When the Way of Improvement Can’t Lead Home: A Brief Review of Tara Westover’s *Educated*

Educated Tara Westover

Sometimes the way of improvement leads home. It did for Philip Vickers Fithian, the eighteenth-century son of New Jersey farmers who got an education at Princeton and spent the rest of his short life wrestling with what that meant for his relationship with friends and family in his “beloved Cohansey.”  Fithian eventually returned home, but since he died in the American Revolution we will never know how long he would have stayed.

Wendell Berry left home to become a writer.  He eventually returned to Port Royal, Kentucky and never left.  The conservative writer Rod Dreher went back to LouisianaBruce Springsteen came back to New Jersey.

Sometimes the way of improvement does not lead home, but the newly educated traveler finds ways to stay connected and deal with the psychological and emotional challenges that come with displacement.  Richard Rodriguez’s education led him away from home on a variety of levels, but he spent the rest of his career writing about his family and his “hunger for memory.”  Sarah Smolinksy, the fictional character in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, got educated and left the tyranny of her father’s immigrant Jewish household in New York City.  Yet she figured out a small way to honor her father and sustain a relationship with him, even inviting him to live with her.

But sometimes the way of improvement can’t lead home.  When Frederick Douglass learned how to read he was exposed to a world of abolitionism and anti-slavery that he never knew existed.  Education led to liberation. (This is why we call it “liberal arts education”). There would be no going back to the tyranny of slavery.

We see all three of these models in Educated, Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up among fundamentalist Mormons on a mountain in Idaho.  Westover had no formal schooling, but managed to educate herself well enough to score a 28 on the ACT and win a scholarship to Brigham Young University.

At first, Westover never imagined that her education would take her somewhere beyond the mountain.  She came home every summer and seems to have fully expected a return to her family.  But education changes a person.  Sarah learned that she was becoming something different–something very unlike her physically abusive older brother, her spiritually abusive father (in this sense, her story is most similar to Smolinsky in Bread Givers), and her mother who rejected science and medicine in favor of “essential oils.”

Through the study of psychology Westover learned that her father and brother might be bipolar.  Through her study of history she learned that her father’s conspiracy theories were built on a very shaky historical foundation.  With the help of roommates, boyfriends, and a Mormon bishop in Provo, she learned that doctors and medicine are good things.  With the help of BYU history professor Paul Kerry (a professor who once showed me around Oxford University), she encountered a world of ideas and learning that she never knew existed.  Kerry, with the help of Cambridge historian Jonathan Steinberg, convinced her that she belonged in this world.

Westover not only survived in this world, but she thrived in it.  She won numerous academic awards at BYU, including a Gates Fellowship to Cambridge.  Her way of improvement led her to a visiting fellowship at Harvard and a Ph.D in history from Cambridge.

Yet the longing of home–of family, of place, of roots–continued to pull her back to the mountain. She spent long months during her doctoral program in a state of depression as she came to grips with how education was uprooting her.  When she to tried to bring light to the dark sides of her childhood, address the tyranny, abuse, and superstition that took place everyday on the mountain, and somehow try to bring the fruits of her liberal learning to the place she loved, her family ostracized her.  The way of improvement could not lead home.  There would be no rural Enlightenment.

Westover’s story is a common one, but rarely do we see the tension between “the way of improvement” and “home” play out in such stark contrasts.

The Author’s Corner with Stanley Harrold

American AbolitionismStanley Harrold is Professor of History at South Carolina State . This interview is based on his new book, American Abolitionism: Its Direct Political Impact from Colonial Times into Reconstruction (University of Virginia Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write American Abolitionism?

SH: For years I concentrated my research and writing on the physical clashes between antislavery and proslavery forces on both sides of the North-South sectional border. Particularly in writing Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), I came to appreciate how these confrontations influenced the sectional politics that led to the Civil War. Those involved included escaping slaves, black and white abolitionists who encouraged and aided the escapees, and defensive white southerners who pursued the escapees. But, in focusing on these clashes and those involved, I limited the book’s scope to a restricted region and a relatively brief time period. As a result I began to wonder about other ways that abolitionists directly impacted American politics and government over a much more extended period, stretching from the late 1600s into the late 1860s. Also the recent upsurge in interest among historians regarding the abolitionists’ impact on politics has emphasized their indirect political impact through preaching, holding public meetings, and circulating antislavery propaganda in attempts to influence public opinion. Because other broader forces than these influenced northern popular opinion, this is an impressionist enterprise. Therefore American Abolitionism focuses precisely on direct abolitionist impact on colonial, state, and national government, through petitioning, lobbying, and personal contacts with politicians, as well as the direct impact of abolitionist physical action on northern and southern politicians.

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

SH: American Abolitionism argues that, beginning during the Colonial Period and extending through the Early National period, the Jacksonian Era, the 1850s, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, abolitionists’ direct political tactics helped influence the course of the sectional conflict. The book emphasizes that even those abolitionists who emphasized moral suasion and refused to vote engaged in effective efforts directly to influence formal politics.

JF: Why do we need to read American Abolitionism?

SH: As I suggest above, the book provides a much more precise understanding than previous studies of the abolitionist impact on American politics and government over an extended period of time. It begins with Quaker abolitionist petitioning and lobbying from the 1690s into the 1770s. It discusses expanded efforts to influence politics, undertaken by the first antislavery societies, mostly at the state level, during the Revolutionary and Early National periods. It covers the expanded direct tactics undertaken by immediate abolitionists, aimed at Congress and begun during the late 1820s. It explores the relationships between abolitionists and the Free Soil and Republican parties from the late 1840s through the Civil War, including increasing abolitionist efforts to personally influence Radical Republicans and President Abraham Lincoln. The book concludes with an evaluation of such efforts.

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

SH: For me becoming an American historian was a gradual process. I enjoyed a fine liberal arts undergraduate education at Allegheny College, where I took courses in art, literature, philosophy, as well as history, and did not decide to major in history until the middle of my junior year. I graduated in 1968, while the Vietnam War was raging. I decided to go to graduate school at Kent State University in part because I was not sure what else to do and hoped being a graduate student might provide a continued draft deferment. At first I was not sure that I wanted to be a professional historian or continue in graduate school after earning a master’s degree in American history. But, as I learned more about the historical profession, and came under the influence of my adviser John T. Hubbell, I finally committed myself to a career as a professor of American history, with a concentration on the Civil War Era and the abolitionist movement.

JF: What is your next project?

SH: For the first time, I have not begun a new book project after completing one. I shall, though, remain co-author, with Darlene Clark Hine and Willian C. Hine, of the African-American Odyssey, the leading black history textbook, which is currently in its seventh edition. I shall also remain co-editor, with Randall M. Miller, of the Southern Dissent book series, published by the University Press of Florida.

JF: Thanks, Stanley!

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

Slave Bible 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire piece here.

Angela: A Slave Who Arrived in Jamestown in 1619

Jamestown discovery

400 years ago, “20 And odd Negroes”-they were slaves–arrived in Jamestown.  One of them was named Angela.  DeNeen Brown writes about Angela in her recent piece at The Washington Post.  It draws on the work of James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation.  Here is a taste:

By the time Angela was brought to Jamestown’s muddy shores in 1619, she had survived war and capture in West Africa, a forced march of more than 100 miles to the sea, a miserable Portuguese slave ship packed with 350 other Africans and an attack by pirates during the journey to the Americas.

“All of that,” marveled historian James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, “before she is put aboard the Treasurer,” one of two British privateers that delivered the first Africans to the English colony of Virginia.

Now, as the country marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of those first slaves, historians are trying to find out as much as possible about Angela, the first African woman documented in Virginia. They see her as a seminal figure in American history — a symbol of 246 years of brutal subjugation that left millions of men, women and children enslaved at the start of the Civil War.

Two years ago, researchers launched an archaeological investigation in Jamestown at the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America to find any surviving evidence of Angela.

She is listed in the 1624 and 1625 census as living in the household of Capt. William Pierce, first as “Angelo a Negar” and then as “Angela Negro woman in by Treasurer.” By then, she had survived two other harrowing events: a Powhatan Indian attack in 1622 that left 347 colonists dead and the famine that followed.

Yet little is known about her beyond those facts.

Read the rest here.

Trees and American History

Cotton Tree

Cotton Tree, Freetown, Sierra Leone

In American history they have represented freedom and unfreedom.  Here is Stony Brook historian Jared Farmer at the Oxford University Press blog:

Extralegal violence committed by white men in the name of patriotism is a founding tradition of the United States. It is unbearably fitting that the original Patriot landmark, the Liberty Tree in Boston, sported a noose, and inspired earliest use of the metaphor “strange fruit.” The history of the Liberty Tree and a related symbol, the Tree of Slavery, illustrates American entanglements of race and place, nature and nation.

The Liberty Tree was a specific elm (Ulmus americana) in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. It was also a generic designation for political gathering sites throughout the thirteen colonies (mainly in New England, but also notably Charleston and Annapolis). And it was a stylized tree in the form of a “liberty pole,” plus a design element for flags.

In the age of revolution, this emblem had multicultural, transatlantic appeal. The Sons of Liberty in Newport, Rhode Island, appropriated for their cause a sycamore that had previously been used for gatherings by the city’s African population. In Haiti, black revolutionaries enthusiastically adopted liberty poles. Toussaint L’Ouverture’s apocryphal parting words became famous: “In overthrowing me, you have overthrown only the trunk of the tree of negro liberty; but the roots remain; they will push out again, because they are numerous, and go deep into the soil.”

The African tree of liberty was not just metaphorical. From the Caribbean to Brazil to Ecuador-Colombia, maroon communities associated food-producing trees such as tamarind (Tamarindus indica) and pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan) with freedom. A cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra) in the center of Freetown, Sierra Leone, became mnemonically associated with both the slave trade and the homecoming of freed slaves from North America.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Daniel Wells

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

JF: What led you to write Blind No More?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Daniel!

The Author’s Corner with Joseph Reidy

Illusions of EmancipationJoseph Reidy is Professor of History and Associate Provost at Howard University. This interview is based on his new book, Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Illusions of Emancipation?

JR: Illusions of Emancipation began gestating nearly twenty-five years ago when Gary W. Gallagher and T. Michael Parrish, series editors of the University of North Carolina Press’s Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, invited me to write the volume on emancipation. My previous work with the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, which included co-editing four volumes of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 (Cambridge University Press, 1982-1993), acquainted me with the incredibly rich Civil War-era military records at the National Archives. The documents revealed emancipation to have been a complex process rather than a single event and to have involved a cast of characters that extended well beyond President Abraham Lincoln and his fellow Republicans to include enslaved Southerners and free African American Northerners. For the past generation historians have shared this understanding of how slavery ended, but much remains to be explained.

The current consensus takes for granted a linear trajectory, that began in 1861 with slavery well entrenched in the Southern states and protected in law throughout the land and that ended in 1865 with slavery outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Even a cursory reading of the records at the National Archives suggested that the process was infinitely complex and that the goal of achieving freedom was elusive if not downright ephemeral. When supplemented with material from African American newspapers and the memoirs of persons who had escaped slavery (in the form of both published narratives and transcripts of interviews conducted during the 1930s), a fuller picture emerges. Contemporaries often employed figurative rather than strictly literal terminology to describe their experiences and their actions. They viewed events as unfolding within a temporal framework that was linear in some respects but was also characterized by recurring cycles or by intermittent bursts in which time appeared to speed up, slow down, or even stop. Space often displayed similar malleable properties, including its ability to support or undermine slavery depending on who controlled it. I wondered how individuals and communities coped with such instability. I found that at least part of the answer lay in their use of concepts of belonging, especially “home,” which could imply a dwelling-place, a neighborhood, a community, as well as the nation and the human relationships associated with each of those settings, to establish order out of the threatening chaos.

Abandoning the view that Civil War emancipation represented an unqualified expansion of American freedom and democracy reveals not only the complexity and uncertainty of the struggle to destroy slavery but also the limitations of the North’s ability to extend the blessings extolled by the Founders to persons of African ancestry, freeborn and formerly enslaved. For more than 150 years the nation has wrestled with the imperfect and often illusory results of emancipation, and the struggle continues.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Illusions of Emancipation?

JR: Illusions of Emancipation views the end of slavery during the Civil War not as a single event but as a complex, erratic, and unpredictable process, the outcome of which—the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—outlawed slavery but left unaddressed the contours of the “new birth of freedom” Abraham Lincoln had referenced in the Gettysburg Address. The book explores mid-nineteenth century Americans’ concepts of time, space, and the universal human desire for belonging for clues into how they understood the momentous changes swirling around them and, in turn, how we might better comprehend their world and our own.

JF: Why do we need to read Illusions of Emancipation?

JR: Illusions of Emancipation views the destruction of slavery during the Civil War as an uneven, often contradictory, and ultimately incomplete process rather than a story of American progress in which the latent antislavery sentiment of the nascent Republican Party blossomed over the four years of war into a triumphant reaffirmation of the nation’s founding ideals. Like many other recent interpreters of this era, I take for granted that Abraham Lincoln was not the sole architect of emancipation and that African Americans (both enslaved and freeborn) contributed significantly to destroying slavery, saving the Union, and reconfiguring the contours of American citizenship. But I also argue that, from Fort Sumter to Appomattox and beyond, each day presented new contingencies to be navigated, that the flow of events—and people’s perceptions of them—moved in erratic and cyclical patterns rather than simple and straightforward ones, and that the presumed march of freedom under federal auspices could stop as well as advance and even turn backwards. Following the lead of contemporary observers, I argue that understanding this complex process requires employing figurative as well as literal meanings of time and space. I also explore the multiple concepts of the term “home” with which participants in the war’s earth-shattering events attempted to make sense of a world in the throes of being turned upside down. In the end, the Union’s victory resulted in a constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery; but it offered at best an imperfect resolution to such fundamental questions as the meaning of freedom and the essential rights and privileges of citizenship—not just to persons of African descent but to all Americans—the implications of which persist to the present.

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

JR: I followed a roundabout path to becoming a professional historian. I began my undergraduate studies in the mid-1960s in an engineering program, but after several years I found it to be less engaging than I had expected. What is more, the physical and natural sciences did not offer much in the way of understanding the pressing political and social questions embroiling the nation at that time, specifically African American civil and political rights and the Vietnam War. The social sciences offered a framework for filling that void, and I completed a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Following graduation, I began exploring the possibility of a career in higher education, with my focus shifting from sociology to U.S. history with the goal of comprehending the underlying context of contemporary events. The prospect of teaching about the past was appealing, but even more so was the opportunity to conduct historical research and advance the frontiers of knowledge. That fascination has animated my work ever since.

JF: What is your next project?

JR: Having recently retired, I am not inclined to embark on an entirely new research project. But I have a long-standing interest in the topic black sailors in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, and I would like to pursue that further. The navy grew from several dozen effective vessels at the start of the war to more than 600 by its conclusion, and roughly one-fourth of the enlisted personnel were men of African descent. What is more, nineteenth-century naval warships present something of a world unto themselves, one of rigidly confined space where time followed conventions unknown on terra firma, and the hierarchical authority structure looked (and functioned) more like a slave plantation than any living and working arrangements in the free states of the North. What a fascinating setting to explore the breakdown of slavery!

JF: Thanks, Joseph!

When Lincoln Gave Reparations to Slaveholders

Slaveholders

Tera Hunter, Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton, calls our attention to a bill signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 that paid up to $300 for every enslaved person freed in the District of Columbia.  Here is a taste of her piece at The New York Times:

On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill emancipating enslaved people in Washington, the end of a long struggle. But to ease slaveowners’ pain, the District of Columbia Emancipation Act paid those loyal to the Union up to $300 for every enslaved person freed.

That’s right, slaveowners got reparations. Enslaved African-Americans got nothing for their generations of stolen bodies, snatched children and expropriated labor other than their mere release from legal bondage.

The compensation clause is not likely to be celebrated today. But as the debate about reparations for slavery intensifies, it is important to remember that slaveowners, far more than enslaved people, were always the primary beneficiaries of public largess.

The act is notable because it was the first time that the federal government authorized abolition of slavery, which hastened its demise in Virginia and Maryland as runaways from these states fled to Washington. It offered concrete proof to enslaved people and their allies that the federal government might facilitate the destruction of slavery everywhere. And it confirmed the worst fears of their foes about an interloping tyrannical president.

Read the rest here.

David Brion Davis, RIP

 

David Brion Davis, the Yale historian of slavery and race in America, has died. I never met him, but his books were a ubiquitous presence on my graduate-school reading lists.

Here is historian and Davis colleague David Blight‘s reflection:

David Brion Davis has passed after a long illness.  The historical profession, the GLC, and countless friends have lost a giant of a figure.  The GLC team and network of hundreds of scholars, teachers, and readers send our condolences to Toni Davis and their two sons, Adam and Noah.  David still read books on a Kindle until a few months before his death.  In his room in Guilford, CT he was especially proud of pointing to the photograph on the wall of himself and Barack and Michelle Obama, taken at the White House on the night he received the National Humanities Medal from the President.  David’s trilogy on the problem of slavery in western culture remains a monument to Professor Davis’s extraordinary and singular quest to understand the ideas surrounding slavery and its abolition across the Atlantic world over more than two centuries.  His many other works and his essays in the New York Review of Books made a mark on American and international history like few other historians anywhere in the second half of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  David was the founding and emeritus director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.  He was an intellectual in pursuit of truth and wisdom.  In his presence one always learned something. He was a deeply spiritual man who saw the historian’s craft as a search for the minds and souls of people in the past.  He devoted his life and career to understanding the place of the inhumane but profoundly important and persistent practices of slavery and racism in the world.  He was a philosopher at heart, a lyrical writer, and defined why we do history.  We stand on his shoulders.  At the GLC we carry on his legacy every day.  We loved him.  His portrait hangs on the wall at the GLC amidst a large portion of his book collection, still containing his post-its, book marks and thousands of annotations.  We will always have him nearby.

Slavery in the City (#OAH19)

Slavery in the City

Slave auction in Charleston, SC, circa 1860

Katie Lowe is an M.A. student in history at Towson University in Towson, Maryland.  She is reporting for us this weekend from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Philadelphia.  In this dispatch, she summarizes a panel on urban slavery.  Enjoy!  –JF

Hello from Philadelphia! This is my first time attending the OAH meeting, and it’s been a positive experience overall. The members of the OAH planning team are good people, and I have appreciated getting to know them as a volunteer this year. Below is a recap of a panel I attended Friday morning.

“Slavery in the City” (#AM3149), chaired by Martha Jones of Johns Hopkins University, discussed some of the challenges of exploring the intersection of American and urban histories.

Leslie Harris of Northwestern started us off by stating that there is “no synthetic work” in the field of urban slavery.  Older work is being challenged and there is still a lot that we don’t know about the subject.  For example, we need to know more about what caused shifts in urban free black populations.  Harris also noted that slavery in Philadelphia has been understudied. She stressed that more work needs to be done on how the practice of slavery was adapted to specific locales, economic situations, and the demographics of the enslaved population in a given area. She concluded by pointing out that after the Civil War, the image and memory of slavery focused overwhelmingly on the plantation and much less on the cities.

Rashauna Johnson of Dartmouth College noted a recent “outpouring of scholarship” on slavery and urban history.  She described New Orleans as having a “confined cosmopolitanism,” suggested a need to both broaden frameworks and center particular stories of urban slavery, and challenged us to recognize  the “heterogeneous landscape” of slavery in American cities.

Jonathan Wells of the University of Michigan highlighted how cities in the North were divided over the issue of slavery and preserving the Union, especially in terms of creating coalitions to forward business interests. He mentioned that kidnapping, violence, and resistance to anti-slavery activity created dangerous conditions for African Americans in the North.

Loyal Slave Monuments

Loyalist Slave Monument

We have debated and debated the role of Confederate monuments in public spaces, but I have not heard much about “Loyal Slave” monuments.  Over at The Nation, Kali Holloway tells us more about these monuments that celebrate the myth of the loyal slave.  Here is a taste:

As America’s racist historical myths go, the loyal black slave is one of the most enduring, destructive, and tightly held. Emerging from the white Southern racial imagination in the 1830s, the faithful slave personified slave owners’ defensiveness against a growing abolitionist movement and its condemnations of slavery, and slaveholders, as evil and immoral. The loyal-slave trope insisted that enslaved blacks labored for their enslavers not out of self-preservation and deeply instilled fear, but as an expression of love, fidelity, and devotion. After the Civil War ended in their humiliating defeat, white Southerners attempted to retroactively justify the Confederacy with the “Lost Cause” ideology, an ahistorical narrative that further reimagined the Old South as filled with happy enslaved blacks. The loyal slave became a stock character in slavery apologia from Gone with the Wind to pancake-mix ad campaigns to—perhaps less famously—a little-known subgenre of Confederate monuments. Nearly all of those overtly racist memorials still stand in sites around the South.

As with Confederate monuments generally, loyal-slave markers communicated not only the white South’s nostalgia for a counterfeit version of what once was, but also its belief in what should have been. Constructed not during slavery but between the 1900s and 1930s, like nearly all Confederate monuments, loyal-slave markers served as the visible component of an anti-black backlash against black civil-rights gains. In the face of African-American empowerment struggles, loyal-slave monuments telegraphed the idea that slavery had been the natural state of things. Faithful-slave markers also warned black folks working to overturn the racial-caste system in the late-19th and early-20th centuries that they risked the same brutal violence that had kept racial order during slavery. In fact, black defiance had manifested in 250 slaveuprisings, more than 100,000 escapes via the Underground Railroad, and thousands more escaped slaves’ joining the Union Army before slavery was abolished in 1865.

Confederate apologists erected loyal-slave monuments to blot out that evidence of black rebellion. “They memorialized a narrative that undercut the myriad ways that African Americans resisted,” says Tera Hunter, a professor of American history and African-American studies at Princeton University. “It was a source of embarrassment for slaveholders that they had to resort to the use of brute force to keep enslaved people in line, because if they were actually content, why would there be a need for corporal punishment? Loyal-slave stories and monuments hid that history. 

Read the rest here.

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.