Thank God for Big Government (Socialism?)

Lincoln socialist

Was this man a socialist?

Mike Pence recently railed against socialism.  Here is a taste of a Newsweek article about what he said at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference:

Vice President Mike Pence continued the Republican attacks on what they claim is socialism infiltrating the Democratic Party, making the dubious claim Friday that it was “freedom, not socialism, that ended slavery and won two World Wars.” Pence, speaking at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, did not mention what started slavery in the United States.

“It was freedom, not socialism, that ended slavery, won two World Wars and stands today as the beacon of hope for all the world.”

If it was freedom that ended slavery then presumably it was also freedom that allowed it, with a provision written into the Constitution that specifically referred to slaves and the “three-fifths compromise,” whereby they were counted as less than free people. Moreover, Southern states continued to argue for the freedom to keep slavery in place as the country descended into the Civil War. It was also not capitalism, which Pence appeared to be referring to, when he said it was freedom that ended slavery. Indeed, many historians have noted the explicit links between slavery and the birth of American capitalism. 

Read the rest here.

What the Union did to the South after the Civil War was not described as “socialism,” but it was an attempt by a powerful federal government to seize what the South (and the Supreme Court in Dred Scott) believed was private property, namely slaves.  Southern slaveholders were fighting for their own liberty and “freedom” to own slaves.  Lincoln used government power to take away this liberty.  For Lincoln, morality trumped the South’s “freedom” to hold another person in bondage.  This was the ultimate example of the United States government seizing private property and redistributing it (through emancipation).

Sharing the Stories of Fugitive Slaves

Escaped-ads-6

Freedom on the Move is a digital project that shares the stories of fugitive slaves.  Learn more about it here.

Five of the historians involved with the project introduce us to the project in a recent piece at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

Freedom on the Move (FOTM), which officially launched last week, is a digital project that aims to recover, collect and share the stories of fugitive slaves. At launch, we have uploaded some 20,000 fugitive-slave advertisements. Thousands more will be added soon, with the ultimate goal of making available to the public every such ad published in a newspaper from the Colonial era through the age of emancipation. With the help of citizen historians, professional scholars, students, genealogists and other researchers, fugitive-slave ads now can be transcribed through a crowdsourcing website and mined for details about the enslaved people they document and the people and places associated with them.

FOTM is a new tool for studying the history of slavery in the United States. The growing database will allow users to ask questions about enslaved people and their environs: about language and material culture, gender differences and racial classifications, geography and seasonal mobility, physical and mental health, skilled labor and family relationships, violence and the slave trade, and policing and surveillance. Indeed, because fugitive-slave advertisements provide such a wealth of information that sheds light on the experiences of enslavement and flight, they contain answers to questions that we cannot yet predict.

Significant troves of source material rooted in the perspectives of black people themselves illuminate the history of slavery in the United States. The narratives of fugitives such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and interviews with formerly enslaved people published in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration deliver us the voices of those who experienced bondage. These are not straightforward sources: 19th-century narratives appealed to the sensibilities of white abolitionists, and the interviews from the 1930s must be read with an eye on the white questioners who conducted them. Nonetheless, these sources reveal the experiences of those who endured slavery and in some cases escaped it.

The fugitive-slave advertisements gathered through FOTM complement and augment those materials. The ads reflect the perspectives of enslavers and jailers, rather than those of the enslaved people they describe. But they have particular and unique advantages as sources.

Read the entire piece here.

Did Lincoln Offer a “verbal cake and ice cream” to slaveowners?

Who was responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation?  Was it Lincoln?  The Republican Party? The slaves themselves?  Gettysburg College Civil War scholar Allen Guelzo makes a case for Lincoln in his recent piece in The Wall Street Journal.  Here is a taste:

In an age when rocking century-old statues off their pedestals has become a public sport, no historical reputation is safe. That includes Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.

It is “now widely held,” Columbia historian Stephanie McCurry announced in a 2016 article, that emancipation “wasn’t primarily the accomplishment of Abraham Lincoln or the Republican Party, but of the slaves themselves, precipitated by the actions they took inside the Confederacy and in their flight to Union lines.” Ebony editor Lerone Bennett put this argument forward in his 2000 book, “Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.” The Zinn Education Project, which distributes Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” to students, claims that Lincoln offered “verbal cake and ice cream to slaveowners,” while slaves themselves did “everything they could to turn a war for national unity into a war to end slavery.”

The case against Lincoln is a lot less energizing than it seems. Slavery, as it emerged in American life and law, was always a matter of state enactments. There was no federal slave code, and Madison had been particularly eager to ensure that the Constitution gave no federal recognition to the idea that there could be “property in man.” But there was also no federal authority to move directly against slavery in the states.

The attempt by the Southern slave states to break away in 1861 seemed to offer several ways to strike at slavery. Some U.S. Army officers attempted to declare slaves “contraband of war,” and therefore liable to seizure like any other military goods. But the “contraband” argument fell into the error of conceding that slaves were property, and, anyway, no legal opinions on the laws of war regarded such property seizures as permanent.

Congress tried to put a hand on slavery through two Confiscation Acts, in 1861 and 1862. But “confiscating” slaves wasn’t the same thing as freeing them, since the Constitution (in Article I, Section 9) explicitly bans Congress from enacting “bills of attainder” that permanently alienate property. Confiscation would also have had the problem of ratifying the idea that human beings were property.

Lincoln tried to dodge the constitutional issues by proposing, as early as November 1861, a federal buyout of slaves in the four border states that remained loyal to the Union—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. But the representatives of those states rebuffed the offer, telling Lincoln that they “did not like to be coerced into Emancipation, either by the Direct action of the Government, or by indirection,” as a Maryland congressman reported.

Many slaves didn’t wait on the courts or Congress, and instead ran for their freedom to wherever they could find the Union Army. But the Army wasn’t always welcoming, and there was no guarantee that the war wouldn’t end with a negotiated settlement including the forced return of such runaways. Fugitive slaves were free, but their freedom needed legal recognition.

If you can get past The Wall Street Journal paywall, you can read the rest here.

Were the “20. and Odd Negroes” Slaves or Indentured Servants?

jamestownvasign

Is this sign factually correct?

In an interview with Gayle King of CBS News, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam referred to the first enslaved Africans to Virginia in 1619 as “indentured servants.”

Blogger Kevin Levin has a short post on Northam’s comment here.  A taste:

At the outset of the interview the governor references the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans to Virginia’s shores in 1619, only he chose to refer to these slaves as indentured servants. King quickly responded by correcting the governor that he meant to say slavery. My social media streams quickly lit up with reactions to the oversight.

They included some people who suggested that the governor was correct in referring to the first Africans as indentured servants. They noted that a system of African slavery took time to evolve as the primary form of labor in colonial Virginia. This is true. Historians such as Ira Berlin have shown that for much of the seventeenth century African slaves worked side by side Native Americans and even white indentured servants. It was even possible for a small number of Africans to gain their freedom.

The larger question, however, of how Virginia went from – in the words of historian Edmund Morgan, ‘a society with slaves’ to a ‘slave society’ – is separate from the status of the Africans who arrived in 1619. Earlier today historian Rebecca Ann Goetz clarified this question with a twitter thread clarifying that these Africans were indeed slaves.

Read the entire post here.

Rebecca Goetz‘s tweet thread is worth reading.  She is a history professor at New York University and the author of The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race.  Here it is:

Addendum from reader Matt Gottlieb:

While I appreciate the post, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources retired this sign and put in a replacement in 2015. The updated marker includes newer research that emerged since the original’s 1992 installation. An image of it may be seen here: https://www.latimes.com/dp-pictures-african-landing-day-commemorated-on-fort-monroe-20150820-photogallery.html

Please contact me if you have any questions. Physical markers, to borrow the cliche on political polling, are snapshots in time.

The Author’s Corner with Amy Taylor

embattled freedom

Amy Taylor is an Associate Professor of History along with Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky. This interview is based on her new book, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (The University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Embattled Freedom?

AT: For a number of years, while working on other projects, I kept coming across references to the hundreds of thousands of women, men, and children who fled slavery during the Civil War and forged new lives for themselves behind the lines of the Union army. But these were only fleeting references—a few sentences in a book, or a widely circulated Harper’s Weekly image, for example. So eventually I wondered: why don’t I know more? How could a mass migration of people that effectively destroyed slavery have taken place during this (abundantly studied) Civil War, and we still don’t know much about it?

The answer, of course, had to do with deliberate neglect — and the failure of white Americans, in particular, to reckon with the Civil War’s slavery history for so long. It should be noted that some black scholars, most notably W.E.B. DuBois in Black Reconstruction, did write about this history decades ago and tried to turn more attention to the story. But it has only been recently, in the last decade, that the subject is finally getting its due — in addition to my book, there are important books and articles by Thavolia Glymph, Jim Downs, Leslie Schwalm, and Chandra Manning as well. All of this work is in sync with present-day politics, as we begin 2019 with Confederate monuments coming down and new commemorations of slavery and black Civil War history going up.

I also wrote this book because of a more general and abiding interest in telling the stories of people who have not had their stories told. I am a social historian at heart and believe that everyone has a story that can tell us something about the world in which they lived. I am also an aspiring detective. So I was drawn to the challenge of digging up even the smallest scraps of information about individual refugees from slavery, and then piecing together their movements to try to understand their perspectives on the momentous events that shook the nation in the 1860s.

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

AT: My book rests on the premise that the Civil War represented a distinctly militarized period in the decades-long process of destroying slavery in the United States (the “long Emancipation,” as some have called it). Embattled Freedom zeroes in on that period and argues that the way in which freedom-seeking people navigated—and survived—the culture, bureaucracy, and dangers of military life was an elemental part of the story of slavery’s destruction in the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read Embattled Freedom?

AT: Because Embattled Freedom is deeply resonant with so much of what is going on in our lives today. First, it uncovers a key piece of the deeply buried slavery past with which we are only now beginning to reckon. As more and more Americans are tearing down romanticized myths and monuments and talking more honestly about this history, I believe it is the historian’s role to provide ample research that can make an open and constructive dialogue possible. My hope is that Embattled Freedom will help inform that conversation.

Second, the book also tells the story of one of the United States’ earliest refugee crises. As we consider our obligations to displaced people throughout the world—as Americans debate the meaning of its borders and how “open” the country should be—I think it behooves us to consider the longer history of how Americans have defined citizenship and belonging throughout the nation’s history. The parallels between what happened in the Civil War and what is happening today are striking and sometimes surprising: how many people know, for example, that northern politicians tried to build a metaphoric “wall” across the United States during the Civil War, when they refused the migration of refugees from slavery into northern states? That is just one example of how my book sheds light on the deep history of our present-day lives.

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

AT: I graduated from college thinking I would pursue a career in politics. So I went to Capitol Hill within months of obtaining my history degree and began working for a congressman. But I soon found myself sneaking into the Library of Congress during the workday to browse around and flip through the card catalog (which tells you how long ago that was). I was looking for materials related to the senior honors thesis on Confederate women that I had just completed before graduating. And I soon admitted to myself that I would rather hunt down leads on an already-completed history project than brush up on NASA policy and draft talking points for my boss (though I liked and respected him).

I decided I wanted to think for myself, rather than for my boss, and that I needed to pick up the intellectual work that I had left behind with my history degree. So I began applying to graduate programs and landed at the University of Virginia for my MA and PhD degrees. Why exactly I was drawn to history is something I do not fully understand yet—maybe with age I’ll gain more perspective. But I think it has something to do with my nagging interest in comprehending human behavior, which is why I sometimes say that if not a historian, I would be a journalist, a detective, or a psychologist.

JF: What is your next project?

AT: I have two. The first is a short book that will tell the story of the last effort by the federal government to colonize people of African descent beyond the nation’s borders. In 1863, just months after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln approved and supported the migration of over 400 people from the coast of Virginia to Île a Vàche (Haiti). The people, already suffering in refugee camps in and around Fort Monroe, were willing to listen to big promises of employment, housing, and stable new lives that would greet them in Haiti. The expedition failed to live up to those promises, however, and amid disease, death, and unpaid wages, the group petitioned Lincoln to bring them back to the United States—which he did.

My other project explores the U.S. government’s effort to count newly freed people in the 1860s. During the Civil War, in particular, federal agents made numerous attempts to conduct a census of the formerly enslaved population. All of these attempts proved incomplete and haphazard; all, however, were advancements on the decennial federal census, which had long counted this population but never by name or by any other identifying information except for gender, “color,” and age. That changed during the war, as federal agents identified the people by name, family relationships, military service, and more. My interest is in exploring the meaning of this data-gathering in the context of Emancipation: what was behind the federal government’s impulse to count, sort, and classify this population, and what role did it play in imagining and building a postwar racial order?

JF: Thanks, Amy!

The Author’s Corner with Edward Rugemer

slave law and the politics of resistance in the early atlantic world

Edward Rugemer is an Associate Professor of African American Studies and History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World (Harvard University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: When I was in graduate school at Boston College, both Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone and Philip Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint were published during the years before my oral exams. I read both and was inspired to take on a comparative project, though not, I was advised, for my dissertation. The idea for the comparison at the heart of this book came from my dissertation/ first book, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2008). I realized in writing that book that the planter classes in Jamaica and South Carolina had this very similar relationship with abolitionists. They were the most radically pro-slavery in these different regions of the Anglo Atlantic, the U.S. South and the British Caribbean. When I considered this realization alongside the work of Richard Dunn and Peter Wood, that both Jamaica and South Carolina were “colonies” of Barbados (to use Wood’s phrase), I saw that these two slave societies had followed very similar historical arcs. They had common origins, developed into the wealthiest colonies of their respective regions, and though each went its separate way during the American Revolution, both followed a very similar pattern in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution and the emergence of radical abolitionism. Comparison requires both similarity and difference and the political histories of Jamaica and South Carolina have the necessary mix.

The central theme of the book — the relationship between slave resistance and broader political changes — also came from the first book, specifically in the first few chapters. I felt there was much more to say about the impact of slave resistance upon the political history of slave societies. Some of this work had been done by historians of the American Civil War era such as Jim Oakes and Steve Hahn, and historians of the nineteenth century Caribbean such as Mary Turner and Emilia Viotti da Costa, and more recently Gelien Matthews and Claudius Fergus. But no one had gone deeper into the colonial period and I thought it was important to do so.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: Very early in the history of Atlantic slave societies a political dialectic developed between Africans who forcefully resisted enslavement, and slaveholding colonists who sought to impose the rigid social control they saw as necessary for profitable colonial enterprise. This dialectic is evident in slave law, it developed and changed until the abolition of slavery, and it shaped the histories of Jamaica and South Carolina in fundamentally different ways.

JF: Why do we need to read Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: First, it is a valuable account of, and explanation for, the political significance of slave resistance in Anglo-Atlantic slave societies from their origins to the 1830s. Secondly, the book makes clear the differences between the slave regimes of the Caribbean and the U.S. In this way it complements Richard Dunn’s important study, A Tale of Two Plantations

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

ER: I worked as a Jesuit volunteer teaching high school in Kingston, Jamaica, from 1994-1996 and my experience there led me to some deep reading in the history of slavery and eventually graduate school.

JF: What is your next project?

ER: I have two different projects that are in the early stages. I am thinking about writing a synthesis of slavery in the Western World. My most ambitious self wants to start with some of the theories on the origins of slavery, move into ancient Greece and Rome, the decline of slavery in Western Europe and its persistence in the Mediterranean, the expansion into the Atlantic. But I want to take this history up to modern slavery and human trafficking in our own time. I don’t think we have an historical narrative that integrates the racial slavery of the Atlantic World, which lasted for generations and has had such insidious afterlives, with the various forms of slavery that persist today. Many modern day abolitionists invoke the abolitionist movements of the past without careful attention to the distinctions between these manifestations of slavery across time and space. Historians need to do this. So I’d like to come up with a synthesis that brings this history together.

The second idea is a deeply archival project about a slaveholder we know very little about. His name is Charles Douglas and the Beinecke Library has about 30 years of his correspondence with his brother Patrick. I read it all during my first year at Yale, thinking I would use it for this book, but I only used one brief quote. Douglas moves from Ayr, Scotland to Jamaica when he was a teenager. He mostly worked as a bookkeeper at first (kind of an assistant overseer), but he does accrue some wealth and becomes a slaveholder. What’s curious about him is that when he buys land, he buys land that directly abuts Moore Town in the Blue Mountains, which is one of the Maroon Towns. He becomes the superintendent for the Moore Town Maroons, which is a position established by the 1739 treaties that ended the first Maroon War and recognized Maroon autonomy within the colony. Formally, he was the Maroons’ military commander, but in fact I don’t think it worked that way. Yet there were these superintendents, one for each of the towns, and they were well paid by the colonial state. But there is an archival challenge: I need to find his reports. I don’t know where they are and no one has ever referenced them. And if I can find them, it could be a really interesting book. I need to dig deeper and I love that challenge, but it will take some time.

JF: Thanks, Edward!

The David Walker Memorial Project

Title page and portrait from manuscript by David Walker

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

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.

Interpreting Slavery at James Monroe’s Plantation

Monroe

Highland, the Virginia home of James Monroe from 1799-1823, is coming to grips with its history of slavery.  Here is a taste of Jordy Yager’s piece at National Public Radio:

Today the area is surrounded by wineries and other tourist draws, like Thomas Jefferson’s nearby plantation, Monticello. In fact, Jefferson helped Monroe buy the Highland property, which is now run as a historic site, hosting weddings, concerts, and thousands of visitors each year.

Until recently, however, the enslaved weren’t much talked about. Guides at Highland knew only that some of the enslaved had been sold and sent to Florida. And then, about two years ago, George Monroe, Jr. paid Highland a visit. He approached a staff member at the visitor’s center and said, “My last name is Monroe and my family comes from off this plantation.”

Since then, George Monroe, Jr. has been working with Highland’s Executive Director Sara Bon-Harper to build relationships with more than a dozen descendants in the immediate area and across Virginia. Bon-Harper wants them to tell the story of Highland.

“The theme of having one’s eyes opened to reality that one was completely ignorant of, I think, goes through race relations in Virginia,” said Bon-Harper. “And my response is to be completely open to learning the things that I have not known and Highland is really, really, excited to have these contacts now and having the willing collaboration of the descendant communities is tremendous.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Slave Societies Digital Archive

Slave Ship

Over at The Conversation, Vanderbilt historian Jane Landers writes about her work on the Slave Societies Digital Archive.  Here is a taste:

This archive, which I launched in 2003, now holds approximately 600,000 images dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Since its creation, the archive has led to new insights into African populations in the Americas.

The Slave Societies Digital Archive documents the lives of approximately 6 million free and enslaved Africans, their descendants, and the indigenous, European and Asian people with whom they interacted.

When searching for and preserving archives, our researchers must race against time. These fast-vanishing records are threatened daily by tropical humidity, hurricanes, political instability and neglect.

The work is usually challenging and sometimes risky. Our equipment has been stolen in several locations. Soon after we left the remote community of Quibdó, Colombia, a gun battle erupted in the surrounding jungles between the government military forces and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, better known as FARC. It’s no wonder that one of our team members called what we do “guerrilla preservation.”

This hard work has allowed us to discover more about the lives of slaves in the Americas. For example, the Catholic Church mandated the baptism of enslaved Africans in the 15th century. The baptismal records now preserved in the Slave Societies Digital Archive are the oldest and most uniform serial data available for African-American history.

Read the rest here.

Episode 43: Reconciling the Church and Slavery

PodcastSadly, the Church, both in America and abroad, has a long history of supporting the institution of slavery. So what can a single congregation do to reconcile their past with a contemporary commitment to social justice? In today’s episode, host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss truth and reconciliation within the Church. They are joined by public historian Chris Graham, who serves as the chair of the History and Reconciliation Initiative at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.


Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).


Gordon Wood Strikes Again!

Slavery debates

I love reading Gordon Wood book reviews.  I don’t always agree with him, but sometimes I do.  Whether I agree with him or not, I must admit that I sometimes take guilty pleasure in watching him whip academic historians into a frenzy with his long and provocative reviews that often challenge historiographical orthodoxy.

At the age of eighty-five he is still going strong, as evidenced from his recent review of books by Sean Wilentz and Andrew Delbanco at The New Republic.

I like Wood’s reviews so much because he always frames them in a larger historiographical conversations.  His reviews were invaluable to me in graduate school as I tried to make sense of hundreds of books I needed to read for my comprehensive exams.

In this latest review, Wood shows how Sean Wilentz’s No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding and Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War challenge what he calls a “Neo-Garrisonian” view of slavery and the coming of the Civil War.

Here is a taste:

In October 2017, President Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, declared that “a lack of an ability to compromise” brought on the Civil War. This remark outraged a number of historians, who told The Washington Post they thought it “strange,” “highly provocative,” and “kind of depressing,” something that was out of touch with current historical research. Kelly’s interpretation carried echoes of a revisionist explanation of the causes of the Civil War that was popular in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Commonly known as the “blundering generation” interpretation, it held that the sectional conflict arose not from a fundamental disagreement over slavery but from the squabbling of politicians whose demagoguery and fanaticism eventually undermined the political system.

Few historians pay attention any more to the blundering generation interpretation. Not only did it play into the hands of Southern apologists, by implying that slavery was not the fundamental source of the conflict, but it also played down the substantial differences between the societies of the North and South that slavery had created. Most academic historians today no longer think of the abolitionists as fanatical agitators, stirring up hostility between the sections. Instead, they have become the heroes of their narratives. Indeed, many have come to accept the view of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison that America’s entire political system was riddled with the evils of slavery, beginning with its founding document. The Constitution, Garrison declared, was “a covenant with death” and “an agreement with hell.”

In a like manner, many present-day historians have contended that the border between the slave South and the free North was not as sharp as we are apt to think. Not only were the North and South economically interdependent, but they shared in the exploitative nature of American capitalism. Despite the fact that the Southern slaveholding planters thought of themselves as anything but bourgeois capitalists, their slave system, scholars such as Sven Beckert and Edward E. Baptist now claim, was just as capitalistic as the industrial system of the North. Northerners as well as Southerners are now seen as thoroughly implicated in the terrible business of slavery, morally as well as economically. It was not just the South that was morally flawed; the North was just as racist, just as antagonistic to black people, as the South.

This is all part of a determined effort by current scholars to ensure that the North bear its share of blame for slavery and for race relations in the nation. They emphasize that Northern delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were equally involved with Southerners in the compromises that protected slavery in the Constitution and helped to make it “an agreement with hell.” Northerners agreed to the three-fifths representation of slaves in the Congress and the Electoral College. And, most lamentably, they accepted the clause in Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution that declared that persons held in service or labor in one state who escaped to another state had to be returned to those to whom such service or labor was due.

In all their subsequent compromises over slavery, white Americans, both Northerners and Southerners, displayed what Ta-Nehisi Coates today calls a “craven willingness to bargain on the backs of black people.” The North tended to appease the South at every turn and effectively tolerated Southern dominance of the national government during the antebellum period. Present-day scholars suggest that the North bears nearly as much responsibility for the persistence of slavery as the South. That’s why no one should try to claim that North and South were two distinct societies. The whole nation was guilty.

This is the gist of prevailing neo-Garrisonian scholarship dealing with antebellum America. In different and subtle ways both Sean Wilentz’sNo Property in Manand Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War seek to challenge this scholarship—but not return to the revisionist interpretation of the mid-twentieth century. Both Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton, and Delbanco, professor of American Studies at Columbia, accept without question that slavery was at the heart of the sectional conflict. They offer no apology whatsoever for the Confederacy and its system of racial slavery. But both do aim to correct and refine what they believe are some of the crudities in the current interpretations, which have had the unintended effects of reviving a Southern view of the Constitution and of blurring in their own ways the differences between the societies of the North and the South.

Read the rest here.

David Blight on Frederick Douglass

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

The Atlantic World: A Bibliography

Slave Ship

Graduate students take note!  Over at Black Perspectives, Vanessa Holden and Jessica Parr have put together an excellent bibliography of books on the history of the Atlantic World.  The bibliography is divided into the following categories:

Indigenous Atlantic

African Atlantic

The Atlantic World

South America

The Caribbean

Central America

North America

Europe

Here is the intro to the bibliography:

Several months ago, Five Books published a list of 5 books on the Atlantic World, which included some notable omissions. While not exhaustive, the purpose of this reading list is to better capture the depth and diversity of the field and acknowledge the intellectual contributions of women and scholars of color. Several of the scholars included in this list have produced additional books that may be of interest, and we encourage readers to explore their work further. In organizing this list, we attempted to de-emphasize the structures of empire. We begin with contributions that focus on the Indigenous and African peoples of the Atlantic World, then follow movement across the Atlantic Ocean. We conclude with contributions that discuss connections between South America, the Caribbean, Central America, North America, and Europe and the Atlantic World. 

Read the entire bibliography here.

*Black Perspectives* Will Host a Forum on Frederick Douglass

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This is going to be good.  The forum will include posts by Brandon Byrd, Kenneth Morris, Neil Roberts, Manisha Sinha, David Blight, Leigh Fought, Christopher Bonner, and Noelle Trent.

Here is what you can expect:

Black Perspectives, the award-winning blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), is hosting an online forum on Frederick Douglass on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth. Organized by Brandon R. Byrd (Vanderbilt University), the online forum uses the 200th anniversary of Douglass’s birth as an opportunity to highlight commemorative, critical reflections, and assessments of Douglass’s ideas and legacy. The forum will feature an interview with Kenneth B. Morris, the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass (and the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington). It will also feature essays from Neil Roberts (Williams College); Manisha Sinha (University of Connecticut); David Blight (Yale University); Leigh Fought (Le Moyne College); Noelle Trent (National Civil Rights Museum); and Christopher Bonner (University of Maryland, College Park). The forum begins on Monday, November 26, 2018 and concludes on Friday, November 30, 2018.

During the week of the online forum, Black Perspectives will publish new blog posts every day at 5:30AM EST. Please follow Black Perspectives (@BlkPerspectives) and AAIHS (@AAIHS) on Twitter; like AAIHS on Facebook; or subscribe to our blog for updates. By subscribing to Black Perspectives, each new post will automatically be delivered to your inbox during the week of the forum.

Learn more here.

The Problem of “Reconciling Irreconcilable Values”

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

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

Lone Star

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Erin Mauldin

51pZylgYBPL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Erin Mauldin is an assistant professor of History and Politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. This interview is based on her new book Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Unredeemed Land?

EM: While reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution for a graduate seminar in US Political History at Georgetown University, I realized that many of the economic, legislative, and political issues of that period are intimately tied to the use of natural and agricultural landscapes: fights over land redistribution (or the lack thereof), crop lien legislation, animal theft laws, the timbering boom, and of course, the expansion of cotton production. Yet very few environmental histories of the US South even discussed the period between the end of slavery and the Gilded Age, and the dynamic literature on Reconstruction had failed to absorb any of the insights or approaches of environmental history.

I set out, then, to write an environmental history of Reconstruction in the South, and over time, narrowed the focus to the changes occurring in rural areas (rather than urban ones). As I worked on my dissertation, however, I realized that one cannot explain the events of Reconstruction without grappling with the war. Fortunately, a flowering of scholarship appeared on the environmental impacts of the Civil War around the time of my graduate studies, and so my project follows those works and asks simply, “what happened next?” If the Civil War was a truly environmental event, then one would assume those changes did not stop being relevant after 1865. As a result, my book is an environmental history of Reconstruction in the rural U.S. South that connects large-scale economic changes of the period, such as sharecropping, the expansion of cotton production, and the closing of the open range, to environmental changes wrought by the Civil War.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Unredeemed Land?

EM: The Civil War and emancipation accelerated ongoing ecological change and destroyed traditional systems of land use in ways that hastened the postbellum collapse of the region’s subsistence economy, encouraged the expansion of cotton production, and ultimately kept cotton farmers trapped in a cycle of debt and tenancy. Southern farmers both black and white found themselves unable to “redeem” their lands and fortunes, with serious consequences for the long-term trajectory of the regional economy.

JF: Why do we need to read Unredeemed Land?

EM: I think that anyone interested in the Civil War, Reconstruction, race in America, economic inequality, or environmental history might find something here to like or, at least, argue with. So much of what we read in the news about the ecological and economic aspects of war zones in the Middle East, and the ways that environmental changes push people into refugee situations around the world—all those truths held in the American past, too. It’s time we started thinking about them.

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

EM: As an undergraduate, I wanted to go to medical school. However, I loved studying history, and performed well in those classes. I was attracted to the story-telling that happens in history classes and books, as well as the investigative work of piecing together past events. So, I combined coursework in both History and Biology, reluctant to give up either. When it came time to write my senior thesis for my History major, my undergraduate mentor in that department suggested I draw on my interest in the sciences, and I produced work that investigated early air pollution control efforts in Birmingham, Alabama. Through that experience, I decided I would rather research and write for a living than go to medical school. I was very, very fortunate to receive a doctoral fellowship to study environmental history with J.R. McNeill at Georgetown University, and haven’t looked back.

JF: What is your next project?

EM: Tentatively called “The First White Flight: Industrial Pollution and Racial Segregation in New South Cities,” my next book will investigate the role of environmental racism in racially segmenting the geographies of 19th-century cities. The poverty and debt of postwar cotton farming I describe in Unredeemed Land spurred tens of thousands of freed  people to abandon rural spaces in the decades after the Civil War and find employment in recently “reconstructed” cities such as Atlanta and Richmond; and newly established industrial centers such as Birmingham. Not only did minority enclaves or company houses exist among higher levels of pollution, filth, disease, and industrial contamination, but the white public’s representations of those conditions attached a persistent stigma both to people and place in these neighborhoods.

This project, then, argues that industrial pollution caused the cementing of an urban black/suburban white dynamic long before the Civil Rights Era, which, over time, reinforced disenfranchisement, engendered racially segmented economies, and allowed further environmental degradation.

JF: Thanks, Erin!

A Retired Army General Trashes His Portrait of Robert E. Lee

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Here is Stanley A. McChrystal:

On a Sunday morning in 2017 I took down his picture, and by afternoon it was in the alley with other rubbish awaiting transport to the local landfill for final burial. Hardly a hero’s end.

The painting had no monetary value; it was really just a print of an original overlaid with brushstrokes to appear authentic. But 40 years earlier it had been a gift from a young Army wife to her lieutenant husband when the $25 price (framed) required juggling other needs in our budget.

The dignified likeness of General Robert E. Lee in his Confederate Army uniform had been a prized possession of mine. I’d grown up not far from the Custis-Lee Mansion, and at West Point, Lee, the near-perfect cadet, Mexican War hero, academy superintendent, and, finally, the commander of the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia, cast a long, ever-present shadow. Later, in Army quarters from Fort Benning, Georgia, to Fort Lewis, Washington, the painting reflected my fascination with leadership, and it spoke of duty and selfless service.

Although it was a portrait of a man, to many it evoked wider ideas and emotions. For like an object bathed in the light of the setting sun, Robert E. Lee’s shadow took on exaggerated size and grew steadily as America’s Civil War retreated ever further into the softer glow of history.

Read the rest at The Atlantic.

The Author’s Corner with Scott Heerman

51OxW8sArCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Scott Heerman is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Miami. This interview is based on his new book, The Alchemy of Slavery: Human Bondage and Emancipation in the Illinois Country, 1730-1865 ( University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Alchemy of Slavery?

SH:  I began with a question: how do you make a free society? I’m not the first to ask that question, but by focusing on Illinois before the Civil War I found a time and place where we didn’t have a good answer. I knew that slavery existed in Illinois when the French claimed it in the eighteenth century, and that eventually it became a “free state.” Yet I struggled to understand this change, as most of the forces that drove abolition in the north–a powerful free black community, newspapers and pamphlets, religious communities–seemed to be missing. Instead I found that each attempt to abolish slavery in the region, including the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the first and second state constitutions, state supreme court rulings–failed to accomplish that task. In each instance, what I thought should have abolished slavery led only to a new variation on coerced labor taking root. In light of this I found myself forced to rethink many of the organizing concepts of the scholarship: free states and slave states, radical abolitionists and proslavery fire eaters, gradual and immediate emancipation. That this one very important place could confound so much of the conventional story led me to write The Alchemy of Slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Alchemy of Slavery?

SH:  I argue that we need to set aside the idea that slavery was an institution, and instead we need to approach slavery as an adaptable set of power relationships. Slavery was not a status that people held; masters enslaved people using a wide range of ever-changing coercive practices, which for decades allowed them to reinvent slavery in the face of abolition laws.

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

SH: This book shows that slavery and freedom are both historical processes. It is easy to think of slavery as a fixed status, but this book encourages us to think of it as an every    changing power relationship. As a consequence, slavery could look very different over time: Illinois Indians raided and exchanged their captives, Europeans held African-descended people in lifelong chattel conditions, U.S. settlers in Illinois held African Americans as lifelong, uncompensated, servants, and masters kidnapped free people, turning them into slaves. People in each of these conditions were slaves, and yet their lives looked very different. When we recognize just how adaptable the power to enslave people is we can appreciate many of the hallmarks of American history differently.

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

SH: As an undergraduate student, a professor asked me a question that I still think about most days: how do the powerful stay in power? In time, I recognized that various hierarchies existed, both now and in the past, and some of them are seen as legitimate and others of them are seen as unjust. I could not stop wondering: how and why does society sort these various forms of inequality? Most interesting of all: how do kinds of inequality move from just to unjust, from being seen as normative to being seen as an affront to the values of society? It is that question of how the powerful adapt, or don’t, to changing norms in order to stay in power that motivated me to become a historian.

JF: What is your next project?

SH: I am at work on a book project that studies the international kidnapping of freed men and women. I look at cases when enslavers carried freed people, for instance, from the U.S. North to the Caribbean, from the British Caribbean to Havana, and from Haiti to the U.S. South.  It argues that there was a connection between abolition and the rise of more powerful nation states during the early nineteenth century. It is commonplace to argue that Civil War emancipation demanded new forms of state power—chiefly birthright citizenship and Civil Rights legislation that offered a ringing endorsement of black freedom and equality before the law. Yet those developments are almost always cast as a consequence of the wartime experience and crucible of radical reconstruction. Pushing against this trend, my work explores how kidnapping cases inspired new kinds of state action, and pushed ahead new types of governance. As Prime Ministers and Cabinet Secretaries, antislavery activists, and Afro-descended people tangled over these cases they confronted profound questions about the laws of nations. Theories and conceptions of subjecthood and citizenship were at the core of these cases. As various different governments confronted these cases they worked through what it meant to be part of a sovereign nation, and what rights and protections extended to its people.

JF: Thanks, Scott!