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.


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