What Does 1856 Have To Do With 2020?

Fremont

John Fremont: Republican Candidate for Fifteenth President of the United States

There are some striking similarities between the Election of 1856 and the Election of 2020. Read about them at NPR’s Steve Inskeep‘s recent piece at The New York Times: “It’s 1856 All Over Again.”

What are lessons for 2020? Expect a terrifying year. What drives Americans to extremes is not losing an election but the fear of losing for all time. As Democrats and progressives count on an evermore diverse population to ensure victory, some of President Trump’s supporters foresee permanent defeat. Fox News stokes dread of demographic change with repeated images of migrants climbing fences. The president told supporters as a candidate in 2016 that he was their “last chance” to save the country.

Some of Mr. Trump’s critics fear permanent defeat for their side as he appoints judges who could remake the courts for a generation and dismisses limits on his power by asserting “the right to do whatever I want as president.” He has tweaked his critics’ anxieties, once sharing a social media meme that showed him unconstitutionally returned to office after 2020 — in 2024, 2028, 2032 and far beyond.

When politicians exploit such fears, voters can find an antidote by recalling the aftermath of 1856. Whatever the result in 2020 — and it’s a safe bet that close to half of us will consider it a disaster — another election will follow. We hope.

Read the entire piece here.

American Jesuits and Slavery

Jesuit Missions

Over at America, Sean Salai S.J. interviews Laura Weis, coordinator of the Jesuits Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project.  The project was designed to “build relationships with descendants, community members, researchers, Jesuit partners and others to identify the history and descendants of Jesuit-enslaved people in the 19th century United States.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

What are the goals of this project?

From the beginning, the project leaders identified three interrelated goals, all of which are ongoing and not necessarily linear. The first is to research the history of Jesuit slaveholding with an intentional focus on the lived experiences of enslaved people, tracing their family lineages with the hope of identifying their descendants. The second goal is to share their ancestors’ stories with living descendants of the enslaved and invite them into a conversation with Jesuits today about how to address this history and its legacy. The third goal is to address the healing question of “Where do we go from here?” We are committed to the transformative process of telling the truth about that history in conversation with descendant communities today.

What have you learned since establishing the project?

Our researchers like to emphasize that when the project started, we only had six names—and only first names—of enslaved people forced to come with Jesuits from Maryland to Missouri in 1823. What we’ve learned since then, through the work of this team of researchers, has included their full names, where they lived, the conditions where they lived, the relationships they built, the ways they tried to protect their families, and so on. The project speaks to the importance of telling those stories, and one of the most wonderful things we’ve learned is that it’s possible to do that. There was some doubt in the beginning that we’d even find anything. Now we’ve uncovered at least 190 descendants of enslaved people owned, rented or borrowed by Jesuits in the central and southern United States between 1823 and 1865.

The words slavery, history and even memory in your project title seem self-explanatory. But what does reconciliation mean?

Father Jeff Harrison has said it’s a word that means confessing sin and expressing remorse for the grave sin of slavery, from a Jesuit and Catholic perspective, but it also acknowledges the ongoing legacy of slavery in racial inequalities which persist today. At the same time, any conversation about what reconciliation means or looks like has to take place with descendants of enslaved people. Our approach from the project perspective is to facilitate conversation with descendants and descendent communities. Our job is to listen. Enslaved people led vibrant lives, but their voices were disregarded, unheard and suppressed. The Jesuits are now open to—and not anticipating—what the response will be; it’s a conversation that has to take place with descendants.

Read the entire interview here.

1619 or 1776?

1619

The debate over the 1619 Project continues. What is the 1619 Project and how has the debate over its publication unfolded thus far?  Click here and read our posts.

Here is Conor Friedersdorf a The Atlantic:

America’s original revolutionaries, along with Abraham LincolnFrederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr., all placed the universalist ideals of the Declaration of Independence at the center of this country’s founding. But that paradigm is under vigorous challenge from The New York Times Magazine. Last summer, the magazine began publishing the 1619 Project, marking the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia. In essays, stories, poems, podcast episodes, and more, the Times has grappled with how slavery shaped all that followed.

More controversially, the project explicitly aims to reframe American history, rejecting the centrality of 1776 and instead “understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” In 2020, the Times will expand the 1619 Project into a book and promote classroom materials adapted from it.

That revisionist ambition quickly brought out critics—in outlets as normally antagonistic as The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the World Socialist Web Site—who challenged the Times’s reframing and the factual claims offered as its basis. Last month, five historians alleged significant factual errors in a letter published in the magazine, alongside a response from Jake Silverstein, its editor in chief, who declined to issue corrections. That prompted another round of critical coverage from the World Socialist Web Site and historian Gordon Wood, a leading scholar of the period, who was irked most by the Times Magazine’s doubling down on the claim that a primary reason American colonists favored independence was to protect slavery. “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves,” he wrote. “No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”

That movement conservatives, tenured historians, and the editors of the World Socialist Web Site align so substantially in their critiques has broader significance. The debate over the relative salience of class, race, and hierarchy in the United States has divided the left while yielding odd convergences, and not only between classical liberals on the left and right. Both Trotskyites and movement conservatives can be fiercely protective of the revolution of 1776 and worry that centering race in history and politics divides America in corrosive ways (though they differ wildly on what should or will likely happen if racial fissures recede).

My own judgment diverges somewhat from the main rival factions in this debate. Like many critics, I hope the Times Magazine’s work succeeds in causing more Americans to recognize the remarkable faith that African Americans showed in our country’s promise even in eras when America least deserved it. Yet the core reframing that the 1619 Project advocates would unwittingly set back, rather than advance, the causes of equity and racial inclusion. Placing America’s founding moment in 1776 honors the diversity of its people in a way that 1619 does not.

Read the rest here.

University of North Carolina Historian Peter Colcanis Joins the Criticism of *The New York Times* 1619 Project

1619

Peter Colcanis, Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History at UNC,  writes at Spectator USA:

The great French historian Marc Bloch wrote many years ago in The Historian’s Craft about the ‘idol of origins’. When people make the common error of fixating on beginnings, they run the risk of ‘confusing ancestry with explanation’. The principals in the New York Times’s project seem to be doing just that in their effort to establish an unrelenting and remorseless 400-year genealogy of unmitigated white-on-black racism in the United States, beginning with the landing of ‘some 20. and odd Negroes’ at Point Comfort in 1619.

Slavery was, and indeed still is, an enormity. Figures compiled by a variety of organizations, ranging from the Free the Slaves advocacy group to the International Labour Organization (ILO), suggest that there are roughly three times as many slaves in the world today than were trafficked during the entire history of the Atlantic slave trade. To be sure, the figure for today derives in technical terms from a ‘stock’ concept (a measurement made at a given point in time, which can be the result of accumulated flows), whereas the figure for the Atlantic slave trade derives from a ‘flow’ concept (a measurement made over a given period of time). But the difference between the two is nonetheless worth noting.

To invoke ‘modern’ slavery is not to downplay the historical horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, only to call attention to the continuing horror of slavery amongst vulnerable groups and individuals, and to guard against what the great Marxist historian E.P. Thompson referred to as ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ toward actors and actions in the past.

The New York Times is peddling a linear narrative of national shame, its principal theme invariant racial oppression, or, to be more specific, the incessant depredations by villainous — or at best acquiescent — whites against friendless blacks. And this throbbing narrative allegedly began in 1619. But history, pace Nikole Hannah-Jones, doesn’t often work that way. Linearity works for certain problems — Ohm’s law in electricity and electromagnetics, for example — but not for others. Linearity certainly does not work for history, which is complex and polychromatic, circuitous and irregular. History, alas, is rather more tragedy than melodrama, and is not color-coded.

Read the rest here.

Oxford’s Richard Carwardine is the Latest American Historian to Criticize the 1619 Project

Carwardine

Like James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes before him, historian Richard Carwardine has criticized The New York Times 1619 Project in an interview at World Socialist Web Site.

Here is a taste:

Q. Let me begin by asking you your reaction to the 1619 Project’s lead essay, by Nikole Hannah-Jones, upon reading it.

A. As well as the essay I have read your interviews with James McPherson and James Oakes. I share their sense that, putting it politely, this is a tendentious and partial reading of American history.

I understand where this Project is coming from, politically and culturally. Of course, the economic well-being of the United States and the colonies that preceded it was constructed for over two-and-a-half centuries on the labor and sufferings of slaves; of course, like all entrenched wielders of power, the white political elite resisted efforts to yield up its privileges. But the idea that the 1619 Project’s lead essay is a rounded history of America—with relations between the races so stark and unyielding—I find quite shocking. I am troubled that this is designed to make its way into classrooms as the true story of the United States, because, as I say, it is so partial. It is also wrong in some fundamentals.

I’m all for recovering and celebrating the history of those whose voices have been historically muted and I certainly understand the concern of historians in recent times, black and white, that the black contribution to the United States has not been fully recognized. But the idea that the central, fundamental story of the United States is one of white racism and that black protest and rejection of white superiority has been the essential, indispensable driving force for change—which I take to be the central message of that lead essay—seems to me to be a preposterous and one-dimensional reading of the American past.

Q. I agree with everything you’ve said. There was a long period in American historiography in which the contributions of African-Americans were written out, and what prevailed was a basically false presentation in which the problems of slavery were obscured. But it seems the 1619 Project has simply put a minus sign where that earlier historiography, the Dunning School and so on, put a plus.

A. Yes. As an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1960s I was aware of work that brought a fresh and deeper understanding of African-American history. This was an era of breakthrough studies on slavery and anti-slavery, and “history from below” more widely, a development which chimed with so much of the best British radical and Marxist historiography. That was a stimulating time to be studying American history. As you say, African-American historiography has been transformed since then. I am pleased, but not surprised, that some African-American historians are stepping forward to challenge the narrative that appeared in the New York Times.

Q. Let me ask you about the treatment of Abraham Lincoln. Nikole Hannah-Jones homes in on two episodes: the meeting on colonization with leading African-Americans in 1862, and the well-known quote from the Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates in which Lincoln disavows social equality for blacks. Could you comment on these two episodes, their presentation by the New York Times, or situate them in the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking as regards race and slavery?

A. There is indeed an evolution, but first I’ll make two broad points. One is that context is all. Illinois was in 1858 one of the most race-conscious states of the Union. Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that white hostility towards blacks was strongest in the northwestern states. The black laws of Illinois were amongst the fiercest in the country. Lincoln knew that he could not be elected if he were seen as a racial egalitarian. I’m not suggesting he was a racial egalitarian, but we should take into account the political context that prompted his clearly defensive statements, at Ottawa and Charleston, that he was not seeking black political and social equality. Those statements of his are very few in number, grudging, and at times, I think, even satirical—as when he says that blacks are not “equal… in color.”

When Lincoln addressed the issue of slavery in his speeches from 1854 to 1860, he was on strong ground: slavery was widely disliked and the prospect of its spread was unwelcome to his political audience. But on the issue of race the Republicans were vulnerable. Their call for an ultimate end to slavery had to explain the consequence for black-white relations, and that of course made Lincoln extremely vulnerable to Stephen Douglas’s racism, and his assault on Lincoln as the “lover of the black”—though he would have used a worse epithet, wouldn’t he? So, in reality, Lincoln could only win an election in 1858 by making some concessions to the prevailing racial antipathies of whites. These two statements have understandably, and reasonably, attracted attention. They demonstrate that Lincoln, to secure a Republican victory that would advance the antislavery cause, fell short both of what blacks aspired to and of what the small minority of white racial egalitarians endorsed.

It seems to me that what’s really striking, however, is what Lincoln positively demands for blacks at this time. He embraces them within the Declaration of Independence’s proposition that all men are created equal. By “all men” he means regardless of color, and that’s where he gets into a tussle with Douglas. Douglas insisted the Declaration of Independence was never intended to apply to black people, and of course, Lincoln is emphatic that it does. So for me it’s what Lincoln claims for black people that is striking, and not what he says he will deny them.

With the August 1862 episode, again context is important. It’s a very striking meeting and it’s not Lincoln’s finest hour. Both Nicolay and Hay, his secretaries, said that they thought that Lincoln was at his most emotionally on edge and mentally fraught in the summer of 1862 when the Peninsular campaign had ended in failure, when he had determined on the Emancipation Proclamation but was waiting for a military victory to bring it forward, and when there was increasing clamor for emancipation. Both secretaries said that they had never known Lincoln as nervy as he was then.

The point I’m making here is that at that time Lincoln was under even greater human strain than ever. He knew he was on the brink of taking the most dramatic, even revolutionary, action of any president. He’s nervous. He can’t see what all the consequences will be, but he knows the consequences of not issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. It will leave the Confederacy with the whip hand.

That startling episode of Lincoln’s discussions with the five African-Americans—the first blacks invited into the White House as equals—should be placed in this context. Buffeted from all sides during one of the Union’s lowest points of the war, Lincoln lost the good humor that commonly lubricated his meetings with visitors. His message to them about the causes of the war, and the advantages of colonization and racial separation, has to be seen also in the context of the daunting prospective challenge of embracing four million former slaves fully into the American polity.

Read the entire interview here.

What to the Slave is the First of January?

Slave Auction

For 19th-century slaves, New Year’s Day was one of the worst days of the calendar year.  Olivia Waxman of Time magazine explains:

Americans are likely to think of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day as a time to celebrate the fresh start that a new year represents, but there is also a troubling side to the holiday’s history. In the years before the Civil War, the first day of the new year was often a heartbreaking one for enslaved people in the United States.

In the African-American community, New Year’s Day used to be widely known as “Hiring Day” — or “Heartbreak Day,” as the African-American abolitionist journalist William Cooper Nell described it — because enslaved people spent New Year’s Eve waiting, wondering if their owners were going to rent them out to someone else, thus potentially splitting up their families. The renting out of slave labor was a relatively common practice in the antebellum South, and a profitable practice for white slave owners and hirers.

“‘Hiring Day’ was part of the larger economic cycle in which most debts were collected and settled on New Year’s Day,” says Alexis McCrossen, an expert on the history of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day and a professor of history at Southern Methodist University, who writes about Hiring Day in her forthcoming book Time’s Touchstone: The New Year in American Life.

Read the rest here.

The Fight Over the *New York Times* 1619 Project

1619

I have said all I want to say about the 1619 Project.  You can read my posts here.

Over at The Atlantic, David Serwer tells the story behind the opposition to the project coming from historians Sean Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, Gordon Wood, James McPherson, and James Oakes. These historians recently published a letter criticizing the project.  Here is a taste:

Underlying each of the disagreements in the letter is not just a matter of historical fact but a conflict about whether Americans, from the Founders to the present day, are committed to the ideals they claim to revere. And while some of the critiques can be answered with historical fact, others are questions of interpretation grounded in perspective and experience.

In fact, the harshness of the Wilentz letter may obscure the extent to which its authors and the creators of the 1619 Project share a broad historical vision. Both sides agree, as many of the project’s right-wing critics do not, that slavery’s legacy still shapes American life—an argument that is less radical than it may appear at first glance. If you think anti-black racism still shapes American society, then you are in agreement with the thrust of the 1619 Project, though not necessarily with all of its individual arguments.

The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.

The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize. Inherent in that vision is a kind of pessimism, not about black struggle but about the sincerity and viability of white anti-racism. It is a harsh verdict, and one of the reasons the 1619 Project has provoked pointed criticism alongside praise.

Americans need to believe that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of history bends toward justice. And they are rarely kind to those who question whether it does.

Read the entire piece here.

What to the Slave Was Christmas?

Slaves on Plantation

Robert May, a historian of Purdue University, has an interesting piece about Christmas tours of Southern plantation that do not acknowledge how the slaves on those plantations experienced Christmas.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation: “Slave life’s harsh realities are erased in Christmas tours of Southern plantations”:

I read many documents to find out how slaves actually spent their Christmases. The truth is deeply disturbing.

On the one hand, the majority of enslaved people did get some them time off from work during Christmas, as well as feasts and presents. Some got to travel or to get married, privileges that they didn’t get at other times of the year. But these privileges could be withdrawn for any reason at all and many slaves never got them at all.

Slavery was a brutal system of forced labor to enrich those same owners. Even over the holiday, masters kept the power to punish slaves. A photo taken during the Civil War shows a man who was whipped at Christmas. His back was covered with scars, showing that when masters punished the people they held in bondage, they often did so brutally.

There were other cruel forms of punishment. On one South Carolina plantation, a master angry at an enslaved woman he suspected of miscarrying her pregnancy on purpose locked her up for the Christmas holiday.

Masters sometimes forced enslaved workers to get drunk even if they did not want to drink, or wrestle with each other on Christmas simply for the amusement of the master’s family.

Likewise, I learned in my research, slaveholders bought and sold plenty of people over the holiday, keeping slave traders busy during Christmas week.

Read the entire piece here.

19th-Century Evangelicals on the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

1869_Zions_Herald_BostonThis morning I read chapter nine of Victor Howard’s book Religion and the Radical Republican Movement, 1860-1870.  The chapter is titled “Impeachment and the Churches” and it focuses on how Protestant churches, denominations, and clergy responded to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.  While Howard’s chapter covers a specific segment of mid-19th century evangelicalism (mostly northern, radical, anti-slavery churches who favored Republican Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War), it provides some interesting context in light of today’s announcement of articles impeachment and the expected court evangelical opposition to these articles.

Here is a passage on p. 155-156. (I added the links):

The lawmakers of the new Fortieth Congress met immediately upon the adjournment of the Thirty-ninth Congress and promptly undertook the task of amending the Reconstruction Act.  On March 23, 1867, a supplementary bill was passed which gave federal military commanders on the South authority to initiate Reconstruction by registering eligible voters and calling state conventions, but Johnson, as the radicals feared, used his presidential powers to obstruct congressional Reconstruction.  Basing his action on the investigations of the Military Board and the report of the congressional committee, General Sheridan had removed the governor of Louisiana and local officers responsible for the New Orleans massacre. Johnson ordered Sheridan to defer the removals, but Sheridan answered him with a protest against recalling the order.  The president sought the opinion of Attorney General Henry Stanbery, who declared that the military commanders were not authorized to promulgate codes in defiance of civil government of the states but were to cooperate with the existing governments which were set up under Johnson’s plan of Reconstruction.  Stanbery’s interpretation virtually emasculated the Reconstruction Act. Stanbery also denounced General Daniel Sickles’s acts in North Carolina as illegal.  The general angrily asked to be relieved of his duties so that he could defend his conduct before a court of inquiry.

The editor of the Baptist Watchman and Reflector asserted “If the President acts on this opinion…to obstruct justice, he will…inaugurate a new war in Congress.”  The generally conservative Ohio Baptist Journal and Messenger concluded, “The President’s conduct from the first has not been such as to inspire confidence in his ability or integrity.  Congress has therefore only the more solemn responsibility resting upon it to be calm, vigilant, and unfalterting in its adherence to duty. The editor of the Zion’s Herald was more direct.  “Without doubt, the easiest remedy would be the prompt impeachment and remove of President Johnson.”

Here is a passage from p. 159:

The Baptist Christian Times and Witness condemned Johnson’s course but still did not think Congress should impeach him, because the president’s term was drawing to a close and opinion on the matter remained very divided.  “Providence has graciously provided for the protection of the country during the remainder of the term…by giving to loyal people such a decided preponderancy in Congress to keep wrong doing in check,” explained the editor.  But J.W. Barker, editor of the Christian Freemanviewed the crisis differently.  “When he who bears the sword bears it so vainly as to be no terror to ‘evil doers,’ but to cause the good and loyal to quake, he has lost his divine commission as a magistrate,’ the editor charged. 

Here is Howard on p. 160:

By October 1867, several ecclesiastical bodies were going on record in support of the current objectives of Congress.  The New London (Connecticut) Baptist Association, for example, resolved that “the open hostility of the President to the laws of Congress and the consequent hindrance to the peaceful progress of reconstruction fill us with the most painful solicitude.”  The Grinnell [Iowa] Association of Congregational Churches characterized Johnson as “an aider and abettor of principles inimical to the best interests of the country.”

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.

Whose Afraid of the 1619 Project?

1619

Interviews with historians James McPherson, Gordon Wood, and James Oakes at a socialist website are firing-up the political critics of The New York Times‘s 1619 Project.  The latest to attack the project is Max Eden of the conservative Manhattan Institute.  In his City Journal piece “A Divisive, Historically Dubious Curriculum” Eden concludes:

To understand their country, students should read America’s Founding documents and the works of great figures like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, and grapple with history’s circumstantial and moral complexities—not “reframe” history to make it fit partisan purposes. They should be taught about the moral abomination of American slavery—but not that “slavery is our country’s very origin,” or that its legacy is baked into all our social institutions, allegations that cannot stand up to any fair-minded examination of American history. The themes and messages of the 1619 Project are not only historically dubious; they will also lead to deeper civic alienation. Conscientious teachers should file the 1619 curriculum where it belongs: in the waste bin.

Read the entire piece here.

Ramesh Ponnuru, an editor at The National Review, got so excited about Eden’s piece that he quoted the above paragraph at his blog with no commentary.

The 1619 Project is not perfect.  Some of it is not very good.  But why are people like Eden so afraid of this project?  For all its flaws, the themes of the 1619 Project are things that students need to wrestle with in the classroom. And they need to wrestle with them critically.  And they need to wrestle with them under the guidance of a skilled history teacher.  Eden believes that if students read the 1619 Project they will somehow be indoctrinated into a mode of “civic alienation.”  But this is not how a history classroom works. In fact, most good history teachers would find Eden’s piece offensive. Good history teachers teach the past to help their students think critically (and historically) about the world.  The study of the past teaches students how to understand the complexity of the human experience, change over time and continuity, causation, and contingency.  Students learn how detect bias in sources. They learn how to empathize with different voices.  They learn how to read more deeply.  These are the things that will make them better citizens.

I would jump at the chance to teach the 1619 Project.

  1. The 1619 Project forces us to comes to grips with the African-American experience in America.
  2. The 1619 Project appeared in The New York Times and has been getting a lot of attention lately.  Because of the reach of The New York Times and the ongoing debate over the Project, it begs consideration in the history classroom.  Do we really want to pretend that The 1619 Project doesn’t exist?  Do we want to shield students from it? No, we want to engage it.
  3. I would use the 1619 Project alongside primary source and second source material (like the World Socialist Website interviews) to teach my students the skills of the historian.  Instead of telling them that the 1619 Project is good or bad, I want to give my students the skill to be able to draw their own conclusions.

Eden’s piece has nothing to do with the teaching of history.  It has everything to do with politics.

Historian James Oakes on the 1619 Project

1619

Princeton Civil War historian James McPherson has weighed-in.  So has Gordon Wood, a historian of the American Revolution.  And now it is time for CUNY-Graduate School historian James Oakes to offer his opinion on The New York Times‘s 1619 Project.

Here is a taste of the World Socialist Website’s interview with Oakes:

Q. Can you discuss some of the recent literature on slavery and capitalism, which argues that chattel slavery was, and is, the decisive feature of capitalism, especially American capitalism? I am thinking in particular of the recent books by Sven Beckert, Ed Baptist and Walter Johnson. This seems to inform the contribution to the 1619 Project by Matthew Desmond.

A. Collectively their work has prompted some very strong criticism from scholars in the field. My concern is that by avoiding some of the basic analytical questions, most of the scholars have backed into a neo-liberal economic interpretation of slavery, though I think I’d exempt Sven Beckert somewhat from that, because I think he’s come to do something somewhat different theoretically.

What you really have with this literature is a marriage of neo-liberalism and liberal guilt. When you marry those two things, neo-liberal politics and liberal guilt, this is what you get. You get the New York Times, you get the literature on slavery and capitalism.

Q. Let me ask you about Lincoln. He’s not discussed much in Ms. Hannah-Jones’ article—

A. Yes, she does the famous 1862 meeting Lincoln had in the White House on colonization—

Q. Lincoln is presented as a garden-variety racist…

A. Yes, and she also says somewhere else that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation simply as a military tactic…

Q. Could you comment on that?

A. It’s ridiculous. Most of what Abraham Lincoln had to say about African Americans was anti-racist, from the first major speech he gives on slavery in 1854, when he says, “If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal’; and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” Lincoln says, can’t we stop talking about this race and that race being equal or inferior and go back to the principle that all men are created equal. And he says this so many times and in so many ways. By the late 1850s he was vehemently denouncing Stephen Douglas and his northern Democrats for their racist demagoguery, which Lincoln complained was designed to accustom the American people to the idea that slavery was the permanent, natural condition of black people. His speeches were becoming, quite literally, anti-racist.

Now, he grew up in Indiana and he lived as an adult in Illinois, and Illinois had some of the harshest discriminatory laws in the North. That is to say, he inhabited a world in which it’s almost unimaginable to him that white people will ever allow black people to live as equals. So on the one hand he denounces racism and is committed to emancipation, to the overthrow of slavery, gradually or however it would take place. But on the other hand he believes white people will never allow blacks equality. So he advocates voluntary colonization. Find a place somewhere where blacks can enjoy the full fruits of liberty that all human beings are entitled to. It’s a very pessimistic view about the possibilities of racial equality. Ironically, it’s not all that far from Lincoln’s critics today who say that racism is built into the American DNA. At least Lincoln got over it and came to the conclusion that we’re going to have to live as equals here.

The statement he makes on colonization was framed as an unflinching attack on the colonizationists who were motivated by their hatred of blacks, who wanted free blacks expelled from the country simply because they were black. It’s a vehement attack on the racist justification of colonization. So Lincoln favors colonization, but he abandons it with the Emancipation Proclamation once it no longer serves the political function of promoting state abolition, and once he comes to accept that America was going to have to be a multi-racial nation.

Still, that meeting with African Americans in the summer of 1862 was terrible. As I said in a previous book, it was a low point in his presidency. But although Lincoln at that point was still sincerely committed to colonization, he was also a politician and it was also a strategic meeting. He was sitting on the Emancipation Proclamation. He knew that northern racists were going to be annoyed because they’d been saying from the start that they didn’t want the Civil War to be about freeing the slaves, they wanted it to be about nothing more than restoring the union. So Lincoln is throwing them a sop by behaving in a disgraceful, condescending manner toward a group of African American leaders in the most conspicuous, public way.

Read the entire interview here.

Gordon Wood on the 1619 Project

Earlier this month we did a post on the World Socialist Website’s interview with James McPherson.  The topic was The New York Times‘s 1619 Project.

And now the same website has published an interview with historian Gordon Wood.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Q. The 1619 Project claims basically that nothing has ever gotten any better. That it’s as bad now as it was during slavery, and instead what you’re describing is a very changed world…

A. Imagine the inequalities that existed before the Revolution. Not just in wealth—I mean, we have that now—but in the way in which people were treated. Consider the huge number of people who were servants of some kind. I just think that people need to know just how bad the Ancién Regime was. In France, we always had this Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities view of the society, with a nobleman riding through the village and running over children and so on. But similar kinds of brutalities and cruelties existed in the English-speaking world in the way common people were treated. In England, there must have been 200 capital crimes on the books. Consequently, juries became somewhat reluctant to convict to hanging a person for stealing a handkerchief. So the convict was sent as a bonded servant to the colonies, 50,000 of them. And then when the American Revolution occurs, Australia becomes the replacement.

I don’t think people realize just what a cruel and brutal world existed in the Ancién Regime, in the premodern societies of the West, not just for slaves, but for lots of people who were considered the mean or lowly sort. And they don’t appreciate what a radical message is involved in declaring that all men are created equal and what that message means for our obsession with education, and the implications of that for our society.

Read the entire interview here.

Civil War Historian James McPherson on the Problems with the 1619 Project

1619

What is the 1619 Project?  Get up to speed here.

Prize-winning Civil War historian James McPherson talks to Tom Mackaman at the World Socialist Website.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Q. What was your initial reaction to the 1619 Project?

A. Well, I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper, with the magazine section entirely devoted to the 1619 Project. Because this is a subject I’ve long been interested in I sat down and started to read some of the essays. I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism—which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it—but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out.

So I read a few of the essays and skimmed the rest, but didn’t pursue much more about it because it seemed to me that I wasn’t learning very much new. And I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view…

Q. We’ve spoken to a lot of historians, leading scholars in the fields of slavery, the Civil War, the American Revolution, and we’re finding that none of them were approached. Although the Times doesn’t list its sources, what do you think, in terms of scholarship, this 1619 Project is basing itself on?

A. I don’t really know. One of the people they approached is Kevin Kruse, who wrote about Atlanta. He’s a colleague, a professor here at Princeton. He doesn’t quite fit the mold of the other writers. But I don’t know who advised them, and what motivated them to choose the people they did choose.

Q. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer and leader of the 1619 Project, includes a statement in her essay—and I would say that this is the thesis of the project—that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

A. Yes, I saw that too. It does not make very much sense to me. I suppose she’s using DNA metaphorically. She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.

But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.

Read the entire piece here.

The Huntington Library Acquires New Collections on Slavery

Huntington

Here is Pasadena Now:

The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens announced today that it has acquired two collections related to abolition and slavery in 19th-century America, including an exceptionally rare account book from the Underground Railroad.

The first group of materials includes the papers of Zachariah Taylor Shugart (1805–1881), a Quaker abolitionist who operated an Underground Railroad stop at his farm in Cass County, Michigan. The centerpiece of the collection is an account ledger which contains the names of 137 men and women who passed through Shugart’s farm while trying to reach freedom in Canada; these names are recorded amid everyday details of Shugart’s business life, including the number of minks he trapped and the debts he was owed.

The second collection is the archive of some 2,000 letters and accounts documenting the history of the Dickinson & Shrewsbury saltworks, a major operation founded in 1808 in what is now Kanawha County, West Virginia. The records shed light on an industry that was not plantation-based but still relied heavily on slave labor.

“These new materials provide compelling windows into the lives of those who were enslaved and those who escaped slavery, and also shed light on the politics of the times before, during, and after the Civil War,” said Sandra Ludig Brooke, Avery Director of the Library at The Huntington. “They are a vivid complement to The Huntington’s rich collections documenting American slavery, abolitionist movements, and the history of the American South.”

Read the rest here.

Reenacting the 1811 German Coast Slave Uprising in Louisiana

1811_German_Coast_Uprising

Check out Rick Rojas’s recent piece at The New York Times: “A Slave Rebellion Rises Again.”  Rojas covers the reenactment of an 1811 Louisiana slave rebellion know as the German Coast Uprising.

Rojas writes:

The 26-mile march, a re-enactment of the 1811 German Coast Uprising in southeast Louisiana, began Friday morning and will conclude Saturday. It was timed to the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia, a moment that has ignited considerable reflection about the specter of slavery still hanging over the United States and the depths of its influence…

The performance was conceived, in part, to demonstrate how the ghosts of slavery have endured; the institution itself is gone, but the animosity and oppression have evolved and lingered. Staging a provocative revival of a violent rebellion, recounted in unsparing detail, stirred fears that the performance might turn into a very real confrontation.

Read the entire piece here.

Over at The New Republic, writer Nick Martin writes about the difficult work of diversifying historical reenactments.  Here is a taste:

Diversifying all forms of historical reenactment, whether an amateur showing, a school activity, or a professionally produced motion picture, is clearly a step in the right direction. That’s why communities of color have been focusing on this for decades: It’s a chance to render erased histories visible in a particularly physical way, taking up space the people in these histories have long been denied, and becoming a source of pride for communities of color. It’s hard to imagine any rational, good-faith objection to that: After all, white reenactors have been claiming for decades that education and pride in history is the whole point.

I am not a big fan of reenactments.  I don’t go to them. Reenactors think that history is all about authenticity–wearing the right number of buttons on a uniform or marching in a way that reflects the time period.  )Check out the late Tony Horwitz’s book Confederates in the Attic on this front). This approach to the past fails to let the past speak to the present and vice-versa.  Reenactments are antiquarianism, not history.  The doing of history requires an exploration of context, change over time, causation, contingency (which I guess could be captured in an reenactment as fans watch actors make choices), and complexity.

Yet reenactments, like historical movies or Broadway shows, do get people engaged with the past.  They have the potential to get observers to learn more about the past through reading or a visit to a historical museum that properly curates the past.

But the reenactment of the German Coast Uprising seems to be more of an example of reenactment as activism rather than reenactment as antiquarianism.  In other words, this seems to be something quite different from the traditional Civil War reenactment.  The goal is both understanding and social change.

The African American Women of the Underground Railroad

Tubman

Harriet Tubman, the subject of a movie now showing throughout the country, was just one of many African American women who labored on the Underground Railroad.  Over at Process, historian Jazma Sutton explains:

This November, Focus Features will release the anticipated movie Harriet in theaters worldwide. In promoting the film, the company characterizes Harriet Tubman as “one of America’s greatest heroes.” The website further asserts that “her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.” Kasi Lemmons, the film’s cowriter and director, in an interview addressing the film’s contemporary relevance, reminded the public how “important it is to remember what singular people were able to accomplish in turbulent times.” Undoubtedly, Harriet Tubman deserves credit, and her biopic is long overdue. But Harriet did not toil alone. Rather, her work as an Underground Railroad conductor was part of a national movement of free and enslaved black persons dedicated to the liberation and advancement of their race. Countless African American women, in addition to Harriet—young and old; free and enslaved; alone, pregnant, and with family; in the South, the North, and the Midwest—risked their lives to obtain freedom. Unfortunately, we know very little about the actions and sacrifices of other black women who liberated themselves or worked as assistants and operatives on the Underground Railroad. Who were these women? What motives did they have for escaping and aiding in the escape of others?

Surviving historical records suggest that several factors influenced African American women’s determination to flee slavery. These included the prospect of a better, more autonomous life; the threat or reality of family separation; the fear of being sold to the Deep South; and the hope of joining family members who had successfully escaped. Underground Railroad testimonies overwhelmingly describe African American women fleeing in the company of their children, husbands, and other family members. Their visions of freedom were inseparable from the responsibility they felt for family, especially their children. In the 1840s or 1850s, fifteen self-liberated people appeared at the Union Literary Institute (ULI), an integrated school established for the education of black students in the Greenville settlement of East Central Indiana, the region I study. The party consisted of a woman, her ten children, her son-in-law, a grandchild, and two others. The entire family was enslaved by one man and comprised his entire human property. When asked, “Were you not used well…why did you run away,” the mother responded, “My children were my master’s, and the mistress and the white children wanted us to be sold, and we thought it time to quit.” This particular woman appears to have eventually fled to Canada, but that was not the only promised land for African American women seeking freedom. Some chose to live permanently, or at least for extended periods, in free black communities on the Kentucky border; others preferred secluded communities in the rural Midwest, particularly because the threat of being captured was significantly lessened by the presence of cooperative Quakers. Still others chose remote or protected destinations convenient to them: Native American communities, the Great Dismal Swamp, and distant Mexico, for example.

Read the rest here.

Movies About Women of Color in History CAN Make Money

hero_harriet-movie-review-2019

Over at VOX, film critic and The Kings College (NYC) English professor Alyssa Wilkinson interviews Gregory Allen Howard, the writer of the screenplay for Harriet. Wilkinson writes: “it’s surprising that Harriet is the first biopic about such an important woman in American history, considering how this is an industry that loves making historical biopics — surprising, that is, until you remember that Hollywood has typically exhibited skepticism toward the idea that movies led by women and people of color can make money.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

Wilkinson: Hollywood has taken a really long time to accept the fact that movies about black people might be told on screen, and that audiences would embrace them. Were there any movies over the years that showed you what could happen if that ever changed?

Howard: Of course, and there are movies that proved that to my producers, too. For [producer] Debra [Martin Chase], it was Hidden Figures. Mine is 12 Years a Slave. See, what I had heard for all those years was, “Nobody’s going to pay to see the slave movie, Greg. Get out of my office.” But I said, “But it doesn’t matter. If the movie’s good, people will see it.”

“No, we don’t want it,” I’d hear back. “No one’s going to pay to see a slave story.” I swear to God, I heard that for over 20 years.

And then 12 Years a Slave came out and did massive business. It made almost $200 million worldwide. That’s when I took [Harriet]off the shelf again. And I said, “You can’t tell me what you’ve been telling me all this time.” And they said, “Yeah, but see, that was a different movie.” They came up with a different excuse.

But the truth was that the business was changing. If this movie has been made 10 years ago, it would’ve been an outlier, and no one in town wants to be an outlier. Fear drives our industry, and I don’t know that anybody’s ever gotten fired for passing on a movie.

But boy, if you say yes to something, or even go fight for it, you’re risking your career. You’re certainly risking your job.

Read the entire interview here.

The Author’s Corner with John Brooke

there is a northJohn Brooke is Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of History and Professor of Anthropology at Ohio State University. He is also Director of the Ohio State University Center for Historical Research. This interview is based on his new book, “There is a North”: Fugitive Slaves, Political Crisis, and Cultural Transformation in the Coming of the Civil War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write “There is a North”?

JB: I am thrilled that my book is out, and want to thank the University of Massachusetts Press for doing such a nice job with the production. I began thinking about this project in 2010 for two reasons: I wanted to write about how people experience “events,” and I wanted to address the central issue of the history of the republic. Here, I was dissatisfied with the dominant narrative, which focuses on why the South seceded. The new literature on the politics of slavery during the American Revolution and Early Republic makes it plain that the South would secede whenever the slaveholders faced a fundamental threat to “the institution.” 

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of “There is a North”?

JB: The central question regards how and when the fundamental threat to slavery emerged. It is equally clear that, while the abolitionists worked long and hard, they had not before the 1850s convinced a strategic block Northern opinion to stand up against slavery.

JF: Why do we need to read “There is a North?

JB: Readers should consider “There is a North” because it describes this conversion between the fall of 1850 and the spring of 1856, focusing on the way in which the Fugitive Slave Law was turned into a cultural weapon against slavery through the efforts of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but also the efforts of hundreds of other authors, musicians, and theatrical producers and performers. This process involved a fundamental though fleeting creolizing encounter of black and white American cultures, unfolding in a contested by real confluence of black and white interest against slavery and the Slave Power. By the time that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854, this drawn out “media event” had reshaped public opinion. While both the political and cultural dimensions of this story have been the subject of important works, “There is a North” is the first to focus on both equally, and on their synergies.

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

JB: My interests in American and also world history have their origins in my childhood, and were nurtured at Cornell and then at Penn, where I became an early American historian, eminently advised by Michael Zuckerman and his many colleagues. “There is a North” is my fourth book on society and culture in the American North from the Age of Revolution to the Civil War.

JF: What is your next project?

JB: Teaching global environmental and climate history at Tufts and Ohio State led to my global book, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey. The next several years will be devoted this project, producing a 2nd edition and a spin-off undergraduate text.

JF: Thanks, John!

Slavery and the Nation’s Capital

Early Washington D.C.

Over at website of The White House Historical Association, public historian Lina Mann explains why slavery flourished in Washington D.C. 

Here is a taste:

For the first seventy-two years of its existence, the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., harbored one of America’s most difficult historical truths and greatest contradictions: slavery. The city’s placement along the Potomac River, in between the slave states of Maryland and Virginia, ensured that slavery was ingrained into every aspect of life, including the buildings, institutions, and social fabric of Washington, D.C. Enslaved workers contributed to public building projects, were bought and sold within the boundaries of the city, and served many of the men who founded the nation. Slavery was alive and well in the President’s Neighborhood.

In June 1790, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson sat down to dinner with Virginia Congressman James Madison and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. By the end of the evening, these men had agreed upon a new location for the United States capital. Prior to this dinner, a debate on its location divided members of the fledgling government. Hamilton and his supporters believed the capital should be in New York City, while others preferred Philadelphia or a location along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Southerners like Jefferson and Madison favored a location along the Potomac River, fearing that a northern capital would diminish southern power, undermine slavery, and encourage corruption among bankers, merchants, and creditors. That night, according to Jefferson’s recollections, the three agreed to place the capital along the Potomac in exchange for the federal assumption of states’ war debts from the American Revolution.

On July 16, 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, moving the capital from New York to Philadelphia for ten years’ time and then permanently to the “river Potomack.”

By placing the seat of government firmly in the South, this legislation allowed slavery to flourish in the new capital. After President George Washington signed the Residence Act into law, he took an active role overseeing the construction of the Federal City. Working with French-born engineer Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant, he selected a building site near his Mount Vernon estate at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

To establish this new Federal City, Maryland ceded about seventy square miles, while Virginia contributed around twenty.

President Washington also appointed three commissioners in January 1791 to manage city construction: Thomas Johnson, David Stuart, and Daniel Carroll.

All three men owned slaves.

Read the rest here.