*Black Perspectives* Will Host a Forum on Frederick Douglass

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

Here is what you can expect:

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

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

Learn more here.

The Problem of “Reconciling Irreconcilable Values”

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

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

Lone Star

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Erin Mauldin

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

JF: What led you to write Unredeemed Land?

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

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read Unredeemed Land?

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

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

JF: Thanks, Erin!

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

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Here is Stanley A. McChrystal:

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

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

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

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

Read the rest at The Atlantic.

The Author’s Corner with Scott Heerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Scott!

The Author’s Corner with Loren Schweninger

9780190664282Loren Schweninger is Professor Emeritus of History at UNC Greensboro. This interview is based on his new book Appealing for Liberty: Freedom Suits in the South (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Appealing for Liberty?

LS: For many years I have been interested in freedom suits in the South, beginning in 1970 when I discovered a suit for a family–Thomas/Rapier–that became the basis for my doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago on James Rapier and Reconstruction.  During the period 1991 thru 2009 I headed a project titled “The Race and Petitions Project” at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (now on line at the University with some 60,000 “hits” each month and part of Proquest’s Slavery and the Law Collection”. Most of the freedom Suits in this study come from this collection.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Appealing for Liberty?

LS: The book argues that African Americans were involved in contacting lawyers and bringing the suits to court and that to a surprising degree many among them are successful, in about three fourths of the cases. 

JF: Why do we need to read Appealing for Liberty?

LS: Anyone interested in the African American experience, race relations, and the coming of the Civil War should be interested in this volume.

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

LS: I became an American historian in 1966 under to tutorship of John Hope Franklin, a life-long mentor and friend. I’m now a professor emeritus, retired in 2012, at the University where I taught African American history for forty years.

JF: What is your next project?

LS: With regard to my next project I’ve been thinking about an examination of Slavery and Freedom in the District of Columbia, but this is in its very early stages.

JF: Thanks, Loren!

John Locke and Slavery

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Holly Brewer, the Burke Chair of American History at the University of Maryland, argues that Locke and Western liberalism had little to do with slavery.  Here is a taste of her essay at Aeon:

Neither slavery nor colonisation had their origins in Locke’s Two Treatises. His ideas about how people could claim rights to property did justify a certain kind of colonisation. He argued that, by making objects, by farming the land, one could derive ownership, goods and ground. However, his was a more egalitarian ideal of ownership than that offered by King James I’s right of discovery by Christian princes who could then grant dominion – the right of ownership and governance. Locke’s was founded on individual action, the Stuart kings’ on divine status.

Such attention to historical context matters. These complex debates over justice shaped the early modern world, and continue to shape ours. If we pretend that Locke and the Stuart kings were the same, and that their policy struggles did not matter, we ignore the impact of our own policies. If we dismiss Locke’s ideas as paradoxical, we forget that in these fires were forged not only slavery but also crucial principles of human rights. It is not only that the big questions were fiercely contended, but that small policies often had huge impacts. Reversing Charles II’s reward of land for buying slaves was a major move against inequality and injustice, and against the idea that kings could grant dominion over others. So too was his suggestion that all people be naturalised and have equal protections under the law.

The effort to compress such fierce disputes into a flat narrative of hypocrisy belies not only the past but the present. The effort to condemn liberalism (and Locke) as a theory of slavery and oppression, and to see within liberalism the origin of slavery, misrepresents the very essence of his theory, which was about human rights. It silences intense political debates over such rights that had dramatic practical repercussions. Slavery was justified by theories that all people were born to a divinely ordained status, ideas that were harmonious with racism, but not defined by that racism. Slavery’s origins were in absolutism, not liberalism.

Liberalism arose in reaction to slavery. It sought inclusion, and defined rights with broad promises, albeit ones that could be opened to exclusions. Indeed, one could argue that the breadth of such promises made racism (and other forms of prejudice) necessary in order to once again justify hereditary hierarchies. But for many others, it opened wide promises of inclusion. The theory itself was one that strained for relative equality under the law for all those who could give meaningful consent. The similarity of these disputes to ones we conduct today becomes more apparent with such context. For example: do rights inhere in all human beings or only in citizens? Abstract philosophical debates emerged from real dilemmas but also helped to shape policies that affected millions of people’s lives. They still do.

Read the rest here.

William & Mary Will Honor Black Americans Enslaved by the School

William and Mary

William & Mary is the latest college to face-up to its legacy of slavery.  Here is a taste of Joe Heim’s article at The Washington Post:

The College of William & Mary is seeking ideas for a memorial to black Americans who were enslaved by the school or whose work as slaves enriched it.

The public university in Williamsburg, Va., 150 miles south of Washington, announced an open competition for memorial concepts as part of the school’s ongoing effort to address its historical reliance on slavery.

“This memorial is such an important project for our community,” President Katherine A. Rowe said in a statement. “African-Americans have been vital to William & Mary since its earliest days. Even as they suffered under slavery, African-Americans helped establish the university and subsequently maintained it.”

Founded in 1693, William & Mary is the country’s second-oldest university — only Harvard is older — and for more than half of its existence, it relied on slave labor and participated in the buying and selling of enslaved people, according to university documents.

The memorial project continues work that began in 2007 when a student assembly resolution called on the university to research its history of slavery and make the information public, said Jody L. Allen, an assistant professor of history at the university and director of the Lemon Project, which explores William & Mary’s role as a slaveholder and, later, a supporter of Jim Crow laws.

Read the rest here.

The “First Africans Tour” at Historic Jamestowne

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2019 is the 400th anniversary of the first Africans to arrive in the Jamestown colony.  The Historic Jamestowne historical site is commemorating the arrival of these Africans and the legacy of slavery in the settlement with its “First Africans” tour.  Learn more in this Associated Press article.

A taste:

On a recent afternoon, tour guide Justin Bates pointed to the spot where historic Jamestown’s legislature first convened in July 1619. He then gestured toward a spot nearby where some of the first slaves in English North America arrived a few weeks later.

“Freedom over there,” Bates told visitors near the banks of Virginia’s James River. “Slavery over here.”

Jamestown has long been associated with the legend of Pocahontas and more recently as a place where a harsh winter turned some colonists into cannibals. But the historic site is now offering a regular tour that encourages visitors to consider the beginnings of American slavery.

The “First Africans” tour is the first of its kind at Historic Jamestowne, a heritage site at the location of the 1607 James Fort. But it’s part of a much larger reckoning over slavery, an institution that took root in England’s first permanent colony 12 years after its founding.

In January, President Donald Trump signed into a law the “400 Years of African-American History Commission Act.” It requires a commission to develop programs that acknowledge the Africans arrival in 1619 and slavery’s impact.

Meanwhile, Virginia has launched its 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution. It recognizes the first English-style legislature in North America in Jamestown and other historical milestones from four centuries ago, including the Africans’ arrival.

In 1619, the Africans came on two ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer, that had recently raided what’s believed to have been a Spanish slave vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. Sailing into the Chesapeake Bay to what is now Hampton, Virginia, the ships traded more than 30 Africans for food and supplies.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Caitlin Rosenthal

RosenthalCaitlin Rosenthal is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley.  This interview is based on her new book Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (Harvard University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Accounting for Slavery?

CR: Right out of college I worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company. As one of the most junior people on my teams, I was often tasked with running the spreadsheets that we analyzed to help make our decisions. Some of these companies had tens of thousands of employees. As a result, I became interested in the history of scale: What happens when a manager or owner knows workers as cells in a spreadsheet, and not as individuals? This question sparked my interest in American business history and, more specifically, the history of quantitative management. As I began studying archival account books, I was surprised to discover that some of the most complex records I found were from slave plantations. So I decided to write a book that grappled with the business history of plantation slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Accounting for Slavery?

CR: Slaveholders used many advanced, quantitative business practices, ranging from calculating depreciation to measuring output per slave. In some cases, they developed these practices not despite, but because of the circumstances of slavery. 

JF: Why do we need to read Accounting for Slavery?

CR: Coming face to face with the precise ways that slaveholders extracted wealth from people can help us to understand the intersections of violence and innovation. During my few years working in the business world, I was often struck by how many business leaders were interested in economic history. But the stories that reached them tended to feature railroads, steam engines, and computers–not slave plantations. Confronting more uncomfortable stories can be a cautionary tale for what profit-seeking can look like when everything, including human lives, is up for sale.  

I think that studying plantation business practices is also absolutely essential for understanding what enslaved people were up against. In antebellum America, they faced a brutal, centuries-old institution that was increasingly infused with highly modern technologies of control.

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

CR: As an undergraduate, I was a political science major who incorrectly believed that history was mostly about memorizing dates. During my junior year I took an amazing U.S. Intellectual History class with Thomas Haskell at Rice University. The class helped me to see how powerful history could be for understanding not just modern institutions but also patterns of thought and, especially, how we see ourselves. In a sense, “Accounting for Slavery” is an intellectual history of slaveholders’ management practices and what they can tell us about management more generally.

JF: What is your next project?

CR: I’m currently researching the “business of business education.” The project starts with the relatively unknown history of nineteenth-century commercial colleges, the hundreds of for-profit schools that taught business skills like bookkeeping for a fee. I am interested in what this history can tell us about the scope of business education: who can access it, and what kind of practical and ethical questions are (and are not) included in the curriculum. 

JF: Thanks, Caitlin!

Author’s Corner with Leigh Fought

FoughtLeigh Fought is Associate Professor of History at LeMoyne College.  This interview is based on her book Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisia S. McCord, due out in paperback in September 2018 with University of Missouri Press.

JF: What led you to write Southern Womanhood and Slavery?

LF: The not entirely glib answer is that I wanted to understand my grandmother, a powerful southern woman, who bore many traits of Louisa S. McCord, from the father-worship to the contradictions between her ideals and her life.  The serious answer is that I never bought Mary Chesnut’s lament about “poor slaves, poor women” or that southern women were closet abolitionists. Now, of course that has been entirely dissected in the historiography, but I wrote this manuscript back in the 1990s when much of that research was very new or developing. McCord captured my attention in a section of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Within the Plantation Household. Not only did she seem more true to a white woman of the planter class, but she was also a woman who married late and widowed early, controlled her own property after marriage, and counselled women to be the “conservative force” behind the scenes while publishing essays on unfeminine subjects like slavery and political economy. I wanted to know more. This became, to the best of my youthful abilities, the book that I wanted to read.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Southern Womanhood and Slavery

LF: Because this was my first book, taken from my dissertation, the implied argument was: “Please give me a PhD and publish my manuscript!” The real argument was that Louisa S. McCord was a female Fire-Eater, one of the Southern political essayists who defended slavery even to secession. She injected women into their white supremacist construction of society, insisting that, while women could match any man intellectually, they must remain subordinate to prevent the nation from descending into chaos because they did not have the physical capacity to control slaves or the working class.

JF: Why do we need to read Southern Womanhood and Slavery?

LF: At this moment in our national life a critical mass of people cannot escape the strains of race and gender that have defined our nation from its inception, and they echo those of Louisa McCord’s time. Indeed, many of the idols of her life have been resurrected in ours, but their purveyors attempting to strip or deny the reality of their historical contexts. At the same time, on the left, especially among white feminist, many editorial and columns ponder the perplexing issue of white women seeming to work against their own political interests.

Louisa McCord’s life and work illustrates aspects of these topics. She portrayed herself as a Roman matron in the cause of the Confederacy and, later, to the memory of the Confederacy, and she made perfectly clear that the Southern society defended by the Confederacy would not and could not exist without slavery. Her anti-woman’s rights position rested on privileges rather than rights. The ability of white men to exercise their rights without restriction would allow them to protect their dependents and thereby keep white women safe from other men, both black and white. She did not see the woman’s rights movement as empowering women to take care of themselves because, in a patriarchal slaveholding society, she understood physical violence as the decisive factor in maintaining order. Women, she believed, could not and should not wield that power. Race and class privilege, therefore, in her mind, came before the individual rights of gender for the preservation of civilization.

If you scratch the surface, of course, you find that she controlled the wealth in her marriage and was a widow for far longer than she was a wife. She found ways to use violence through overseers and the workhouse. She did not follow her own counsel on women remaining within their sphere, and others uniformly considered her a commanding presence. Indeed, many details of her upbringing resemble those of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s, she just took a decidedly different ideological road. She was a challenging woman to encounter as a subject.

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

LF: I may have decided to become a historian when I was in elementary school, watching Little House on the Prairie and Roots, visiting historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg, reading children’s biographies of Betsey Ross and Annie Oakley or children’s novels about slave girls and Laura Ingalls and captives among the Native Americans. Blame the Bicentennial. That “historian” was an actual job that a person could do did not occur to me until late in college. Then, I simply wanted to tell stories. Since I didn’t have the experience to make them up very well, I turned to history. The stories are already there, you just have to find them, which is even more fun. I especially wanted to learn about and to tell stories about the places where different people meet, be it in the borderlands, on slave plantations, or in a movement for racial justice. Half of those stories always seemed to be missing and mysterious, arousing my curiosity, while I was growing up so sheltered in the suburbs of Houston. I wanted to know the rest of the story, the whole story, and I wanted women to be the main characters.

JF: What is your next project?

LF: The project after Louisa McCord was a short history of Mystic, Connecticut, for a lay audience predominantly of tourists. The one after that was Women in the World of Frederick Douglass. Next, I’m considering either exploring nineteenth-century ideas of race and civilization through Frederick Douglass’s tour of Europe or Little House on the Prairie and the memory of the American borderlands. I’m leaning toward the latter at the moment. There is quite a bit on Laura Ingalls Wilder and her books, mostly within literary studies, but very little on the public history sites, television show, and other iterations of the story. I’m quite interested in the ways that the interpretations attempt to reconcile some of Wilder’s quite contemporary ideas about race and gender with more modern ones. I wonder at what point that becomes no longer possible. After all, the children’s literature award named for her was just un-named because of her racial depictions. I can’t say they were wrong in doing so.

JF: Thanks Leigh!

The Education of Frederick Douglass

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Elizabeth Stice of Palm Beach Atlantic University (and a Messiah College history graduate!) has a nice piece at History News Network on Frederick Douglass and liberal education.  Here is a taste:

The slavery that Frederick Douglass knew was not a metaphor. It would be wrong to suggest an equivalency between his condition and that of American workers or university students today. And there was much more than The Columbia Orator on Douglass’s road to freedom. But the power of the humanities in his life speaks to their significance. He was born into adversity but learned the value of reading at a young age. He was a boy who could not put a book down, even when owning that book might cost him dearly. He grew into a man who could hold and defend his convictions. As a master of oratory, he became a powerful and influential voice for the truth, distinguished both nationally and internationally. The liberal arts alone did not liberate Frederick Douglass from slavery but they gave him mental access to the world even while he was enslaved and, after he escaped from slavery, they propelled him to a speaking role on the world stage. 

Read the entire piece here.

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

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Ben Railton has a nice reflection on Frederick Douglass’s famous speech.  Here is a taste of his post at American Studies blog:

I’ve written many times, in this space and elsewhere, about the inspiring history of Elizabeth Freeman, Quock Walker, and their Revolutionary-era peers and allies. Freeman, Walker, their fellow Massachusetts slaves, and the abolitionist activists with whom they worked used the language and ideas of the Declaration of Independence and 1780 Massachusetts Constitution in support of their anti-slavery petitions and court cases, and in so doing contributed significantly to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more inspiring application of our national ideals, or of a more compelling example of my argument (made in the second hyperlinked piece above) that black history is American history. Yet at the same time, it would be disingenuous in the extreme for me to claim that Freeman’s and Walker’s cases were representative ones, either in their era or at any time in the two and a half centuries of American slavery; nor I would I want to use Freeman’s and Walker’s successful legal actions as evidence that the Declaration’s “All men are created equal” sentiment did not in a slaveholding nation include a central strain of hypocrisy.

If I ever need reminding of that foundational American hypocrisy, I can turn to one of our most fiery texts: Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass’s speech is long and multi-layered, and I don’t want to reduce its historical and social visions to any one moment; but I would argue that it builds with particular power to this passage, one of the most trenchant in American oration and writing: “Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?”

Read the entire post here.

*The New York Times* on Jeff Sessions and Romans 13

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It’s been a crazy day.  Last night I was wrapping-up some writing on the Southern Baptist Convention, trying to finish some end-of- the-academic-year paperwork, scheduling some blog posts, and preparing for the Believe Me book tour.

Then Jeff Sessions referenced Romans 13 and The Washington Post asked me for some historical context. I have been answering questions all day.

Here is my contribution to Julia Jacobs’s piece at The New York Times:

Referring to the Bible in political speeches is nothing new, said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush did so liberally, for example. But using Scripture as an enforcement tool for a particular federal policy is more concerning, Dr. Fea said.

“The founding fathers created the criminal justice system to be a largely secular criminal justice system,” he said. “They didn’t have in mind punishing criminals and condemning them using Bible verses.”

And the passage he chose drew considerable criticism. Historians and theologians took to the internet to point out that Romans 13 has been used to defend antiquated or outright contemptible points of view.

Before the nation’s founding, it was frequently used by Loyalists to oppose the American Revolution, Dr. Fea said. And in the 19th century, pro-slavery Southerners often cited the chapter’s opening verses to defend slavery — in particular, adherence to the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the seizure and return of runaway slaves.

Read the entire piece here.

It’s Official: Monticello Affirms Thomas Jefferson Fathered Children with Sally Hemings

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It was announced on June 6, 2018.  Here is the press release:

The issue of Jefferson’s paternity has been the subject of controversy for at least two centuries, ranging from contemporary newspaper articles in 1802 (when Jefferson was President) to scholarly debate well into the 1990s. It is now the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s view that the issue is a settled historical matter.

A considerable body of evidence stretching from 1802 to 1873 (and beyond) describes Thomas Jefferson as the father of Sally Hemings’s children. It was corroborated by the findings of the Y-chromosome haplotype DNA study conducted by Dr. Eugene Foster and published in the scientific journal Nature in November 1998. The DNA study did prove paternity of a Jefferson family member and corroborated the ample documentary and oral history evidence. Other evidence supports Thomas Jefferson’s paternity as well, including his presence at Monticello during Sally Hemings’s likely windows of conception, the names of Hemings’s surviving children, and the fact that all of her children were granted freedom – they were either allowed to leave the plantation, or legally emancipated in Jefferson’s will, a unique occurrence among Monticello’s enslaved families. The summary of the most important evidence proving Jefferson’s paternity is listed below.1

  1. Madison Hemings provided an account of his mother’s life that was published in an Ohio newspaper in 1873. The basic outline of Madison Hemings’s account, including his mother’s “treaty” with Jefferson and the freedom granted to him and his siblings, was well known to his community before it was published. His narrative is the most important extant evidence and much of the corroborating evidence supports the outline of his narrative.
  2. The Foster et al. (1998) DNA study revealed that male-line descendants of Eston Hemings (a son of Sally Hemings) and male-line descendants of Field Jefferson’s father (who was Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather), shared the same Y-chromosome haplotype.  This demonstrates that Eston’s father was a Jefferson male. This result not only corroborates Madison’s account in the Pike County Republican, it definitively refutes the claims by Jefferson grandchildren, including Ellen Randolph Coolidge and her brother Thomas Jefferson Randolph, that either Peter or Samuel Carr (they could not agree on which one) was the father of Sally Hemings’s children.
  3. Madison Hemings was described by a U.S. census taker as the son of Thomas Jefferson in 1870.
  4. Israel Gillette Jefferson, formerly enslaved at Monticello, corroborated Madison Hemings’s claim in the same newspaper, referring to Sally Hemings as Thomas Jefferson’s “concubine.”
  5. Eston Hemings changed his racial identity to white and his surname to Jefferson after moving from Ohio to Wisconsin in 1852.  Newspaper accounts in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1887 and 1902 recalled that Eston resembled Thomas Jefferson.
  6. The two oldest surviving children of Sally Hemings, Beverly Hemings (a male) and Harriet Hemings, were both allowed to leave Monticello without pursuit and were described as “run away” in Jefferson’s inventory of enslaved families. In an 1858 letter to her husband Joseph Coolidge, Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, (while denying Jefferson’s paternity) described Sally Hemings’s children as “all fair and all set free at my grandfather’s death, or had been suffered to absent themselves permanently before he died.”
  7. Jefferson’s records of his travels and the birthdays of Sally Hemings’s children reveal that he was present at Monticello during the estimated dates of conception for all six of Hemings’s documented offspring. Statistical modeling shows the likelihood of this coincidence for any other male (if we assume that Thomas Jefferson is not the father) as 1 percent, or 1 chance in 100 — strong evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity.2
  8. Oral tradition connecting the Hemings and Jefferson families was transmitted among the descendants of both Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings over many generations. Madison Hemings calls Jefferson his “father” in his 1873 recollections, a fact repeated by his descendants.  Eston Hemings’s descendants altered their family history to state that they were related to one of Thomas Jefferson’s relatives in order to hide Eston Hemings’s decision to change his racial identity when he moved to Wisconsin.
  9. Jefferson freed all four surviving Hemings children (in accordance with the terms of his negotiation with Sally Hemings, as reported by her son Madison). He did not grant freedom to any other enslaved nuclear family.
  10. The names of Sally Hemings’s four surviving children — William Beverly Hemings, Harriet Hemings, James Madison Hemings, and Thomas Eston Hemings — suggest family ties to Thomas Jefferson. Annette Gordon-Reed outlines these naming connections in her book, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997).  A man named William Beverly accompanied Jefferson’s father on an expedition through Virginia in 1746, and he was connected to Jefferson’s mother’s family by blood and marriage. There were multiple Harriets in the Randolph family, including a sister and a niece of Thomas Mann Randolph, Jefferson’s son-in-law. Madison Hemings was named at the request of Dolley Madison, whose husband, James Madison, was one of Jefferson’s close friends. Historian and biographer Fawn Brodie offered two possible explanations for Eston Hemings’s name: Eston was the birthplace of Jefferson’s maternal ancestor, William Randolph, in Yorkshire, England. Thomas Eston Randolph was also a first cousin of Jefferson; Jefferson described their two families as being “almost as one.”3Furthermore, it was convention for Jefferson to be involved in the naming of family members. His children with Martha Jefferson were given the names of his sisters and mother, and he personally named each of his grandchildren.4

Why Remove the Qualifiers?

As the Thomas Jefferson Foundation began planning The Life of Sally Hemings, an exhibit that relies on the account left by her son, Madison Hemings, it became apparent that it was time to reexamine how to characterize Jefferson’s paternity. For nearly twenty years, the most complete summary of evidence has remained the report authored by the Foundation in January 2000. While there are some who disagree, the Foundation’s scholarly advisors and the larger community of academic historians who specialize in early American history have concurred for many years that the evidence is sufficiently strong to state that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least six children with Sally Hemings.

In the new exhibit exploring the life of Sally Hemings, her choices, and her connection to Thomas Jefferson, as well as in updates to our related online materials and print publications, the Foundation will henceforth assert what the evidence indicates and eliminate qualifying language related to the paternity of Eston Hemings as well as that related to Sally Hemings’s three other surviving children, whose descendants were not part of the 1998 DNA study. While it remains possible, though increasingly unlikely, that a more comprehensive documentary and genetic assemblage of evidence could emerge to support a different conclusion, no plausible alternative with the same array of evidence has surfaced in two decades.

  • 1.All the evidence enumerated comes from the unpublished Report on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, TJMF, January 2000, section IV, pp. 6-8, and Appendix F, “A Review of the Documentary Evidence,” pp. 1-7. The entire report and other resources are available online at https://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/jefferson-hemings….
  • 2.Bayes’ theorem allows us to measure just how strong. To take advantage of it, we need to be willing to summarize the strength of evidence that Jefferson was the father, based on other evidence (say the DNA result and Madison’s testimony), as a “prior” probability. Bayes’ theorem allows us to rationally update this prior probability, using the 1 percent likelihood, to yield a posterior probability that Jefferson was the father of all six children. Given a prior probability of 50%, Bayes’ theorem yields a posterior probability of 99%: 99 chances out of 100 that Jefferson was the father of all six children.
  • 3.Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York: Norton, 1974).
  • 4.Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999) pp. 196-201.

Slavery Databases

9d6eb-slaveryOver at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell has a nice roundup of some of the best databases about enslaved people.

Here is a taste:

This is just one of several online databases about enslaved people that researchers can now use. There’s the venerable Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which has numbers (not names) of every known slaving voyage from Africa to the New World. This project has recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to expand with information about shipments from one American port to another.

The New York Slavery Records Index has collected records that “identify individual enslaved persons and their owners, beginning as early as 1525 and ending during the Civil War.”

Runaway Connecticut is based on a selection of the runaway notices that appeared in the Connecticut Courant between 1765 and 1820. Those advertisements involve different sorts of people—escaping slaves, runaway apprentices, deserting soldiers, escaped prisoners, and dissatisfied husbands and wives.

The Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy site is based on databases created by Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall and published on CD-ROM by the Louisiana State University Press in 2000.

The Virginia Historical Society’s Unknown No Longer website collects “the names of all the enslaved Virginians that appear in our unpublished documents.” That means it’s not as comprehensive as other compilations, but the society felt it was better to share what they had which would otherwise remain hidden than to wait for more. 

Read the entire post here.

Author’s Corner with W. Thomas Mainwaring

P03434.pngW. Thomas Mainwaring is chair of the Department of History at Washington and Jefferson College. This interview is based on his new book, Abandoned Tracks: The Underground Railroad in Washington County, Pennsylvania (University of Notre Dame, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Abandoned Tracks?

WM: I wrote Abandoned Tracks: The Underground Railroad in Washington County, Pennsylvania, because I was dissatisfied with the popular portrayal of the local Underground Railroad – a portrayal dominated by myths, legends, and hoary stereotypes. I wanted to write a scholarly study of the Underground Railroad based upon historical evidence and to establish the context in which the Underground Railroad emerged. I also wanted to bring to light discoveries that I had made about unknown individuals and networks, largely African Americans.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of  Abandoned Tracks?

WM: The argument of Abandoned Tracks is that the popular understanding of the Underground Railroad has long been dominated by myths and legends that fixate on subterranean hiding places and secrecy. It attempts to bridge the gap between popular perceptions and recent scholarship on the Underground Railroad.

JF: Why do we need to read Abandoned Tracks?

WM: I hope that Abandoned Tracks offers a good model of how to study abolitionism and the Underground Railroad in one locality. Abandoned Tracks is particularly relevant for studying the “border” North – areas that were contiguous to or near slaveholding states.

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

WM: I decided to become an American historian when I took two junior seminars on the history of the American South. I was hooked!

JF: What is your next project?

WM: I would like to examine the causes of the American Revolution from a British perspective.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

Teaching Liberty

Liberty Appeal

Over at The Junto, Tom Cutterham writes about his course on the “meaning of liberty” from the American Revolution to Civil War.    Here is a taste:

The truth is, I find it hard even to begin thinking collectively about freedom. Our starting point is unfreedom. It was the same for Thomas Jefferson. His Declaration of Independence gives meaning to liberty by listing its violations. When we read David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs in my class, we try to glimpse freedom by looking deep into its absence. But it’s too easy for students to assume that because slavery has been abolished in America, the problem of liberty has already been solved. Spend too long pondering slavery, and just about anything else starts to look like liberty.

There were critics of abolitionists who tried to raise the same problem. In my class, we read William West’s series of letters to The Liberator, describing “wages slavery” as a system of dependence, abjection, and poverty which West calls “worse” than chattel slavery. It is wage slavery that can most truly claim to be the “sum of all evils,” West writes, because it is only this variety of slavery that hypocritically appropriates “the name of liberty.” We read West critically, of course. But when I ask my students if they ever felt like their boss was a tyrant, that’s when they begin to understand that freedom is a problem of the present, not just of the nineteenth century.

It’s the curse of such a topic—the meaning of freedom in American history!—to be so deeply bound up with progress. Didn’t things just keep on getting better; sometimes faster, perhaps, and sometimes more slowly, but basically, better? We read Judith Sargent Murray in the second week, then Sarah Grimké in the seventh, the Seneca Falls declaration and Lucretia Mott in the tenth. One of my students noted how depressing it is to see the same good arguments repeated, periodically, over sixty years of alleged progress. The way we raise and teach our children, the way they imbibe the ideology infused in their surroundings—as those women powerfully described—is an unfreedom none too easily abolished.

Read the entire post here.  I love the way Cutterham challenges his students to think historically about the “meaning of liberty.”  History teachers take note.

A “Kanyefication of one of our most enduring national myths”

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Writing at the Los Angeles Times, historian Kevin Waite connects Kanye West’s comments about slaves choosing slavery with Lost Cause myths about slavery.  Here is a taste:

Yet there’s an uncomfortable truth in West’s comment. Ill-informed though his views may be, they align alarmingly well with popular interpretations of American history.

The claim that slaves somehow consented to their own enslavement is a Kanyefication of one of our most enduring national myths. Depicted in fiction, film and even statuary, the “loyal slave” has persisted for more than a century and a half. The trope buttresses the so-called Lost Cause school of history, an intellectual movement celebrating the plantation South and exonerating it from any blame for the Civil War. Instead, that cataclysm is charged to the North, which destroyed a civilization that benefited masters and slaves alike — so goes the logic of Lost Cause propagandists.

Read the entire piece here.