Episode 74: An Independent Woman in Revolutionary America

In this episode we talk with historian Lorri Glover about Eliza Lucas Pinckney, a woman who lived through the American Revolution in South Carolina. Pinckney’s story sheds light on gender, agriculture, politics, and slavery in this era and unsettles many common assumptions regarding the place and power of women in the eighteenth century.

Listen at:

Apple Podcasts






And other podcatchers!

If you like what you hear, or perhaps you are new to the work of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog, please consider supporting our work.

Click here to become a patron.

We have some big changes in the works for 2021. I can’t say anything yet, but it’s going to be huuuuge!  Stay tuned.

If all goes well, we will drop an episode every Sunday between today and mid-January 2021. We have some incredible guests lined-up!

And yes, mugs and signed books are still available for patrons!

Did I mention you can click here to become a patron?

And for our loyal patrons: THANK YOU for your ongoing support!

The Author’s Corner with Noeleen McIlvenna

Early American RebelsNoeleen McIlvenna is Professor of History at Wright State University. This interview is based on her new book, Early American Rebels: Pursuing Democracy from Maryland to Carolina, 1640–1700 (University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Early American Rebels?

NM: All my work starts from the premise that the poor are not stupid. They know when they are being used and abused. But, in most eras on most continents, it’s very difficult to do anything about it. Power has all the weapons and they are relentless in their pursuit of more power and wealth. Working people have only numbers. And there is so much to fear: losing one’s livelihood, one’s health, the unknown future. So organizing ourselves to act collectively and then maintaining that solidarity over time and under varying pressures is a very tough road to climb. That’s why revolutions occur so rarely.

This is my third book on southern colonial history. As an immigrant myself, who grew up on one side of the Atlantic and crossed in my early twenties, I identify with the first generation of settlers along the North American coastline. I understand how one carries over cultural baggage and must adjust to a New World. So I write about those people: in North Carolina (A Very Mutinous People), in Georgia (The Short Life of Free Georgia), and now in Maryland.

Early American Rebels began as a prequel of sorts to A Very Mutinous People. While I was in the middle of the Georgia book, a genealogist contacted me and asked if I was aware that one of the Mutinous People protagonists had been in trouble in Maryland earlier. I was totally unaware; North Carolina historians had always felt that the first settlers came from Virginia. So when the Georgia manuscript had been sent to the publisher, I began to follow up, thinking I would write a small article about this story. But very quickly, I realized I had stumbled into a much bigger story: a whole network of activists had organized and organized and organized over two generations, struggling to establish a society based on Leveler ideals. Levelers were the radicals of the English Revolution: they wanted a society with a level playing field: no monarchy, no aristocracy; a vote for every man. Equality. We think of that as a basic American value, but it was revolutionary in the seventeenth century. And too often, Americans are taught that those ideals came from Virginia planters of the eighteenth century. But that is wrong. Poor indentured servants a hundred years before the American Revolution held those ideals and fought for them.

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

NM: A network of settlers in the Chesapeake region fought for a say in their own governance in the mid-late seventeenth century. American democratic ideals are their legacy.

JF: Why do we need to read Early American Rebels?

NM: It is important for us to understand that we should look to those at the bottom of any society for leadership on how to change it. Early American Rebels gives us a guide on what it takes to create a more equitable world. It warns us how we might fail if the powerful separate us by race and make us compete for the crumbs. I hope you will get a sense of the playbooks of both the rebels and the elite.

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

NM: That occurred in several stages. The most important was the first day of eighth grade, back in Northern Ireland, when my new history teacher wrote the preamble to the Declaration of Independence on the blackboard and told us to copy it into our notebooks. When I got to the phrase, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish [their government],” I looked up and met his eyes. I repeated the phrase to him and he nodded, smiling. As a poor Catholic girl growing up during the Troubles, no one had really said that clearly to me and I knew immediately its significance. We mostly studied European history for the rest of high school, but I was hooked on understanding how some people came to have power and some did not. If someone had told me that there was such a job as an historian and that a poor Catholic girl was allowed to have that job, I would have signed up for it at age thirteen. But I had no concept that such a thing was possible.

I studied History as an undergraduate in Northern Ireland, but still did not grasp that I could become a history professor. No women taught history at that university. It seemed that a woman who loved history had one outlet: teach the subject at the high school level. Fast forward some years, an emigration or two and a few adventures and I was working at the University of Tennessee as a staff archaeologist. I saw lots of women professors and graduate students. When my boss told me I needed an MA and history was close enough to archaeology to suffice, I walked across the parking lot to the History department. The first graduate class I signed up for was Colonial America. That was that.

JF: What is your next project?

NM: I want to write an economic history from the bottom up. That is, how did the seventeenth-century Atlantic World economy function, starting at the workplace of an indentured woman in the Chesapeake and moving up and out until we finish with the King, politicians and financiers in London. We would see how much work she does to earn enough to eat, how the tobacco she works on, or whatever she produces gets sold and resold, who enjoys the profit at what stage and so on.

JF: Thanks, Noeleen!

John Locke and Slavery


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.

An Interview with Peter Wood

WoodI still occasionally assign Peter Wood‘s Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion.  It remains one of the most accessible books on the slave culture that developed in the rice fields of colonial South Carolina.

Over at History News Network, Tiffany April Griffin interviews Wood.  He currently serves as professor emeritus of history at Duke.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Why did you choose history as your career?

Both my parents were scientists, but I faint at the sight of blood, so medicine was out. They nurtured a love of fact over fiction, so even though I wrote lots of poems, I was not going to be a novelist. Also, I was a lefthander who could never hit curve balls very well, so I gave up my dreams of being the next Stan Musial for the St. Louis Cardinals. I guess that was fact triumphing over fiction!

I fell in love with history early, because it allowed me to roam widely. Most careers address some slice of life, while history allows you to go anywhere. Not just any place or time, but bringing any tools you wish and can manage. If you are fascinated by economics or astronomy, feminism or religion, literature or cooking, you can probably bring that interest to bear. Our own strengths and weaknesses, personal interests and blind spots tend to shape our work as much as any “availability of sources.”

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Peter Moore

9781498569903.jpgPeter Moore is Professor of History at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. This interview is based on his new book, Archibald Simpson’s Unpeaceable Kingdom: The Ordeal of Evangelicalism in the Colonial South (Lexington Books, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Archibald Simpson’s Unpeaceable Kingdom: The Ordeal of Evangelicalism in the Colonial South?

PM: When I was a graduate student in the early stages of doing research on what would eventually become my dissertation/first book, I was exploring the mysterious death of William Richardson, an evangelical Presbyterian minister in backcountry South Carolina who had either (depending on the source) hanged himself, been murdered by an enemy, or died at his devotions. There was an account of his death in the diary of his coreligionist and close friend Archibald Simpson, which I found on microfilm in the wonderful archive of the now shuttered Presbyterian Historical Society in Montreat. The diary was not, to say the least, reader-friendly, but it seemed to have a lot of rich material for the social and religious history of the colonial lowcountry. So when I finished the first book, I decided to transcribe and edit Simpson’s diary, parts of which I published in 2012. The diary turned out to be even more amazing as a source than I could have imagined back in 1999, and since I was already so deep into the project, writing a cultural biography of Simpson was a logical next step.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Archibald Simpson’s Unpeaceable Kingdom: The Ordeal of Evangelicalism in the Colonial South?

PM: Evangelicals met with fierce opposition from all directions as they tried to impose an evangelical order on churches and communities in the late-colonial southern lowcountry. Despite the great midcentury revivals, the steady stream of religious dissenters who poured into the region, and all the noise evangelicals made about slave conversions, Simpson’s story suggests that there was no evangelical movement in colonial South Carolina, just a frustrating evangelical slog.

JF: Why do we need to read Archibald Simpson’s Unpeaceable Kingdom: The Ordeal of Evangelicalism in the Colonial South?

PM: This book is a microhistory of transatlantic evangelicalism. Although the heart of the argument deals with the colonial south, four of the ten chapters are set in southwestern Scotland, where Simpson grew up and where he died in 1795. Aside from engaging the debate over the significance of evangelicalism in the pre-Revolutionary American south, the book explores evangelicals’ inner world and the boundaries of religious experience, the really important role of pastoral care in building evangelicals’ credibility, the complicated relationship between evangelicals, slavery, and slaves, and the impact of the Revolutionary War on transatlantic communities, among other things. As a biography it treats these issues in an interesting narrative format. I should add that Simpson’s dour Presbyterian exterior masked his intense emotions, his sorrows and insecurities, and his rich inner life, all of which he poured into his diary. It was both challenging and fun to bring these out in the book, especially in the chapters on courtship and marriage (he was a really bad suitor) and when he runs away from George Whitefield’s orphanage.

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

PM: I was not a history major as an undergraduate, and when I made my first attempt at graduate school I studied religion, not history, at Vanderbilt University. One of my first classes was Jack Fitzmier’s seminar on Puritanism, which opened my eyes to the possibilities of religious history and the way it intersected with society, ideas, politics, culture, and psychology. While there I was also fortunate to be able to take two courses on Southern history from David Carleton in Vanderbilt’s history department, and I was hooked. I dropped out of the program, but when I grew up a bit more and returned to graduate school later at the University of Georgia, I was all about southern religious history. At a more personal level, my research projects have also been something of an exercise in working out questions about my own identity as a southerner, spirituality as a Christian, and notions of community and belonging.

JF: What is your next project?

PM: I am in the early stages of research on the failed attempt by Scottish Covenanters to plant a colony (Stuarts Town) in South Carolina in the mid-1680s. Some of this is familiar ground — Presbyterianism, religious history, colonial South Carolina — but much of it is new, a bit intimidating, and very exciting because it brings me into the seventeenth century, the Spanish borderlands, and Indian history.

JF: Thanks, Peter!

The Author’s Corner with Fred Witzig

41WNTjQqz9L._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_Fred Witzig is Professor of History at Monmouth College. This interview is based on his new book, Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden (University of South Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden?

FW: I was introduced to Alexander Garden by George Whitefield. My interest in Whitefield and the Great Awakening began when I was an undergraduate and never ended. But I quickly noticed that while the scholarship on Whitefield is lively and expansive, historians had never even begun to adequately assess the enormous efforts of clergy who worked against him. Foremost among them were New England Congregationalist Charles Chauncy and the commissary of the Church of England in the Carolinas, Alexander Garden. Chauncy largely failed in his efforts against the Awakening, and he’s famous among historians today. Garden went after Whitefield with more creativity and energy than Chauncy did, and, impressively, he succeeded in squelching the Awakening in South Carolina. More broadly, Garden arrived in South Carolina at a seminal moment in its development; in the aftermath of the Yamasee War, the white colonists shifted the economic foundations of their colony squarely onto African slave labor. Garden lent his considerable leadership skills to this endeavor, and in the process made a place for the Church of England, and Christianity in general, in the South that would last for more than a century. Yet, historians sometimes confuse him with the botanist Alexander Garden, and his only biography—until now!—is an unpublished dissertation from almost forty years ago. I think it’s time he gets his due.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden?

FW: Alexander Garden marshalled the resources of the Church of England in support of the burgeoning slave plantation economy of early South Carolina and applied a veneer of spiritual respectability to carnal exploitations of slave labor. In the process, Garden smothered the fires of a more egalitarian evangelical revivalism, burdened possibilities for the amelioration of the conditions of slavery with a Christianized paternalism that prevailed until the Civil War, and made the Church of England in the colony more influential than ever before.

JF: Why do we need to read Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden?

FW: Are you interested in the long and sometimes sordid history of the entanglement of Christianity and slavery in North America; the history of the Christian Church, and especially the Church of England, in the South; the development of the southern social order that prevailed at least until the Civil War; the early efforts to educate and evangelize slaves (Garden founded the continent’s first major slave school); the reasons why the Great Awakening flourished and then died out in the Carolinas and Georgia; and the way non-evangelical colonial leaders challenged and shaped George Whitefield’s evangelical ministry? If you are, this is your book. I wrote it with undergraduates in mind, as well, so that faculty teaching courses on Southern history, evangelicalism, slavery, and other such topics could assign it to their students. In the preface I call it a dual biography: the story of the tragic but productive relationship between a refugee from Scotland and his colony on the edge of the British Empire.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

FW: Two events stand out. The first was when I visited Appomattox Courthouse with my family when I was probably seven years old. Standing outside on the rutted road there in Virginia, my dad told in dramatic fashion the story of General Grant’s meeting with General Lee, and then Lee’s surrender of his troops in the next couple of days. I knew then that history was the most fascinating subject anyone could ever study. The second event was when I was twenty-six and decided to change careers and become a teacher. What else would I ever want to teach?

JF: What is your next project?

FW: I’ve had a strong interest in public history for . . . years. Recently I started two websites. One is an attempt to reach smart but non-expert adults with thoughtful histories of the United States, the church at large, and a smattering of other topics. Eventually it will host resources for homeschooling high schoolers who, in my view, are at the moment stuck with a choice between ultra-nationalist Christian histories or secular histories that ignore or denigrate religious impulses in America and the world. The second website, not yet public, will host podcasts of conversations between me and a historian friend talking about Christians of the past whose stories can challenge us to evaluate current American evangelical assumptions.

JF: Thanks, Fred!

2017 Princeton Seminar: Day 5

Rare Books 1

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


A Tale of Two Thornwells

Thornwell Hoops

Sindarius Thornwell

Today’s guest post, written on the eve of the Final Four, comes from Patrick L. Connelly.  Patrick is Chair of the History & Political Science Department at Mississippi College and a University of South Carolina alum (Class of 1994).  Enjoy!  –JF

 I am a Columbia SC native and a graduate of the University of South Carolina, where my late father taught History from 1969 until his death in 1991. Naturally, I’m beyond thrilled at the improbable run of my alma mater through the NCAA tournament. When a Duane Notice dunk put an exclamation point on an Elite Eight victory over Florida, I shared the disbelieving joy seen in crowd shots of Gamecock fans accustomed to the agony of defeat. The tears of Darius Rucker were all our tears (Let him cry, y’all). Then there is Sindarius Thornwell, whose number 0 jersey will soon be hanging in the rafters at Colonial Life Arena. Where would we be without the passion and commitment of this native son?

Several recent profiles have documented the story of Sindarius Thornwell, who was raised by a single mother with help from a devoted uncle in the small upstate community of Lancaster, SC. The town has experienced the fate of many Southern communities whose textile mills have closed or moved, resulting in a declining population. Sindarius was highly recruited and could have pursued more prestigious programs but wanted to help his home state and go where his family could see him play. His recruitment was the crucial cornerstone of Frank Martin’s rebuilding project at the University of South Carolina. Lancaster takes immense pride in what he has accomplished. He often visits home and remembers affectionately the community that molded him.

The journey of Lancaster’s favorite son may seem a long way from a 19th century Southern Presbyterian advocate of slavery who once served as the president of the institution represented by Sindarius in the Final Four. James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) was known for his talents as an orator, scholar, theologian, and advocate of Old School Presbyterianism. His legacy also includes support for racial hierarchy, a vigorous defense of slavery, harsh critiques of abolitionism, hostility toward Catholicism, and endorsement of the Confederacy (after holding Unionist views prior to the war).

James Henley Thornwell was born the son of a plantation overseer in Marlboro County, SC, two counties over from Lancaster. He attended South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) and accepted a pastorate in Lancaster in 1835 after graduation. It was there that he met his wife Nancy Witherspoon, whose influential family owned a plantation nearby. Soon thereafter, he was drawn back to Columbia to teach at his alma mater, beginning a lifelong trend of alternating between pastoral stints and serving at South Carolina College as a professor, president (from 1851-1855), and trustee. Benjamin Palmer, his hagiographer and fellow Southern Presbyterian, wrote that the Thornwells “acquired, by marriage” a small Lancaster plantation that included slaves to whom Thornwell was “an easy and indulgent master.” The Lancaster plantation was a refuge for the Thornwells from the heat and mosquitoes of Columbia. Enslaved residents of the plantation would travel back and forth from Lancaster to Columbia with the Thornwells.


James H. Thornwell

I’m struck by the juxtaposition of these journeys. Sindarius Thornwell, with his deep attachment to family, friends, and hometown, frequently travels back and forth from Lancaster to the University of South Carolina. Over 160 years earlier, James Henley Thornwell completed a journey to the same place—albeit one whose social, political, and technological context made it a profoundly different experience. But is there more of a connection between these Thornwells?

One can’t help but wonder. Perhaps there is a direct historical link, forged in the crucible of slavery, between the ancestors of Sindarius Thornwell and the family of James Henley Thornwell. Is it simply a coincidence of geography and the sharing of a distinct last name? Maybe. Maybe not. The question is impossible to answer without knowing the genealogy and family history of Sindarius Thornwell.

But here is what I do know: Sindarius Thornwell has put my home state in the national spotlight for reasons more than its tragic history of slavery, the horrific murder of innocents at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, or the specter of the Confederate flag. It’s not just his vital role in orchestrating a magical run through the NCAA Tournament. Sindarius Thornwell is an African-American and South Carolinian leading a racially diverse team comprised of local, regional, national, and international players coached by Frank Martin—a son of Cuban immigrants who happens to be married to the daughter of Jamaican immigrants.

The irony of Southern history indeed.

What Constitutes a Historical Document?

Mount VernonAHA Today, the blog of the American Historical Association, is featuring the work of several history graduate students who will be writing regular posts throughout the summer.  I am thrilled to see that one of the students chosen to write for the blog is Erin Holmes, a Ph.D candidate in early American history at the University of South Carolina.  I got to know Erin and her work a little bit during my one-month residency as a visiting scholar at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.  When I arrived Erin was in the midst of a longer six-month fellowship devoted to work on a dissertation on 18th-century plantation landscapes in Virginia, South Carolina, and Barbados.

In her first post at AHA Today, Erin reminds us that the primary documents historians use to tell stories about the past do not have to be words on paper.

Here is a taste:

In 1953, L.P. Hartley wrote that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Historians and lay readers alike are familiar with the idea that the past is a different place, but often lose sight of the word “place” in that discussion. Like any other place, we can travel to the past. Most often, we do this through the written word. We read primary sources that introduce us to foreign cultures and practices that once existed in the very location (sometimes down to the exact longitude and latitude) we do today, albeit in a place—a historical context encompassing geography, culture, and more—that would be utterly alien.

“Visiting the Past and the Places in Between” is based on my belief that history is inherently place-based and that historical analysis is strengthened by comparison. We attach ourselves (to varying degrees) to the places we come from, the places we live, and the places to which we travel. Among the richest resources for historians of the early modern period seeking thick descriptions of long lost people and places are travel narratives. These accounts are fundamentally the product of comparing the familiar with the unfamiliar, and to some extent historians produce our research questions from the same cloth. Pairing travel narratives with existing (or archaeological) historic structures, as well as expanding the definition of a “historical document” to include landscapes and buildings, provides an entry point to the past that can allow us to not only answer those questions, but to push them further.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Sean Kelley

TheVoyageoftheSlaveShipHare.jpgSean Kelley is Professor of History at the University of Essex. This interview is based on his new book, The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare: A Journey into Captivity from Sierra Leone to South Carolina (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare?

SK: I wrote the Slave Ship Hare as an experiment of sorts.  Starting with the best possible documented Africa-America connection (the Hare’s purchase and sales records), I wanted to see if I could “test” some of the going theses regarding African cultures in the Americas.  What inspired me to do this was a previous book I wrote on Texas in which discussed the illegal slave trade during the 19th C.  I had been able to document the presence of Africans on Texas plantations but couldn’t document their origins (though I had my suspicions).  So for my next book I figured I start with the connection and see what I could find out about their lives in America.  Secondarily, I thought a microhistory on the slave trade would be a good way to introduce students to the topic and issues of the field.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare?

SK: The central argument is that the forced transportation of Africans to colonial SC was structured in such a way as to facilitate the elaboration of specific cultures and identities (Mande, in this instance) in the New World, at least for the migrant generation.  The process of “creolization,” as scholars term it, was a slow one that occurred over a generation or two.

JF: Why do we need to read The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare?

SK: As I say at the start of the book, three out of ten migrants to colonial America came from Africa.  It’s a truism that the Puritan Great Migration of the 17th century had a shaping influence on American history and culture, but it involved about 20,000 people.  About 17 times that many people came from Africa, and about 100,000 from Upper Guinea, but we know much less about them.  Of course, historians know a great deal about slavery, but oddly enough both the process of the slave trade and the experience of newly arrived Africans remains only poorly understood.  I hope to illuminate both issues.

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

SK:  I decided to become a historian after spending the first two years of my undergraduate career as an International Relations major.  IR felt unsatisfying, and I suddenly realized that all of my spare  time was spent reading American history.  It dawned on me that I’d be happier if I simply majored in my hobby.  I have never regretted the decision.

JF: What is your next project?

SK:  My next project is a book on American involvement in the transatlantic slave trade from 1644-1867, basically the whole thing.  And by “slave trade,” I’m speaking of ships sailing from American ports and carrying Africans to various parts of the New World, not (in most cases) of ships carrying Africans to North America.  (These were two separate trades, for the most part.)  It turns out that American vessels carried 306,000 Africans to the New World, mostly to the Caribbean, a figure that rivals the ca. 388,000 who were brought to N. America.  

At the same time, I’m collaborating with an international group of scholars to collect, transcribe and make available online what we’re calling “testimonies” by Africans from the era of the transatlantic slave trade. Conventional wisdom holds that there are fewer than one dozen “narratives” by Africans, but if you expand the definition “narrative” to include shorter documents and third-person accounts, there are many more.  We have almost 1,000 now.

JF: Thanks, Sean!

Quote of the Day


South Carolina, for the good of ‘Merica, “We the People,” are putting you on a historical timeout. You rejected the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, nearly bolted from the Constitutional Convention, lost your marbles in the Nullification Crisis, and seceded first in the mid 19th century–offenses long since forgiven–but, we really expected better from you tonight than to lavish presidential delegates on a mysogynist, megalomaniacal reality t.v. star. Go to your room!

Keith Beutler, Professor of History, Missouri Baptist University (on Facebook)

The Bob Jones University Factor


In the 2000, George W. Bush, who said in a nationally-televised debate that his favorite philosopher was Jesus Christ “because he changed my heart,” easily won the Iowa caucuses, appealing to the strong evangelical base in the Hawkeye State.

But as is often the case, the voters of New Hampshire sent a stern rebuke to Iowa when it supported Arizona senator John McCain.  McCain won comfortably over Bush in New Hampshire (48%-30%).

And then the campaigns headed to South Carolina.

The South Carolina GOP primary was very ugly.  Bush supporters painted Cindy McCain as a drug addict, said John’s daughter was the product of an “illicit union,” and wondered if the Arizona senator was mentally fit to be president.

Bush also took his campaign to Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina.  GOP candidates had been to Bob Jones before. Ronald Reagan spoke there in 1980.  Dan Quayle, Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm, Bob Dole, and Alan Keyes had all made appearances in the 1990s.  But Bush’s visit in 2000 was different, largely because his opponent was John McCain.

Like today, upstate South Carolina in 2000 was a fierce political battleground.  Evangelical votes were the prize.  McCain and other Democrats criticized Bush heavily for speaking at Bob Jones.  The fundamentalist university did not allow black students until the 1970s and, at the time of Bush’s appearance, still banned interracial dating.

McCain also criticized the school for its long history of anti-Catholicism. When Pope John Paul II visited Bob Jones University in 1987, Bob Jones Jr. said he would rather “speak to the devil himself” than meet with the Pope.  McCain told the leadership of the school to “get out of the sixteenth century.”

Bush won South Carolina by more than eleven percentage points.

A lot has changed since 2000.  Bob Jones appears to have become slightly more open.  In the wake of South Carolina primary, president Bob Jones III went on Larry King Live and announced that he was lifting the ban on interracial dating.

After the 2000 Bush visit, Bob Jones University, under the leadership of Stephen Jones, made a decision to stay out of presidential politics.  (Despite the fact that his father, Bob Jones III, endorsed Mitt Romney in 2008).

But today the Greenville university is once again inviting GOP presidential candidates to speak.  President Steve Pettit has had personal meetings with Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, and Scot Walker.  Ted Cruz and Ben Carson have spoken on the campus.

And this week, Cruz, Carson, Rubio, and Jeb Bush will be back for the Faith and Family Presidential Forum.  Bob Jones has about 3000 students.  I am guessing most of them vote Republican.


The Author’s Corner with Emma Hart

Emma Hart is Professor of History at University of St. Andrews. This interview is based on the paperback release of her new book, Building Charleston: Town and Society in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World (University of Virginia Press, 2015).

What led you to write Building Charleston?

I often get asked this question as many Americans wonder how a British person ended up writing a book about Charleston.  Like many first books, this started off as my PhD dissertation.  I went to graduate school with the intention of researching the artisan economy in early American cities.  My supervisor alerted me to the fact that both Charleston and Newport had received the least attention from historians.  I decided to visit Charleston first, and never made it Newport. Coming from the UK, the combination of palmetto trees and Palladian architecture was really striking and, as I soon realized, symbolic of so many of the dissonances in Charleston’s long and eventful history.  Even as I finished the PhD thesis, however, I realized that the people I was looking at were part of a larger group of white townspeople, who all used their labor, and that of their enslaved Africans, to accummulate wealth and property in the city.  Building Charleston became a story about these men and women who were neither planters, enslaved field workers, nor plain folk, yet still made a major contribution to the character of colonial South Carolina.  I also came to feel like a cheerleader for Charleston, which was often overlooked by historians as an important colonial city in favor of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, even though it grew almost as fast as these northern towns.

In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Building Charleston?

In the eighteenth century Charleston was not merely a vehicle of South Carolina’s plantation economy, but rather was a fully functioning participant in the creation of a British Atlantic urban world.  Among other things the growing city fostered the emergence of a middling class of people, who strongly shaped urban culture, politics, and economics, in ways that made the place look very similar to contemporary cities in provincial Britain.

Why do we need to read Building Charleston?

I hope that readers will come away with a new outlook on how important towns were to British America’s plantation societies during the colonial era.  Like Kingston, Jamaica, and Bridgetown, Barbados, Charleston was a dynamic city, whose economy brought wealth to a distinct sector of society.  What is more, enslaved African people were often foundational to these urban wealth-creation activities.  For example, enslaved carpenters and bricklayers were instrumental in the speculative building craze that gathered pace after Charleston’s major fire of 1740. Owned by white builders, such people saw none of the profits, however, which lined the pockets of their masters who used this wealth and property as the basis of a middling social status.  Thus, the story of America’s entrepreneurial middle class starts in the eighteenth century, and is as much a southern story as it is a northern one.  What is more, slavery was right there at the inception.  The important role of urban society in shaping South Carolina society at this time also reminds us that we shouldn’t read the state’s archetypal antebellum southern character back to the eighteenth century as it wasn’t always so.  There was a time in the eighteenth century that Charleston’s importance gave the region a much more urban quality, and townspeople even challenged the authority of the plantation elite.

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

I decided to become a historian when I was only 13 years old – I had a very dynamic history teacher at school who persuaded me pretty early on that my future lay in the past! When I got to university I started to do more eighteenth century history, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I liked the rambunctious nature of eighteenth century society, which is embodied in so many of William Hogarth’s pictures.  When I got the opportunity to do a special topic on Revolutionary America, I knew I’d found my historical home – early America was not only more rowdy than Europe, it was also a society that grew incredibly quickly, and incorporated so many contradictions of slavery and freedom, success and failure, and violence and refinement.  Once I’d decided to commit myself to an academic career by starting a PhD, there was no question about which field I’d study.

What is your next project?

I’m working on a history of marketing in early America, tentatively titled Trading Spaces: The Early Modern Marketplace and the Creation of the American Economy.  The research continues my fascination with how humans interact with space and landscape in past societies.  I’m trying to unearth the places, customs, and institutions that characterized ordinary peoples’ daily trading practices.  American historians have usually portrayed “the market” as an ideological abstraction.  However, the majority of early modern people encountered the market as a physical space entangled in local social and economic relationships.  I think that it is only by investigating the early American market place on these terms can we grasp the foundational role of the colonial era in the long-term formation of an American market economy.

Thanks, Emma! 

The Author’s Corner with Daniel Tortora

Daniel Tortora is Assistant Professor of History at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.  This interview is based on his new book Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756-1763  (University of North Carolina Press, May 2015)

JF: What led you to write Carolina in Crisis?
DT: In 2005 I was transcribing the diary (1757–1761) of Charleston pastor William Hutson for the South Carolina Historical Society. I encountered vague references to Indian war on the frontier and discovered hints of its social and political consequences. I became even more curious as I continued to study religion in eighteenth-century South Carolina. As a Ph.D. student at Duke, I discussed my budding interest with Peter Wood and Elizabeth Fenn and did some reading. I was captivated. I found that many people were unfamiliar with the dramatic and momentous French and Indian War era in the Southeast. I saw a need for additional work and Carolina in Crisiswas born. One of my first research trips took me to Fort Loudoun in Tennessee, and there was no turning back.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Carolina in Crisis?
The series of clashes that erupted from 1758 and 1761 between Cherokees, settlers, and British troops transformed the social and political landscape of the American Southeast. Three years of war devastated the Cherokees, and they went from British allies to enemies to mistreated subjects; the conflict also destabilized South Carolina society and created military and political turmoil that nurtured that colony’s nascent Revolutionary movement.
JF: Why do we need to read Carolina in Crisis?
DT: Carolina in Crisis offers an engaging and immersive look at the world of the mid-eighteenth century Southeast. You’ll come to better understand the social, cultural, political, and military dimensions of the era.
Carolina in Crisisshines new light on Cherokee culture, motivations, and divisions in the eighteenth century. It reveals the tensions—sparked by Cherokee attacks, a smallpox epidemic, a slave conspiracy, and British-colonial military campaigns—that divided white South Carolinians and British officials. It details the opportunities and challenges awaiting slaves during wartime. And it provides links to the Revolutionary era.
You will encounter suspense, heartache, betrayal, and controversy. A colorful cast of characters awaits you: Cherokee warriors and women; frontier soldiers and settlers; British officers and colonial politicians; and enslaved messengers and militiamen. You’ll also learn more about historic places well worth visiting. While writing the book, I traveled extensively to the forts, villages, settlements, and battlefields discussed and led two bus tours of Anglo-Cherokee War sites.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DT: One source of inspiration came from listening to my grandpa tell of his adventures hitchhiking across the country in the 1940s when he was a teenager. These tales filled me with a sense of wonder about the past and showed me the value of good narrative history. I watched with respect and interest as New England Indians fought for recognition and sovereignty. I had also been intrigued by dinosaurs and volcanoes, so I majored in both history and geology at Washington and Lee. Ted DeLaney’s class on the Civil Rights Movement further convinced me that I wanted to study American history. I have since gravitated toward colonial American history and American Indian history. I especially appreciate the struggle of the underdog, and my work reflects that.
JF: What is your next project?
DT: I’ve just returned from a research trip to the Huntington Library where I worked on my two new book projects. One book explores the lives of Indian people along the northeastern borderlands during the Revolutionary era. The second book is a social history of Virginia from the 1750s through the beginning of the Revolution, told through the travels, missteps, and misfortunes of an often overlooked figure. I am seeking publishers for both projects. I remain eager to learn more about early Maine history. I continue to study the Indian tribes of southern New England and the early Southeast. I also hope to contribute to an edited volume. I have also been active in the implementation of a plan to upgrade historic interpretation at Fort Halifax Park, the beautiful French and Indian War and Revolutionary War site in Winslow, Maine.

JF:  Sounds great!  Thanks Daniel!

The Author’s Corner with Emily Blanck

Emily Blanck is Associate Professor of History at Rowan University. This interview is based on her new book, Tyrannicide: Forging an American Law of Slavery in Revolutionary South Carolina and Massachusetts (University of Georgia Press, November 2014). 
JF: What led you to write Tyrannicide?

EB: It is a long history. When I first entered Graduate School at William and Mary, I became very interested in the history of slavery in New England and the law because I encountered Lucy Terry Prince, a former slave who had defended herself in court and fought for her son to go to a white college soon after the Revolutionary War. So many aspects of this fascinated me… But especially two issues: The presence and absence of slavery in Massachusetts and the way a black woman had access and felt empowered to use the courts.

So, I began to explore slavery and the law in Massachusetts as a PhD student at Emory University. When researching Massachusetts slavery and the law I discovered something else that entranced me, a letter from the Chief Justice in Massachusetts, William Cushing, in 1783 to South Carolina’s Governor, Benjamin Guerard explaining the status of ten South Carolina fugitive slaves released from Massachusetts’ jails. The letter surprised me, again, for many reasons, but especially because it reverberated with antebellum antagonism over slavery.

This began my journey to uncover the story of these slaves, a story I call the “Tyrannicide affair” after one of the vessels that escorted the slaves to Massachusetts, and to compare the law of slavery in both South Carolina and Massachusetts. For my book, I chose to dig deep into the tumultuous world of the black experience during the Revolution to explain the social, political, and legal context in which this story lived. It led me to the Constitutional Convention and the writing of the Fugitive Slave Clause.

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

EB: Tyrannicide argues that slave law (and the law that ended slavery) in Massachusetts and South Carolina had very different local contexts, drawing each state to regard their enslaved black populations in very different ways, writing divergent slave law, and eventually ending slavery in Massachusetts. This case elucidates the nature of that difference as these two states are drawing together in a Union, culminating in the writing of a Constitution that silently affirms the United States as a nation of slavery. 

JF: Why do we need to read Tyrannicide?

EB: This book provides a new and exciting story for us to understand the complex nature of slave law in Revolutionary America. Slavery and slave law was not developing in a vacuum in each state but was a dynamic interchange between local and national interests. This negotiation allowed the United States to form into a strong union, but the local dissonance provided the foundation for the deep cracks that slavery caused in the Constitution that other historians have already noted. 

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

EB: I began college at University of Texas at Austin as a classics major, but was poor in languages. I began to look for other interests when I took US History from a popular professor, Dr George C. Wright. He taught us that US History was not a litany of Presidents but was an examination by historians of ordinary people. I loved learning about it, I loved the empowerment that came with historical interpretation, and I became passionate about understanding the roots of inequality in our country. I changed my majors to History and African American Studies and researched US History as much as I could at a huge university like Texas. I took a couple of years off to decide what to do after graduating, but quickly got drawn back into researching history and applied to Graduate School.

JF: What is your next project?

EB:  I am coordinator of American Studies at Rowan and wanted to continue my study of slavery with an American Studies angle. I have decided to write my next project on the holiday, Juneteenth. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in Texas on June 19th, 1865, over two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. This celebration quickly spread throughout Texas, then as Black Texans left the state during and after the Great Migration, it moved to cities throughout the US. In the past twenty years, a grassroots movement has successfully pressed for it to be recognized as a state holiday in 44 states! 

JF: Looking forward to it, thanks Emily!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #28

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

Well, I finally made it into the 1860s in my reading of the Bible Society Record.  Even in the wake of Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War, the American Bible Society continued to insist that it was a national organization.  Early in the war the ABS was able to convince its auxiliary societies in the South to stay connected with the national organization.  Even the South Carolina Bible Society and the local Bible Society of Charleston agreed to continue working with the New York-based ABS.  Here is a taste of a letter from the President of the Bible Society of Charleston (N.R. Middletown) to the President of the American Bible Society (Theodore Frelinghuysen), dated January 18, 1861:

My Dear Sir, 

I had the pleasure of reading to our Board this evening your very kind and fraternal letter, and I am sure it would have been gratifying to you to witness the hearty response it met with.  It was unanimously agreed that the arrangement with Mr. Bolles should be continued heretofore, and that political differences should not be permitted to interfere with the existing relationship of the Societies.”

And here is another snippet:
In conclusion, permit me to join you in the hope you express, that the difficulties in which we are involved will not be permitted to affect Christian relationships or to sever Christian bonds.   Surely there is no reason why a work so entirely catholic as the one in which we are engaged should suffer in any way from dissensions in which it is in no way involved.  Political considerations should always be subordinated to the claims of the Word of God; and if the spirit of the Word were in practical operation throughout this great country, it would not now be divided and torn by civil discord.”  

The ABS is not taking sides here, but how long will this be able to last?  How long will political considerations “be subordinated to the claims of the Word of God” and its distribution?  Stay tuned.

Was Denmark Vesey an Abolitionist or Terrorist?

Douglas Egerton, author of He Shall Go Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey and the recent The Wars of Reconstruction, asks this question in Tuesday’s New York Times.   He writes in light of the controversy surrounding the recent unveiling of a Vesey statute in Charleston, South Carolina.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Vesey, he was a former slave who planned a slave rebellion in South Carolina in 1822.  South Carolina officials foiled Vesey’s plans and he was convicted and executed.  

Here is a taste of Egerton’s op-ed:

The complexity of Vesey’s story is hard to grasp, and wrestling with slavery and violence is hardly unique to South Carolina; white Southerners may rightly wonder when Manhattan will erect a statue to the slave Caesar Varick, who was burned alive in 1741 for plotting a revolt similar to Vesey’s.

More than a decade ago, while I was giving a talk on Vesey in Charleston, a member of the audience challenged my view that what Vesey wished to accomplish — the freedom for his friends and family — could be a good thing, on the grounds that he went about it the wrong way. “Why not work within the system for liberation,” the man asked, or even “stage a protest march?”

Although well intentioned, such questions reveal how far American society still has to travel before we reach a sophisticated understanding of the past. There was no “system” for Vesey to work within; his state had flatly banned private manumissions, or the freeing of slaves, in 1820. The only path to freedom was to sharpen a sword. Americans today can admire the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1963 nonviolent March on Washington, but his world was not Vesey’s, and we must understand that.

It is ironic that such historical myopia should be found in Charleston, which today bills itself as one of the nation’s most historic cities. Each afternoon horse-drawn carriages transport tourists about its narrow streets. But as the fight over the Vesey statue suggests, tour guides tell at best an incomplete story.

They often ignore, for example, the fact that of the roughly 400,000 Africans sold into what is now the United States, approximately 40 percent landed on Sullivan’s Island, a hellish Ellis Island of sorts just outside of Charleston Harbor. Today nothing commemorates that ugly fact but a simple bench, established by the author Toni Morrison using private funds.