Monthly Archives: March 2012

Patrick Rael, Black Identity & Black Protest in the Antebellum North

In Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North, Patrick Rael explores the ways that black northerners utilized the ideas of antebellum America generally to coordinate protest thought, and a conception of their own identity, as a way to argue for their own freedom and equality.  Black northerners both used, and contributed to the development of, antebellum notions of respectability, moral character, and middle class virtue, as a way of gaining greater respect within the community, and according to Rael, in an attempt to change the “public mind” about issues of race.  Rael’s scholarship contributes to a number of historiographical strands.  First, he seeks to blur the hard and fast distinctions drawn by other scholars (accommodation vs. resistance, for example), and argues instead that black northerners during the antebellum period wove their arguments through “the disparate strands of the ideological fabric surrounding them” (8).  He also objects to “culturalist” histories that highlight success stories among disadvantaged groups, arguing that these types of stories bely the difficulty of the lives of historical actors.  Rael seems to presage Walter Johnson’s argument about the use of agency by culturalist historians.  Finally, he objects to what he terms the black nationalist school of thought, that argues black embrace of moral uplift and elevation made them “co-opted dupes of a white middle class.”  Alternatively, Rael posits that ideas of moral uplift and bourgeois values belonged no more to whites than they did to blacks, and that, in fact, blacks themselves helped in the formation of those ideological frameworks.

Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery

In Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860, Joanne Pope Melish explores the way that racial attitudes became hardened in early national and antebellum New England with the passage of free womb laws and the subsequent obfuscation of the region’s prior relationship with slavery.  Melish notes that implicit in early anti-slavery thought was the notion that by removing slavery, people of color would be removed from their midst as well.  Attempts to minimize the significance of slavery in New England “further ‘racialized’ both black and white identity in New England.  Having largely disconnected people of color from their historical experience of oppressive enslavement in the New England states, whites could insist that the only way to account for the often impoverished condition of free people of color there was their innate inferiority” (3).  Melish argues that the character of both slavery and emancipation in the North resulted in the development of belief in “race” as an innate characteristic, fixed in the bodies of individuals.  Melish places New Englanders’ experience with gradual emancipation at the center of the story of the development of their ideas of race, their negative view of the capacities of people of color, and their antagonism of free blacks.

Rough introduction

I have written a rough introduction to my paper, and I’d like some feedback.  In the actual paper, my historiography coverage will be more in depth, I just wanted to get the broad contours for this first draft.  Specifically, I’d like feedback on two things: is my argument about the significance of Texas’s self-enslavement law clear? And also, perhaps more importantly, after reading this introduction, how do you think an argument like that will need to be supported by the evidence? You can give me feedback in the comments, or just in class tomorrow. 


On January 27, 1858, the Texas Legislature passed “An Act to permit Free persons of African descent, to select their own Master and become Slaves.”  Historians have often analyzed these laws in an effort to assess transformations in the social position of free blacks within southern communities.  Randolph B. Campbell argues in his seminal text on slavery in Texas that the self-enslavement law of 1858 reflected white fears about the influence of free blacks on Texas’s slave population, and their notions that blacks were suited only for slavery.[1]  Ira Berlin seems less sure than Campbell that the passage self-enslavement laws in the South offer a lens through which to view free blacks’ social position, and posits, rather, that they served as a way for whites to “affirm their most cherished belief…of the positive-good” of slavery.[2]  Berlin argues that “[n]ewspapers throughout the South avidly spread enslavement stories.  The disproportion of interest to reality suggests that they searched these stories out as jewels to be collected, polished, and displayed as evidence of the beneficence of their society.”[3]  Melvin Patrick Ely largely agrees with this assessment, contending that while many regard self-enslavement laws as reflective of blacks’ declining position, Virginia’s law “signified little.  The state’s self-enslavement law may not even qualify as a concession to white popular sentiment, for it seems to have won little attention at the time.”[4]

Texas’s self-enslavement law tells us little about the experiences of free blacks in the state.  While a few free blacks in the state took the legislature up on this dubious privilege, their court petitions seem to tell us little about the motivating factors, as they generally echoed abstract, white, pro-slavery ideas towards free blacks, if they said anything at all.  What we can glean from the law’s passage, and subsequent newspaper reports of its use, is the way in which it served a rhetorical purpose for Texas pro-slavery advocates, as they felt the institution of slavery becoming increasingly besieged in the late 1850s.  While Berlin is for the most part correct in his contention that southern newspapers highlighted self-enslavement stories as “jewels” to be displayed for the public, self-enslavement stories received nowhere near the press coverage as other issues in their defense of slavery.  Articles discussing self-enslavement pale in comparison to those espousing the benefits of re-opening the slave trade, expressing concerns about the admission of non-slaveholding states to the Union and anxiety about the high price and scarcity of slave labor.

Historians’ desire, my own included, to understand the free black experience in the old South has masked what seems to be the real significance of self-enslavement laws.  Through an analysis of the content of Texas newspapers during the late 1850s and early 1860s, there exists a clear and growing urgency in mounting various defenses of slavery.  The most popular defense took the form of highlighting slavery as a having a positive influence on the enslaved, so much so that they argued that the African slave trade should be re-opened, so that slavery could Christianize and civilize as many blacks as possible.  Another popular defense of slavery as a labor system was the poor social and economic position of free blacks in the North, highlighting their incapacity as productive laborers.  It is only within this larger newspaper campaign to defend the institution of slavery that Texas’s self-enslavement law can be properly understood.  The existence of self-enslavement laws across the South allowed states to cite repeatedly the infrequent examples of free blacks choosing to return to slavery, as a part of their attempt to highlight the benefits of the institution.  Self-enslavement laws allowed southern newspapers to make important rhetorical maneuvers as a part of their much larger pro-slavery campaign in the late 1850s.

Texas’s self-enslavement law as well brings to light an interesting methodological issue, concerning scholars’ use of internet databases in historical investigations centered around newspapers and periodicals.  While these databases are extremely valuable in making hundreds of years of often difficult to acquire newspapers available on-demand, search results can often obscure larger, and more important stories within the documents.  While all of the articles discussing self-enslavement can be accessed through keyword searches—using terms like “return to slavery,” “choose master,” and “become slaves”—those results can be deceiving.  Singling out those articles, fairly easy to do through a database like America’s Historical Newspapers, obscures the fact that self-enslavement stories constituted only a small part of a larger campaign to defend the institution of slavery.

[1] Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821–1865, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), 113.

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

[3] Ibid.

[4] Melvin Patrick Ely, Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Slavery and Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War, (New York: Knopf Press, 2005), 373–74.