David Barton says 19th-century Christians who used the Bible to defend slavery were “the exception, not the rule”

Watch:

There are a lot of historical problems with this video, but the one of the most overt problems is Barton’s claim that most 19th-century Americans were abolitionists. Apparently Barton believes that those who used the Bible to defend slavery were the “exception to the rule.” The only way such a statement is true is if you believe that the South was not part of the United States during the era of slavery. I am sure Barton knows that the Southern Baptist Church, the largest Protestant denomination in America today, was born out of a reading of the Bible that justified slavery. Exception to the rule?

Barton also confuses slavery and racism. (The conversation takes place in the context of a condemnation of the Black Lives Matter movement). He claims that 75% of New England clergy signed a petition condemning slavery. I don’t know if this is true, but I don’t think it would surprise any historian that 75% of New England clergy would sign such a petition. This region was the center of anti-slavery activism in the 1850s.

But even in New England, segregation and racism was present, if not dominant. Systemic racism was deeply embedded in the region’s culture. I would encourage Barton to read Joanne Pope Melish’s Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England ,1780-1860. Here is a description of the book:

Melish explores the origins of racial thinking and practices to show how ill-prepared the region was to accept a population of free people of color in its midst. Because emancipation was gradual, whites transferred prejudices shaped by slavery to their relations with free people of color, and their attitudes were buttressed by abolitionist rhetoric which seemed to promise riddance of slaves as much as slavery. She tells how whites came to blame the impoverished condition of people of color on their innate inferiority, how racialization became an important component of New England ante-bellum nationalism, and how former slaves actively participated in this discourse by emphasizing their African identity.

As some of you know, I have been reading David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass. Blight notes how Douglass faced overt racism in New England following his escape from slavery. Here is just one small passage from Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom:

The distances between the young abolitionist’s private and public lives were thrown into stark contrast, which would only grow with time. Twice in September [of 1841] Douglass was insulted, accosted, or thrown off the Eastern Railroad, the second instance occurring at the Lynn depot. On September 8, Collins and Douglass had purchased train tickets in Newburyport to travel north to Dover, New Hampshire, to speak at the Strafford County Anti-Slavery Society. The two were sitting in one double seat as the gruff conductor ordered Douglass to immediately move forward to the Jim Crow car. For Douglass such constant practices of segregation were always about dignity, as much as the “mean, dirty, and uncomfortable” space of Jim Crow cars. Collins vehemently objected on behalf of his black companion….With the conductor’s “little fist flourished about my head,” Collins reported, he too was ordered to leave the car. “If you haul him out, it will be over my person, as I do not intend to leave this seat,” proclaimed Collins. The conductor brought in several of the railroad’s hired thugs to do the deed. With Collins loudly protesting this was “no less than lynch law,” five men dragged the strong Douglass over Collins’s unmoved body, “like so many bloodhounds,” and “thrust him into the ‘negro car.'” In the fracas, Douglass’s clothes were torn and Collins described himself as “considerably injured in the affray.” Not missing an opportunity to make a Garrisonian doctrinal point, Collins told of a second conductor who went into the Negro car to console Douglass with the intelligence the railroad’s policy was not so bad after all, since so many churches “have their ‘negro pews.'”

Please don’t get your American history from David Barton.

The Author’s Corner with William Barney

Rebels in the makingWilliam Barney is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This interview is based on his new book, Rebels in the Making: The Secession Crisis and the Birth of the Confederacy (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Rebels in the Making?

WB: A life-long interest in the Civil War era, probably spurred on by reading Bruce Catton’s books back in high school, led me into teaching and writing U.S. history as a career. During my graduate years at Columbia my interest in the Civil War focused on trying to understand the motives behind Southern secession, the underlying theme running through Rebels in the Making.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Rebels in the Making?

WB: In Rebels in the Making I argue that secession was not a mass democratic movement, but one led from above by a strategically placed minority of slaveholders. What drove secession was the need to protect slavery from the perceived threat posed by the coming to power of the antislavery Republican Party.

JF: Why do we need to read Rebels in the Making?

WB: Rebels in the Making is the first comprehensive, one-volume study of secession in all fifteen slave states, and it places secession in the economic, cultural, and social context of a maturing slave society in which, by the 1850s, opportunities for upward mobility were shrinking for non-slaveholders at the very time that the antislavery, free labor movement in the North was threatening to close off federal territories to the spread of slavery. Secession was designed to resolve this dual crisis while simultaneously demonstrating to the world the moral justice and superiority of slavery as a social system.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the source material you worked with in the writing and researching of Rebels in the Making. 

WB: I cast a broad net in searching for source materials–personal letters, diaries, and journals; slave narratives; legislative and judicial records; religious sermons; and newspapers. As much as possible, the voices of non-traditional political actors such as women, African Americans, and common whites are included.

JF: What is your next project?

WB: Currently, I’m researching how and why the near unity behind the Confederacy achieved in the spring of 1861 unraveled as the war proceeded. Among the issues I’m exploring are the depth of Confederate nationalism; the role of class in Confederate dissent; the Confederate army as a nationalizing agent; and the factors behind the soldier-civilian divide which widened as the war dragged on.

JF: Thanks, William!

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!

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 Jonathan Daniel Wells

Blind No MoreJonathan Daniel Wells is Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. This interview is based on his new book, Blind No More: African American Resistance, Free-Soil Politics, and the Coming of the Civil War (University of Georgia Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Blind No More?

DW: Although much of my work so far has focused on southern history, several years ago I became interested in the evolution of free soil thinking. Based on the reading I did in primary sources like newspapers, manuscripts, and sermons, I concluded that the genesis for shifting antebellum public opinions on slavery was rooted in the crisis over fugitive slaves. Because enslaved people persistently and at great personal risk fled bondage, they forced white northern voters and politicians to rethink their relationship with the South and their obligations to return runaways under the Constitution.

Blind no More is the print version of the Lamar Lectures that I was honored to deliver in 2017. One of the goals for such lectures is to be provocative, so I wanted to accomplish two primary goals. I placed African Americans at the heart of our understanding of Civil War causation and I made the case that given the parameters in place after the ratification of the Constitution there was a certain inevitability to the outbreak of civil conflict.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Blind No More?

DW: The book is really about how free state voters between 1820 and 1861 came to question the value of the Constitution, and the central role of African Americans in fostering that reevaluation. We often think about the coming of the Civil War as a product of hardening of southern views on bondage, but the free states underwent their own dramatic and important shift in thinking about the Union and the Constitution, a shift that contributed significantly to the coming of the Civil War.

JF: Why do we need to read Blind No More?

DW: Over the past few years, we have benefited from a number of important works on nineteenth-century African Americans, abolitionism, and the Fugitive Slave Law by leading scholars like Richard Blackett, Manisha Sinha, Leslie Harris, and Martha Jones, just to name a few. Other scholars like Corey Brooks and Rachel Shelden have contributed important works on antebellum politics. Blind no More seeks to connect our increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the black experience with our understandings of partisan politics in the antebellum North.

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

DW: I was privileged in that my father was a literature professor of what used to be called the “American Renaissance,” so I knew what becoming an academic would look like. I became interested in antebellum American history mostly through curiosity about the lively political battles of the period, especially between the Democrats and Whigs. Eventually, as a North Carolina native, I also became interested in southern history, African American history, and the history of slavery. I was fortunate to work with prominent scholars at the University of Florida like the late Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Kermit Hall, Ron Formisano, and other mentors like David Colburn, to whom Blind no More is dedicated, and with Mills Thornton as a PhD student at the University of Michigan.

JF: What is your next project?

DW: I am completing a book called The New York Kidnapping Club: Slavery and Wall Street before the Civil War, a true story about how a nefarious group of police officers, lawyers, merchants, and judges conspired to kidnap black New Yorkers and send them to slavery. It also tells the epic and tragic tales of how the illegal transatlantic slave trade used New York’s harbor all the way to the Civil War.

JF: Thanks, Daniel!

The Best Black History Books of 2018

Jones BlackAs picked by the editors of Black Perspectives.

Authors include Martha Jones, Julius Scott, David Blight, Lillian Barger, Daina Ramey Berry, Keisha Berry, Gerald Horne, and Imani Perry.

Subjects include: slavery in antebellum America, the Haitian Revolution, Frederick Douglass, liberation theology, the slave trade, black nationalism, African Americans in the military, Black Lives Matter, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

See the list here.

Conference on Faith and History Session: “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History”

BibleEarlier today I chaired a session titled “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History.” It was co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Conference on Faith History.

In recent years, several important monographs have been published examining the role of the Bible in American culture and politics.  In 2015, Oxford University Press released Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783, the first book in his projected multi-volume work on the history of the Bible in America.  In 2017, Oxford also published The Bible in American Lifethe culmination of a four-year interdisciplinary study by the Center for the Religion and American Culture at IUPUI.  The study focused on Bible-reading as a religious practice.  Two of today’s panelists–Amy Easton-Flake and Emerson Powery–contributed to this volume.

The editors of The Bible in American Life–Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsely, and Peter Thuesen–write: “According to Gallup, nearly eight in ten Americans regard the Bible as either the literal word of God or as inspired by God.  At the same time, surveys have revealed–and recent books have analyzed–surprising gaps in Americans’ biblical literacy.  These discrepancies reveal American Christians’ complex relationship to Holy Writ, a subject that is widely acknowledged but rarely investigated.”

The panel I chaired today reflected on the history of the Bible in American history with four scholars who have contributed to this ongoing conversation.  I asked each panelist to take a few minutes to describe their ongoing work.

Daniel Dreisbach of American University talked about the challenges–both real and imagined–of writing about the Bible’s contributions to the American founding.  He is interested in the question whether the Bible’s contributions are sufficiently significant that it merits mention alongside other intellectual influences on the founding, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in various forms), and classical and civic republicanism.  He also addressed criticism that some of his work has been used by the defenders of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

James Byrd of Vanderbilt Divinity School focused on the relationship between his book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution and his current book project, “The Bible and the American Civil War.”  Byrd is particularly interested in the ways the Bible was used to justify and explain war.

Amy Easton-Flake of Brigham Young University spoke on women’s deployment of the Bible in late nineteenth-century America.  She used three case examples: the portrayal of Latter-Day Saint women in the journal Women’s Exponent, Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s portrayal of biblical women in her Women and Sacred History, and the Suffrage Movement’s use of the Bible in Revolution and Women’s Journal.

Emerson Powery, my colleague at Messiah College, offered a few thoughts on the integral use of the Bible in arguments surrounding slavery during the antebellum period, especially from the perspective of those whose bodies were most affected.  His way into this discussion was through the voice of the formerly enslaved though the so-called “slave narrative.”

It was a lively session.  I encourage you to explore this subject further by reading the books and articles of these panelists:

Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers

Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible in the American Revolution

Easton-Flake: Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography

Powery, The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved

Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society

Stockholm Syndrome and American Slavery

b0b9a-douglassThis post is for historians of American slavery.

I was recently teaching the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and a student mentioned that he was surprised by this passage:

“Moreover, slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others.  They think their own better than that of others.  Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than the masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true.  Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the other…They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves.  It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave, but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!”

Does anyone know of any historical scholarship that addresses what is happening in this passage as a form of “Stockholm Syndrome?” I am not interested here in whether or not you think Stockholm syndrome was occurring here.  I am interested in whether mainstream American historical scholarship uses the category of “Stockholm Syndrome” to explain what is happening here.

The Author’s Corner With Andrew Diemer

Politics of Black CitizenshipAndrew Diemer is Assistant Professor of History at Towson University. This interview is based on his new book, The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African-Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817-1863 (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Politics of Black Citizenship?

AD: Historians have made a fairly persuasive case for the centrality of African Americans, free and enslaved, to the emergence of radical abolition. What is less clear is the role that free blacks played in the political turn that antislavery took in the decades before the Civil War. Certainly many African Americans applauded the growth of broad-based parties committed to stopping the expansion of slavery, even if some of the leaders of those parties sought to distance themselves from the radical, interracial abolition movement, but what role did free blacks play in antebellum politics? I set out to write a book about black politics across the North, but at an early stage realized that the nature of nineteenth-century politics makes this difficult. As much as antislavery dealt with national issues, for free black people in the North, many of the most pressing political issues were state and local matters. Philadelphia, home to the largest free black population in the North (depending on how and when one measures this) was a logical choice. At the same time, it struck me that while we often think of Philadelphia in connection with other major Northern cities, it also had significant connections with Baltimore, and Baltimore had an even larger free black population than Philadelphia. Of course, between these two cities lay a legal boundary between slavery and freedom. I became increasingly interested in these connections, in the movement of African Americans within the region and across that boundary.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Politics of Black Citizenship?

ADThe existence of such large numbers of free African Americans and their movement (or fears of their movement) across the legal boundary between slavery and freedom made black citizenship rights particularly contentious in this region. Free blacks though largely disfranchised on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, shaped the legal and political system which determined their citizenship rights, in particular demanding the right to the equal protection of state and local laws.

JF: Why do we need to read The Politics of Black Citizenship?

AD: The study of slavery and abolition, along with so much of the historical profession, has taken a strongly international turn in recent years. As important as this turn is, and there is certainly an international dimension to my book, I think that it is essential that we balance this international perspective with close attention to the intensely local dimensions of American politics. Free African Americans were acutely aware of the overlapping geographies of their identities and rights. My book helps to show how the tensions between these local, state, national, and international connections generated a politics of black citizenship. Beyond this, and despite the profoundly different historical contexts, we are living in a time when it is particularly important to think about the history of black struggles for citizenship rights. This is a book about how free African Americans challenged a white dominated political system that often denied them fundamental citizenship rights and which therefore left them vulnerable to violence, kidnapping, and enslavement. This is a story which resonates with our own times.

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

AD: I had some great high school history teachers, so I think that was a big part of my interest in American History. My older brother was a big World War II buff and I was always sort of competitive with him, so I think I wanted to one up him by going back to earlier American History. I also remember watching Ken Burns’s Civil War as a really important influence on my historical imagination. When I went to college I thought at first that I wanted to study classics, but a few semesters of conjugating ancient Greek verbs helped me find my way back to American History!

JF: What is your next project?

AD: I am in the early stages of a new book project, a biography of the black abolitionist, William Still. While hardly unknown, he is someone who I think has been somewhat overshadowed by some of his peers, especially Frederick Douglass but others as well. Still is best known for his work in the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia where he was one of the key participants in the Underground Railroad during the 1850s. In that work he was part of some of the most exiting stories of that decade: Christiana, Henry “Box” Brown, Jane Johnson, John Brown, to name only a few. He also went on to become a businessman, activist, philanthropist, and author.

JF: Thanks Andrew!

The Author’s Corner with Emerson Powery

The-Genesis-of-Liberation.jpgEmerson Powery is Professor of Biblical Studies at Messiah College. This interview is based on his new book (with Rodney S. Sadler Jr.), The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved (Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Genesis of Liberation?

EP: This project began as a conversation with Rodney when we were graduate students at Duke.  We were both doctoral students in antiquity (ancient Israel and early Christianity) but invited to serve as TAs for William Turner’s course on African American Religious History.  We read selections from several so-called “slave narratives,” which we noticed had a number of interesting allusions to Scripture.  Thus, we began the journey.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Genesis of Liberation?

 EP: As active agents in the events that led to their freedom, formerly enslaved African Americans were also active hermeneutical agents in interpreting the Bible for survival and did so in ways that challenge some of the prominent conclusions on issues of life and humanity. 

JF: Why do we need to read The Genesis of Liberation?

 EP: It fills in a gap in our historical narrative recognizing that (many) enslaved persons were active agents in their own liberation.  That’s part of the story that is worth hearing.  In addition, the “slave narrative” is, in my opinion, an underused resource for a time period that continues to shape much of the discourse of our present post-civil rights, post-Obama age.

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

 EP: Actually, I’m an historian of early Christianity in antiquity.  But I am also intrigued by the history of interpretation of the Bible and how, in particular, marginalized groups have wrestled with biblical texts.  So, I see this project as an attempt to understand how African Americans, especially those previously enslaved, would interpret a Bible that was appropriated to dehumanize them and keep them in their condition.

JF: What is your next project?

EP: I will return to the ancient world’s form of human bondage.  After working through the issue of slavery through the voices of enslaved individuals (through the so-called “slave narratives”), I turn my attention to a period in which we have limited—if any—sources from the hands of the slave.  I am particularly interested in attempting to understand early Christian ideas and practices from the perspective of enslaved believers who participated in early house churches. 

JF: Thanks, Emerson!

 

The Author’s Corner with J. Brent Morris

J. Brent Morris is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Carolina at Beaufort. This interview is based on his new bookOberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism: College, Community, and the Fight for Freedom and Equality in Antebellum America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism?

BM: Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism grew out of my frustration with scholars’ frequent uncritical acceptance of the radical reputation the Oberlin community earned in its first three decades. This was manifested in the literature as a tendency by even well-respected historians to drop the name “Oberlin” as a keyword or shorthand of sorts to denote zealous abolitionism, religiosity, and social reform before hurriedly moving on to other topics. As I soon found it to have also been the case with contemporaries, it was often enough to point out the established and unquestioned fact of Oberlin’s significance as an icon of the abolitionist movement. Self-evidence was sufficient proof and too often took the place of details. I set out to put substance behind this potent symbol, and hoped to suggest new ways of thinking about the abolitionist movement in the process.

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

BM: Oberlin—the community, faculty, students, and alumni—comprised the core of the antislavery movement in the West and was one of the most influential and successful groups of abolitionists in antebellum America. With a philosophy that was a composite of various schools of anti-slavery thought aimed at supporting the best hope of success, Oberlin led the process by which Western abolitionism transformed from an isolated reform into a multiracial mass movement that brought down slavery and forever changed the nation.


JF: Why do we need to read Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism?

BM: Attention to Oberlin’s role in transforming the West shifts the focus of generations of antislavery scholarship from the East, and also demonstrates that the dynamic Western African American influence, rather than the mostly-white Eastern leadership, was largely responsible for a continuous infusion of radicalism that helped the movement stay true to its most progressive fundamental principles. The book also contributes to a fuller understanding of ideology, means, and ends in the American abolitionist movement.


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

BM: Mine was a circuitous path to the profession. I was an English major as an undergraduate, but picked up a history minor in my final three semesters. Part of that minor included an independent study that first introduced me to the joys of archival research and the rich treasure that were the WPA slave narratives. I stubbornly went on to law school, but could not resist the temptation to spend my study breaks in the library’s history stacks. Long story short, I couldn’t ignore the bite of that pesky history bug, and the longer it festered the more I realized that I would ultimately be happiest as a historian. Despite the years of law school student loan payments to which I still have to look forward without a lawyer’s salary, I have no doubt that I made the right decision.

JF: What is your next project?

BM: Right now I’m busy with three substantial projects. I’m putting some finishing touches on a second book that I’ve promised to have to the University of South Carolina Press within the month. Yes Lord I Know the Road: A History of African Americans in South Carolina 1526-2008, with Documents represents the first comprehensive history of African Americans in the Palmetto State and includes primary documents that will be a valuable teaching tool for students and scholars of all levels. With my first two books completed, I am finally making significant progress on a decade old pet project of mine: a work exploring the world of the maroon (fugitive slave) communities of the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina. I am also Director of an NEH-funded teacher’s institute, “America’s Reconstruction: The Untold Story, ” which will be held in Beaufort this coming summer.

JF: Sounds like you are busy! Thanks Brent.

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

The Author’s Corner with Luke Harlow

Luke Harlow is Assistant Professor of History at The University of Tennessee. This interview is based on forthcoming book, Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky (Cambridge University Press, May 2014).

JF: What led you to write Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky?

LH: I had a big question I wanted to answer: what happened to proslavery theology when the Civil War brought emancipation? Thanks to a fairly robust historiography on antebellum and Civil War–era American religion (especially as it pertains to the slavery debates), we know, as Drew Faust memorably put it, that “The most fundamental source of legitimation for the Confederacy was Christianity.” I was interested in seeing how that insight played out beyond the Civil War itself. My hunch was that—much as in our own time—while the laws of civil society might change, Christians would continue to argue that the laws of God were immutable. Obviously the Civil War changed much, but I wondered if it was the stark divide on this topic that, for example, our American history survey classes suggest it was. I thought that taking a longer-range view could help us understand why certain well-known aspects of the Reconstruction story—how limited it was, why various kinds of social changes seemed so difficult to pull off, where the vehemence of the white counter-revolution came from—might be explained with reference to the antebellum past and the legacy of the slavery debates. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky?

LH: The Civil War destroyed American slavery, but it did not destroy the faith that sustained slavery. The best evidence for this argument can be found by tracing the story of nineteenth-century Kentucky—a slaveholding state that remained with the Union during the war, but embraced the Confederacy after the fact.

JF: Why do we need to read Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky?

LH: To understand the American struggle over slavery and abolition, it is essential to understand the significance of conservative evangelical theology, as well as Kentucky, in defining the shape and parameters of that struggle. This book explains why.

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

LH: I don’t come from a family of historians, but history was a big part of my childhood. Much of the credit goes to my parents, who encouraged me to read and write a lot as a child. They pushed me to seek answers in books to the questions I had. Also, I grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which was founded by Moravians in 1741 and had a significant place in American industrial history. The sense of the local past was kind of inescapable and definitely a major aspect of my public school education. In some ways, that childhood was really important to my becoming a historian. But I did not have a sense of professional ambition until my freshman year at Western Kentucky University. Somewhere in my first semester I decided that history was the best way to understand the human condition. I had some really excellent professors at WKU who first taught me about the slavery debates, American religious history, and the Civil War era.

JF: What is your next project?

LH: I am kicking around two ideas, both that build on Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky. One is a religious history of the political defeat of Reconstruction, modeled on Richard Carwardine’s Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America. The other project I am tentatively calling The Proslavery Origins of American Fundamentalism. Molly Oshatz’s Slavery and Sin shows very clearly how the slavery debates paved the way for liberal Protestantism. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy tends to be written about in race-neutral ways, but I think placing debates over race and slavery at the center of the making of American fundamentalism would reveal a lot about the way that belief came together.


JF: Thanks Luke!  Great stuff.
Thanks to Megan Piette for organizing and facilitating The Author’s Corner

Frederick Douglass v. William Lloyd Garrison

I wish I had more time in my U.S. Survey course to distinguish the differences between Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison on the issue of abolitionism.  It is hard enough to get my students to see that the “anti-slavery” faction in antebellum America could include immediate abolitionists, gradual emancipationists, and promoters of colonization.

When teaching the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass I usually point to David Blight’s editor’s introduction to the Bedford edition in which he mentions the conflict between the two abolitionists.

In the hopes of providing some more context to the PBS series The Abolitionists, Caleb McDaniel reminds us that Douglass wrote a second autobiography in 1855 entitled My Bondage and My Freedom.  In this book he goes into more detail about the events discussed in the Narrative and expounds on his differences with Garrison.  Here is a taste of McDaniel’s piece:

The reasons for strain between Douglass and the Garrisonians were both personal and ideological. On a personal level, Douglass sensed a patronizing tone among many of his patrons, a mistrust of him that in many cases bordered on or crossed over into a malicious bigotry. While touring in Britain, for instance, Douglass learned that Maria Weston Chapman, a leading Boston Garrisonian, had corresponded with some of Garrison’s friends in Ireland and warned them to keep an eye on Douglass’s management of his money. Incensed by this and other letters, Douglass wrote an anguished reply to Chapman that foreshadowed his eventual break with the AASS. 

But those personal conflicts cannot be separated from the ideological disagreements that increasingly divided Douglass from the Garrisonians—disagreements about the wisdom of “buying” slaves in order to free them, for instance, or about the position of the Constitution on the issue of slavery. At any rate, by the early 1850s, both faultlines—the personal as well as the principled—had opened into a complete fracture, with both parties sniping at each other and crying foul. Douglass repudiated the Garrisonians; the Garrisonians likewise repudiated Douglass. These new circumstances, in Douglass’s mind, called for a new autobiography, and My Bondage and My Freedom was the result.

There is much more to read from this piece.  Read it all here.