Monthly Archives: February 2011

Edward Rugemer, “The Problem of Emancipation”: some initial thoughts

In The Problem of Emancipation Edward Rugemer heeds the frequent call in recent years to expand the scope of American history by exploring how the American Civil War was influenced by international causes in the wider Atlantic world.  Rugemer highlights how northerners and southerners alike lived in a transatlantic world, so it makes sense to view the causes of the Civil War through a framework that takes into consideration the political developments of the wider Anglo-American world.

Rugemer discusses how in the historiography of the American Civil War, there have long been two major competing interpretations: the “fundamentalist” interpretation, which holds that slavery was the sole factor leading to disunion, and the “revisionist” approach that highlights the larger political factors, slavery among them, that ultimately forced the United States into Civil War.  Rugemer states that his book will engage with Ed Ayers’s idea of “deep contingency” which attempts to reconcile this historiographical debate.  His focus, however, on competing ideas about Caribbean emancipation and abolition, drawn largely upon North/South lines, seems to lean heavily towards the “fundamentalist” interpretation.  Yes, he discusses the politics and public opinion surrounding these issues, but they always seem to be highlighting the differences between northern and southern attitudes.  If British abolitionism and emancipation in the Caribbean had such significant impacts on political debates in the United States, and the differences in opinion largely fell along North/South lines, it seems to me that The Problem of Emancipation, rather than engaging with the concept of “deep contingency,” seems to be a trans-Atlanticized elaboration of the fundamentalist approach.

Rugemer doesn’t seem to be just telling the history of the United States as it approached the Civil War within a larger narrative of the history of the Atlantic world, though.  Rather, he argues that “Britain’s abolition of slavery should be understood as a seminal event in the history of the United States” (6).  In this way, Rugemer’s focus on British abolition and its effects in the West Indies seems slightly over-determined; he seems to assert that all of Americans’ views about the future of slavery and the possibilities of emancipation were based on how abolition and emancipation developed in the British empire.  While Rugemer is undoubtedly correct in his assertion that “American society had much in common with the societies of the Atlantic world,” politics and developments unique to the United States probably had a larger impact on American ideas about slavery, race, and emancipation than Rugemer lends credence to.

Week 6/Colonial and National History Roundtable

Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

In contrasting Jack Greene’s call for historians of the early United States to pay greater attention to state and local governments as the primary political arena for most Americans during the early national period with Don E. Fehrenbacher’s The Slaveholding Republic, I was immediately struck by the fact that his book is subtitled An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery – not that of “the United States’ Governments.”  I view Fehrenbacher’s formulation, despite Greene’s assertions about the lack of import afforded to the federal government during this period, as a more accurate account of the federal government’s power concerning slavery.

Fehrenbacher argues that, despite the Garrisonian abolitionist interpretation, one accepted by a significant proportion of modern historiography, that the US Constitution is fundamentally a slaveholding document, the framers intended the document to be neutral on the question of slavery – insomuch as they could be.  Rather than the letter of the constitution, it was the policies enacted and decisions made after ratification that solidified the federal government’s support and protection of slavery and transformed the United States into a slaveholding republic.  Echoing Winthrop Jordan’s argument about the appearance of slavery in North America to begin with, Fehrenbacher frequently cites a series of “unthinking decisions” with the solidification of federal government support for slavery.  These actions taken by the federal government, in regards to the slave importation, slavery in the nation’s capitol, fugitive slave laws, foreign affairs, the extension of slavery into federal territories, among other areas, established that despite the neutrality of the government’s principle organizing document, that the federal government would protect the rights of slaveholders and the institution itself.

Fehrenbacher extends this line of reasoning in describing how the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 led to the secession of the southern states.  Southerners feared that Lincoln would reverse the aforementioned policies that had been established since ratification, and seceded to preserve and protect the institution of slavery.  Fehrenbacher’s argument allows for a wholesale jettisoning of any euphemistic “states-rights” arguments concerning the causes of the Civil War, and places the concern about the continuation of protections of slavery by the central government at the forefront.

Given Fehrenbacher’s description of how influential the federal government was in how and to what extent slavery functioned and spread to individual territories and states, Adam Rothman’s objection to Greene’s argument about the centrality of state and local government’s gains significant support.  Rothman’s assertion that “the fate of slavery in the early Republic was never wholly determined on the state level by local elites…the federal government delineated local elites’ room for maneuver” (274).  Rothman’s objection to Greene parallel’s Fehrenbacher’s argument about the importance of federal policy relating to slavery: “Greene’s argument that most political activity took place at the state and local levels cannot explain why American citizens argued so bitterly over the problem of slavery at the level of the nation-state” (274).  As Fehrenbacher expertly demonstrates, the federal government had a huge impact on the way state and local governments could regulate (or not) the character of slavery at levels below that of the nation.

Week 5/Making of a Slave Conspiracy

William Dusinberre, Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps, (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2000).

In Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps, William Dusinberre describes the horrific experiences of slaves working on rice plantations in the South Carolina and Georgia low-country by focusing exclusively on three of the biggest plantations in the antebellum South, Charles Manigault’s Gowrie, Pierce Butler’s Butler Island, and Robert Allston’s Chicora Wood.  Dusinberre utilizes the extremely detailed plantation records and diaries of these massive plantations, and to a far lesser extent Francis Kemble’s impressions of Butler Island based on her interactions with slaves there in 1838 and the WPA interviews conducted a century later.

Dusinberre seems to be writing in order to remind general readers and scholars alike how truly brutal, violent, and horrifying slavery was – though I’m not sure who exactly forgot this – in response to more recent historiographical trends that highlight the establishment of slave communities and cultures, and the maintenance of slave agency.  In doing so, however, Dusinberre seems to refute the last fifty years of historiography, arguing that the violent and deadly nature of work in the rice swamps and planters’ brutally capitalistic nature prevented slaves from developing the institutions this historiography has highlighted; his assertion that slaves “adapted their conduct to their masters’ whims” is disturbingly Stanley Elkins-esque (433-4).

Further, Dusinberre’s argument that low-country rice plantations are capitalistic rather than paternalistic seems off-base; he seems to conflate paternalism with benevolence.  His assertion that the legacy of Eugene Genovese’s scholarship is that it allows southern whites to “take pride…in their ancestors’ paternalism” seems to distort the term’s meaning (431).

But to return to Dusinberre’s denial of the development of meaningful slave communities and cultures in low-country Georgia and South Carolina: while his expert analysis of the plantation records, diaries, and letters, combining qualitative and quantitative methods, absolutely supports his assertions about the extraordinarily high mortality rates, the difficulty in maintaining a traditional, nuclear family, and the generally violent, dangerous nature of work on rice plantations, I do not think his evidentiary base allows him to really make claims about slave communities and cultures.  The only black sources he uses are the writings of the white wife of an absentee planter, and interviews conducted by a white woman with elderly former slaves – hardly the best sources to assess the existence of slave culture and community.

Michael P. Johnson’s article “Denmark Vesey and His Co-Conspirators,” and the subsequent responses has important implications for how historians interpret the events of the Denmark Vesey Conspiracy, in regard to who led a conspiracy against whom.  Johnson argues that the insurrection was more of a creation of the white members of the court than a reality designed by Vesey.  One of the members of this court, as Johnson points out in his response article “On Reading Evidence,” was Nathaniel Heyward, one of the many “wealthy, powerful slaveowners,” on the court, who “owned upwards of 1,000 slaves” (194).  Heyward was also friends and related through marriage to the Manigault family, owners of the Gowrie plantation examined by Dusinberre.  Given the brutality and violence outlined by Dusinberre on a rice plantation similar to the one owned by Heyward, it is not hard to imagine how the “determined and vengeful white slaveholders who knew what they were looking for… whipped, threatened, and colluded with cooperative black witnesses until they found it” (194).

Week 4/Race

In various forms, Barbara J. Fields, Martha Hodes, and Peter Kolchin each offer commentary on how historians have dealt with the (now common) assumption that race is a social construction.  Fields does so through by looking at race as a historical ideology and focusing on the need to contextualize various forms of race and racism; Hodes heeds this call for historical contextualization by analyzing how experiences with race vary greatly across geographic and temporal boundaries.  Kolchin looks at how the emerging field of whiteness studies has dealt with the socially constructed, ideological nature of race.

In “Ideology and Race in American History,” Fields argues against the American tendency to “accord race a transhistorical, almost metaphysical, status that removes it from all possibility of analysis and understanding” (Fields, 144).  Rather, Fields asserts, historians should conceive of race as an ideology, which she describes as a vocabulary used to interpret one’s lived, social experiences.  These ideologies, in turn, must be considered within their full historical context.  Fields disagrees with the very foundation of Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the negro, 1550-1812, in that the essential point of the argument in her article is that “[a]n understanding of how groups of people see other groups in relation to themselves must begin by analyzing the pattern of their social relations – not by enumerating “attitudes” which, endowed with independent life, are supposed to act upon the historical process from the outside” (Fields, 149).  The largest flaw of Jordan’s work which Fields implicitly notes is the failure to deal carefully with changing historical contexts; Fields posits the question of how “[t]o the extent that white supremacy summarized prejudices of color, how can it have meant the same for different classes of whites, who had different experiences with blacks?” (Fields 156).

One of the consequences of Fields’ conceptualization of race as an ideology dependent on historical context is that she dispels with the common assumption that race and class are mutually exclusive explanatory frameworks.  Rather than being alternatives to one another, Fields notes (like Seth Rockman) that “class refers to a material circumstance,” and as such, “can assert itself independently of people’s consciousness and sometimes in direct opposition to it,” whereas race cannot be stripped of its ideological construction (Fields, 150-151).  She states that “[r]ace is a concept that we can locate at the level of appearances only”; this distinction between appearances and their underlying realities is one that Jordan, despite the breadth of his analysis, does not seem to make.   Rather than being mutually exclusive, Fields argues that class is of the utmost important when considering interracial interaction in American history.

Martha Hodes furthers Fields’ call for contextualization when dealing with issues of race by placing it in a transnational context through an analysis of the experiences of Eunice and William Smiley Connolly, a poor white woman from New England and a sea captain from the British West Indies of a mixed African and European ancestry.  Hodes “argues that the scrutiny of day-to-day lives demonstrates not only the mutability of race but also, and with equal force, the abiding power of race in local settings,” (Hodes, 85).  Hodes describes as a poor, female wage-laborer without the support of a husband, Eunice struggled to support herself and her children, and as such became somehow “less white.”  The people of Grand Cayman, conversely, viewed smiley Connolly, with high regard because he was a man of significant means, irrespective of his appearance.  Likewise, while Eunice’s marriage to a man of mixed ancestry drew ire from both outside and within her family in New England and in some ways led others to perceive her again as less white, upon moving to Grand Cayman, her material conditions improved, even as she became more closely associated with her “colored” husband.  For Hodes, like Fields, race is an ideology dependent on historical context – in this case, both geographic location and material conditions.

Peter Kolchin’s discussion of the emerging field of whiteness studies surprised me by the fact that it is the article that is in most direct conversation with Jordan’s White Over Black.  Jordan’s overall assertion that white attitudes towards blacks (inasmuch as one can describe “white attitudes” for reasons discussed in the Fields and Hodes articles) stemmed from a desire to define themselves in a new cultural and social conditions, connects directly with David R. Roediger’s assertion that “because the white working class in the United States emerged in a slaveholding republic, its members came to define themselves by what they were not: slaves and blacks” (Kolchin, 155).  While the Roediger conception of whiteness studies is not the only one, his assertions parallel Jordan’s very closely.  Kolchin describes Roediger’s argument by stating that “the increasingly controlled and disciplined white population came to view blacks as their former, uninhibited selves,” while Jordan describes how “[w]ithin every American who stood confronted by the Negro, there had arisen a perpetual duel between his higher and lower natures.  His cultural conscience – his Christianity, his humanitarianism, his ideology of liberty and equality, — demanded that he he regard and treat the Negro as his…equal.  At the same moment, however, many of his profound urges, especially his yearning to maintain the identity of his folk, his passion for domination, his sheer avarice, and his sexual desire, impelled him toward conceiving and treating the Negro as inferior to himself” (Jordan 581-2).  Jordan argues that this “perpetual duel” stems from “the need of transplanted Englishmen to know who it was they were…For white men had to know who they were if they were to survive.  They had to retain control of themselves and of their liberties if they were to survive in America” (Jordan xiv).  Jordan seems, to me, to do implicitly what whiteness studies seeks to explicitly, that is, define what exactly made someone “white”; for Jordan, early Americans did this through defining what exactly it meant to be “black.”

After criticizing whiteness studies for a lack of depth and analytical sophistication, he seems to bring the reader back to where Barbara Fields started two decades earlier, stating that “without attention to concrete social conditions,” the distinctiveness of racial history “is more likely to be obscured than clarified.  In short, we are back to the question of context” (Kolchin 170).

***In response to Caleb’s comment requesting more analysis of Jordan’s argument, I’m editing this post for those only reading them through an rss feed***

Jordan attempts to answer the question of why only blacks were enslaved in the United States. Did racism develop because of slavery? or did the enslavement of blacks occur because of racism?

He begins his attempt to answer this question by looking at the “first impressions” of the English upon coming into contact with sub-Saharan Africans. He argues that the English commented most frequently on the Africans’ “black” skin, their lack of religion, their “savage” nature, and their hyper-sexualized, “bestial” nature. In doing so, Jordan is arguing that English perceptions of the way Africans differed from themselves included concepts other than skin color/appearance. In a time of rapid social change, the English became “uncomfortably self-conscious,” and they projected this identity crisis against the vastly different Africans.

Jordan ultimately argues that the rise of slavery was part of an “unthinking decision,” on the part of early English settlers. The significant need for labor in the newly settled colonies led the English to revive slavery, a form of labor with roots in English common law, as distinguished from free labor and indentured servitude, which were also used. Jordan argues that economic necessity revived the use of slavery in the English colonies. Jordan further argues that the decision to enslave Africans exclusively extends from the fact that they already knew the Spanish and Portuguese were enslaving Africans and utilizing slave labor, that the English in the West Indies were following that lead. The idea of enslaving Africans also fits neatly with the “first impressions” outlined in the first chapter. Thus, he seems to assert that the “unthinking decision” to enslave Africans had in many ways been made for them.

The American Revolution, with its ideals of universal liberty that clashed directly with the institution of slavery, led to the crystallization of a pseudo-scientific racial prejudice as a way to justify slavery in “the land of the free.” Jordan argues that white Americans attempted to reconcile revolutionary ideals with slavery by, in a variety of ways, defining America as a white man’s country. The revolutionary and post-revolutionary era was when, according to Jordan, fully race-based justifications of slavery fully developed in the American psyche.

There is more to Jordan’s argument, but this gives a better background for what exactly he is saying, and how I made the connections between his book and the readings for this week.