Category Archives: 19th Century U.S. Readings

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

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.

Week 3/Class

In the Journal of the Early Republic’s 2005 symposium on class during the early national period, Seth Rockman, Jennifer L. Goloboy, and Andrew M. Schocket offer up new analyses on the importance of class.  In his introduction to the symposium, Gary J. Kornblith explains how class as en explanatory framework fell into disfavor among historians after the cultural turn, as “the exploration of cultural identity increasingly displaced the study of political economy – and with it class analysis,” noting that for many historians “racial identities seemed to explain what class analysis by itself could not: the failure of American workers to unite in opposition to their capitalism oppressors” (523-4).

For Rockman, this failure to unite, or a lack of class-consciousness, does not make class any less salient a category for addressing social relations in the early republic.  By positing that if class was not based on a shared consciousness, and not viewed as the explanatory framework, but one among others (like white supremacy and patriarchy), historians could make better use of class as an analytical category.  Rockman asserts, “class gives us a language for representing the economic power relations of capitalism” (533).  This in mind, Rockman attempts to provide an outline for something akin to a social history of capitalism, arguing that the common laborers, the working class of the early republic, were a “ ‘motley’ assemblage of casual, contractual, unskilled, and owned workers.  What they shared was not a common understanding of their exploitation, but something more mundane – that other Americans translated their labor into wealth while making it unlikely that they would be able to do likewise” (533).  While noting that white supremacy and patriarchy still have valuable explanatory power, in that they also played a part in determining who “worked where or owned what,” he ultimately argues that “[c]lass provides us with a language to account for the fact that some Americans gained wealth precisely because the rules of the early republic’s new capitalist economy made it unlikely that [common laborers] could” (535).

In his 2009 book Scraping By, Rockman provides the empirical evidence for the conceptual argument he provides in this article.  By focusing on Baltimore, Rockman makes a compelling case for using class as a way to analyze the disparity in material conditions for wage laborers in the early republic, as he shows how the experiences of all common workers, white or black, male or female, free or slave, paralleled each other in important ways.  Rockman notes how race and gender also determined in a major way what types of work in which laborers in early Baltimore could be employed, as well as some specifics of property ownership, but that these people were connected, regardless of the fact that they may not have acknowledged it, by the fact that they lived “a hand-to-mouth existence characterized by minimal control over their own labor, periodic spells of joblessness, and severe privation” (Scraping By, 2).  Rockman’s conception of class is unique, and for me extremely compelling; despite the fact that the common workers of Baltimore exhibit no “shared consciousness, identity or politics,” Rockman “sees class as a material condition resulting from the ability of those purchasing labor to economically and physically coerce those performing it – and to do so under the social fiction of a self regulating market that purportedly doled out its rewards to the deserving in accordance with the laws of nature” (11).  This approach to class also seems like it would be helpful in attempting to address the material conditions of common workers from a more transnational perspective.

One of Rockman’s most important ideas dispels with the idea that within the triumvirate of class, race, and gender, one concept has to trump the other two.  Rather, Rockman asserts that “historians must look for the larger system constituted at the intersection of these categories and seek the overlapping ‘relations of ruling’ that organized the lives and labors of workers of divergent subjectivities and identities” (11).  This approach seems an important way of executing class analysis without losing sight of the important explanatory powers of race and gender.

The arguments presented in the other articles in this symposium did not resonate as much with me, and seem to be far more limited in what they offer historians in terms of explanatory framework.  Goloboy views class consciousness as precisely what makes class an important historical factor, far different than the conception of class offered by Rockman.  She argues that regardless of material conditions, Americans often conceived of themselves as “middle-class” based on the adoption of certain values.  However, one of her examples seems to weaken this argument, as Seabury’s wealthy aunt did not view him as a part of the same class, based on material conditions, regardless of his moral values.  Despite this, Goloboy still argues that culturally based class aspirations mattered more than material conditions.  Schocket seems to side more with Rockman than Goloboy, in arguing that what made elites “elite” in the early republic was “their access to capital and their acess to state power,” (525).   Like Rockman, he emphasizes the role played by capitalist institutions in determining material conditions and class relations.

Ultimately all these articles provide sharp new insights on the importance of class in the formation of social relations in the early republic.  Rockman, in his article and even more so in Scraping By, seems to offer the best new approach for conceptualizing the important of class.

Week 2

Furstenberg and Mehta: how do their arguments explaining the exclusion of certain groups from a liberal society differ or resemble each other?

While both Uday S. Mehta, in “Liberal Strategies of Exclusion,” and Francois Furstenberg, in “Beyond Freedom and Slavery,” argue that the exclusion of particular groups from liberal society does not necessarily contradict the prevailing ideologies, based on the character of certain seventeenth-century political philosophies, and specific conceptions of freedom in the early nineteenth century.

Furstenberg argues that, while “scholars have been apt to associate the meaning of American freedom with the declaration,” in reality, Americans defined freedom during the early national period as autonomy, linking freedom with active resistance (1295).  Through an analysis of the writings of Revolutionary figures like Washington, Jefferson, Madison and others, in addition to later writers as disparate as John C. Calhoun and Frederick Douglass, Furstenberg asserts that, working from the assumption that human agency is the motor of history, post-revolutionary Americans “held that people gained either freedom or slavery through individual action” (1316).  This view allowed them to maintain the position that, by not actively resisting slavery, the slaves themselves held responsibility for their position; “[b]y choosing to submit, slaves had proved themselves unworthy of freedom” (1316).   Furstenberg claims that this “narrative promoted a liberal-republican ideology that linked freedom to resistance, grounding slavery in an act of individual choice – consent, even – and thereby legitimating slavery on principles consistent with the American Revolution” (1296-7).  While holding humans in bondage contradicted the themes outlined in the Declaration of Independence, Furstenberg argues that during the post-revolutionary period, Americans defined freedom not according to the spirit of the Declaration, but rather through a liberal-republican ideology that supported the American slave system.

Mehta also holds that the exclusion of particular groups from participation in a liberal society did not contradict prevailing liberal ideologies, but rather than focusing on the writings of post-revolutionary figures, looks to those of seventeenth-century political philosophers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill.  Mehta argues that “the exclusionary basis of liberalism does…derive from its theoretical core…not because the ideals are theoretically disingenuous or concretely impractical, but rather because behind the capacities ascribed to all human beings, there exist a thicker set of social credentials that constitute the real bases of political inclusion” (429).  These “social credentials” are described most saliently in Locke’s Thoughts Concern Education, in which he describes the need to learn certain cultural norms (honor, discretion, for example) in order to gain political inclusion.  These pre-conditions for political inclusion “circumscribe and order the particular form that the universalistic foundations of Lockian liberalism assume. It is a form that can and historically has left an exclusionary imprint in the concrete instantiation of liberal practices” (438-9).

Both Mehta and Furstenberg hold that the character of liberalism (for Mehta) or a liberal-republican ideology (for Furstenberg) allowed Americans to resolve the disparity between notions of universal freedom and the exclusion of certain groups from political participation.  Although Furstenberg analyzes the writings/views of figures influenced by a “liberal-republican idology,” while Mehta looks to an earlier period, at the writings of the seventeenth-century political philosophers who helped shape that ideology, both agree that despite espousing universalist conceptions of freedom, slavery/political exclusion did not directly contradict these philosophies.