Annette Gordon Reed: Why Jefferson Matters in the Wake of Charlottesville

The Rotunda with a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia.I have been trying to say something like this throughout the week, but I can’t say it as well or with the expertise and authority of  Annette Gordon-Reed:

Today, a time of intense focus on the personal and of misplaced faith in the importance of sincerity, we question whether Jefferson really believed the words “all men are created equal,” as if ideas are only as important and powerful as the personal will of the individual who utters them. The Confederates knew better than that. Ideas can have a power and life of their own. They weren’t taking any chances. They saw Jefferson as a public man who had put ideas into popular discourse that could be used in opposition to the society they hoped to build. The Confederates took him at his word, thinking it important to mention him by name and repudiate what they took to be his views. Alexander Stephens’s famous “Cornerstone Speech” said that Jefferson was wrong, insisting that blacks were not the equals of whites and, therefore, slavery was A-OK.  

I cannot help thinking that the menaced people standing around the statue, no doubt holding many different views about Jefferson the man, symbolize the fragility of the idea of progress and aspirations for the improvement of humankind: the ideals that animated Jefferson in the Declaration, his insistence on the separation of church and state, his belief in public education, religious tolerance, and science. It must be said, they also animated what Jefferson knew by the end of his life to be the pipe dream of solving the slavery question, and wiping away the transgression of slavery, by giving blacks their own country—whether they wanted one or not. When he wrote his will freeing five enslaved men, he requested that they be allowed to remain in Virginia “where their families and connexions” were (an 1806 law would otherwise have required them to leave the state within a year). That is, of course, why all blacks in America should have had the right to stay in the country. He did this while other slave owners were freeing enslaved people on the condition fdaa8-gordonreedthat they be sent to Liberia. The simple fact is that as brilliant as he may have been, Jefferson had no real answer to the slavery question. Although  historians do not like the concept of inevitability, legalized slavery was destroyed in the most likely way it could have been destroyed.

American ideals have always clashed with harsh American realities. We saw that clash on the grounds of UVA. But how do we continue in the face of depressing realities to allow ourselves to hold fast to the importance of having aspirations, and recognize that the pursuit of high ideals—even if carried out imperfectly—offers the only real chance of bringing forth good  in the world? In many ways, grappling with that question is what being a scholar of Jefferson is all about. Perhaps coming fully to grips with the paradoxes that Jefferson’s life presents is what being an American is about. Even if one rejects that formulation, there is no doubt that he remains one of the best ways we have of exploring and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the American experiment displayed so vividly last week in Charlottesville.

Read the entire piece at the New York Review of Books

 

No, Your Questions About Monuments Do Not Make You a Racist! (Updated)

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A monument to George Washington in Budapest

Over the last several days I have received messages from readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home who are trying to make sense of Donald Trump’s recent words about monuments.  On Tuesday, he equated monuments commemorating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with monuments commemorating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Yesterday POTUS offered these tweets:

What should we make of all this?  Here is one of the reader messages I received:

I wouldn’t ever dare post this publicly because honestly I don’t want to get lumped in with Trump and or be labeled a racist for simply asking a question. But I’m having a hard time understanding why Trump is so wrong on the Lee/Washington comparison. If Lee is guilty of perpetuating slavery, than why isn’t Washington just as guilty? Yes he freed his slaves after he died, but he didn’t end it when he had the chance to voice support for it at the convention, so why is he granted a pardon and still one of the good guys, but Lee is not off the hook? I get that he was a General for the Confederacy and I’m not arguing that he was good or right. I’m just wondering why Washington or Jefferson aren’t being attacked?

And I hate the fact that I can’t feel safe to ask this question in public without feeling like I’ll be labeled as a racist/terrorist or trump supporter. But I’m genuinely curious if you can shed some light or even point me to a good article that isn’t going to shame me into thinking the way the author wants me to already think.

First, I am saddened that this reader thinks she/he will be labeled a racist for trying to make historical and moral sense of what Trump said about monuments to Lee and Washington.  I don’t know this person well, but I know she/he is not a racist.  I should also add that I do not know where this person falls on the political perspective.  Over the years I have known this person to have a curious mind and a passion for truth.  If a person like this feels she/he cannot ask honest questions about this issue then something is wrong.

Second, at one level this person is correct (and so is Trump).  There are similarities between Washington and Lee.  I wrote about them yesterday. Let’s not forget the fact that both men owned slaves and were active participants in America’s slave culture. Maybe neither of them deserve a monument.  But on the other hand, there were also a lot of differences between Washington and Lee.  They are worth noting too.

In the end, I think there is a difference between moralizing about men and women in the past and erecting monuments to them.  As I have now said multiple times at this blog, monuments tell us more about the time when they were erected than the moment in the past they are meant to commemorate.   Lee monuments were erected by Lost Causers who wanted to celebrate a society built on slavery and white supremacy.  Most of them were built during the Jim Crow era for this very purpose. Think about it.  Would Lee merit a monument if not for his role as commander of the Army of Virginia?  Maybe, but I doubt you would find one outside of Virginia.  I don’t know off-hand the history of George Washington monuments, but I wonder how many of them were erected for the purpose of celebrating his slave ownership.

This post has some good links for further reading on this issue.

Another Court Evangelical Doubles Down on Trump’s Charlottesville Remarks

Over at the Federalist, a writer named Daniel Payne has a piece titled “Trump Spoke Truth About ‘Both Sides’ In Charlottesville, And The Media Lost Their Minds.”  As the title suggests, this piece defends Trump’s remarks on Tuesday and seems to have no problem with his attempt to put the white supremacists in Charlottesville on equal moral footing with the counter-protesters.

Read it here.

I should also add, using Payne’s words, that American manufacturing leaders and an ever-growing number of GOP leaders have also “lost their minds.”

I understand the defense of Trump’s comments.  Yes, there were problems on “both sides.”  The counter-protesters engaged in violence.  It takes two to tango.  I condemn the violence on all sides.

But when the President of the United States takes to the bully pulpit in response to the arrival of white supremacists in an American city and says that “all sides were to blame” he misses the point.  He fails to see what happened in Charlottesville–the arrival of a group of white supremacists denouncing African Americans and Jews– as part of the larger context of race in America.  When one takes a longer view of what happened on Friday night and Saturday, it seems clear that the white supremacists represent something–racism–that has plagued this country from its birth. Yes, in the past those who have protested against American racists were violent at times.  During the 1850s there was a big debate over how to effectively oppose slavery. Many condemned violent approaches.  But the anti-slavery forces of that era all believed that the greatest moral issue was the ending of this immoral institution.  Any wrong-headed or destructive violence in the cause of abolitionism was always understood in this larger moral context.

Trump, Payne, and other defenders seem incapable of moral nuance here. Perhaps this kind of black and white thinking and the failure to grasp any degree of moral context and complexity explains why so many court evangelicals and writers like Payne are still defending Trump’s comments.  Or maybe its’ just politics.

Whatever it is, court evangelical Eric Metaxas has come out in support of the Payne piece and Trump’s comments.

Metaxas again

 

 

Jefferson, Secession, and Monuments

Lee

Last night on CNN, host James Lemon had African-American public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson on his program.  Lemon asked Dyson to respond to the comments Donald Trump made yesterday about historical monuments.  Trump said:

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down.  I wonder, is it George Washington next week?  And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop.

All day the commentators on CNN have been outraged that Trump would compare Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  Dyson responded by saying that Lee and Jackson seceded from the union, while Jefferson and Washington, despite owning slaves, formed a “bulwark” against slavery by articulating the ideals that eventually brought the institution to an end.

On one level, I found Dyson’s comment refreshing.  When commentators say that we can’t find a usable past in Western Civilization because it is tainted by the sin of slavery, I often cringe.  Yes, Western Civilization has been inherently racist.  Yes, Western Civilization brought us slavery.  But at the same time, Western Civilization brought us the ideas and ideals–liberty and freedom especially–that were eventually applied to the slavery and ultimately brought it to an end.

I have little patience for defenders of Western Civilization who fail to acknowledge its relationship with race.  I have little patience for those who demonize Western Civilization without acknowledging the historical complexity I wrote about above.  I read several books and articles this summer that propagated both fallacies.

But when it comes to Jefferson, things are even more complicated than this.  If you read Ibram X Kendi’s recent New York Times op-ed you will learn that some of Jefferson’s ideas contributed to secession.

So should the Jefferson monuments come down?

The conversation continues.

(See my last post where I discussed this more fully).

Trump’s War on the Press in Historical Context

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Over at “Made by History,” a history blog at The Washington Post, University of Alabama history professor Joshua Rothman offers some historical context for the Trump administration’s attacks on the news media.

Here is a taste:

Accused of being purveyors of “fake news,” journalists who write stories critical of the Trump administration regularly receive warnings on social media that they or members of their family will be killed. The Twitter feeds of Jewish reporters are bombarded with images of gas chambers and ovens. Female reporters get emails telling them they will be raped. Black reporters are assailed by racial epithets and threats of lynching.

In some measure, the public’s antagonism toward the press is not new, and presidents going back to John Adams have expressed frustration with and pursued action against media coverage they believe biased or unfair. But sustained rage directed at reporters has not reached the current level of ferocity since the 1820s and 1830s, when members of the anti-slavery press faced violence and suppression as a matter of course.

Then, as now, reactionary forces aimed their vitriol and hostility at the wrong targets. Many white Americans believed that the increasingly loud voices calling for the abolition of slavery were destabilizing the United States and imperiling white lives. In reality, the problems were the injustices and distortions of democracy wrought by slavery itself. Abolitionists claimed that slaveholders and their supporters ruthlessly stifled opposition to preserve their own power. Trying to intimidate and terrorize reporters who revealed slavery for what it was only proved the point.

Read the entire piece here.

2017 Princeton Seminar: Day 5

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Princeton rare books librarian Eric White breaks out a first-edition collection of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and the teachers transform into the paparazzi

It was another busy day at the Gilder-Lehrman Institute‘s “Colonial Era” teacher seminar at Princeton University.  We covered a lot of ground yesterday and traveled through three different regions of British colonial America:

  1. We started the day discussing women and dissent in colonial New England.  We talked about Anne Hutchinson and the “Good Wives” made famous by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
  2.  We had a great day in Philadelphia on Wednesday.  On Thursday we discussed Philadelphia in the larger context of the Middle Colonies with a specific focus on Pennsylvania as a Quaker and liberal colony.
  3.  After lunch we discussed the emergence of slave culture in the rice fields of colonial South Carolina.

We ended the day in the Firestone Library’s Rare Books Department where curator Eric White showed the teachers a host of first editions from the 17th and 18th centuries.  We got to see a copy of John Eliot’s Algonquian Bible and works by William Penn, Cotton Mather, John Locke, George Whitefield, Phillis Wheatley, Samuel Richardson, Laurence Stern, Addison and Steele, and others.  It is always fun to watch the teachers’ eyes light-up as they are exposed to these books.

One more day left!

Rare Books 2

Notes were taken

 

Princeton Seminar 2017: Day 3

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The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History “Colonial Era” teachers seminar (aka the “Princeton Seminar“) is rolling along.

This morning in the lecture hall we finished our discussion of colonial Virginia. I made the connection between mercantilism and tobacco culture and challenged the teachers to consider the social and cultural influence of tobacco on race, social structure, gender, and labor in the seventeenth century colony. We ended this lecture with an examination of Bacon’s Rebellion.

Midway through the morning session we turned to colonial New England.  We did a lot of background work today.   My lecture developed along these lines:

  • The settlers of New England were Christians
  • The settlers of New England were Protestant Christians
  • The settlers of New England were Calvinist Protestant Christians
  • The settlers of New England were English Calvinist Protestant Christians

We then discussed Winthrop’s idea of a “City Upon a Hill” and how Puritan theology influenced politics and regional identity in Massachusetts Bay.  On Thursday, when we return to New England, I am hoping to say a few words about social life in the region, drawing heavily from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives.

The teachers spent the afternoon with master teacher Nate McAlister.  He continues to work with the teachers on their lesson plans and the use of primary documents.

After dinner we all headed over to the Princeton Cemetery.  I gave a very brief lecture at the graves of the early Princeton presidents–Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, and John Witherspoon.  For some reason the grave of Aaron Burr Jr. got more attention than it has in years past. 🙂

We will be in Philadelphia tomorrow with George Boudreau!

Weed

FOUND: The Slave Quarters of Sally Hemings

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Slave manacles from Monticello (Creative Commons)

She was mother to six of Thomas Jefferson’s children.  She was also Thomas Jefferson’s slave.  Archaeologists at Monticello have discovered the living quarters of Sally Hemings.

Here is a taste of a report from NBC News:

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Archaeologists have excavated an area of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello mansion that has astounded even the most experienced social scientists: The living quarters of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who, historians believe, gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children.

“This discovery gives us a sense of how enslaved people were living. Some of Sally’s children may have been born in this room,” said Gardiner Hallock, director of restoration for Jefferson’s mountaintop plantation, standing on a red-dirt floor inside a dusty rubble-stone room built in 1809. “It’s important because it shows Sally as a human being — a mother, daughter, and sister — and brings out the relationships in her life.”

Hemings’ living quarters was adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom but she remains something of an enigma: there are only four known descriptions of her. Enslaved blacksmith Isaac Granger Jefferson recalled that Hemings was “mighty near white . . . very handsome, long straight hair down her back.”

Her room — 14 feet, 8 inches wide and 13 feet long — went unnoticed for decades. The space was converted into a men’s bathroom in 1941, considered by some as the final insult to Hemings’ legacy.

Read the entire news report here.

I am sure Annette Gordon-Reed‘s phone has been ringing today.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”

frederickdouglass01Every year someone calls our attention to Frederick Douglass’s famous sermon “What, to the American Slave, is your 4th of July.” (As they should). Douglass delivered this sermon on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York.

Here is a small taste:

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? 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?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

Over at The New Yorker, David Remnick offers a new take on the sermon in the age of Donald Trump.  Here is a taste:

Frederick Douglass ended his Independence Day jeremiad in Rochester with steadfast optimism (“I do not despair of this country”). Read his closing lines, and what despair you might feel when listening to a President who abets ignorance, isolation, and cynicism is eased, at least somewhat. The “mental darkness” of earlier times is done, Douglass reminded his audience. “Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.” There is yet hope for the “great principles” of the Declaration of Independence and “the genius of American Institutions.” There was reason for optimism then, as there is now. Donald Trump is not forever. Sometimes it just seems that way.

“The Impending Crisis”

Hinton_Rowan_Helper_(1829-1909)Over at Time, National Book Award winner and historian Ibram X. Kendi introduces us to Hinton Rowan Helper, the author of The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857). Kendi compares the influence of Helper’s book to Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Helper pierced the heart of slaveholding society in The Impending Crisis of the South. He knew that the small group of enslavers of four million people depended on the loyalty of the roughly five million non-slaveholding whites to keep their system going. Helper tried to mobilize these poor and humble white people against this small slaveholding aristocracy.

Helper was no antiracist. He did “not believe in the unity of the races,” and he called for black people to be sent back to Africa. But Helper was an abolitionist. Slavery shackles industrialization, he argued, holding back economic progress and the opportunities of non-slaveholding whites.

Horace Greeley, the nation’s most powerful editor, promoted the book in the nation’s leading newspaper, the New York Tribune. On March 20, 1858, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts cited the book in a Senate debate on slavery. Energized, Helper and Greeley partnered in soliciting funds and Republican endorsements to produce a smaller, inexpensive version to distribute during the political campaign of 1860. Published in July 1859, the mass-market version became an instant bestseller in antislavery circles and an instant dartboard in proslavery circles, polarizing the nation as have few books in American history.

By December 1859, the New York Tribune, the main distributor of The Impending Crisis, was mailing off 500 copies a day. Some of those copies reached southern towns where the book became like an illicit drug. Southerners were arrested and jailed for possessing a copy. Southern Congressmen spent the winter of 1859-1860 denying Ohio Representative John Sherman the Speaker of the House position because he had endorsed the “insurrectionist and hostile” book.

The Impending Crisis gave secessionists the proof they needed to argue that the Republican Party, which had branded itself as the party of free white soil, was on its way to forming “an Abolition Party in the South of Southern men,” as the Charleston Mercury feared. If that happened, “The contest for slavery will no longer be one between the North and the South. It will be in the South, between the people of the South.”

Read the entire piece here.

A Virginia United Methodist Church Restores a Slave Cabin and Opens it to the Public

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It may be the oldest building in Manassas, Virginia.  Grace United Methodist Church has restored it and opened it to the public.

Here is a taste of a Washington Post story on this restored slave cabin:

Grace United Methodist in Manassas combined two historical matters in one event June 11.

One was the unveiling of a city historical marker for the church, which has ministered to Manassas-area residents for 150 years. That was a cause for celebration, the Rev. Rudy Tucker said.

The other, the public opening of a restored slave cabin on the church property, was more solemn. But while refurbishing the building meant researching one of the most gruesome times in American history, Grace United Methodist and local historic preservation volunteers considered it an important task.

“With nooses showing up on public school grounds, college campuses, and even national museums, and Klan rallies occurring with alarming frequency, we are reminded as we stand before this 19th-century building which once housed slaves that racism remains an issue we are still dealing with in this country,” Tucker said in remarks prepared for the June 11 ceremony, attended by a crowd of at least 150.

Grace United Methodist took over ownership of the slave cabin in 1987. The Johnson family, which owned and operated the last farm in Manassas, donated eight acres of land on Wellington Road to the congregation so it could build a new church building. But the family stipulated that a cemetery on the tract be preserved, along with the 1½-story structure that housed slaves who worked on the property, known as Clover Hill Farm.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Tera Hunter

WedlockTera Hunter is Professor of History and African American Studies. This interview is based on her new book Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Marriages in the Nineteenth Century (Harvard University Press, 2017)

JF: What led you to write Bound in Wedlock?

TH:  I started thinking a lot about marriage during slavery as I was researching my book: To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Harvard Press, 1997).  I was especially drawn to documents that I found during the period of Reconstruction, which demonstrated the depth and feelings and the challenges that former slaves faced in reconstituting their family ties after slavery ended. These records are tremendously rich and I felt like felt like I could not go deep enough to fully capture the complexity and range of intimate relationships that I saw. They raised a lot of interesting questions that could not be easily answered by focusing on the period following emancipation alone. To fully understand post-slavery marriage and family, I needed to trace them over the entire nineteenth century.

I was also very interested in closely examining the internal lives of African Americans. The literature on family was preoccupied with whether or not they conformed to dominant ideas about nuclear structure and gender norms of male-headed households. This led to a very limited view of both the internal values and meaning of marriage to African Americans and also the external constraints that they faced in creating and sustaining these relationships.

More recent debates about the status of black families in the twenty-first century have often invoked the legacy of slavery, often in very ahistorical and problematic ways. I wanted to scrutinize the misinformed assumptions often articulated by both liberal and conservative scholars, commentators, and political pundits. There is a long history of black families being stigmatized.  These perceptions are used as a barometer to discern the capacities of black humanity and fitness for citizenship, with insufficient appreciation of the historical forces they were up against.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bound in Wedlock?

TH: The history of African-American marriage in the nineteenth century teaches us about a pattern that has been continually replicated with each iteration of the seemingly forward movement toward greater freedom and justice. African-American marriage under slavery and quasi-freedom is a story of twists and turns, of intimate bonds being formed, sustained, broken, and repeatedly reconstituted under the duress of oppressive conditions and yet vilified for not conforming to dominant standards.

JF: Why do we need to read TITLE?

TH: To fully understand the history of slavery in the U. S., we need to know the role that the denial of marriage and family rights played in preserving the system. Slaves were not allowed to marry legally, although they were allowed to marry informally, at the discretion of slaveholders. The main reason why those relationships were denied legal standing was to preserve enslavers’ preeminent rights to control their chattel property and to profit from the literal reproduction of slaves as capital. Legal marriages granted couples control over women’s sexuality and labor, and parental rights over their children. All of those privileges were associated with freedom and conflicted with the very definition of slavery as an inheritable, permanent system of exploitation.

To fully grapple with the devastation that slavery caused black families, we need to know how they fought against the degradation, how they managed to create meaningful relationships despite the enormous constraints that they were up against. They established their own standards for conjugal relationships, which involved accepting, revising, and even rejecting conventional ideas about marriage. They were always creative, resourceful, and practical in responding to conditions of cruelty and uncertainty of slavery and post-emancipation life.

We now live in a time in which the U. S. Supreme Court has sanctioned marriage equality for all, making marriage rights available to lesbians, gays, and transsexuals. Many people assume that the history of heterosexual marriage has always been a privilege accessible and enjoyed by all straights, but that has not been the case. It took centuries of struggle for African American heterosexuals to achieve marriage equality in the law.

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

TH: I became fascinated with history my first year of college. I entered thinking I would become a lawyer, but I became increasingly interested in doing historical research and writing. I had very good teachers in college who opened new ways of thinking about the past, and offered an introduction to primary research, which I had not encountered in high school and fell in love with.

I wrote an honors thesis in my senior year, which confirmed that I wanted to go to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. Ultimately. I saw doing historical research as an alternative, and a more compelling way, to achieve some of what I wanted to do as a lawyer. I could address some of the travesties of injustice by unearthing stories of common people to paint a more comprehensive and complex portrait of our collective past.

JF: What is your next project?

TH: My next project grows out the epilogue in the book. I’m interested in exploring twentieth century African-American marriage. By the turn of the century, marriage was nearly universal, with blacks marrying slightly more than whites. But that began to change most dramatically starting in the post-World War II era. A racial gap in marriage has widened every decade since. The marriage rates for African Americans declined significantly over the course of the twentieth century. Scholars in other fields, like Sociology, have researched aspects of this trend. I think we need a longer historical perspective to understand the various economic, social, and political factors that have encouraged this decline including growing permanent unemployment, pre-mature mortality rates, and mass incarceration.

JF: Thanks Tera!

Slavery at James Madison’s House

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Alyssa Rosenberg reports on efforts to tell the story of slavery at James Madison’s Montpelier.  A permanent exhibit titled “The Mere Distinction of Colour” opened on June 5.

Here is a taste of Rosenberg’s piece at The Washington Post:

…The new galleries, which opened on June 5, do something radical: They treat the people who were enslaved at Montpelier as if their lives were as worthy of historical examination as that of the man who owned them.

These displays at Montpelier provide ample evidence for visitors to consider as they reckon with the fact that the same James Madison who drafted the Bill of Rights also spent considerable time trying to track down a runaway slave named Anthony. (Madison’s own enslaved valet, John, went to his grave without telling Madison anything about Anthony’s whereabouts.) But that sort of reconsideration, important as it is, still risks consigning the people who were enslaved by the Founding Fathers to a subordinate role. If museums limit themselves to those assessments, they send, intentionally or not, the message that enslaved people’s importance lies in the way they illustrate the moral frailties of great men, rather than in their own lives and accomplishments.

Montpelier does not stop there. The people who were enslaved by the Madisons emerge from the displays as lively individuals.

Read the rest here.

Four Myths About Slavery

BerryOver at The Conversation, Daina Ramey Berry of the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin separates “myth from fact” on the matter of American slavery.

Here are her four myths:

  1.  The majority of African captives came to what became the United States
  2.  Slavery last for 400 years
  3.  All Southerners own slaves
  4.  Slavery was a long time ago.

Read how she debunks these myths here.

Berry’s latest book is The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.

Memphis Cotton for Bibles

Cotton Museum

Next time I am Memphis I am going to try to visit the Cotton Museum

Earlier today I wrote about my recent visit to Memphis as part of a Civil Rights bus tour I am currently taking.  We visited sites from The Civil Rights Movement and the African American history of the city in the 1960s.

In the 19th century, Memphis was a major cotton market and, consequently, a major slave market.  This was largely due to its prime location on the Mississippi River.

The prevalence of cotton in Memphis even crossed over into the work of Bible distribution.  In my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I wrote a few sentences about the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society and the spread of cheap Bibles into the South during the Civil War:

One of the most interesting parts of the American Bible Society (ABS) distribution efforts [during the Civil War] was the sale of Bibles in exchange for cotton.  Since the Union would not accept Confederate currency as a form of donation or payment for Bibles, the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society in Tennessee circumvented this problem by offering the ABS bales of cotton.  Cotton was purchased by southern philanthropists and friends of the Bible Cause with Confederate money, and the bales were shipped out to New York.  In February 1865, an anonymous donor gave the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society six bales of cotton to help defer the cost of electrotype plates used to print Bibles at the Society’s distribution depot in Nashville.  Whatever was left after the plates were paid for was used to provide boxes of Bibles and Testaments for Confederate troops.

Similarly, the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society Society received a request from Monticello, Arkansas, proposing to exchange ten bales of cotton for Bibles and Testaments that would be distributed to citizens and soldiers in the surrounding region. The Memphis and Shelby County Society planned to have the cotton shipped directly to the [New York City] Bible House as soon as possible….The ABS was not prepared to receive cotton in exchange for copies of the scriptures, but the New York Board of Managers were more than willing to accept it if it meant getting Bibles past Confederate military lines.

Transporting cotton through a country torn by Civil War was difficult. The Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society needed the permission of Confederate authorities and generals. The ABS had to obtain special approval from the U.S. Treasury Department.  In some cases the cotton, once received in New York, was deposited in a U.S. government warehouse “to the credit of the American Bible Society for special purposes.”

How Do Historians Measure Racial Progress in America?

LaskiGreg Laski has a great piece on this issue a Black Perspectives.  He raises several good questions in the process of plugging his new book Untimely Democracy: The Politics of Progress after Slavery.

You can read the entire piece here, but I was especially taken with the way Laski frames his discussion:

If the November 2008 election of Barack Obama to the presidency provided an occasion to measure the distance the United States had traveled from its origins in slavery, then Donald Trump’s rise to the highest political office has presented a different historical calculus. Viewed through the lens of this racial history, the new administration reminds us that structures and practices of exclusion endure across time.

Just how to conjugate the relationship between past and present in each of these instances is open to debate. But lurking behind these contemporary case studies is a more basic conceptual dilemma: What is the political function of historical comparison when it comes to measuring “progress” toward liberty and equality for all? If Obama’s presidency allowed us to celebrate racial progress, that is, what happens to democracy now, when that distance seems to have narrowed? To pose the query most plainly, does democracy require progress? If so, whose? And why?

My forthcoming book, Untimely Democracy, narrates the nineteenth-century backstory of these questions by studying the work produced by African American authors and activists after the official end of Reconstruction—and after the abolitionist aims of the Civil War had faded.

W.E.B. Du Bois on Confederate Monuments

Here is some more historical context for the New Orleans monuments controversy.

Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory shares this passage from a 1931 Du Bois piece in The Crisis:

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Here is a taste of Levin’s commentary at Civil War Memory:

DuBois’s reflection on the selective memory and history of Confederate monuments comes right in the middle of a narrative on the challenges and contradictions of traveling through the South at the height of the Jim Crow era.

DuBois pushes right back against the myth of the Lost Cause. He refuses to draw a distinction between the Confederate government and the men in the ranks. DuBois clearly understood that as long as white southerners were able to mythologize the war through their monuments, African Americans would remain second class citizens.

Confederate monuments did not just occupy the Jim Crow landscape. For Dubois, they helped to make it possible.

Levin has also posted Du Bois’s take on Robert E. Lee.  Read it here.

“Lost Cause” Enthusiasts Should Read Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone” Speech

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The Athanaeum in Savannah, the site of Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech”

In the midst of all this discussion about Confederate monuments, the Lost Cause, and the meaning of the Civil War, an Ohio middle school American history teacher named James Latuzenheiser tweets:

 

The reference here is to a speech delivered on March 21, 1861 (two weeks after Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated POTUS) by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens.  He delivered the speech from the Athanaeum in Savannah, Georgia.  The purpose of this speech was to explain the differences between the Constitution of the Confederate States and the United States Constitution.

In his so-called “Cornerstone” speech, Stephens makes abundantly clear the Confederate’s position on slavery and its role in the coming of the Civil War.  Here is a taste (highlights are mine):

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

We should also note that in 1868, in his book The War Between the States, Stephens softened his view that slavery “was the immediate cause” of the Civil War.  In the process, he contributed to the Lost Cause idea, still popular in parts of the South today, that the conflict was less about slavery and more about states rights.

Here is a taste:

The matter of Slavery, so-called, which was the proximate cause of these irregular movements on both sides, and which ended in the general collision of war, as we have seen, was of infinitely less importance to the Seceding States, than the recognition of this great principle [the right of Secession].  I say Slavery, so-called, because, there was with us no such thing a Slavery in the full and proper sense of that word.  No people ever lived more devoted to the principles of liberty, secured by free democratic institutions, than were the people of the South.  None had ever given stronger proofs of this than they had done, from the day that Virginia moved in behalf of the assailed rights of Massachusetts in 1774, to the firing of the first gun in Charleston Harbor, in 1861.  What was called Slavery amongst us, was but a legal subordination of the African to the Caucasian  race.  This relation was so regulated by law as to promote, according to the intent and design of the system, the best interests of both races, the Black as well as the White, the Inferior, as well as the Superior.  Both had rights secured, and both had duties imposed.  It was a system of reciprocal service, and mutual bonds.  But even the two thousand million dollars invested in the relation thus established between private capital and the labor of this class of population, under the system, was but as the dust in the balance, compared with the vital attributes of the rights of Independence and Sovereignty on the part of several States.

These documents reveal the ideas that many Confederate monuments and symbols are commemorating and celebrating.

Romans 13 in American History

Romans-13I wrote a little bit about Romans 13 and the American Revolution in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  Over at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz notes that this New Testament passage was also used frequently in the 1840s and 1850s during the debates over slavery.

Here is a taste:

Even at its peak of popularity in the early 1840s, Romans 13:2 still appears only half as often as the single most popular verse for that time period (Luke 18:16, which generally is 5-20 times as common in the corpus as the two verses from Romans 13).

Not surprisingly, when Romans 13 did enter American public discourse at this time, it was usually as part of the national debate over slavery. In 1839, for example, a Congregationalist minister named William Mitchell quoted that passage in support of his argument that “Civil government, however corrupt, is an institution of God.” Orson S. Murray, the abolitionist editor of The Vermont Telegraph, was appalled:

“No matter then how corrupt the government—from the corrupt, hypocritical republic that establishes by law and holds in existence a most abhorrent and diabolical system of robbery, and lust, and murder, down through all the grades of aristocracy and monarchy, originating in, or originating—as a large proportion of them do—popery, Mahomedanism, and idolatry, in all their degrading, dehumanizing, man-destroying, God-dishonoring forms—all, all these corrupt and corrupting institutions are the workmanship of an all-wise, and holy, and just God!!! The consummate absurdity—not to say the involved shocking impiety and blasphemy—of deliberately and intelligently holding to such sentiments, lies out on the face of the declaration. To expose them, it needs no argument or comment. I would not be understood as denouncing, outright, friend Mitchell, as a blasphemer. I am altogether willing to attribute the monstrous heresy to ‘blindness of mind’—the habit of taking upon trust long received opinions—rather than to perverseness of heart.”

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Jason Opal

OpalJason Opal is Associate Professor of History at McGill University.  This interview is based on his new book Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Avenging the People?

JO: I had always been fascinated by Andrew Jackson and his intense following in the United States, especially in the wake of his controversial invasion of Spanish and Seminole Florida in 1818. I was also struck by the tone and vehemence of the Congressional debates that followed in early 1819. The pro-Jackson representatives talked about the “laws of nations” and the “rights of nature,” suggesting that Old Hickory symbolized a new claim to national sovereignty within the brutal world he saw.

But what made me want to dig deeper was what happened right after these debates—not the bitter controversy over slavery in Missouri, but the severe economic crisis that lasted from 1819 to 1822. Here, Jackson was an arch-conservative foe of public banks, stay laws, and other assertions of democratic sovereignty against international “laws” of commerce. Here, he rejected some of the most popular—and, in some sense, nationalistic—measures of his day. This just did not fit with the traditional view of Jackson as a patriotic champion and democratic reformer. Nor did it align with the usual critiques of Jackson, which stress his hostility to native peoples and black Americans.

So, I wanted to offer a new look at the towering enigma from Tennessee, one that stayed as close as possible to primary sources (rather than historiographical debates) and that scrutinized Jackson’s early career and political education (rather than his legendary times in the White House). I did not intend to besmirch Jackson, nor to condemn his fans. I just wanted to see what he was about, and to understand why so many Americans loved him so fiercely.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Avenging the People?

JO: I argue that Jackson led and embodied one version of American nationhood—of the American people as a nation who shared blood—that grew out of the long struggle with the British Empire and its native and black proxies during the post-Revolutionary decades. This kind of nationhood asserted American sovereignty vis-à-vis its enemies, including the right to avenge American blood around the globe, while restricting their sovereignty in times and places of peace, that is within the society they reluctantly composed.

JF: Why do we need to read Avenging the People?

JO: Especially since the United States, unlike most western democracies, still functions according to its first written Constitution (with amendments), it is always important to study the Founding era. In a way, this history is not history at all, but a kind of ongoing past.

Jackson was not one of the Founders of 1787, but he was probably the single most important figure in the later, longer rise of “democratic” models of American nationhood and popular sovereignty. Understanding that is especially important now that President Trump repeatedly and (I think) sincerely invokes Jackson’s name to authorize an “America First” course of action.

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

JO: I have loved history for as long as I can remember and was determined to become a history professor by the time I was in eighth or ninth grade. (One viewing of Les Misérables at the Shubert Theatre in Boston clinched it.) I honestly can’t imagine anything more compelling than the debatable record of what people have done and what it all means.

I decided to study the early United States after I took Mary Beth Norton’s class on the American Revolution at Cornell in the spring of 1996. I turned to cultural and social history after working with Jane Kamensky at Brandeis in 1999. Inspiring teachers have that effect!

JF: What is your next project?

JO: Moving to Montreal in 2009, right when I was starting this project, gave me a new vantage point on American history. It also revealed the importance of other languages, which had always been a weak point for me. I’m comfortable at last in French and am now studying Portuguese, both of which will help for my new book project, a global history of Barbados. As many early Americanists have shown, this island was the center of the early English empire and the starting point for its seventeenth-century turn to black slavery. I want to retell the island’s long ordeal by drawing in the associated histories of the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British empires and of the many African nations that later gave rise to the Bajan people.

I’m also working on two collaborative projects. The first is a collection of essays on the “Patriot” rebellions of the late 1830s along the US-Canadian border. I’m writing about the economic priorities that underlay US-British rapprochement and that helped to doom the Patriots. Maxime Dagenais of McMaster University and Julien Mauduit of Université du Québec à Montréal are editing this book, which I hope will reach people in both French and English Canada and in my native country. Second, I’m writing a history of epidemic diseases and the American people with my dad, Dr. Steven Opal of the Brown University School of Medicine.

JF: Thanks, Jason