveland was elected a bachelor in 1884). Less well known to history is William Rufus King, who was elected vice president under Franklin Pierce in 1852. King is perhaps most widely remembered for being the only president or vice president ever inaugurated outside the United States, having done so on his deathbed in Matanzas, Cuba. The pair, Buchanan and King, served together in the U.S. Senate from 1834 to 1844, during which time they often lived together. From there, the bosom friends separated, but their correspondence increased, which reveals a portrait of two Democratic bachelor politicians striving to obtain power. While both men lived, they wanted nothing more than to unite the North and the South in a bachelor ticket; however, it did not come to pass.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bosom Friends?

TB: My book argues that an intimate male friendship shaped the political and personal lives of James Buchanan of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King of Alabama. I reveal the many intricacies of their conjoined lives and, in the process, help to clear up much misinformation about the pair.

JF: Why do we need to read Bosom Friends?

TB: The relationship of James Buchanan and William Rufus King is interesting both in a historical and historiographic sense. I find it fascinating how interpretations, both among academics and the general public, have changed about the pair. There’s no getting around the fact that, today, most people assume that they were gay and, further still, that they shared a sexual relationship. My book takes a different approach, as I read the evidence more carefully within the historical context of intimacy in nineteenth century America. For this reason, readers can expect a reassessment of what they think they know about manhood, friendship, sexuality, and politics in the era before the Civil War.

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

TB: I credit an excellent high school teacher for my initial interest in American history. My class read Thomas Bailey’s American Pageant, and I was hooked. The narrative style, the memorable descriptions (John Adams as “frosty” lingers in my memory), and the idea that the past, somehow, actually mattered to the present made their impression upon me. I have always enjoyed the ebb and flow of the antebellum period—I like the contingency of events, the colorful characters who populated David Potter’s The Impending Crisis, and the sense that maybe, just maybe, the war could have been prevented. Beyond the graduate training that I received at SUNY Stony Brook and Cornell University, I realized that those initial passions for the causes of the Civil War are like a deep reservoir of historical research to which I come back to again and again.

JF: What is your next project?

TB: I am currently working on a history of the Democratic Party from its early origins in the Federalist era to its unraveling in the 1920s. Tentatively titled “The Party of No: When the Democrats Were Conservative,” I want to understand the longer history of an important question that I am often asked, a version of which: “When did the Democratic Party and the Republican Party switch their politics?” I think a study, part biographical of party leaders and part political history of the period, would help to explain the events that preceded this change.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

Papers of Martin Van Buren Project Publishes 327 New Documents

Van Buren

Here is the press release from Cumberland University:

The Papers of Martin Van Buren project at Cumberland University recently published 327 documents as part of Series 7, which covers the period of Van Buren’s vice presidency under Andrew Jackson from March 4, 1833 to March 3, 1837.

The newly published documents include correspondence related to Van Buren’s participation in the Bank War and his presidential campaign to succeed Andrew Jackson. Van Buren also received correspondence related to foreign affairs, including the growing friction between the United States and Mexico as Americans settled in Texas.

“These documents shed light on a number of important issues that consumed Jackson’s second presidential term and of necessity drew in Van Buren,” project director Mark Cheathem said. “Van Buren was also looking ahead to the 1836 presidential election. His correspondence with American voters who wanted to know his opinion on a number of issues gives insight into his political principles on issues such as slavery and religion.”

The digital edition of the Van Buren papers will make accessible approximately 13,000 documents that belonged to the eighth president. Over 1,000 of these documents are now available at vanburenpapers.org.

The Papers of Martin Van Buren project is sponsored by Cumberland University and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and is produced in partnership with the Center for Digital Editing at the University of Virginia.

For more information about the Papers of Martin Van Buren project at Cumberland University, visit http://vanburenpapers.org.

Mark Cheatham and his team are doing some great work here.

The Author’s Corner with Myra Glenn

dr harriot kezia hunt

Myra Glenn is a Professor of American History at Elmira College. This interview is based on her new book, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt: Nineteenth-Century Physician and Woman’s Rights Advocate (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt: Nineteenth-Century Physician and Woman’s Rights Advocate?

MG: I was astonished that there was no book length monograph on a woman who was a pioneering female physician, health reformer, and woman’s rights advocate in nineteenth-century America. Once I began reading her 1856 autobiography Glances and Glimpses as well as her lectures and speeches I became fascinated with her and knew I had to be her biographer.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt: Nineteenth-Century Physician and Woman’s Rights Advocate?

MG: My book argues that Hunt warrants extensive study because she offers a rare, fascinating case study of how a single woman from a working-class Boston home became a successful professional and renowned reformer in nineteenth-century America. This text also uses Hunt’s richly detailed life narrative, Glances and Glimpses (1856), to explore how women described and interpreted their lives in antebellum autobiographies.

JF: Why do we need to read Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt: Nineteenth-Century Physician and Woman’s Rights Advocate?

MG: My book examines Hunt’s establishment of a flourishing medical practice in Boston in the mid-1830s. Convinced that many of her patients’ physical maladies were rooted in their spiritual and mental anguish, Hunt became renowned for listening to women’s troubles, or “heart histories,” and counseling them. I also discuss Hunt’s unsuccessful efforts to attend lectures at Harvard’s medical school in 1847 and 1850 and her emergence as a leading woman’s rights advocate. She became the first woman in Massachusetts to publicly protest the injustice of taxing propertied women like herself while denying them the right to vote. Her annual petitions declaring “no taxation without representation” were widely reprinted in newspapers throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Hunt was also prominent in the annual woman’s rights conventions of the 1850s where she championed health reform, female doctors, higher education for women, and their enfranchisement.

Study of Hunt’s life also illuminates how religion promoted reform activism in antebellum America. I discuss how the Hunt family’s conversion to Universalism encouraged Harriot to challenge established gender roles and spurred her commitment to the woman’s rights struggle. I also explore how Hunt’s conversion to the ideas of the Swedish mystic Immanuel Swedenborg as well as her friendship with leading antebellum feminists, especially Sarah Grimké, led her to challenge patriarchal power within mainstream Protestant churches.

Finally, my book analyzes Hunt’s 1856 autobiography entitled Glances and Glimpses. At a time when few women wrote life narratives Hunt offered a richly detailed and revealing work. Her text was the first autobiography published by a leading antebellum feminist and also by a female physician.

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

MG: My father, a waiter in Brooklyn and immigrant from Cuba, was always a voracious reader of American history and instilled in me a love of both history and politics. Even when I was in high school I knew that I wanted to study how the past shapes our present and future.

JF: What is your next project?

MG: I plan to investigate how a group of leading antislavery and woman’s rights activists in antebellum America coped with old age and the challenges of facing illness, the death of loved ones, and their own mortality. This would be my fifth and probably last book.

JF: Thanks, Myra!

David Blight on Frederick Douglass

BlightAs many of you know, Blight is the author of the recently released Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom I was hoping to read Blight’s book before I teach Douglass’s Narrative in a couple of weeks, but I don’t think I am going to have the time.

Here is a taste of an interview with Blight at History News Network:

Q. You worked on this book for ten years, but first began researching Douglass as a PhD student. What initially inspired you to study Douglass? Did you always plan to write a biography of Douglass?   

After that first book in the late 1980s, and over time, I edited new editions of Douglass’s first and second autobiographies, a new edition of the Columbian Orator (the book that changed Douglass’s life as a slave), and I had written a number of essays on the former slave.  But I did not really intend to write a full biography until I encountered the Evans collection in Savannah.  Only then did I decide to attempt a full life of Douglass.  I was initially inspired to study Douglass in graduate school in the early 1980s because I wanted to research and write about abolitionists and the coming of the Civil War.  I especially wanted to probe the stories of black abolitionists. Douglass was the greatest perhaps of all abolitionists, and I was especially drawn to the famous orator and writer’s masterful use of words.  The research for this biography took me many places and to many archives in the US and the UK.  The places in Douglass’s life are very important to his biography.

Read the rest here.

The Problem of “Reconciling Irreconcilable Values”

FugitiveAndrew Delbanco‘s new book is titled The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War.  While I was on the road last week I listened to Delbanco’s interview with Terry Gross of National Public Radio.  I recommend it.

Over at The Atlantic, Delbanco explains what the 19th-century debate over slavery can teach us about our own contentious political moment.  Here is a taste:

With the united states starkly divided and with many Americans asking what kind of nation we are, it seems a good moment to look back to November 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when Abraham Lincoln tried to answer the same question. Consecrating a Civil War battlefield where thousands of young men and boys had died four months before, he spoke of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” For most Americans since, and for much of the world, those words have at­tained the status of scripture. We draw our sense of collective identity from them. They were, however, not strictly true, and Lincoln knew it.

Five years earlier, he had been more candid. Speaking in Chicago in the summer of 1858, Lincoln noted that when the republic was founded, “we had slavery among us,” and that “we could not get our Constitution unless we permitted” slavery to persist in those parts of the nation where it was already entrenched. “We could not secure the good we did secure,” he said, “if we grasped for more.” The United States, in other words, could not have been created if the eradication of human bondage had been a condition of its creation. Had Lincoln said at Gettysburg that the nation was con­ceived not in liberty but in compromise, the phrase would have been less memorable but more accurate.

The hard truth is that the United States was founded in an act of accommodation between two fundamentally different societies. As one Southern-born antislavery activist wrote, it was a “sad satire to call [the] States ‘United,’” because in one-half of the country slavery was basic to its way of life, while in the other it was fading or already gone. The Founding Fathers tried to stitch these two nations together with no idea how long the stitching would hold.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Ben Wynne

5afdd229cb854.jpgBen Wynne is professor of history at the University of North Georgia. This interview is based on his new book The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist (LSU Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: My doctoral dissertation dealt with politicians in the South who argued against the idea of secession during the years leading up to the American Civil War, and in the course of doing my research Henry Stuart Foote’s name kept popping up. The more I read about him, the more interested in his life and career I became, to the point where I thought his life story might make a good book. Not only was he involved in a number of important national events in his lifetime, but he was a bit of a maniac. All of his contemporaries seemed to have an opinion about him, and those opinions ranged from genius to buffoon. I was also intrigued by his relationship Jefferson Davis. Foote was Davis’s most outspoken political enemy, and the hatred that the two men had for each other was epic.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: The book is a strait biography. It captures the highly unusual spirit of the subject as well as his unique contributions to American history and politics from the 1830s until his death in 1880.

JF: Why do we need to read The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: Henry Stuart Foote’s life included many unusual twists and turns, making for an interesting read. In general, Foote was one of antebellum America’s true political mavericks with an eccentric and sometimes violent personality. He was a polarizing figure who was beloved by supporters but reviled by critics. During his career, he participated in innumerable physical altercations—including a fistfight with then-fellow U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis that provided the title for the book—and he carried bullet wounds from several duels. He once brandished a pistol during proceedings on the Senate floor, and on another occasion threatened a fellow solon with a knife. During his career he was also very well-travelled. He was in Texas during the early 1840s as the Texas annexation debate was in full swing, and he represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate during debates over the Compromise of 1850. In 1851, he defeated Jefferson Davis in an exceedingly bitter campaign for Mississippi governor. Later, he moved to California where he ran unsuccessfully for another senate seat, and then back to Tennessee, where he was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. As a Confederate congressman, he remained a thorn in Davis’s side for the duration of the Civil War, publically lambasting the Confederate president again and again. A lifelong Democrat, Foote became a Republican after the war and ended up as superintendent of the U.S. Mint in New Orleans.

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

BW: Like others in the field, I have been fascinated with American history and culture all of my life. It seemed like a natural profession for me. I believe strongly in the cliché that you will not know where you are going if you do not know where you have been.

JF: What is your next project?

BW: I am currently researching for a book on the history of music in Macon, Georgia from the 1830s to the 1980s, that will include material on iconic American musical figures such as “Little Richard” Penniman, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers.

JF: Thanks, Ben!

The Author’s Corner with Cassie Yacovazzi

9780190881009.jpegCassie Yacovazzi is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. This interview is based on her new book Escaped Nuns: True Womanhood and the Campaign Against Convents in Antebellum America (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Escaped Nuns?

CY: I was initially interested in anti-Catholicism in early America. As a person with a religious background, I wanted to know more about how nationalism, popular culture, and patriotism could shape who was considered religious insiders and outsiders in America. In my research, I kept coming across brief references to Maria Monk, an escaped nun and the listed author of Awful Disclosures of Hotel Dieu. Her convent exposé of 1836 was a phenomenal success, selling over 300,000 copies before the Civil War. But Monk was a fraud, having never lived in a convent as a nun or otherwise. I wanted to know more about why this book was so popular, what it revealed about anti-Catholic bias, what debates the book sparked, and who the real Maria Monk was. I set out to write a book about Maria Monk, but as I researched, I realized opposition to nuns was a much larger phenomenon. I came across dozens of escaped nun books, learned of various convent attacks, noticed denunciations of convent life littered throughout anti-Catholic materials, and found significant overlap between antebellum reform movements, such as abolition, the common school movement, urban reform, and anti-Mormonism and the campaign against convents. I realized there was a story there, and I wanted to learn and tell that story.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Escaped Nuns?

CY: The campaign against convents in antebellum America was a far reaching movement, as popular as abolitionism, the common school movement, urban reform, and anti-Mormonism. While anti-Catholic and nativist impulses propelled this campaign in part, nuns’ nonconformity to female gender norms of true womanhood—their rejection of marriage, motherhood, and ideals of domesticity—rendered them conspicuous targets of attack among the vanguards of accepted behavior.

JF: Why do we need to read Escaped Nuns?

CY: The history of anti-Catholicism in America is well documented and established. The animus against nuns and convent life, however, has often simply occupied a paragraph or footnote in this history. Yet nuns served as a barometer of American attitudes toward women. For many, the veiled nun represented a waste or corruption of womanhood; as Mother Superior she embodied the wrong kind of woman, masculinized by her position of authority. This image proved stirring enough to lead men into action to “liberate” women from their “captivity” and expose and demolish convents or “dens of vice.” In doing so, many Protestant Americans believed they were protecting women and Protestant American civilization. In the face of rapid urbanization and western expansion this mission appeared imperative. Escaped Nuns traces the facets of anti-convent sentiment, shedding light on a major contest for American identity at a time of rapid demographic and cultural change.

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

CY: For me deciding to become an American historian was a gradual decision rather than a single moment thing. I loved my history courses in high school and especially in college. I majored in Liberal Arts, focusing on History, Philosophy, and English, not really knowing what subject in which to specialize. When it came time to graduate, there was something in me that wanted to stay in academia and continue to pursue the life of the mind. I had found a sort of “home” there. But what would be my focus? I chose history because I thought I could incorporate my other loves of philosophy and literature. I also chose history because it was the subject that best helped me place my worldview, beliefs, and values in context. While in graduate school at Baylor University and then the University of Missouri, history became a way of life. Through acting like a historian I became one. It was in some ways accidental, but I feel comfortable, challenged, and inspired in this role.

JF: What is your next project?

CY: My next project is in some ways a big change from my first. The topic for my next book is Mary Kay—the woman and the cosmetics empire. I’m exploring Mary Kay’s personal story, the growth of her company, and the subsequent Mary Kay culture in the context of women in business, the history of beauty, the feminist movement, and the intersection of gender, capitalism, and religion.

JF: Thanks, Cassie!

The Author’s Corner with Adam Smith

41xrlTvJ9rL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Adam Smith is professor of history at the University College of London. This interview is based on his new book, The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Stormy Present?

AS: Politics in the free states in the mid-nineteenth century was characterised both by an underlying presumption that slavery was wrong and by an underlying, and self-conscious “conservative” sensibility. Consequently, war and emancipation came about when they appeared, for sufficient numbers of Northerners, to be the conservative options.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Stormy Present?

AS: Politics in the free states in the mid-nineteenth century was characterized both by an underlying presumption that slavery was wrong and by an underlying, and self-conscious “conservative” sensibility. Consequently, war and emancipation came about when they appeared, for sufficient numbers of Northerners, to be the conservative options.

JF: Why do we need to read The Stormy Present?

AS: Because it might remind us that political change happens as much through accident as design, with people coming to support potentially radical transformation for reasons far removed from what we might imagine. It will remind us, also, that for its vaunted modernity and fascination with progress, the United States has always been in many respects a profoundly conservative society, preoccupied with a decisive founding moment and anxious about threats to the prevailing order. And finally because the book offers a new interpretation of the coming of the Civil War in which the mass of white northerners—the men and women who were not abolitionists or radicals or even necessarily Republicans, but whose reactions and judgements mattered so much—are placed centre-stage.

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

AS: When I was an undergraduate I was lucky to be taught by Eric Foner, who provided such a compelling account of the Civil War era that I was totally gripped. I don’t know if that was when I decided to become a historian of the United States, but it’s certainly when I began to imagine it as a possibility.

JF: What is your next project?

AS: A study of compromise as a practice and an idea in American politics. 

JF: Thanks, Adam!

The Author’s Corner with William Bolt

boltWilliam Bolt is Assistant Professor of History at Francis Marion University. This interview is based on his new book, Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America (Vanderbilt University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America?

WB: I wrote Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America because the tariff had been neglected for over 100 years. Since the tariff provided the national government with ninety percent of its annual revenue, I deemed it to be an important subject that historians had ignored for too long.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America?

WB: Tariff Wars argues that the tariff needs to be a part of the narrative on antebellum politics, but it also argues that the tariff helped to spread democracy. Whenever Congress debated a tariff, scores of petitions and memorials arrived in Washington and public meetings were held regarding the tariff. Many Americans followed these debates and the tariff, in my opinion, helped to draw more Americans into the political process.

JF: Why do we need to read Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America?

WB: People should read Tariff Wars because this issue was important to the people of the era. The people understood it and closely followed all efforts either to lower or raise the tariff. 

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

WB: I decided to become an American historian about twenty years ago, I took a course on Jacksonian Democracy and the instructor, the late Richard E. Ellis, was having the time of his life relating studies about Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Martin Van Buren. Sitting in that classroom and watching him reenact duels and congressional debates I found my calling.

JF: What is your next project?

WB: I am currently working on two follow up projects. A long-term project and a short terms one. My labor of love is a study of the rivalry between Millard Fillmore and William H. Seward. It is tentatively titled, “Empire State Rivalry.” It examines how two men with so much in common came to be bitter enemies. Their rivalry, I argue, hastened the demise of the Whig Party and contributed to the coming of the Civil War. My short-term project is a study of the year 1841. It is tentatively titled, “Year of here Presidents.” It looks at the presidencies of Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler. This work also is relevant to today because there is an intriguing Supreme Court confirmation battle in the final days of Van Buren’s presidency, and also a replace and replace battle over the Independent Treasury and National Bank. The year 1841 also sees the fate of the Amistad captives resolved. So there is a lot going on. These projects will helpfully keep me out of trouble.

JF: Thanks, Will!

The Author’s Corner with Dawn Peterson

PeterDawn Peterson is Assistant Professor of History at Emory University.  This interview is based on her new book Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion?

DP: I came to the adoption stories covered in Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion thirteen years ago. I had entered graduate school in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the United States’ subsequent “war on terror” and initially wanted to write about how discourses of race and family (particularly those emerging around white 9-11 families) supported imperial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as against immigrant communities and communities of color within this country. Yet after reading Michael Paul Rogin’s work on Andrew Jackson while in my third year of graduate school, I was compelled to go in search of the stories that inspired this book.

New to American Indian studies and early U.S. history, I was struck by one of Rogin’s footnotes, which indicated that, during the United States’ rapid expansion into Indian territories in the first decades of the nineteenth century, several white men, including Andrew Jackson, adopted American Indian children. I couldn’t stop thinking about these white adopters and Indian adoptees in the early U.S. Republic and kept traveling to archives to learn more about them. The research I uncovered showed me that, from the earliest moments of the early Republic’s founding, discourses of family and race played a central role in U.S. nation-making and imperial warfare, in this case against Native communities and enslaved people of African descent. I wanted to understand why this was the case and, just as centrally, how people shaped their lives and their communities in the face of U.S. imperial violence.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion?

DP: Indians in the Family argues that pan-Indian unity movements solidifying in response to British-American and U.S. territorial expansion during the latter half of the eighteenth century collided with U.S. citizens’ ideas about race, family, slavery, and freedom to give rise to the imperial idea that Indian people and their homelands could—and should—be adopted into the free white populace of the early U.S. Republic. As the United States expanded its territories west, including those of slaveholding Southerners, this imperial idea subsequently informed a series of intimate struggles between U.S. whites, adopted Indian people, and enslaved people of African descent up through the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

JF: Why do we need to read Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion?

DPAs the current president seeks to revive and celebrate the memory of early U.S. elites such as Andrew Jackson, Indians in the Family reveals the profound violence that propelled these figures to prominence. While many have argued that white impulses such as Jackson’s to adopt Native children are a sign of benevolence, the adoption stories that unfold in the book indicate that both ruling white men and everyday citizens within the United States saw themselves as entitled to own the material resources—and the very lives—of those deemed racially “inferior,” including Native children, not to mention people of African descent. Indeed, the fascinating, compelling, and even horrifying interactions between U.S. whites, Native people, and African Americans indicate that the law and culture of the United States was never oriented around freedom, democracy, or social justice, but was there to prop up white supremacy in general, and white nuclear families in particular. Just as importantly, just as the book illuminates the forms of violence historically supporting and emboldening “white” families in the United States, it shows the complex negotiations people of American Indian and African descent made to claim their bodies, their communities, and their lands as their own.

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

DPI decided to become an American historian because I needed to learn the deep roots of U.S. imperial and white supremacist policies as well as the various resistance strategies that have challenged them. I felt that in order to live ethically in the world that surrounded me, I had to both understand the mechanisms informing European-descended peoples’ vision of themselves as more worthy of material resources and physical safety than anyone else and, as a white women who materially benefits from this history of violence, engage with and support the life-affirming practices that seek to dismantle colonialism.

JF: What is your next project?

DP: My next project continues to explore Native history and its intersections with early U.S. imperialism. In it, I examine how Southeast Indian women navigated extractive U.S. economic policies that aimed to strip Native communities of their economic independence and, in turn, expand Southern slavery into their territories. Focusing on women’s roles in agricultural production, as well as their savvy in local and international trade, I seek to better understand Native women’s efforts in maintaining the economic vibrancy of their communities in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Southeast.

JF: Thanks, Dawn!

Historicizing Violence Against Members of Congress

Congress

Yale historian Joanne Freeman reminds us that violence against members of Congress has a long history in the United States.  In a recent op-ed at The Washington Post, Freeman takes us back to the contentious decades before the Civil War.

Here is a taste:

When House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and four others were shot during baseball practice at a park in Alexandria, Va., on Wednesday morning, it was the third incident of violence involving legislators in recent weeks, and by far the most extreme. On May 24 in Montana, only hours before being elected to the House, Greg Gianforte “body-slammed” Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs for asking a question about health-care policy. Five days later, during an immigration policy protest in the Texas House, Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R) caused a scuffle when he confronted Latino members of the chamber about protesters in the gallery.

This is hardly politics as normal in America. But it’s not unprecedented. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, legislative violence was far more common. State legislatures and Congress sporadically erupted into violence. Lawmakers assaulted each other during debate — in one case in Arkansas, resulting in a death. And occasionally, aggrieved citizens assaulted lawmakers.

During the 1840s and 1850s, Congress was ground zero for legislative violence because it was the epicenter of the nation’s fraught slavery debate. In those two decades alone, there were scores of violent incidents in the House and Senate, including shoving matches, fistfights, guns and knives drawn, canings and the occasional mass brawl.

Read the entire piece here.

More on the Trump-Jackson “Bromance”

OpalThis piece comes from McGill University history professor J.M. Opal, author of the forthcoming Avenging People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation.

Here is a taste of his piece in the New York Daily News:

Bottom line: The Civil War began because of the aggressive expansion of slavery in the 1840s and 1850s, not the tariff disputes of the 1820s and 1830s. If Jackson and the Democrats had continued to run the country, there might have been no Civil War — but there would have been a lot more slavery, for a lot longer. The United States would have become like Cuba and Brazil, weighed down by slavery well into the late 1800s, long after Britain (in 1834) and France (in 1848) had done away with it.

Why does this matter? Trump’s quasi-history hurts us in two ways. First, it glosses over the terrible fact of slavery. To hear it from Trump, Jackson had nothing to do with slavery, which is a bit like saying that Donald Trump has nothing do with real-estate or casinos. And when we forget about slavery, we overlook the terrible effects it had not just on black Americans but also on the overall development of our democracy.

Second, Trump’s version of history only allows men like him to make a difference. Only strongmen matter. Only they can make America great again.

That was not true in the mid-1800s, and it is not true now. Slavery was finally destroyed in our country because of the combined efforts of white abolitionists, black rebels, devout Christians, Yankee trouble-makers, and the Union Army. Abraham Lincoln was pushed to action by people less powerful and more radical than he was.

Read the entire piece here.