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.

Week 6/Colonial and National History Roundtable

Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

In contrasting Jack Greene’s call for historians of the early United States to pay greater attention to state and local governments as the primary political arena for most Americans during the early national period with Don E. Fehrenbacher’s The Slaveholding Republic, I was immediately struck by the fact that his book is subtitled An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery – not that of “the United States’ Governments.”  I view Fehrenbacher’s formulation, despite Greene’s assertions about the lack of import afforded to the federal government during this period, as a more accurate account of the federal government’s power concerning slavery.

Fehrenbacher argues that, despite the Garrisonian abolitionist interpretation, one accepted by a significant proportion of modern historiography, that the US Constitution is fundamentally a slaveholding document, the framers intended the document to be neutral on the question of slavery – insomuch as they could be.  Rather than the letter of the constitution, it was the policies enacted and decisions made after ratification that solidified the federal government’s support and protection of slavery and transformed the United States into a slaveholding republic.  Echoing Winthrop Jordan’s argument about the appearance of slavery in North America to begin with, Fehrenbacher frequently cites a series of “unthinking decisions” with the solidification of federal government support for slavery.  These actions taken by the federal government, in regards to the slave importation, slavery in the nation’s capitol, fugitive slave laws, foreign affairs, the extension of slavery into federal territories, among other areas, established that despite the neutrality of the government’s principle organizing document, that the federal government would protect the rights of slaveholders and the institution itself.

Fehrenbacher extends this line of reasoning in describing how the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 led to the secession of the southern states.  Southerners feared that Lincoln would reverse the aforementioned policies that had been established since ratification, and seceded to preserve and protect the institution of slavery.  Fehrenbacher’s argument allows for a wholesale jettisoning of any euphemistic “states-rights” arguments concerning the causes of the Civil War, and places the concern about the continuation of protections of slavery by the central government at the forefront.

Given Fehrenbacher’s description of how influential the federal government was in how and to what extent slavery functioned and spread to individual territories and states, Adam Rothman’s objection to Greene’s argument about the centrality of state and local government’s gains significant support.  Rothman’s assertion that “the fate of slavery in the early Republic was never wholly determined on the state level by local elites…the federal government delineated local elites’ room for maneuver” (274).  Rothman’s objection to Greene parallel’s Fehrenbacher’s argument about the importance of federal policy relating to slavery: “Greene’s argument that most political activity took place at the state and local levels cannot explain why American citizens argued so bitterly over the problem of slavery at the level of the nation-state” (274).  As Fehrenbacher expertly demonstrates, the federal government had a huge impact on the way state and local governments could regulate (or not) the character of slavery at levels below that of the nation.

Week 5/Making of a Slave Conspiracy

William Dusinberre, Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps, (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2000).

In Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps, William Dusinberre describes the horrific experiences of slaves working on rice plantations in the South Carolina and Georgia low-country by focusing exclusively on three of the biggest plantations in the antebellum South, Charles Manigault’s Gowrie, Pierce Butler’s Butler Island, and Robert Allston’s Chicora Wood.  Dusinberre utilizes the extremely detailed plantation records and diaries of these massive plantations, and to a far lesser extent Francis Kemble’s impressions of Butler Island based on her interactions with slaves there in 1838 and the WPA interviews conducted a century later.

Dusinberre seems to be writing in order to remind general readers and scholars alike how truly brutal, violent, and horrifying slavery was – though I’m not sure who exactly forgot this – in response to more recent historiographical trends that highlight the establishment of slave communities and cultures, and the maintenance of slave agency.  In doing so, however, Dusinberre seems to refute the last fifty years of historiography, arguing that the violent and deadly nature of work in the rice swamps and planters’ brutally capitalistic nature prevented slaves from developing the institutions this historiography has highlighted; his assertion that slaves “adapted their conduct to their masters’ whims” is disturbingly Stanley Elkins-esque (433-4).

Further, Dusinberre’s argument that low-country rice plantations are capitalistic rather than paternalistic seems off-base; he seems to conflate paternalism with benevolence.  His assertion that the legacy of Eugene Genovese’s scholarship is that it allows southern whites to “take pride…in their ancestors’ paternalism” seems to distort the term’s meaning (431).

But to return to Dusinberre’s denial of the development of meaningful slave communities and cultures in low-country Georgia and South Carolina: while his expert analysis of the plantation records, diaries, and letters, combining qualitative and quantitative methods, absolutely supports his assertions about the extraordinarily high mortality rates, the difficulty in maintaining a traditional, nuclear family, and the generally violent, dangerous nature of work on rice plantations, I do not think his evidentiary base allows him to really make claims about slave communities and cultures.  The only black sources he uses are the writings of the white wife of an absentee planter, and interviews conducted by a white woman with elderly former slaves – hardly the best sources to assess the existence of slave culture and community.

Michael P. Johnson’s article “Denmark Vesey and His Co-Conspirators,” and the subsequent responses has important implications for how historians interpret the events of the Denmark Vesey Conspiracy, in regard to who led a conspiracy against whom.  Johnson argues that the insurrection was more of a creation of the white members of the court than a reality designed by Vesey.  One of the members of this court, as Johnson points out in his response article “On Reading Evidence,” was Nathaniel Heyward, one of the many “wealthy, powerful slaveowners,” on the court, who “owned upwards of 1,000 slaves” (194).  Heyward was also friends and related through marriage to the Manigault family, owners of the Gowrie plantation examined by Dusinberre.  Given the brutality and violence outlined by Dusinberre on a rice plantation similar to the one owned by Heyward, it is not hard to imagine how the “determined and vengeful white slaveholders who knew what they were looking for… whipped, threatened, and colluded with cooperative black witnesses until they found it” (194).

Week 4/Race

In various forms, Barbara J. Fields, Martha Hodes, and Peter Kolchin each offer commentary on how historians have dealt with the (now common) assumption that race is a social construction.  Fields does so through by looking at race as a historical ideology and focusing on the need to contextualize various forms of race and racism; Hodes heeds this call for historical contextualization by analyzing how experiences with race vary greatly across geographic and temporal boundaries.  Kolchin looks at how the emerging field of whiteness studies has dealt with the socially constructed, ideological nature of race.

In “Ideology and Race in American History,” Fields argues against the American tendency to “accord race a transhistorical, almost metaphysical, status that removes it from all possibility of analysis and understanding” (Fields, 144).  Rather, Fields asserts, historians should conceive of race as an ideology, which she describes as a vocabulary used to interpret one’s lived, social experiences.  These ideologies, in turn, must be considered within their full historical context.  Fields disagrees with the very foundation of Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the negro, 1550-1812, in that the essential point of the argument in her article is that “[a]n understanding of how groups of people see other groups in relation to themselves must begin by analyzing the pattern of their social relations – not by enumerating “attitudes” which, endowed with independent life, are supposed to act upon the historical process from the outside” (Fields, 149).  The largest flaw of Jordan’s work which Fields implicitly notes is the failure to deal carefully with changing historical contexts; Fields posits the question of how “[t]o the extent that white supremacy summarized prejudices of color, how can it have meant the same for different classes of whites, who had different experiences with blacks?” (Fields 156).

One of the consequences of Fields’ conceptualization of race as an ideology dependent on historical context is that she dispels with the common assumption that race and class are mutually exclusive explanatory frameworks.  Rather than being alternatives to one another, Fields notes (like Seth Rockman) that “class refers to a material circumstance,” and as such, “can assert itself independently of people’s consciousness and sometimes in direct opposition to it,” whereas race cannot be stripped of its ideological construction (Fields, 150-151).  She states that “[r]ace is a concept that we can locate at the level of appearances only”; this distinction between appearances and their underlying realities is one that Jordan, despite the breadth of his analysis, does not seem to make.   Rather than being mutually exclusive, Fields argues that class is of the utmost important when considering interracial interaction in American history.

Martha Hodes furthers Fields’ call for contextualization when dealing with issues of race by placing it in a transnational context through an analysis of the experiences of Eunice and William Smiley Connolly, a poor white woman from New England and a sea captain from the British West Indies of a mixed African and European ancestry.  Hodes “argues that the scrutiny of day-to-day lives demonstrates not only the mutability of race but also, and with equal force, the abiding power of race in local settings,” (Hodes, 85).  Hodes describes as a poor, female wage-laborer without the support of a husband, Eunice struggled to support herself and her children, and as such became somehow “less white.”  The people of Grand Cayman, conversely, viewed smiley Connolly, with high regard because he was a man of significant means, irrespective of his appearance.  Likewise, while Eunice’s marriage to a man of mixed ancestry drew ire from both outside and within her family in New England and in some ways led others to perceive her again as less white, upon moving to Grand Cayman, her material conditions improved, even as she became more closely associated with her “colored” husband.  For Hodes, like Fields, race is an ideology dependent on historical context – in this case, both geographic location and material conditions.

Peter Kolchin’s discussion of the emerging field of whiteness studies surprised me by the fact that it is the article that is in most direct conversation with Jordan’s White Over Black.  Jordan’s overall assertion that white attitudes towards blacks (inasmuch as one can describe “white attitudes” for reasons discussed in the Fields and Hodes articles) stemmed from a desire to define themselves in a new cultural and social conditions, connects directly with David R. Roediger’s assertion that “because the white working class in the United States emerged in a slaveholding republic, its members came to define themselves by what they were not: slaves and blacks” (Kolchin, 155).  While the Roediger conception of whiteness studies is not the only one, his assertions parallel Jordan’s very closely.  Kolchin describes Roediger’s argument by stating that “the increasingly controlled and disciplined white population came to view blacks as their former, uninhibited selves,” while Jordan describes how “[w]ithin every American who stood confronted by the Negro, there had arisen a perpetual duel between his higher and lower natures.  His cultural conscience – his Christianity, his humanitarianism, his ideology of liberty and equality, — demanded that he he regard and treat the Negro as his…equal.  At the same moment, however, many of his profound urges, especially his yearning to maintain the identity of his folk, his passion for domination, his sheer avarice, and his sexual desire, impelled him toward conceiving and treating the Negro as inferior to himself” (Jordan 581-2).  Jordan argues that this “perpetual duel” stems from “the need of transplanted Englishmen to know who it was they were…For white men had to know who they were if they were to survive.  They had to retain control of themselves and of their liberties if they were to survive in America” (Jordan xiv).  Jordan seems, to me, to do implicitly what whiteness studies seeks to explicitly, that is, define what exactly made someone “white”; for Jordan, early Americans did this through defining what exactly it meant to be “black.”

After criticizing whiteness studies for a lack of depth and analytical sophistication, he seems to bring the reader back to where Barbara Fields started two decades earlier, stating that “without attention to concrete social conditions,” the distinctiveness of racial history “is more likely to be obscured than clarified.  In short, we are back to the question of context” (Kolchin 170).

***In response to Caleb’s comment requesting more analysis of Jordan’s argument, I’m editing this post for those only reading them through an rss feed***

Jordan attempts to answer the question of why only blacks were enslaved in the United States. Did racism develop because of slavery? or did the enslavement of blacks occur because of racism?

He begins his attempt to answer this question by looking at the “first impressions” of the English upon coming into contact with sub-Saharan Africans. He argues that the English commented most frequently on the Africans’ “black” skin, their lack of religion, their “savage” nature, and their hyper-sexualized, “bestial” nature. In doing so, Jordan is arguing that English perceptions of the way Africans differed from themselves included concepts other than skin color/appearance. In a time of rapid social change, the English became “uncomfortably self-conscious,” and they projected this identity crisis against the vastly different Africans.

Jordan ultimately argues that the rise of slavery was part of an “unthinking decision,” on the part of early English settlers. The significant need for labor in the newly settled colonies led the English to revive slavery, a form of labor with roots in English common law, as distinguished from free labor and indentured servitude, which were also used. Jordan argues that economic necessity revived the use of slavery in the English colonies. Jordan further argues that the decision to enslave Africans exclusively extends from the fact that they already knew the Spanish and Portuguese were enslaving Africans and utilizing slave labor, that the English in the West Indies were following that lead. The idea of enslaving Africans also fits neatly with the “first impressions” outlined in the first chapter. Thus, he seems to assert that the “unthinking decision” to enslave Africans had in many ways been made for them.

The American Revolution, with its ideals of universal liberty that clashed directly with the institution of slavery, led to the crystallization of a pseudo-scientific racial prejudice as a way to justify slavery in “the land of the free.” Jordan argues that white Americans attempted to reconcile revolutionary ideals with slavery by, in a variety of ways, defining America as a white man’s country. The revolutionary and post-revolutionary era was when, according to Jordan, fully race-based justifications of slavery fully developed in the American psyche.

There is more to Jordan’s argument, but this gives a better background for what exactly he is saying, and how I made the connections between his book and the readings for this week.