Monthly Archives: April 2012

Whistling While I Work

This morning, this post by Carol Saller really caught my eye. Or did it catch my ear? (Just kidding, but seriously folks, I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your waiters.) I was particularly surprised by the fact that there aren’t many recent or thorough investigations of the effect music has on productivity.

I always listen to music when I’m working, or really, when I’m doing anything. I guess that has always made it seem so natural to me: I listen to music when I’m doing almost everything else in my life, so why wouldn’t I listen to it while I work? (Right now, it’s Counting Crows – Underwater Sunshine). I never connected these two ideas before, but I taught myself to play bass and guitar by ear, which Saller loosely connects to being a “by ear” person, so maybe that plays a part in this.

When I’m doing deep thinking, reading, outline or the beginning stages of writing, I have trouble listening to music that I know the words to. When I know the words, I find myself think-singing along with the song, and distract myself from the words I’m trying to read/write (but I don’t really buy the idea of the writing being “music” on the page, but maybe I’m just not a very good writer). A real game-changer in that department was when I figured out you could put movie scores into Pandora—listening to the Lord of the Rings score while reading makes it feel like you’re on an epic journey to finish. I’m always looking for more instrumental music for this purpose, so if you have any suggestions let me know (please, someone educate me on jazz).

Once I’m in a writing groove though, I can listen to stuff I know a little bit better. For some reason, one I still can’t figure out, I write best when I’m listening to rap music. I listen to rap regularly, so it’s not out of the ordinary, but I cannot for the life of me figure out why I write so much better when listening to it. My guess is that it has something to do with the rhythm of the words or something.

I hadn’t really given much thought to the way I listen to music when working before that article, so I thought I’d share where I fall in that debate. I couldn’t get anything done without a good pair of headphones, and a good set of speakers.

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Brian Balogh, A Government Out of Sight

Brian Balogh’s 2009 book A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America reflects the political climate in which it was written.  Balogh explicitly seeks to discern the historical antecedents over debates about the role of government in the lives of citizens.  Balogh notes that in current debates, there is broad agreement between conservatives and liberals that the national government played an extremely limited role during the nineteenth century, taking a laissez-faire approach to governance.  Balogh seeks to overturn this historiographical and popular myth by demonstrating that in fact, there was no such distinction between public and private action during most of the nineteenth century, and that, while government intervention often remained hidden or disguised as “natural” processes, the national government played a central role in addressing problems of national importance, especially those relating to economic development or expansion.

Balogh argues that nineteenth-century Americans often turned to the national government for solutions, and that the government frequently provided assistance that seemed “natural,” and hidden by facilitating the involvement of state and local governments or voluntary and private groups.  There was no sharp distinction between public and private functions during most of the nineteenth century, Balogh contends, pointing to the way the federal government “created a nourished a corporate-driven market, stimulated expansion by subsidizing exploration and removing Indians, and influenced trade patterns through communication and transportation policies” (4).  Through his synthesis of the mountain of other works on nineteenth-century America, Balogh convincingly argues against the notion that the national government only took on an expanded role in the lives of Americans in the twentieth century, and as such argues that the idea of a laissez-faire nineteenth-century government being heralded or feared in current political debates are off the mark.

Heather Cox Richardson, West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War

In West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War, Heather Cox Richardson attempts to alter our geographic focus in assessing the postbellum era by arguing for the importance of the West in our understanding of the Reconstruction period.  Richardson argues that during the decades after the Civil War, Americans redefined what the proper relationship should be between citizens and the federal government.  By extending her analysis to 1901, West From Appomattox represents something of a departure from more traditional Reconstruction studies, instead focusing more broadly on what she terms the “reconstruction years,” while also lengthening the timeline of national reunion.

Richardson argues that questions about the role of the national government gained increased salience after the Civil War because direct federal taxation for the first time meant that the government’s reach would impact the pockets of citizens.  Ultimately, she contends that by the early twentieth century, “a newly formed ‘middle class’…divided the nation into two groups” (1).  They split the United States between “hardworking Americans,” who were working their way up with everyone else, and “special interests,” who only wanted special privileges from the government.  This “middle class”—one Richardson sees as interchangeable with terms like “mainstream Americans,” and “mainstream individualists,” as she opts not to ascribe to it any kind of traditional economic definition—pointed to the image of the westerner able to find success by only his own hard work, conveniently ignoring the ways the federal government propped up the West.  Richardson argues that this notion of the American West was “blinding,” and that “mainstream Americans” utilized this notion of the West while they “harnessed a newly active American government to their own interests,” all the while “retain[ing] a vision of America as a land of individualism” (5).

For Richardson, the emphasis many historians place on the South’s racial problems after the Civil War obfuscate what her “mainstream Americans” agreed were the most important issues of the day: who could be defined as a citizen, and what the government’s relationship to them should be.  She argues that after the election of 1896, the “middle class” decided that “the people” were those “who believed in the mainstream vision of a harmonious economy of hard workers…and that the government should bolster their version of American society,” to the detriment of blacks, women, and Indians who still faced systemic discrimination that barred them from enjoying the fruits of this “American Individualist” ethos.

Responding to Academic Criticism

I came across this article by James Downs today in the Oxford University Press Blog assessing Dr. J. David Hacker’s New York Times article from earlier this month that has been making the rounds on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and in classrooms, about his re-assessment of the death toll in the Civil War, increasing the estimate by some 200,000 people.

Downs’s criticism of Hacker is that by privileging the use of census records in compiling his revised mortality figures, he is “reproducing a 19th century problem,” because his new numbers don’t allow him to include the deaths of enslaved people as military deaths. Downs wants to argue, as he probably does in his upcoming work Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, that the deaths of enslaved people came as a result of both being shot at by Confederate and Union soldiers, and more importantly “from the outbreaks of pneumonia, yellow fever, and smallpox” that spread among the Union camps to which enslaved people fled, and so their deaths should be counted as military, not civilian. Thus, Downs argues that by not attempting to quantify the deaths of enslaved people, Hacker “ignores the fact that the Civil War, which was intended to liberate bondspeople from chattel slavery, led to widespread sickness, suffering, and death. It also implies that former slaves’ experience is not part of the nation’s history.”

Downs doesn’t provide a way to tabulate slave deaths during the Civil War due to epidemic disease and military conflict, besides saying that it can’t be done with census records. But wait! Dr. Hacker promptly responded to Downs’s blog post! This is the magic of the internet. Rather than having to attend a conference, or wait 3 months for his response in the next issue of a journal, we get to watch their debate play out in real time, in the comments section of the article!

And then Dr. Hacker completely let me down. Don’t get me wrong, I agree in principle with a lot of what he’s saying: his article addresses the fact that his sources don’t allow him to quantify death among the black population during the Civil War, but that he still finds it worth while to recalculate the numbers the census records do allow him to modify. Hacker’s tone in the response however, seems downright petty. This could have been a fantastic exchange between two scholars, that we get to watch in (basically) real time. His response is interspersed with the periodic “What?” and “Please.” that make him seem completely dismissive that Downs point has ANY merit to it at all, whatsoever.

Hacker states, “Downs doesn’t say it, but perhaps he is implying that slaves were valid targets under the rules of engagement?” in response to Downs’s criticism that by counting slave deaths as civilian deaths, we under-represent the direct impact the war, the actions of soldiers, and military occupation. Hacker responds indignantly by implying Downs believes soldier’s had the right to wantonly murder enslaved people. Nowhere in Downs’s blog post did that seem like it was remotely close to what he was saying. I don’t need to copy over the whole of Hacker’s response, but it always just seems like there is no need for that kind of language and tone in a response to an academic criticism. If Downs’s point is so totally lacking in merit, shouldn’t you be able to make him look foolish through the sheer brilliance of your own work, not through high-school appropriate dismissals? I thought I was going to see a “talk to the hand” thrown in there.

Downs, thankfully, didn’t take the bait, and responded by clearly re-iterating his bone of contention with Hacker’s initial article; given the dismissive nature of Hacker’s response, Downs looks all the better for it. And that’s the way these things always end up, if you ask me. This is what people hate about academia, and by engaging in it, we prove them right. Polite disagreement, anyone?

End of the Semester

Ah, the end of the semester. Classes are basically over, and all that’s left to do is finish writing some 60-90 pages of research papers and historiography reviews. What do I do? Anything else. I will do anything and everything to not finish assignments until the last possible moment.

This week I’ve emptied out the carrel I rent in the library and moved everything to my newly acquired office space. I’ve renewed all the library books I have checked out. I’ve looked into applying for some federal loan assistance for next year (more on this another time, perhaps). I’ve looked into the possibility of getting a new car (1997 Nissan Pathfinder with 190,000 miles is no longer getting the job done. It’s been a great 7 years, car!). I’ve filed my tax return. I’ve done my laundry, cleaned my apartment, and tied up loose ends for some other errands. And now I’m writing a blog post about procrastination.

I’m not really sure why I do this, but I think it has something to do with the anxiety I feel when the semester is over.  Yes, you read that correctly.  As much as the mountain of reading and writing that builds over the semester causes me a great deal of stress, I think I get more anxiety when the semester ends, everything has been handed in, and for the first time in 4-5 months, my time is mine to do what I see fit.

Like a lot of people, I seem to work best under pressure, with a deadline looming.  Knowing that I work best under pressure, and that the free time when I’m done with work gives me an unbelievable amount of anxiety, I think I fill these last days of the semester with so much extra crap to make sure that I don’t finish anything earlier than I’m able to.  The closer to my deadlines I hand things in, the longer I put off the semester-is-over anxiety.

Did I really just say I prefer the stress of lots of work to the week or two of anxiety I get when I don’t have any? Yikes. At least I study for comps this summer, maybe that will keep me occupied.

Self-Enslavement Laws: Introduction and Initial Historiography Review

What follows is a rough, preliminary introduction to my research paper on Texas’s self-enslavement law of 1858, and how it fits into the proslavery rhetoric of the late 1850s. Any comments on structure, style, or anything else would be greatly appreciated. I will be updating this post over the next 24 hours as I add to it, primarily by adding int he proslavery historiography in addition to the free blacks historiography outlined below. Just wanted to get something up 24 hours in advance of class.

Late in 1857, Austin’s State Gazette published an article under the title “A Right Move,” discussing the introduction of a bill into the Texas state legislature that would allow free blacks in Texas to voluntarily enslave themselves to masters of their own choosing.  Or, as the Gazette phrased it, the bill would allow “free negroes to return to their original state of slavery.”  The author continued, noting that “free negroes live in a state of great wretchedness and destitution in the North, who under such a law would be glad to return to slavery.”[1]  Despite the author’s celebration of the introduction of the bill, and his lament of the condition of free blacks in the North, mention of self-enslavement would not appear again in the pages of the State Gazette for over a year, when they reported two stories of free blacks voluntarily enslaving themselves.  In the interim, items stressing the need to reopen the African Slave Trade, the dangers of California and Kansas being admitted as free states, and depictions of black incapacity for freedom filled the pages of the State Gazette.

Self-enslavement laws have typically only been analyzed by historians of free blacks, as they try to piece together often disparate data points to gain insight into free blacks’ social and cultural worlds, especially in the lead up to the civil war.  Though historians’ treatment of self-enslavement laws often provides a summary dismissal of their relation to the reality of free blacks’ lived experiences or acknowledges how they either supported or reflected proslavery ideology, the discussion of these laws seems to be trapped in a historiography within which they cannot be fully understood.  Though a small number of free blacks in the South voluntarily enslaved themselves, the law served a much broader purpose than allowing free blacks a legal mechanism by which they could enter into slavery.

By divorcing self-enslavement laws from the study of free blacks, and instead viewing them from the perspective of wider southern political debates over the future of slavery in the 1850s, these laws appear to have a much different purpose: they allowed southern proslavery ideologues to make certain rhetorical maneuvers, highlighting slavery as a benevolent institution that made blacks into good Christians, provided them moral guidance, taught them necessary habits of industry and discipline, and prevented social and political discord.

Historians often conflate the passage of self-enslavement laws with black decisions to utilize them.  By viewing more critically the way self-enslavement laws fit in with a broader proslavery ideology, the adoption of self-enslavement laws by state legislatures between 1856 and 1860 highlights the influence of South-wide debates in state capitols, and the way debates there in turn influenced regional ideology.  While self-enslavement laws functioned as a boon to proslavery ideology, their discussion often took a back seat to other proslavery issues in the press.  These broader proslavery arguments are addressed in an extensive historiography on proslavery thought, but that historiography completely ignores the way the passage and discussion of self-enslavement laws fits within that framework.  What we are left with, then, is two parallel strains of historiography speaking past each other.  Historians of free blacks, when they view self-enslavement laws as indicative of something beyond free blacks’ social experience, view them as proslavery thought in isolation; meanwhile, the historiography discussing proslavery ideology and rhetoric fails to acknowledge the way self-enslavement laws represent an important aspect of the development of that strain of thought, especially the way in which national and state-level debates mutually reinforced one another.

In his discussion of self-enslavement laws in Texas in particular, Randolph B. Campbell takes them largely at face value.  He notes that after years of lax enforcement of the state’s 1840 free black expulsion law, free blacks’ social position became far more tenuous in the 1850s.  He cites the passage of the self-enslavement law in 1858 as an indication that “the legislature had made its point of view clear: free Negroes constituted an unwelcome anomaly in Texas.  Only a few would be allowed to remain in the state, and those would be encouraged to return to their ‘natural condition’ as slaves.”[2]  Like other scholars, Campbell takes a remarkably narrow view of Texas’s self-enslavement law, seeing it as reflective of the free blacks’ lived experiences, and their declining social position in the 1850s in Texas.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Melvin Patrick Ely, in what has been one of the most transformative recent books about the southern free black experience, sees Virginia’s 1856 self-enslavement law as indicative of very little, as far as free blacks’ lived realities are concerned, and thus dismisses the enactment of the law as inconsequential.  “Today, people regard that enactment as a sign of Afro-Virginians’ deteriorating position,” Ely argues, “but the actual history of the statute suggests that laws signified little.”[3]  Ely alludes to those taking a position similar to Campbell’s, arguing instead that most Virginians probably did not even know the law existed.  He points to the procedural safeguards included in the law against coercion as indicative of the care with which Virginia’s legislators tampered with black freedom.

Ely is probably correct in his assessment that Virginia’s self-enslavement law reflects little of free black’s social experience in the state, but if he viewed the law and its associated discussion in periodicals more broadly, he would see that the law in fact signified a great deal about white proslavery rhetoric.  Self-enslavement laws fit in perfectly with proslavery arguments about the benevolence of the institution of slavery.  When viewed with an eye towards political culture, the “procedural obstacles” highlighted by Ely as an indication of the laws lack of significance to free black’s social position can be seen as the product of debate within the southern Democratic party.

In his recent legal history of slavery and manumission in the antebellum South, Andrew Fede assesses the petitions submitted to southern courts in response to the passage self-enslavement laws in southern states, and argues that they “speak eloquently of the dilemma that free blacks faced in the late antebellum South.  The Southern legislatures adopted statutes that so limited free black legal rights and social standing that petitioners of both sexes and all ages found slavery to be a better alternative.”[4]  Fede acknowledges the fact that proslavery Legislators and newspaper editors viewed self-enslavement stories as “triumphs of slavery over freedom,” but still places his focus on the social experiences of free blacks, noting that self-enslavement petitions were actually “a result of the unjust laws that provided free blacks with inferior legal rights.”[5]  Fede thus presents the a false dichotomy—the “triumph of slavery” on the one hand, and free black social experiences on the other—when in reality both could potentially be true, as the proslavery objective of self-enslavement laws exist irrespective of the reasons a small number of free blacks may have utilized them.  Historians like Fede have failed to distinguish decisions by free blacks to enslave themselves with white proslavery advocates’ reasoning behind providing them the legal mechanisms to do so.

Likewise, Judith Kelleher Schafer views free black petitions to enslave themselves as evidence that “[a]s the 1850s wore on, free people of color found themselves increasingly despised and feared for their allegedly corrupting influence on slaves,” at least in New Orleans.[6]  Like Fede, Schafer draws only a very thin distinction between the decision by free blacks to enslave themselves to masters of their choosing, and legislators’ decision to pass self-enslavement laws.  Schafer acknowledges that the passage of such laws “showed how thoroughly proslavery logic had conquered the lawmakers,” and that they “represented the culmination of the ‘positive good’ theory of slavery—that people of African descent lived happily as slaves and found freedom inconvenient or miserable.”[7]  Schafer rightly acknowledges that self-enslavement laws and stories served the proslavery cause, but she fails to fully explain how these laws fit within a wider framework of proslavery rhetoric and ideology.

Ira Berlin presents perhaps the most measured assessment of self-enslavement as it relates to southern proslavery rhetoric.  Berlin argues that southern newspapers highlighted self-enslavement stories because the stories “verified the sanctity of their ideals.”  Berlin acknowledges the fact that very few free blacks actually utilized these laws, and asserts that this “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.”[8]  Again, Berlin is right to connect self-enslavement stories to proslavery ideology, but he, like Schafer, does not demonstrate how exactly self-enslavement laws and stories fit within that context.  Further, Berlin seems to oversell the prominence of such stories in southern newspapers, when in fact they generally take a back seat to other, more important issues, making self-enslavement stories like jewels in another sense: their rarity.


[1] Austin State Gazette, Nov. 28, 1857, p. 1. The State Gazette is also referred to as the Texas State Gazette.(go back)

[2] Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821–1865, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 113­–14.(go back)

[3] 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. (go back)

[4] Andrew Fede, Roadblocks to Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in the United States, (New Orleans: Quid Pro LLC, 2011), 114–16.(go back)

[5] Ibid., 116.(go back)

[6] Judith Kelleher Schafer, Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846–1862, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003), 145.(go back)

[7] Ibid., 150.(go back)

[8] Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), 367.(go back)

Comps! Comps! Comps, Comps, Comps!

Comprehensive exams are just around the corner. Now, I can try to make this a less painful process by repeatedly reading the title of this post like this:

Or, I can figure out the best way to get organized, study effectively, and give myself enough time to prepare. (In reality, I’m probably going to do both. Just sayin’.)

The first step in the process is putting together everything I have read for each of my fields (primary field is Southern History, second and third fields are 19th Century U.S. and Latin American History.) For that, I don’t have helpful advice so much as “Oh, I’m glad I did that,” but who knows, it might help someone. First, starting my first year of undergrad, I began organizing each of my classes, most importantly the syllabus for each of my classes, into folders by class, semester, and year. I have continued this into grad school, so now I have a way of going back and recalling every book applicable to each of my fields that I have had to read for class up to this point. Many of these books I own (and I’ll get to those in a moment) but for the ones I was too poor/cheap to buy, or have lost in the process of moving from Virginia to New Jersey to Texas, at least it’s a record.

At the start of graduate school 2 years ago, I took the time to enter all (see: most) of the books I own into my Library Thing account. If you use Library Thing already, you already know how fantastic it is. If you don’t, Library Thing allows you to look up any book you own through a simple search (title or author usually gets you there), and then add it to your library with all of the Library of Congress information attached. After doing that, I added tags to all the books in my library to organize them by subject matter, with special attention paid to how they might fit in to my three fields. (On a Library Thing note unrelated to comps, I also used the LOC data to print call number labels for all of my books, while my library is still a manageable size. Is this a completely insane thing to do? Absolutely. But I’ve helped professors unpack their offices when they don’t have an organizational system other than alphabetical by author, and it’s not fun.)

While Library Thing has been/will be immensely helpful in putting together my lists, using a web-based interface for the actual note taking and study process probably isn’t the most effective way to do things. I started using Evernote for my most recent research project, and it seems to be a nice way to organize notes quickly and effectively. Using Evernote I will be able to write down basic summaries of the argument of each book on my lists, how they fit in with the historiography, and then include tags (trying to be more systematic and robust than I have been for my Library Thing) to help study which books are in conversation with one another. (Cameron Blevins has a two great posts on “Surviving Quals” here, and here. I’m looking ahead to my exams, while he is looking back, but those posts were helpful in thinking through some of the issues I might have. He also has an awesome post about what he did with all those book summaries after passing exams.)

I’m hoping that already having a good chunk of my library organized, and using Evernote to help organize my book summaries will help me prepare for comps more quickly and effectively than I could with just pen and paper, or even with just basic word documents. With that plan, and a solid soundtrack, I hope to be done with this in early August, so I can start thinking about my trip to Colombia.