Monthly Archives: March 2012

Digitization and 19th Century Newspapers, continued thoughts.

So in thinking more about how I might go about using some kind of spatial mapping to demonstrate the relative importance of the self-enslavement laws in comparison with the re-opening of the African slave trade, the admission of Kansas as a free state, I’ve come across some really great stuff from other people who have thought (and acted) much more deeply on these issues than I have.

In a joint venture between Stanford University and University of North Texas, Mapping Texts assesses patterns for hundreds of thousands of pages of Texas newspapers, from 1829 to 2008. I haven’t found a way to do very much with it just yet, but it’s something I’m going to look into, to see if there is a way I can get “under the hood” so to speak. One interesting thing I noticed in a preliminary assessment is that between 1856 and 1861, ‘Kansas’ is one of the top 30 most frequently named entity’s, higher than every other state other than Texas (of course,) and New York.

Another post that has less of a bearing on the issues I’m working through but is still interesting is two posts from April 2011 about how changing database construction in America’s Historical Newspapers as it pertains to the way in which advertisements are identified and counted as articles can skew results.

I’m glad I’m really starting to think critically about how these databases are constructed, not just about the images they contain. And I’m glad so many other people have gotten there first.

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Methodology, Technology, and Historical Newspaper Databases

The use of newspaper databases (America’s Historical Newspapers, for example) has in many ways drastically changed the way historians conduct research.  No longer doomed to pore over microfilm day by day, column by column hoping we find something useful, historians/we can now utilize strategic keyword searches—for this project, phrases like “going into slavery” and “chose + master”—to find the articles we’re looking for, or figure out they don’t exist.  Historians like Matthew Rainbow Hale and Carol Lasser have used these databases in truly innovative ways, using the frequency of appearance of certain keywords to support their arguments about the shape of discourses regarding political time and antislavery rhetoric, respectively.[1]  These scholars should be applauded for their unique use of new technologies to substantiate their claims; however, in researching the ways that Texas’s self-enslavement law of 1858 relates to the wider defense of slavery in the state, and the South, I have realized a potential pitfall of using these databases.

Part of the way I am organizing my argument is in interpreting self-enslavement laws not through the lens of free blacks’ social position, but by placing them in the context of proslavery rhetoric.  The passage of voluntary enslavement laws across the South in the late 1850s makes infinitely more sense when considered in conjunction with the historiography of the southern defense of slavery, and proslavery thought more generally.  Herein lies one of the issues with digital newspaper databases: a researcher could easily find stories of self-enslavement from across the South through a keyword search, and take these to reflect an increasing desperation among free blacks in the 1850’s, or a sudden decision by southern states to enforce existing free black expulsion statutes.  To a certain extent, that should be mitigated against simply from taking the same caution with newspapers that we do with other sources, that’s fairly clear; but it is only by viewing these newspapers in full, and looking at dozens of issues in which self-enslavement stories don’t appear, that what I would argue is their proper context can be understood.

Stories of voluntary enslavement appear sporadically in southern newspapers in the late 1850s, but with nowhere near the frequency, nor the importance, ascribed to them by Ira Berlin.[2]  In Texas at least, self-enslavement stories typically seemed to be extremely short, and almost never appeared on the front page.  In contrast, stories about the need to re-open the African slave trade, the admission of Kansas to the Union, and the scarcity and high price of slave labor (among others) all take up drastically more attention, and space, in the columns of Texas newspapers.  The ability to get straight to self-enslavement stories through keyword searches sometimes risks allowing historians to skip over the forest, and get straight to the trees.

I am trying to determine if there is a methodology that will allow me to more scientifically highlight the discrepancy in importance between self-enslavement stories and the reopening of the slave trade, for example, in Texas’s proslavery periodicals.  Hale, for instance, puts together a table in which he tracks references to certain key phrases, and how those references changed over time.  Hales methodology has its own inherent drawbacks, but since self-enslavement articles and others generally defending slavery as a “positive good” tend to use similar language, I’m not sure this approach would work well for my purposes.  I have considered either using multiple papers within a small date-range surrounding the passage of the law, or a single paper over a greater period of time, to compare the surface area of the paper taken up by various issues.  If we assume editors gave more, and more prominent, space in the paper to the issues of greatest importance, I could perhaps come up with a formula in which each line, and each column was assigned a particular value, depending on which page it appeared: 50 lines on page 1 would be weighted as more important than 50 lines on page 4, etc.  This is something I am attempting to work through, but I think it could ultimately provide a nice graphic representation of the ways in which self-enslavement was a part, but only a very small part, of the wider defense of the institution of slavery, if coupled with a more traditional evidence base.


[1] Matthew Rainbow Hale, “On Their Tiptoes: Political Time and Newspapers during the Advent of the Radicalized French Revolution, circa 1792–1793,” Journal of the Early Republic, 29, no. 2 (2009), 191–218”; Carol Lasser, “Voyeuristic Abolitionism: Sex, Gender, and the Transformation of Antislavery Rhetoric,” Journal of the Early Republic, 28, no. 1 (2008), 83–114.

[2] Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), 366–67.

Paul D. Escott, “What Shall We Do With the Negro?” Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America

In “What Shall We Do With the Negro,” Paul D. Escott explores the efforts, or often the lack of effort, of northern and southern governments to confront and address the issue of race, and racial inequality.  Escott expends a great deal of effort to eschew what he sees as the tendency of historians to look at the Civil War era, and Lincoln in particular, through rose-tinted glasses, and attempts to “illuminate attitudes and policies affecting the future status of freed people” in both the North and the South.  Escott argues that any racial “progress” that occurred during the Civil War period (emancipation, for instance) occurred as a result of unanticipated events, namely the war itself, rather than the egalitarian vision of great leaders.  Both northern and southern governments took complex, roundabout routes to dealing with issues of racial equality, and even then they dealt with many other questions before addressing the future of African Americans.

Escott, like others, for Lincoln, emancipation was an unintended consequence of war.  Escott goes further than many though, spotlighting Lincoln’s negative view of African Americans, arguing that Lincoln would have preferred peace and union over an elevation of the status of blacks, and that his priorities in terms of racial equality were far different than those ascribed by popular culture to the “Great Emancipator.”  Even in 1865, when Oakes argues Lincoln had become more radically egalitarian as a result of the war, Escott argues that Lincoln’s expectations for the improvement of the status of free people was modest at best, and only came to the national agenda as a result of the events of the Civil War.

Escott’s ultimate goal seems to be to reconcile celebrations of the Civil War era, and put them more squarely in line with the low points of Jim Crow.  He feels that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of Lincoln, and towards a celebration of the racial progress of the mid-nineteenth century.  He argues that the real story of race in the Civil War-era—where changes in racial policies only occur as reactions to unanticipated events—properly highlights America’s racist past, and is “tragically consistent” with the Jim Crow era.  Escott’s title, a question asked by many Americans during the Civil War period, highlights the fact that many believed African Americans were never equals, and instead were a problem that whites were entitled to deal with as they saw fit.

James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass are arguably two of the most studied historical actors of the mid-nineteenth century, and in The Radical and the Republican James Oakes assesses their antislavery attitudes jointly, providing the reader a greater understanding of both men.  Oakes argues that though both men were marked by skepticism in the early 1850s—Lincoln of the effectiveness of radical abolitionism, Douglass of the depth of Lincoln’s commitment to antislavery—by the late 1850s the positions of the two men came closer together, as two of the most dominating figures championing the cause of antislavery, if still approaching the issue with different means.  While Oakes notes Douglass’s continued skepticism of Lincoln extending into the war years, he argues that the Civil War radicalized Lincoln’s approach to antislavery, and this in turn allowed Douglass to take a more practical, republican approach to antislavery politics.  Even as their actual views and positions edged closer together, “so long as they found it necessary to present themselves as the conservative politician and the radical reformer, the differences between them would seem greater than they actually were” (xx).  Ultimately, by the end of the war, Oakes argues that Lincoln and Douglass both shared a commitment to equal rights for African Americans, making Lincoln’s republicanism seem more radical, and Douglass’s radicalism seem more republican

Part of me questions Oakes assessment of Lincoln’s views on and approach to antislavery as becoming increasingly radicalized during the war years.  To me, he takes a more direct approach to emancipation during the war years not because he has become more radical, but because it was not until involved in a military conflict that the constitution permitted him to do so.  The war powers act, and military necessity abetted Lincoln’s “radicalism” during the Civil War, perhaps calling into question Oakes’s model of Lincoln and Douglass slowly coming around to one another’s position.

George N. Fredrickson, Big Enough to Be Inconsistent

In Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race, George N. Fredrickson attempts to strike a scholarly balance in assessing Lincoln’s views on race and slavery.  Fredrickson opens this work with an extended historiographical assessment, focusing primarily on some of the more recent scholarship.  He notes that the historiography addressing Lincoln’s racial and anti-slavery views have essentially fallen into two camps: the hagiographic praise of Lincoln as the great emancipator, or one in which he is viewed solely as a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist.  Fredrickson argues that Lincoln shouldn’t be forced into one of those two camps, and rather, that while Lincoln had long been committed to anti-slavery, he was a political pragmatist whose racial views changed over the course of his political career.

Fredrickson argues that in Lincoln’s “Illinois Years,” prior to 1860, Lincoln was committed to anti-slavery, but only within the bounds of constitutional, legal, and political constraints.  He also contends that Lincoln was “clearly” a white supremacist, though he argues that there can be degrees of racism.  Fredrickson states that Lincoln’s racism was based on conformity to the wider Illinois electorate, and thus he was a passive white supremacist, out of conformity and political expediency.

During the Civil War, however, Lincoln’s racial views changed.  While he was able to reconcile his respect for the constitution with his anti-slavery views by framing emancipation as a military necessity, increasing the Union’s manpower while destabilizing the southern economy.  As large numbers of blacks enlisted in the Union Army, however, Lincoln’s commitment to colonization waned.  Lincoln’s commitment to republican ideology would not allow for the enlistment of blacks in the military, but the denial of their rights as citizens.

By parsing out the evolution of Lincoln’s views on slavery and race separately, and by placing them in the context of the broader public opinion, Fredrickson successfully provides necessary nuance in the egalitarian vs. racist debate.

Proslavery Christianity

So in delving more deeply into Charles Irons’s argument, I think I may have found an important element that bears on my research project here.  In discussing Thornton Stringfellow’s Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery, he notes that part of Stringfellow’s argument is that enslavement is necessary for the conversion of blacks to Christianity.

Irons states that Stringfellow “was not content, as some in the early national period had been, to argue that evangelicals could make the most of a flawed institution by trying to proselytize slaves.  Instead, he assumed that slavery in the Bible corresponded to American slavery.  Moreover, he asserted that the status of black Americans as slaves was a necessary link in the chain that led to their conversion.  Breaking that link, as abolitionists threatened to do, would disrupt the mission and probably result in catastrophic loss of life.” (my bold, obviously)

If slavery is a necessary pre-condition for black conversion to Christianity, this puts self-enslavement laws in a different light.  One could view them as a necessary legal maneuver to allow for making free blacks into good Christians.  I’m not sure this is the whole impetus behind passing them, but some of the language in Texas newspapers discussing how they are not reluctant supporters of slavery gives credence to that conclusion I think.  For instance, on February 10, 1858—just 2 weeks after the final passage of the self-enslavement law—the Houston Weekly Telegraph argued that “[s]lavery is right in itself,” and more importantly that “slaves are far better as such, than wild negroes in Africa….As slaves, they are humanized and Christianized to a degree entirely unattainable by them as a race in any other condition.  Slaves are better off as such than in a state of freedom in America.”

The key phrase, it seems, is that the “humanization” and “Christianization” offered by slavery is “entirely unattainable,” in the mind of the author, by free blacks in America.

Edit: Stringfellow’s pamphlet/book is published in 1856, as is William A. Smith’s Lectures on the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery that takes a view similar to that of Stringfellow. In the same year, Virginia’s state legislature passes their self-enslavement law. Just a thought.

Proslavery Historiography

In looking towards a different historiographical strand, the argument of my paper has become clearer.  As discussed last week, the historiography of free blacks in the Old South discusses self-enslavement laws, with older works using the laws as an example of free blacks’ precarious, deteriorating social position in the late 1850s, and newer historiography demonstrating that the laws were rarely utilized, and tell us very little about free blacks lived experiences.

My argument last week was that historians of free blacks fail to recognize the role self-enslavement laws played in southerners’ broader defense of slavery, as they felt it becoming increasingly besieged in the late 1850s.  Fortunately for this research paper, historians of proslavery arguments fail to recognize their importance as well.  While books like Charles F. Irons’s The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia, and Larry E. Tise’s Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701–1840, provide fantastic analyses of the ways southerners (and Americans more generally) attempted to justify and defend the institution of slavery, they do not acknowledge the (admittedly small) role played by self-enslavement  laws in the support of proslavery rhetoric.

This research paper, then, will attempt to “rescue” self-enslavement laws from the historiography on free blacks, and place it in its proper context within the historiography on proslavery rhetoric.  I feel like I have done a sufficient amount of primary source research into the passage and discussion of self-enslavement laws in Texas and other newspapers, and am now attempting to figure out exactly how the language of these newspaper discussions fits in with the historiography on proslavery arguments.  Any other suggestions on how these self-enslavement laws might fit with the arguments of particular authors, or specific books that might be helpful, would be greatly appreciated.