Loren Schweninger is Professor Emeritus of History at UNC Greensboro. This interview is based on his new book Appealing for Liberty: Freedom Suits in the South (Oxford University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Appealing for Liberty?
LS: For many years I have been interested in freedom suits in the South, beginning in 1970 when I discovered a suit for a family–Thomas/Rapier–that became the basis for my doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago on James Rapier and Reconstruction. During the period 1991 thru 2009 I headed a project titled “The Race and Petitions Project” at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (now on line at the University with some 60,000 “hits” each month and part of Proquest’s Slavery and the Law Collection”. Most of the freedom Suits in this study come from this collection.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Appealing for Liberty?
LS: The book argues that African Americans were involved in contacting lawyers and bringing the suits to court and that to a surprising degree many among them are successful, in about three fourths of the cases.
JF: Why do we need to read Appealing for Liberty?
LS: Anyone interested in the African American experience, race relations, and the coming of the Civil War should be interested in this volume.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
LS: I became an American historian in 1966 under to tutorship of John Hope Franklin, a life-long mentor and friend. I’m now a professor emeritus, retired in 2012, at the University where I taught African American history for forty years.
JF: What is your next project?
LS: With regard to my next project I’ve been thinking about an examination of Slavery and Freedom in the District of Columbia, but this is in its very early stages.
JF: Thanks, Loren!
Last night on CNN, host James Lemon had African-American public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson on his program. Lemon asked Dyson to respond to the comments Donald Trump made yesterday about historical monuments. Trump said:
So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop.
All day the commentators on CNN have been outraged that Trump would compare Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Dyson responded by saying that Lee and Jackson seceded from the union, while Jefferson and Washington, despite owning slaves, formed a “bulwark” against slavery by articulating the ideals that eventually brought the institution to an end.
On one level, I found Dyson’s comment refreshing. When commentators say that we can’t find a usable past in Western Civilization because it is tainted by the sin of slavery, I often cringe. Yes, Western Civilization has been inherently racist. Yes, Western Civilization brought us slavery. But at the same time, Western Civilization brought us the ideas and ideals–liberty and freedom especially–that were eventually applied to the slavery and ultimately brought it to an end.
I have little patience for defenders of Western Civilization who fail to acknowledge its relationship with race. I have little patience for those who demonize Western Civilization without acknowledging the historical complexity I wrote about above. I read several books and articles this summer that propagated both fallacies.
But when it comes to Jefferson, things are even more complicated than this. If you read Ibram X Kendi’s recent New York Times op-ed you will learn that some of Jefferson’s ideas contributed to secession.
So should the Jefferson monuments come down?
The conversation continues.
(See my last post where I discussed this more fully).
Earlier today I posted a piece from Rod Dreher’s blog about patriotic worship. At the end of the piece I was struck by Dreher’s “update” in which he published a message he received from one of his readers. Here it is:
“Freedom” is not a Bible concept. Nowhere are we exhorted to throw off oppression and liberate ourselves. To the contrary, the Jews were under real oppression at the time of Christ, and he told them to pay taxes to Caesar and obey a soldier’s command to carry his pack. There were many revolutionary bands at the time, men who could not bear the Roman oppression who were determined to fight for independence. And Jesus never supported them or their cause. He really did have no kingdom in this world. The Apostles failed to get this so consistently that even at the Ascension they asked, “Will you at this time restore the fortunes of Israel?” He didn’t. He had no stake in whether Israel was enslaved or free.
This huge emotional connection between throwing off the British yoke, and being grateful for our beautiful country, all there is to legitimately celebrate and express thanks to God for–between that, and the core teaching and message of Christianity, is false.
“Freedom” is not a Biblical concept, but it’s a capitalist concept–it keeps us “free” to choose teal or autumn gold, leather or aluminum, etc, all those tiny forced choices that really are no choice, as Matthew Crawford says. But it feels “free,” and we enjoy the choosing so much, that we emotionally link it with our faith. Bah humbug.
Interesting. There were many Loyalists in America during the age of the American Revolution who made a similar arguments.
Don’t get me wrong, I think freedom, and particularly religious freedom, can be rooted in a Christian view of human dignity. But when I hear my fellow evangelicals talk about “religious freedom” it often sounds like a baptized version of American individualism. Rights and freedoms must always be understood in relationship to the common good. Yet many evangelicals understand religious liberty solely in terms of protection against the potential of government interference with their right to make political statements from the pulpit. True religious “freedom” also comes with duty, service, and care for others and the creation. I know many evangelicals believe this, but how come they never frame things this way?
Thoughts on this?
Donald Trump’s current budget proposal will eliminate government funding for the humanities. This means that local communities and American citizens will need to come up with other ways to fund programs like this:
In 2016, the National Endowment for the Humanities funded courses at colleges and universities across the country focused on these “enduring questions.”
What does it mean to be happy?
When should war end?
How do we grieve and mourn?
What is the purpose of art?
What is freedom?
Who is our neighbor?
What is community?
How do we think about morality as it relates to our habits and our health?
What is comedy?
What is discovery?
How should we think morally about the marketplace?
What is the relationship between the mind and the body?
How might we think theologically about race?
Is time valuable?
Why does our society incarcerate people?
What is creativity?
Learn more about the NEH’s work on “enduring questions” here.
For other posts in this series click here.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
-Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”
As some of you may recall, Edmund Morgan’s 1972 Journal of American History article “Slavery and Freedom” won the 2016 Junto Blog “March Madness” tournament for the best journal article in early American history.
Over at Process: A Blog for American History (the official blog of the Organization of American Historians), Ben Carp of Brooklyn College reflects on the significance of Morgan’s essay. I can’t think of a better person to do this right now. Carp recently published a great essay on Morgan in Reviews in American History and has been tweeting about Morgan in honor of what would have been his 100th birthday (Morgan died in 2013). Follow along at #edmorgan100
Here is a taste of Carp’s post:
“Slavery and Freedom” is an article about Puritans, even though it doesn’t mention them at all; it’s about what happens when you try to colonize a place without them.
The article purports to be about how the Revolutionary leaders’ “dedication to human liberty and dignity” arose alongside “a system of labor that denied human dignity and liberty every hour of the day.” And indeed, we largely remember the piece for articulating “the central paradox of American history”: how the United States emerged as a beacon of freedom when so many African-Americans remained in chains, with entangled repercussions that still define the nation.
And yet the article spends surprisingly little time on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence or Virginia’s slave society, and neither does American Slavery, American Freedom. It’s an irony that Edmund S. Morgan (1916–2013), the article’s author, would have appreciated (call it the “the ‘Paradox’ paradox”): how an unintended argument became his most enduring legacy.
“Slavery and Freedom” began life as Morgan’s presidential address to the Organization of American Historians in April 1972. Morgan had analyzed the Puritan work ethic and the way that the Founders applied it to their rebellion. But when he tried to attribute the ethic to elite slaveowners like Thomas Jefferson, he realized the argument wouldn’t quite hold. So he looked more closely at history of early colonial Virginia to figure out why the South turned out differently. “Slavery and Freedom” was primarily interested in the problems of work and discipline, which led Morgan into discussions of English ideas about debt and idleness, Francis Drake and the Cimarrons, the cultivation of tobacco, the fate of laborers who completed their indentures, and Bacon’s Rebellion.
Read the rest here.