Category Archives: 19th Century U.S. Readings

Posts relating to the 19th Century U.S. History readings seminar

The Importance of the Black Atlantic

In Who Abolished Slavery? Slave Revolts and Abolitionism various scholars of slave systems in the Americas provide insights into the relationship, or lack of relationship, between slave resistance and abolitionist activity.  The volume is organized as a series of responses to an opening article by Joao Pedro Marquez, “Slave Revolts and the Abolition of Slavery: An Overinterpretation.”  In his discussion of the British Caribbean, Marquez argues that, while active, violent slave resistance was clearly influenced by abolitionist activity in Parliament (and the subsequent rumors and misinterpretations it inspired), acts of slave resistance often hurt abolitionists attempts at achieving emancipation.  He describes how upticks in abolitionist activity in parliament – the call for slave registration in 1815, the approval of amelioration laws in 1820, and revived radical abolitionism in 1831 – all resulted in slave resistance in the Caribbean, but were subsequently followed by anger towards abolitionists and a decrease in abolitionist sentiment in Parliament.  Marquez asserts that it was not until missionaries drew the ire of Caribbean planters for their alleged involvement in slave revolts that popular opinion turned towards immediate emancipation; the execution of hundreds of black slaves could not transform public opinion the way the expulsion of white religious leaders could.

The responses that follow provide a series of anti-climactic Goldilocks analyses of Marquez’s argument, with each agreeing or disagreeing with Marquez’s assertions to different extents – but ultimately none finding them to be “just right.”  The disagreements are similar to those that have appeared in the historiography analyzed in my blogs over the past few weeks: the degree abolitionism caused slave revolts, and slave revolts affected abolition; what we can determine about motivations for slave revolts from the records produced from planters’ investigations; whether planters were sincere in blaming abolition.

One of the more vehement denials of Marquez’s argument comes from Hilary Beckles, who argues that Marquez did not sufficiently recognize the understandings enslaved people had of politics, and how their actions were inherently political in nature.  Beckles elaborates this point in an essay within The British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People.  Though the collection is more focused on the abolition of the slave trade and not general emancipation, Beckles’ points raise interesting questions for my consideration of how abolitionist agitation motivated slaves to revolt (and conditioned planters’ responses to both).  He notes how, “the abolition of the British slave trade has traditionally been presented as a benevolent act by the British State that acquiesced under the mounting pressure of opposing intellectual voices and the mass advocacy of religious and humanitarian activists…it does not, however, give adequate attention to the political role of enslaved communities in the Caribbean” (114).  Beckles asserts, drawing from James Walvin’s analysis of the black Atlantic in Questioning Slavery, that blacks in the Caribbean gained information about abolition from white conversations and mass media, and that “they used this information, gleaned from the most distant points of the vast Atlantic system to inform and construct an oral culture to foster clear ideological views of their own” (115-6).  Rather than solely misinterpreting British debates about abolition, or responding to wild rumors, the enslaved of the Caribbean took information from a variety of sources to create their own, unique ideological framework in regards to the question of slavery and abolition.

Beckles also argues that the experience of the slave trade in Africa, of being sold from societies ruled by monarchs, colored their interpretations of the possibilities for abolition.  He asserts that their understanding of the profitability of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, either first-hand or passed down through generations, and the monarchical control thereof, resulted in a feeling among the enslaved that abolition could only be achieved through their own active resistance.  Through his analysis of folk songs and oral culture, he notes that the enslaved recognized Wilberforce as a strong advocate for abolition, but that he was unable to force his ideas upon a majority unwilling to forfeit the profits and prestige associated with the slave trade and slave systems.  As such “it affirmed their political thinking that it was necessary to take up arms in order to secure abolition and emancipation” (118).  Blacks in the Caribbean understood well that the only place abolition had been achieved was in L’OUverture’s St. Domingue, and thus, slavery would “only be abolished by their armed resistance” (118).

This interpretation of the causes for violent resistance among the enslaved in the Caribbean is a significant departure from the historiography I have previously dealt with, though Rugemer takes it seriously.  Rather than a misunderstanding of the prospects of British abolition, Beckles and Walvin assert that the enslaved had a politically sophisticated, and thus pessimistic, understanding of the chances abolition would be achieved solely through the political dealings of those in Parliament; as a consequence, slaves saw their only option for achieving abolition in armed resistance.


In Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood, Emilia Viotti da Costa provides an in-depth analysis of the 1823 slave rebellion in Demerara.  Similarly to Craton, da Costa stresses the multiple influences to rebel on the slaves of Demerara, but also that what bound them together was their common experiences in slavery.  While her story is ultimately one that discusses how the planters of the colony used missionaries, particularly John Smith, as a scapegoat, she continually highlights the importance of rumors about emancipation emanating from Britain as one of the primary factors motivating slaves to consider rebellion.

da Costa argues that slave rebellions obviously represented moments of crisis in plantation colonies, and that crises like the 1823 rebellion “forced people to take sides and to make their commitments clear.  It revealed notions and feelings that created bondings and identities, or that set people against each other” (xiv).  Forced to take sides in such a manner, planters “searched their past experience for whatever might validate their actions and demonstrate their truth.  When they tried to go beyond the immediacy of their experience…planters and authorities blamed dissenters, abolitionists, the British press, and members of Parliament who had lent ears to those who favored emancipation” (xiv).  Da Costa also echoes Craton to a certain extent in stating that these expressions of causality “are not simply statements about ‘reality,’ they are commentaries on their present experiences…and anticipations of a future they wish to create” (xv).

Despite this nuanced explanation of why planters blamed abolitionist rhetoric, brought to the slaves through newspapers, pamphlets, and missionaries, da Costa reveals some internal tension in her monograph when she states that, “Incensed by rumors of emancipation and convinced they had allies in England, the slaves seized the opportunity to take history into their own hands” (xviii).  I sense – and I think Michael Johnson would agree – that this tension stems from her reading of the “trial” evidence.  In an attempt to provide something of a linear narrative of how the rebellion went down, she deals too uncritically with the testimonies provided by slaves.  She is in perfect agreement with Johnson when she says that “By converting a historical process as complex as resistance and rebellion in a conspiracy promoted by a few men, [white authorities] sough to preserve the illusion that they could control what was in fact uncontrollable”; that they “blamed British abolitionists, evangelical missionaries, and the “reformist party” of Wilberforce”; and that “They called hundreds of witnesses – slaves, managers, masters, officers of the regiment, missionaries, anyone who might bring evidence which would serve their purpose” (170).  She follows this up with an extended re-telling of the story of the rebellion taken directly from the testimony she just questioned, stating that “All the different versions of [the slaves’] goals appear in the documents, and sometimes the same witness gives first one version then another.  This seems to indicate that not only had the rebels disagreed from the beginning about the goals to be achieved, but in the course of events many changed their strategies and purposes” (172).  To admit that the planters used the “trials” as a charade to serve their own purposes, as she seems to do, and then use the testimony the “trials” produced to analyze the motivations of the rebels seems rather contradictory.

The amount of time da Costa spends discussing how the news of new ameliorative guidelines for treating slaves passed by Parliament reached slaves and significantly influenced their displeasure with their masters, managers, and overseers seems to indicate that she believes that abolitionist agitation really did have a tangible effect on slave resistance; the way she discusses the trials as a farce designed to serve the interests of white planters suggest something of the opposite interpretation.

So where does this leave us (besides with a headache)? That the historiography converges and diverges in strange ways on whether slaves were/were not actually influenced by abolitionist agitation in Parliament, on how genuine planters were being when they blamed abolitionists for rebellions, and on the legitimacy of the investigations into slave rebellions and the evidence they produced, leaves me leaning towards believing that what really matters in these discussions is that Caribbean planters connected abolitionist sentiment, writings, and legislative agitation to slave rebellion and the destruction of the slave system, and planters in the US South latched on to this in their perpetual crusade to avoid both.  Whether Caribbean planters truly believed it, or tortured their slaves during kangaroo court proceedings to achieve their own selfish ends seems significantly less important, and ultimately impossible to prove.


“Testing the Chains” (and the Edwards Thesis)

In Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (Cornell, 1982), Michael Craton provides remarkably deep analysis of Caribbean slave resistance movements from 1600 until the 1830’s.  Its pertinence to Rugemer, however, lies primarily in his final section, on “Slave Rebellions and Emancipation, 1816-1832.”  After describing the previous two hundred years of slave resistance in the British West Indies, Craton here emphasizes slave agency, and slavery itself as the primary motive for rebellion, stating, “the fundamental motivation for slaves’ resistance in the last two decades of slavery remained, as it had always been, a determination to make, take, or recreate a life of their own.  This impulse owed little or nothing to metropolitan inspiration or aid” (243).

Despite this assertion, however, he does attest to the manner in which newspaper articles addressing political developments in Britain may have provided impetus for slave rebellion, and the way in which planters may have overstated this as a causal factor.  “Change was clearly impending, posing a threat to the masters and offering hope for the slaves.  But rumors of change played an even more important role in slave unrest than actual changes, becoming a part of a common syndrome” (243-4).  Craton goes on to explain, like Rugemer, how after plots or actual revolts planters would point to evidence that information, true or not, about emancipation had been circulated among the slaves, leading to the unrest.  Craton provides a more plausible motive for this reiteration of the Edwards thesis, however.  He describes how “by stressing the effect of mere rumors of change, the planters hoped to forestall actual changes.  They also hoped that by attributing slave unrest to actual or imagined changes imposed from outside they might draw attention away from local causes and deflect blame from themselves” (244).

Craton then hedges this bet by clarifying that “if they overemphasize talk among the slaves, the planters did not invent its substance.  The rumor syndrome in the late slave rebellions was far more than a mere plantocratic ploy,” highlighting the important role played by literate slaves, and the existence of an “effective network of communication” among slaves (244). In this way, reconciles the sides of this debate in much the way Rugemer does.  While he acknowledges that abolitionist agitation and its reporting in newspapers circulated in the Caribbean – misunderstood by the slaves as these reports may have been – contributed to the radicalization of the “black Atlantic to a certain extent, noting how the circulation of this (mis)information highlighted a “degree of concurrence between elite and ordinary slaves that deeply disturbed the master class,” and the way in which the “inaccuracy” of rumors about emancipationist developments in Britain “might serve the cause of slave resistance” (244).  Despite this, however, Craton also notes that whatever degree of legitimacy the Edwards thesis had in reality, planters overemphasized the effect of mere abolitionist agitation and rumor on slave resistance to serve their own self-interested ends.  Unlike Rugemer and Johnson, Craton seems to suggest that, realistic or not, planters highlighted the Edwards thesis in an effort to delay emancipation, not because they truly though it represented the whole story.

‘Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement’ — How Did I Not Find This Book Until Now?

In Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement, Gelien Matthews argues for the reverse of the Edwards thesis outlined in Rugemer.  While she acknowledges the argument by contemporaries and historians alike, that abolitionist agitation in British Parliament influenced slaves to seize opportunities for revolt, she asserts that the opposite is no less true.  Specifically, she notes how, especially after the 1816 Demerara rebellion, abolitionists used the periodic slave uprisings to support the shift in their positions from ones of slave code reforms and gradual emancipation to one of the immediate abolition of the slave regime.

Matthews outlines how the relationship between abolitionist activity in England and slave rebellions in the Caribbean were subject to competing interpretations from pro- and anti-slavery advocates, obviously with the pro-slavery folks arguing that agitation led to rebellion, and the anti-slavery folks arguing that rebellion indicated slaves were fit for freedom and that immediate abolition was necessary.

For Rugemer’s purpose – outlining how the seeds of sectional conflict and secession were sown in the Caribbean – I don’t think it truly matters who is right or wrong here.  Regardless of if abolitionist agitation inspired revolt, or revolt gave ammunition to abolitionists, Southern planters would seen and read about how slave insurrections in the Caribbean led to significant losses to life and property, and that abolition came not long after, both events southern slave holders wanted to avoid at all costs.  So on the one hand, given the Caribbean pro-slavery interpretation most easily visible in Rugemer’s treatment of the Edwards thesis, southerners would have had the desire to secede to avoid further slave revolts stemming from Congressional discussion about the future of slavery in the United States – regardless of whether this was the actual sequence of events.  But on the other hand, even if southern planters understood and accepted the argument Matthews and abolitionists put forward –that insurrection proved slaves’ fitness for freedom and was instrumental in achieving abolition –I think slave holders would have felt the same animosity towards the north and the same impetus to secede so that if another insurrection did occur it wouldn’t lend credence to the abolitionist position.

Nonetheless, the pro-slavery/Edwards position has received far more treatment as the “true” sequence of events than the mirror image proposed by Matthews.  While both seem equally plausible, and Matthews agrees with thiat interpretation, The Problem of Emancipation seems to be more in conversation with those treating the Edwards thesis more seriously (Michael Craton, Hilary Beckles, and others I will be dealing with in the coming weeks).

Ultimately though, and maybe this is negating everything I just typed out, I don’t really think any of this matters all that much for Rugemer’s argument.  Despite some level of historiographical disagreement about what caused what, the Rugemer all that matters is that the pro-slavery faction thought abolitionist agitation was reaching slaves in some manner, and that this led to insurrection.  This is the interpretation planters in the South latched onto, and in that way, the Civil War genuinely had roots in Caribbean slave society.

The Problem of Emancipation and Winthrop Jordan’s ‘Tumult and Silence at Second Creek’

One of the major elements of Edward Rugemer’s The Problem of Emancipation is his analysis of slave insurrections and insurrection conspiracy.  The Edwards thesis which he relies on so heavily to ground his analysis of the influence of British abolition and events in the Caribbean on the Civil War basically asserts that discussion of abolition, or sometimes slavery more generally, in the press gets filtered through literate slaves and free blacks, spread throughout slave communication and information networks, and ultimately leads to slave insurrections.

Thus, for the next few blog posts I am going to address the historiography of slave insurrections, and see how they fit into Rugemer’s narrative, especially in regards to the Edwards thesis.  I want to look at what white planters perceived as the causes of the insurrections, what historians say the “actual” causes may have been, and the repercussions these insurrections (or plans for insurrection) had on laws, race relations, and political developments.

Last semester in Dr. Boles’s US South seminar, we read Winthrop Jordan’s Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy.  In it, Jordan argues that a number of slaves in Adams County, Mississippi, in the Spring of 1861, conspired to revolt against their masters.  In doing so, Jordan relies primarily on the slave testimony recorded by Lemuel P. Conner during the secret and extralegal investigation of the conspiracy by the Second Creek Examination Committee; he also utilizes the diaries and personal correspondences of some members of the white community in Adams County.  While Jordan seems wholly convinced of the existence of a slave conspiracy – evidenced most demonstrably by his continued, capitalized use of the term “Plan” – he largely ignores the effect of the political fervor the oncoming Civil War would have had for both the members of the elite, white planter class, as well as for the individuals that class held in bondage.  More egregiously though, his rather uncritical use of Conner’s testimony results in a level of bias towards the accuracy of the sources surprising for an historian of Jordan’s stature and pedigree.  A more cautious reading of Conner’s account of the testimony reveals the extent to which rumor and coercion from white elites led to the creation of the impression of a conspiracy.  When these elements are taken under full consideration, the existence of any kind of real plan for insurrection becomes a far more tenuous possibility.

After the hastily convened courts, and after the majority of the slaves believed to be involved were executed, what is somewhat interesting about this case is that it was not publicized, and was kept under-wraps for a very long time.  During the seminar we had a lot of difficulty understanding why this was kept silent for so long.  I kept thinking that if the planters wanted to give slaves disincentive to slaves to revolt, they would advertise how quickly and brutally the whites in Adams County responded.  After reading the Problem of Emancipation, however, it seems to make more sense.  If you accept that a discussion of cracks in the slave establishment are seized upon by the slave community as an opportunity to revolt, the whites in Adams County may have wanted to keep the conspiracy at Second Creek a secret for fear that other slaves would gain information about it, and consider it an opportune time for them to revolt as well.


Are You There Bryan Edwards? It’s Me, Southern Planter.

Did Bryan Edwards have the single greatest influence on the South’s decision to secede, and the eruption of the American Civil War?  That’s kinda the feeling I was left with after finishing The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War.  Rugemer’s argument in every chapter seems to hinge on the widespread acceptance and influence of the “Edwards Thesis.”  Responses to, and perceptions of the causes of slave insurrections, and the impact of discussing and enacting abolition all seem to come back to an acceptance or rejection of the Edwards thesis.

That said, even despite the centrality of the Edwards thesis, Rugemer’s argument certainly seems to hold water.  He gauges public opinion on slavery, insurrection, and abolition primarily through his analysis of newspaper articles.  In addressing popular responses to events, Rugemer is engaging with what Edward Ayers has dubbed “deep contingency.”  Rugemer quotes Ayers’s explication of deep contingency at length, and I think it would be fruitful, for the sake of emphasis, to reproduce that again here.  He states that deep contingency focuses on the “’connection between structure and event, on the relationships between the long-existing problem of slavery and the immediate world of politics.’  One of the central structures in democratic societies is public opinion, particularly as it influences political life, and for the antebellum United States, public opinions about black emancipation were important” (8).

Rugemer tracks these public opinions through periodicals published in the United States, including articles from Caribbean papers, and finds that they demonstrate considerable concern with developments in the Caribbean when assessing the slavery question in the US.  For southern planters, Caribbean developments demonstrated that discussing emancipation in the legislature led to slave insurrections, while for northern abolitionists, agitating for emancipation ultimately led to official abolition.  Opinions were formed based on these interpretations of the developments in the Caribbean, and battle lines were drawn accordingly.

I’m not quite sure, however, how far this line of reasoning can be extended.  Did developments in the Caribbean around emancipation debates stoke sectional tensions? Did it ultimately lead to the South to secede? Did the conflicting views in regards to the Edwards thesis cause the Civil War?  Rugemer seems to bring the reader along this path, but kind of left me hanging in terms of how far he thought this could go.  He’s clearly engaging the conversations on what started the Civil War, but given his argument, the answer has to be something more complex than “slavery.”

Rugemer’s discussion of the influence of newspaper articles discussing abolition and the slavery question on slave insurrection, and to an extent the Edwards thesis itself, seems to parallel the arguments made by Johnson and Sidbury in their contributions to the Vesey Conspiracy forum.  In light of the fact that Rugemer presents rather matter-of-factly to what Johnson and Sidbury draw significant attention, it seems that the idea that literate slaves and free blacks transferred information through slave communication and information networks has been solidified in the historiography.  Also, considering the way Rugemer discusses the perceived causes of, and responses to slave insurrections, it’s interesting to juxtapose his argument with those in the Making of a Slave Conspiracy forum, and also Furstenberg’s take on how planters explained the existence of slave uprisings.

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.