Three new books on the underground railroad

Over at The New Republic historian Eric Herschthal reviews:

Jonathan Daniel Wells, The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War; John Harris, The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage; and Alice Baumgartner, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War.

Here is a taste:

South to Freedom does far more than establish numbers. It is primarily concerned with understanding why the U.S. failed to stop slavery’s expansion, why Mexico did, and using that knowledge to cast the coming of the Civil War in a new light. Baumgartner argues that Mexico’s anti-slavery policies led the South to try to conquer the nation, partly achieving that goal through the U.S.-Mexican War, which lasted from 1846 to 1848. But the South miscalculated. It hoped to reestablish slavery in the territory it acquired from Mexico after the war (what became California, Utah, and the Southwest) but instead fueled an anti-slavery backlash. The Republican Party, established in 1854, refused to allow slavery to expand into Western territories, especially where it had already been abolished—including those seized from Mexico. In this way, Lincoln’s anti-slavery Republican Party, and the abolitionist war it ultimately fought, was partly an outgrowth of Mexican emancipation policies enacted decades earlier.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with John Oldfield

John Oldfield is Professor of Emancipation and Slavery at The University of Hull. This interview is based on his new book, The Ties that Bind: Transatlantic Abolitionism in the Age of Reform, c. 1820-1866 (Liverpool University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Ties that Bind?

JO: I wrote The Ties that Bind in an attempt to challenge more orthodox histories that tend to place antislavery within narrow national contexts, whether American exceptionalism, in the case of the USA, or Britain’s history of humanitarian interventionism. Antislavery, I argue, should be seen as an international movement that rested on dense networks that brought together activists on both sides of the Atlantic. American abolitionists, particularly so-called “second wave” reformers like William Lloyd Garrison, relied heavily on British antecedents and borrowed many of their ideas, whether it was their use of “agents” or antislavery lecturers, the pledging of “parliamentary” candidates or the importance of grass-roots organization. But these influences also flowed the other way and part of my intention in The Ties that Bind was to explore how figures like Garrison influenced British activists, George Thompson being an obvious case in point. There were always limits to international co-operation, perhaps most evident in British reactions to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). For some British reformers, American abolitionism would always seem too sensationalist, too “popular” and even potentially dangerous. This is what Garrison was getting at when he said that British abolitionists “walked in silver slippers.” Antislavery in Britain, he went on, had “never been tried in the fiery furnace, nor compelled to encounter a single storm of persecution, and therefore is no more a test of English character, than is the opposition of Americans to a monarchical form of government.” So, while there were obvious affinities here, there were also important differences. Finally, I wanted to explore the related question of opinion-building, the processes whereby activists turned an idea (that slavery was wrong) into a social movement. This, again, is a transatlantic story but one not without its stresses and strains, as the British reaction to things such as antislavery songs and antislavery performers makes abundantly clear.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Ties that Bind?

JO: Simply put, The Ties that Bind argues that we should see antislavery as an international movement based on close ties that bound together activists on both sides of the Atlantic. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, it stresses the importance of opinion-building techniques and, above all, the role of personality in shaping the abolitionist world of the nineteenth century.

JF: Why do we need to read The Ties that Bind?

JO: I think two points are relevant here. The Ties that Bind, like my previous books, makes the case for seeing antislavery as an international movement. Abolitionists, from Granville Sharp to William Lloyd Garrison, saw themselves as “citizens of the universe” and that outlook dictated their political outlooks, as well as the policy choices they made. American abolitionists learned a great deal from their British counterparts and Garrison, in particular, played on these Atlantic affinities; hence his preoccupation with celebrating 1 August, the anniversary of emancipation in the British Caribbean. Of course, American abolitionism was always more than a pale imitation of British antislavery but it is instructive, I think, to stress the importance of these international “connections.” My second point leads on from the first. One of the things I was keen to do in The Ties that Bind was to emphasize the importance of antislavery for activists today and for broader histories of humanitarianism. I think there are a number of issues at play here. One is the importance of grass-roots organization. On both sides of the Atlantic, abolitionists created complex networks that linked center to periphery, being careful at the same time to give rank-and-file members a chance to air their views. This mix between guidance and independence, I would argue, kept the movement fresh and relevant, and it is a model that has been adopted successfully elsewhere, notably in US campaigns around gun rights, tobacco control and drunk-driving reduction. Another crucial factor, which again has implications for activists today, was the willingness of abolitionists (not all of them, admittedly) to engage with electoral politics. Historians may question the effectiveness of the Liberty Party, to take an obvious example, but there is little doubt in my mind that such initiatives helped to divorce the federal government from the idea of slavery. Finally, as I have already said, antislavery was an international movement, based on close ties that bound together British and American reformers in dense transatlantic networks. Indeed, cosmopolitanism was an important dynamic within nineteenth-century abolitionism, evident in common political attitudes and assumptions that flowed from east to west and from west to east. In this sense, antislavery was never a parochial British or American affair, any more than the US Civil Rights Movement or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa were narrow parochial affairs.

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

JO: I was an undergraduate in the UK during the 1970s, a decade that seemed to be dominated by the USA, not always for the right reasons. Whether it was the Vietnam War or the unfolding drama surrounding the Watergate break-in, it was difficult not to be affected by these events in some way, inside or outside the classroom. The 1970s also witnessed a remarkable outpouring of revisionist studies of US slavery, from John Blassingame’s The Slave Community (1972) to Eugene Genovese’s magisterial Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974). Collectively, these books not only seemed to speak to the contemporary situation in the USA but also to break new ground, not least in their use of sources (slave narratives, for instance) and their openness to other disciplinary approaches. As a result, I found myself drawn to courses on US history and to anything that dealt with the American South or slavery, race, and identity. I guess this was the start of my journey towards becoming an American historian. After graduating, I went on to graduate school, choosing to write my PhD thesis on the nineteenth-century black leader, Alexander Crummell (1819-1898). Over the past forty years, my research interests have broadened and today I would consider myself as much a historian of the Atlantic World, as an American historian. I have also developed a lifelong interest in the history of antislavery, both at a national and international level. But I have always taught US history and in many ways The Ties that Bind marks a return to many of the themes that first excited me as an undergraduate.

JF: What is your next project?

JO: Good question! I am currently co-editing a volume on European colonial heritage, which should appear in the second half of 2021. Beyond that, I want to build on the work I did in The Ties that Bind on William Lloyd Garrison and George Thompson, using it as a template to explore other transatlantic friendships that centered on reform. Then there is the ongoing debate here in the UK about the history and legacy of slavery, which is bound to quicken in pace as we inch ever closer to 2033 and the bicentenary of emancipation in the British Caribbean. Now more than ever there is a need for an “integrated” history of British antislavery, which not only commemorates the achievements of people like William Wilberforce but also recognizes Britain’s deep and tragic involvement in both the slave trade and the wider business of slavery.

JF: Thanks, John!

The Author’s Corner with Hannah-Rose Murray

Hannah-Rose Murray is Early Career Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the creator of a virtual Black Abolitionist tour of London, highlighting six important sites where African American activists made an impact on the UK landscape. This interview is based on her new book, Advocates of Freedom: African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Advocates for Freedom?

HM: The book developed from my PhD project, which focused on Black abolitionism in the British Isles during the nineteenth century. When I first started my research, I collated thousands of newspaper articles about Frederick Douglass’ visit to Britain and Ireland between 1845-1847, and after reading the pioneering works of Richard Blackett and Audrey Fisch realized that there was a wealth of material and sources to search through and uncover the larger story behind this transatlantic movement. I was fascinated to learn why Douglass was so famous and I developed a framework, adaptive resistance, which explores the reason why some activists were more successful than others: broadly, it’s a triad that rests on performance, antislavery networks and exploitation of print culture. For example, one of the reasons why Douglass was so successful in 1845 was due to his oratorical skill, his connections to William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery movement and friends across Britain and Ireland, who in turn befriended newspaper editors and published pamphlets and materials to maximise support for Douglass and the abolitionist cause. Others, like Moses Roper, were maligned in the press by newspaper correspondents and by some abolitionists; he often had to make his own way around Britain without such concrete networks of support. Through excavating British newspaper articles, I could analyze their performances, their testimony and how they were received by the press and public across the nineteenth century, and how certain events–like the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the American Civil War impacted their missions. Additionally, I created a mapping project that attempts to record as many African American speaking locations as possible. So far, I’ve mapped 4,700 sites in 1,550 locations across Britain and Ireland. As well as being a handy visualization tool for my research, it also presents numerous analytical patterns: why certain activists spoke in some locations rather than others and even how some followed early railway routes for ease of transportation. This filtered into the book too.

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

HM: I argue that by sharing their oratorical, visual, and literary testimony to transatlantic audiences, African American activists galvanised the antislavery movement and highlighted not only their death-defying escapes from bondage but also their desire to speak out against slavery and white supremacy on foreign soil. Using a framework I term adaptive resistance, I uncover the reasons why some activists were more successful than others, why they visited certain locations, how they adapted to the political and social climate, and what impact their activism had on British society.

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

HM: The politicized and radical journeys undertaken by African Americans to the British Isles are crucial to understanding their testimony and future careers, but also the antislavery movement and the Black Atlantic as a whole. For the first time, my book reveals new testimony and archival discoveries surrounding the stories of Moses Roper, Frederick Douglass and Josiah Henson (to name a few) and uses digital mapping to analyze their antislavery missions as well as a theoretical framework to determine why some activists were more successful than others. In this detailed study, I examine how in Britain and Ireland, thousands of slave narratives and abolitionist pamphlets were sold, petitions were signed, hundreds of pounds were raised for societies or given directly to help purchase individuals or their family members from slavery. Thousands more attended meetings at chapels, town halls, school rooms and lecturing halls, who often queued for hours beforehand and millions of words were written in response to Black activists and their stories of slavery. These activists challenged misconceptions of slavery, advanced the cause of abolition and mobilized public opinion. Through their interventions with the press, correspondents published Black abolitionist letters, speeches and commentaries, and their message was spread often beyond their immediate reach or where they had lectured. Their tireless activism often created and sustained antislavery momentum across the transatlantic, and their international missions inspired further action as well as apoplectic rage in the United States.

My work is also timely: as the Black Lives Matter protests continue to take place around the world, it’s important to recognize that the activists I discuss were declaring that their Black lives mattered nearly two centuries ago. It’s well documented that the movement has strong historical roots, but my chapter on Ida B. Wells’ lynching campaign in Britain in 1893 and 1894 is particularly prescient when we consider the modern lynchings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The book highlights not only the trajectory between activists in the c19th and today, but also how far we still have to go to accomplish their anti-racist missions.

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

HM: I have always loved learning about U.S. history since I was a teenager and was very lucky to visit America a few times when I was studying in secondary school. I started working on Frederick Douglass’ experiences in Britain ten years ago, achieved my PhD in 2018 and haven’t looked back since! My work centres around the rediscovery and amplification of African American testimony–including from Frederick Douglass–to ensure that their lives, histories and memories are no longer invisibilized. Their testimony can also shine a new light on their courageous and inspiring activism on both sides of the Atlantic and remind us that antislavery agitation had a fundamental transatlantic element. Activists like Douglass believed that their missions abroad would have very real consequences for enslavers, proslavery defenders, and racists back home.

JF: What is your next project?

HM: I envision Advocates of Freedom as part of a trilogy: this current work is quite broad and extends from the late 1830s to the early 1890s, so the project I’m working on now is a focused study between 1840-1870. I’m studying the ways in which African Americans used visual and performative testimony in the British Isles to convince the transatlantic public about slavery. For example, Moses Roper exhibited whips, chains and manacles on the Victorian stage and even demonstrated how they worked to his audiences. Henry ‘Box’ Brown, the infamous activist, lecturer and entertainer who escaped slavery by posting himself in a box from Richmond to Philadelphia, starred in a play based on his own life in Kent, England. Other activists like James C. Thompson wrote his own poetry and performed it to his audiences and exhibited paintings of his life in slavery. It’s fascinating to consider how activists used growing technological and visual mediums to inform audiences and entice them to their lectures.

The third book in this ‘trilogy’ (if it does get that far!) will focus on African American postbellum activism in the British Isles. Activists continued to travel to Britain and Ireland and followed in the footsteps of their forebears to raise awareness and educate transatlantic audiences on global racism. Additionally, they campaigned around the fact that, contrary to popular belief, U.S. chattel slavery had never actually died. Instead, its foul spirit had mutated and evolved into practices such as lynching and the convict lease system, which preserved the legacies of centuries of oppression. While antebellum slave narratives and speeches distinctly served the purpose of abolition, post-war testimony–particularly in oratorical form–was specifically shaped around abolition’s broken promises. They continued to denounce white supremacy, challenge Lost Cause narratives and white domestic terrorism up to the early twentieth century.

JF: Thanks, Hannah-Rose!

What an anti-slavery newspaper said about white Jesus

Anti-Slavery bugle

Remember a couple of weeks ago when court evangelical Eric Metaxas said Jesus was white? Me too.

Here is Peter Manseau, the curator of religion at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History:

Here is more on Hezekiah Ford Douglas.

Browse more issues of the Anti-Slavery Bugle here.

The Bible: Whites Used It to Justify Slavery and Africans Used It to Promote Freedom

Slave Bible 2

Check out Julie Zauzmer’s nice piece on the Bible and slavery at The Washington Post.  It draws from some of the best scholars on slavery, American religion, and the Bible, including Mark Noll and Yolanda Pierce.  Here is a taste:

As America commemorates the 400th anniversary of the creation of representative government in what would become the United States, and the first documented recording of captive Africans being brought to its shores, it is also grappling with the ways the country justified slavery. Nowhere is that discussion more fraught than in its churches.

“Christianity was proslavery,” said Yolanda Pierce, the dean of the divinity school at Howard University. “So much of early American Christian identity is predicated on a proslavery theology. From the naming of the slave ships, to who sponsored some of these journeys including some churches, to the fact that so much of early American religious rhetoric is deeply intertwined . . . with slaveholding: It is proslavery.” Some Christian institutions, notably Georgetown University in the District, are engaged in a reckoning about what it means that their past was rooted in slaveholding. But others have not confronted the topic. “In a certain sense, we’ve never completely come to terms with that in this nation,” Pierce said.

The Africans who were brought to America from 1619 onward carried with them diverse religious traditions. About 20 to 30 percent were Muslim, Pierce said. Some had learned of Christianity before coming to America, but many practiced African spiritual traditions.

Early on, many slaveholders were not concerned with the spiritual well-being of Africans. But few had qualms about using Christianity to justify slavery.

Some theologians said it was providence that had brought Africans to America as slaves, since their enslavement would allow them to encounter the Christian message and thus their eternal souls would be saved, said Mark Noll, a historian of American Christianity.

Read the entire piece here.

Masur: Abraham Lincoln Salvaged the Thomas Jefferson “We Desire from the One Who Lived”


Rutgers University historian Louis Masur argues that Abraham Lincoln took a document written by a Virginia slaveholder and used it to advance a free society.

Here is a taste of his piece at The American Scholar:

It took Lincoln to salvage the Jefferson we desire from the one who lived. Lincoln grounded his understanding of the nation on the Declaration of Independence and argued time and again that the phrase all men are created equal included blacks. “All honor to Jefferson,” proclaimed Lincoln. The Declaration “set up a standard maxim for free society . . . constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.”

Lincoln embraced gradual, deliberate change and exemplified that approach. He too had believed in white superiority: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. … There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together.” Lincoln supported colonization, though he realized it was not possible on a large scale. He always hated slavery, but as president refused at first to act against the institution or make provisions for whites and blacks to live peacefully in freedom.

The Civil War compelled Lincoln to bring Jefferson’s maxim of a free society to fruition. We can watch him change his mind over time. He moved from saying he could not attack slavery where it existed to freeing slaves in Confederate areas not under Union control, and then advocating for a 13th Amendment abolishing it throughout the United States; he shifted from embracing colonization to authorizing the enlistment of black soldiers; he stopped believing that blacks could not attain political equality and, in the last speech he ever gave, publicly endorsed black suffrage. Thinking about Lincoln, civil rights activist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois exclaimed, “I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed.”

Read the entire piece here.

Trump’s War on the Press in Historical Context


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.

Romans 13 in American History

Romans-13I wrote a little bit about Romans 13 and the American Revolution in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  Over at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz notes that this New Testament passage was also used frequently in the 1840s and 1850s during the debates over slavery.

Here is a taste:

Even at its peak of popularity in the early 1840s, Romans 13:2 still appears only half as often as the single most popular verse for that time period (Luke 18:16, which generally is 5-20 times as common in the corpus as the two verses from Romans 13).

Not surprisingly, when Romans 13 did enter American public discourse at this time, it was usually as part of the national debate over slavery. In 1839, for example, a Congregationalist minister named William Mitchell quoted that passage in support of his argument that “Civil government, however corrupt, is an institution of God.” Orson S. Murray, the abolitionist editor of The Vermont Telegraph, was appalled:

“No matter then how corrupt the government—from the corrupt, hypocritical republic that establishes by law and holds in existence a most abhorrent and diabolical system of robbery, and lust, and murder, down through all the grades of aristocracy and monarchy, originating in, or originating—as a large proportion of them do—popery, Mahomedanism, and idolatry, in all their degrading, dehumanizing, man-destroying, God-dishonoring forms—all, all these corrupt and corrupting institutions are the workmanship of an all-wise, and holy, and just God!!! The consummate absurdity—not to say the involved shocking impiety and blasphemy—of deliberately and intelligently holding to such sentiments, lies out on the face of the declaration. To expose them, it needs no argument or comment. I would not be understood as denouncing, outright, friend Mitchell, as a blasphemer. I am altogether willing to attribute the monstrous heresy to ‘blindness of mind’—the habit of taking upon trust long received opinions—rather than to perverseness of heart.”

Read the rest here.

America’s First Anti-Slavery Statute

PujaraIt was passed in 1652 in Rhode Island colony.  It applied to Warwick and Providence. It banned lifetime ownership of slavery.  It was probably never enforced.

Olivia Waxman explains it all at Time.  Her piece centers around the work of Christy Clark-Pujara in Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island.  Some of you may recall that Clark-Pujara visited the Author’s Corner in August 2016.

Here is a taste of Waxman’s piece:

Slavery in the United States wasn’t abolished at the federal level until after the Civil War, but on this day in history, May 18, 1652, the first anti-slavery statute in the U.S. colonies was passed in what’s now the state of Rhode Island. (The statute only applied to white and black people, but in 1676, the enslavement of Native Americans was also prohibited in the state.) While it sounds like Rhode Island was ahead of its time — and, in some ways, it was — what actually happened was complicated.

Though Rhode Island’s Quaker population was starting to question slavery and the relatively young colony was looking for ways to differentiate itself from neighboring Massachusetts, the statute was very limited. For one thing, the law, which only applied to Providence and Warwick, banned lifetime ownership of slaves. For periods of 10 years or less, it was still permitted to essentially own another person, as an indentured servent. And it’s not as if, 10 years after the statute was passed, people let their slaves go.

“There’s no evidence that it was ever enforced,” says Christy Clark-Pujara, author of Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island and professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

One possible reason is that Rhode Island also couldn’t afford to enforce a ban on slavery. The colony dominated the North American trade of slaves, with Newport is the major slave-trading port in North America. New England farms at this point weren’t producing anything that England wasn’t already producing, so England didn’t need these things, which meant that the region served as supplier instead for the West Indies and the large slave population of that region. In return for the food and housewares sent from the U.S. to the West Indies, New England got molasses, which it used to distill rum, and Rhode Island actually became the number-one exporter of rum.

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.

Democracy Cannot Thrive Amid Violence: A Lesson from Kansas

bleeding-kansasMichael Woods, a history professor at Marshall University and the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border, reminds us that Americans must “reaffirm our dedication to democracy as a process” in the midst of this current election campaign.

Here is a taste of his Journal of the Civil War Era piece on “Bleeding Kansas.”

In our own superheated political climate, Bleeding Kansas might seem disturbingly familiar. Born out of disillusionment and desperation, the struggle in Kansas Territory bred a self-righteous refusal to accept the legitimacy of political rivals – and ultimately released a wave of violence. Whether they fought to protect property, preserve racial privilege, or promote an ideology, participants justified fraud, intimidation, and murder by demonizing their foes. History offers few clear-cut lessons, but it is apparent that democracy cannot thrive amid violence, hectoring, and intolerance. It is precisely when our confidence in “politics as usual” has been shaken that we must shun the temptation to take shortcuts to victory. It is precisely in the high-stakes elections, the ones we are most loath to lose, that we must reaffirm our dedication to democracy as a process. When the process breaks down, everyone loses.

Read the entire post here.

And see our Author’s Corner interview with Woods on his earlier book Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States.

The Author’s Corner with Julie Holcomb

HolcombJulie L. Holcomb is Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Department of Museum Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.  This interview is based on her new book  Moral Commerce: Quakers and the Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy (Cornell University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Moral Commerce?

JH: I learned of the free produce movement while writing an undergraduate paper about the Progressive-era labor reformer Florence Kelley. Kelley’s aunt Sarah Pugh was an abolitionist who abstained from the use of sugar and cotton. Several years later, when I encountered free produce a second time, in Betty Fladeland’s Men and Brothers, I remembered Kelley’s description of her aunt Sarah. I was intrigued and I was curious about this apparently international consumer movement against slavery. I wondered why so little had been written about this movement. I wrote Moral Commerce because I wanted to know more about the men and women who boycotted slave-labor goods. It seemed like a bold idea — boycott slave-labor goods to force the abolition of slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Moral Commerce?

JHMoral Commerce traces the genealogy of the boycott of slave labor, bringing together in a single narrative the stories of the Quakers, women, and black abolitionists who challenged the economic status quo and demanded the abolition of slavery. That they failed to achieve their goal is not evidence of their lack of commitment. Nor is their failure necessarily evidence of idealism or sentimentalism, though they were admittedly guilty on both counts. Rather their failure to force slave labor goods from the market is evidence of just how important slave labor was to the global economy.

JF: Why do we need to read Moral Commerce?

JH: Abolitionist historiography is a rich and diverse field. Moral Commerce contributes to that historiography in several ways. First, Moral Commerce is the first book to examine the breadth of the boycott of slave labor. I place the boycott within its transatlantic context and trace its development over more than hundred years of activism. This allows me to explore how different groups of activists interpreted the boycott, which leads to some interesting comparisons such as the different motivations for women’s activism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Focusing on the breadth of the movement proved challenging, however. Of necessity, I had to limit some discussions. For example, in her short work on the American free produce movement, Ruth Nuermberger devotes an entire chapter to the Quaker activist George W. Taylor. In my work, Taylor receives less coverage because I felt it necessary to tell other stories. Second, the boycott idea had a long history. Before activists talked about colonization, gradualism, or immediatism, there were Quakers who were calling for abstention from slave-labor goods as a protest against slavery. My book is also a reminder of the long history of consumer activism. Many of the tactics we use in modern consumer movements were first introduced by antislavery consumers: door-to-door canvassing, labeling of approved goods, and targeted appeals. Before the colonists boycotted British goods, there were Quakers like Benjamin Lay who refused to benefit in any way from slave labor. Finally, reading Moral Commerce alongside recent works on slavery and capitalism highlights just how much the global economy relied on slave labor. Books such as Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told emphasize the economic strength of the slave-labor economy. It makes clear how difficult it would be for men such as Jacob de Cordova, Edward Atkinson, George W. Taylor, and others to turn Texas into a major source of free-labor cotton for conscientious consumers. Moral Commerce brings the consumer into these conversations about slavery and capitalism.

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

JH: When I went back to college in my thirties, I struggled with identifying a major. I wanted to major in literature and creative writing, but as a wife and mother I felt I needed to be more practical in my choices. I knew for certain that I did not want to major in history. At the recommendation of a friend, however, I took a course with Larry Lipin, the American history professor at Pacific University where I did my undergraduate work. By the end of that semester, I had dropped my literature major and added a history major. Over the next three years, I took every history course Larry taught, including his course on American labor history (his area of specialization). Still, I wasn’t sure what I would do with a history degree. Prior to starting college, I had worked in a variety jobs, including retail sales, banking, and public and school libraries. After I added the history major to my degree plan and after talking with my husband, I thought I would pursue graduate work in library science and history with the goal of becoming an academic librarian. When I talked to Larry about this idea, he suggested instead a career in archives. That conversation changed everything! I spent two years working in the Pacific University Archives before applying to graduate programs in archives and history. When I graduated from Pacific, I had envisioned a career working in a labor history archive such as the collection at Wayne State University. Instead, after I finished my master’s degree, I worked for eight years as archivist and then director of a Civil War and western art museum while I finished my PhD in transatlantic history. I am starting my ninth year teaching in the museum studies program at Baylor. I enjoy the opportunity I have to maintain such a broad focus, researching and writing about history while teaching about archives and museum studies, and helping students understand the connections among those fields.

JF: What is your next project?

JH: I am in the early stages of a book project about Orthodox Quakers in the nineteenth century, specifically the Philadelphia Quaker George W. Taylor who appears in Moral Commerce. From the 1840s through the 1860s, Taylor was one of the primary Orthodox Quaker proponents of free produce. He ran a free produce store in Philadelphia, operated a cotton mill, and published the Non-Slaveholder. Since the 1940s that has been the standard story of Taylor. In the last few years, the Quaker Collection at Haverford College has received several donations of Taylor papers from the family. Reviewing those materials in the course of my work on Moral Commerce, I realized that there was much more to Taylor than his support of free produce. I am broadly interested in the relationship between Orthodox Quakers and the reform movements of the nineteenth century. In 1827, in an event that one historian describes as “the greatest tragedy of Quaker history,” American Friends divided into two distinct groups: Hicksite and Orthodox. That split led Quakers to scrutinize their beliefs and practices, including Friends’ participation in the various reform movements of the period, especially the antislavery movement. Orthodox Quakers have been largely absent from the story of Quakers and abolitionism. Generally, when historians talk about Quakers and reform, the focus tends to shift toward Hicksite Quakers such as Lucretia Mott and Amy Kirby Post, among others, who were active in abolitionism and women’s rights. Less well known are the stories of Orthodox Quakers like Taylor. Yet, in 1875 Taylor shared the stage with Mott and other abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, at the centennial celebration of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. For me that event suggests that historians have missed the significance of Taylor’s activism. Admittedly, Taylor’s views were never as radical as those of Mott and Post. (In the 1830s Angelina Grimké denounced Taylor as a “rank colonizationist.”) Still, the story of Taylor’s activism in the peace, temperance, and women’s rights movements as well as the free produce and antislavery movements is an important counterpoint to the story of Hicksites like Mott and Post.

JF: Thanks, Julie

The Author’s Corner with Corey M. Brooks

LibertyPowerCorey M. Brooks is Assistant Professor of History at York College of Pennsylvania. This interview is based on his new book, Liberty Power: Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics (American Beginnings, 1500-1900) (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Liberty Power?

CB: I wrote Liberty Power to highlight how political abolitionists transformed national politics in the decades leading up to the Civil War.  In traditional texts I had read as a young student of American history, what seemed to me the most important radical American social movement appeared surprisingly disconnected from the greatest political rupture in the nation’s history.  In conducting my undergraduate thesis research on John Quincy Adams’s interactions with abolitionists during his post-presidential congressional career, however, I was struck by the forceful, purposeful, and often highly effective efforts of political abolitionists to influence congressional debates.  As I delved more deeply into literature on the coming of the Civil War, I found that analyses of American antislavery activism and sectional political conflict were only rarely in dialogue with each other.  Liberty Power returns the crucial antislavery third-party politics of Liberty and Free Soil Parties to the center of our national political story.

JF:  In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Liberty Power?

CB: Liberty Power illuminates how a relatively small but sophisticated group of abolitionist activists exercised outsized political influence and helped fundamentally destabilize the proslavery Second Party System of Whigs and Democrats.   In pioneering and popularizing the rhetorically potent and politically critical Slave Power argument, political abolitionists built a countervailing “liberty power” that laid the groundwork for slavery to become the central issue in national politics.

JF: Why do we need to read Liberty Power?

CB: Liberty Power shows how a radical social movement encountered, identified, and triumphed over grave structural political obstacles.  This story helps us understand the fundamental role of antislavery in causing the Civil War. Far from being naïve idealists or stumbling into unforeseen controversies, political abolitionists directly and intentionally helped force the nation to confront and resolve the deep conflict between freedom and slavery (even if most couldn’t anticipate the scale of the bloodshed such a resolution would require).  Liberty Power helps us better understand both the coming of the Civil War and the nature of American abolitionism, but it is also suggestive of how we might think about the broader history of political change in America and the potential impact of a third party.  Readers of Liberty Power will see how intelligent and passionate political activists overcame daunting odds to reshape American politics.  They managed to succeed not only because of their deeply held moral convictions but also because they understood that to transform the national political system they had to become careful, thoughtful students of how American political institutions worked.  

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

CB: As is the case for many historians, inspirational teachers deserve much of the credit.  The most important was my undergraduate mentor at Penn, the late Robert F. Engs. A few dedicated high school teachers pushed me to work hard at, and come to love, studying history, so I entered college knowing I would major in history, and I always gravitated to American history in particular out of my desire to understand the evolution of the society, and especially the political system, in which I live.  But it was working with Bob Engs as a research assistant annotating a collection of Civil War letters (which we later co-edited and published as Their Patriotic Duty: The Civil War Letters of the Evans Family of Brown County, Ohio [Fordham, 2007]) that convinced me to become a professional historian.  Bob, in his characteristically generous, unassuming style, taught me to love the research process, as he presented me with seemingly small, but often surprisingly complex, assignments designed to generate footnotes contextualizing material in the letters. In completing these serial mini-research projects, I came, I presume by Bob’s design, to embrace the many challenges and occasional thrills of historical research.

JF: What is your next project?

CB: I have a couple of long-term projects in development further exploring the intersection of race, social activism, and political institutions in nineteenth-century America, but more immediately, I am working on an article on public memory of Roger Taney in Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington D.C.  In the years just after Taney’s 1864 death, Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner defeated a congressional effort to memorialize the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision, while the Maryland legislature, by contrast, commissioned a monumental Taney statue to stand (as it still does) in the most prominent place of honor on the statehouse grounds.  My project will contribute to the Civil War memory studies literature by encouraging us to also rethink the sculpting (literally and figuratively) of public memory of antebellum conflicts.  Historicizing the Taney statue in Annapolis and its replica installed a decade and a half later in Baltimore will shed light on how white Marylanders’ public memory of antebellum conflicts reflected and reinforced the disheartening postbellum racial climate.

JF: Thanks, Corey!

The Author’s Corner with Adam Wesley Dean

Adam Dean is Assistant Professor of history at Lynchburg College. This interview is based on his new book, An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era (University of North Carolina Press, December 2014).

JF: What led you to write An Agrarian Republic?

AD: The project began in a legal history class I took during graduate school at the University of Virginia. Like many graduate students, I was trying to figure out a dissertation project during my third year in the Ph.D. program. Professor Charles McCurdy, now retired, suggested I examine an 1872 court case entitled Hutchings v. Low for a seminar paper. The case, which involved the very survival of Yosemite as a nature park, opened up a whole new world that I needed to explore.

The main opponent of Yosemite, George W. Julian, was a Radical Republican from Indiana. Julian was concerned that state and national parks threatened land rights for small farmers in the West. I discovered that many northerners during the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s believed that small farms provided for the best land use practices and helped create the ideal society. Their vision of the future for both the South and the West was fundamentally agrarian. This story differed from the tired cliché repeated ad nauseam about the Civil War–that it was a conflict between an “industrial” North and an “agrarian” South. After all, farmers comprised roughly sixty percent of the population in the free states in 1860. 

I wrote the book to not only show that the North was agrarian, but also to demonstrate how northerners’ backgrounds as farmers shaped their views towards politics, land-use, and slavery. 

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of An Agrarian Republic?

AD: The Republican Party of the Civil War era believed that small farm ownership for multiple generations led to material prosperity, national loyalty, and physical beauty. Understanding 19th-century Republicans as small farmers helps explain their opposition to slavery in the West, wartime Union policy, the opposition to nature parks, and the land redistribution schemes of Reconstruction. 

JF: Why do we need to read An Agrarian Republic?

AD: Historians cannot hope to understand the debate over slavery in the West, soldier’s reactions to plantation agriculture, and the early opposition to Yosemite and Yellowstone without understanding the agrarian world that the Republican Party grew out of.
I believe that the Republican Party also had new ideas about land use in American history. When I started An Agrarian Republic, I was tempted to label the Republican promotion of small farms as an extension of Thomas Jefferson’s agrarianism. Unlike Jefferson, however, Republicans believed that slavery destroyed the land. This misuse of nature, they believed, created an autocratic and aristocratic society. 

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

AD: Wow, what a difficult question! I became interested in U.S. History in high school thanks to some particularly engaging teachers. Growing up in Utah, however, the Civil War was never really on the radar. When I attended college at UCLA, I planned on becoming a lawyer. Dr. Joan Waugh, who is the Civil War and 19th-century expert in the UCLA history department, convinced me it was possible to become a history professor. I decided to apply to Ph.D. programs during my final year of study at UCLA. I was admitted to the University of Virginia and had the honor to serve as Dr. Gary W. Gallagher’s advisee and to work with Drs. Michael F. Holt, Edward L. Ayers, Brian Balogh, Peter Onuf, and Edmund P. Russell. 

JF: What is your next project?

AD: My next book will focus on the role of non-elite southern whites during Reconstruction. The working title is “White Trash and Oppressed Yeomen: How Impressions of Non-Slaveholding Whites Shaped Republican Policy.” While many historians, including Heather Cox Richardson, Eric Foner, William Gienapp, Michael Les Benedict, Eugene Berwanger, Jonathan Earle, William Freehling, Mark Lause, and myself have examined the origins of the Republican Party and its policies, few have explored the party’s attitudes towards non-slaveholding southern whites. 

By contrast, I intend to study Republican perceptions of non-slaveholding southern whites from the party’s inception in 1854 through the end of Reconstruction. From the early days of the party through the end of Reconstruction, Republicans viewed non-slaveholding whites as decrepit and ignorant because slaveholders prevented the poorer classes in southern society from achieving material progress. Republican views on non-slaveholding whites were key to the construction of the party’s most powerful message in the 1850s–the existence and malevolence of the “slave power.” These impressions also informed Republican behavior during the secession crisis and opening years of the Civil War. Fordham University Press awarded this book project a contract in July 2014. It should be out in late 2016.

JF: Looking forward to reading it! Thanks Adam.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Frederick Douglass in Britain

Douglass, circa 1847-52

Did you know that Frederick Douglass spent nearly two years in the British Isles delivering anti-slavery lectures?  Hannah-Rose Murray, a public historian trained at Royal Holloway, has assembled a very impressive website chronicling Douglass’s 1845-47 journey to Great Britain.  The site includes, among other things, a map of Douglass’s speaking locations, local reaction to his lectures, and some useful teaching resources.

Learn more about this project by reading Murray’s post at History@Work.  Here is a taste:

I began researching his British trip during my Masters degree, but it has now grown into a fully-fledged project! I designed some teaching resources and then a website to host them, and I’ve been adding to it ever since. Contemporary newspapers are at the heart of my research: they printed Douglass’s speeches and fascinating letters from the public praising or condemning his harsh language against slavery. Ultimately, the aim of my research is to raise awareness of Douglass’s visit to Britain, and hopefully start an international conversation about the impact of his trip.