Posted in 20th century America, capitalism, Christianity, conservative politics, racism, religion

To Serve God and Wal-Mart : The Making of Christian Free Enterprise

Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Wal-Mart : The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Bethany Moreton’s, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise examines Wal-Mart’s role in making free market and evangelical values mainstream during its rise as the world’s largest public corporation and the nation’s biggest private employer. Moreton offers a critical appraisal for how “Wal-Mart Moms” became a key constituency in shaping national values and how they helped to shape a global economic order founded on “Christian service” and “family values.” The main focus of the book is not on Wal-mart’s international appeal, but rather, Moreton focuses on the cultural roots of the Wal-Mart way of doing business, whose central employee and customer is female and Christian. Moreton asserts on the first page that one in five American women shopped at Wal-mart every week. And even as early as 1995, The Christian Coalitian understood the link between “value shoppers” and “values voters”—they could be reached from the pulpit or in the Wal-mart stores.

Moreton shows how Sam Walton built his retail empire from its farmer-oriented Ozark base starting with his flagship store that opened in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas. Walton tapped into the reservoir of cheap white female Ozark labor to begin his enterprise. Moreton claims that these women did not mind the low pay or lack of advancement because they were just looking to supplement their husband’s income and they appreciated the flexible work hours that enabled them to tend to their children. Work was like being with family and appealed to the female workers’ Christian values to create what the author calls “servant leaders.” Yet surprisingly, Moreton also explains that Walton and his wife fall outside of the demographic the book focuses on: “[N]either Walton could be described as evangelical, born-again, Pentecostal, or fundamentalist, let alone as Christian activists outside their mainstream denomination.” Helen Walton supported Planned Parenthood and legal access to abortion. Their Presbyterian congregation was considered to be conventionally liberal.

I found the most interesting part of the book to be Walton’s role in infusing the gospel of Christian free enterprise into university business curricula and Walton’s investments in college scholarships for Central Americans during the Reagan/Noriega era. To counter free college scholarships offered by communists in Central America, the Kissinger Commission suggested that Americans offer 10,000 of their own scholarships to help these youths embrace American capitalist values. The Waltons donated $3.6 million. They eventually helped to establish hundreds of scholarships to Christian universities in Arkansas. Recipients overwhelmingly majored in business (and were pressured to do so). Graduates would then return home to spread the religious and economic gospel.

This book relates to Suburban Warriors with common themes of white Christian conservative politics, the important role of females in the system, and the connections to the Reagan presidential era. However, the power structures illustrated in this book seem a bit different. For example, in Suburban Warriors, Estrid Kielsmeier is a woman from the suburbs who runs coffee klatches to gather support for Barry Goldwater’s election. She was an example of an ordinary woman who found a way to effect change in her community and the world at large through networking with other like-minded women. Sam Walton and his wife Helen also found powerful ways to effect change in their community and the world at large through building a financial empire. They too networked from the ground up until they developed the financial and symbolic capital to influence politics from the top.

Posted in 20th century America, African Americans, capitalism, class, gentrification, law, marginalization, material culture, racism, urban studies, violence

Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City

Gordon, Colin. Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

St. Louis, Missouri was once a thriving metropolis, but is now a ruined landscape. As Colin Gordon explains in Mapping Decline, “[d]isinvestment and depopulation are so pronounced in central St. Louis that pockets of unintended green have replaced much of the housing stock.”[1] In this book, Gordon researches and maps the causes and costs of St. Louis’s urban crisis.[2] His research shows that St. Louis’ failure was not a consequence of free market conditions, where people simply wanted a bigger or better house in the suburbs. It actually reveals how racist policies and attitudes dramatically shaped the demographic boundaries of the city. Specifically, Gordon shows how federal and local governments, as well as private industry, were complicit in maintaining segregated neighborhoods by blocking minorities from residing in white communities.

Gordon puts much of the blame on policies created by the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange (SLREE). He claims that around 1915, “The fear of ‘negro invasion’ in St. Louis was best expressed, and carefully orchestrated, by local realtors.[3] They created ‘restricted deed covenants’ to prevent minorities from moving into white areas (zones). The SLREE regulated and constrained its members even where no covenants existed.”[4] Real estate agents who sold homes to African Americans outside of the zone would lose their licenses.[5] Even though restricted deed covenants were judged to not be legally enforceable by the Supreme Court in Shelley vs. Kraemer in 1948, the practice continued.[6]

Furthermore, Gordon illuminates federal culpability in maintaining a segregated society. New federal policies enabled white flight from the city into the nearest suburbs. FHA mortgage insurance was primarily granted to white people moving to the suburbs, in effect, subsidizing white flight, while federal public housing assistance was implemented mainly in the inner city, which helped to solidify the region’s spatial organization of race and poverty.[7] Gordon claims that these suburbs “poached” the city’s resources while placing restrictive zoning policies on their own neighborhoods that kept out minorities.[8] In addition, during the housing boom that followed World War II, the federal government figured prominently in segregating neighborhoods through a process known as “redlining,” which essentially barred banks from investing in areas inhabited by people of color.[9] Housing and urban-renewal legislation cleared out black neighborhoods (“slum clearance”) that were perceived to threaten business districts and replaced them with public-housing projects.[10]

Mapping Decline is unique for the ways in which it combines archival research with geographic information system (GIS) digital mapping techniques.  The book includes more than 75 full-color maps that were rendered from census data, archival sources, case law, and local real estate records. Together the maps trace the ways private property restrictions, local planning and zoning, federal housing policies, and urban renewal encouraged “white flight” and urban decline in St. Louis.

The research for Mapping Decline began with a grant to apply GIS technology to the historical intersections of blight and public policy. As Gordon and his partner, Peter Fisher, wrestled with the challenge of digitizing historical sources, they soon realized that they needed a local case study. Sorting through the legal and political history of “blight,” they noticed that many of the most egregious cases were in the St. Louis suburbs. Their research revealed a general pattern found in many modern American cities, where “wealth sprawled to the urban fringe and the central city suffered stark and sustained decline.”[11] Gordon presents Mapping Decline as the St. Louis chapter of a story of urban decline that has been exposed in other studies, namely, Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 (1998) and Tom Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996).[12]

Gordon created a supplementary website to the book, “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City” (http://mappingdecline.lib.uiowa.edu/). Four interactive maps that relate to major themes in the book show visitors St. Louis’ deterioration in terms of “White Flight,” “Race and Property,” “Municipal Zoning,” and “Urban Renewal.” Each map page is animated by a chronological slidebar or a menu of map layers, and includes primary source documents. Visitors to the site can see change over time within each map by moving the slidebar across different date ranges. Primary source documents, such as zoning maps, urban renewal plans, and legal documents, can be viewed by selecting the “Documents” checkbox on the map page or by selecting “Documents” from the site’s main menu. Notes about historical context and full bibliographic citations are included for each resource. In addition, the website includes a page of links to other web-based historical GIS projects, data and map sources, and St. Louis documents and maps. Unfortunately, a number of these links proved to be outdated or broken at the time of the review. One of the projects, “Digital Harlem, Daily Life 1915-1930,” could be relinked by updating the URL to http://heuristscholar.org/digital_harlem/, while others, such as “Mapping Dubois,” were not located through searches.

The “Mapping Decline: About the Maps” page offers a number of interesting data options and tools to assist further research. Researchers who are members of Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research can log in and download 1940-2000 tract level census data used in Gordon’s study. The site also offers a link to Social Explorer, which provides easy-to-use tools for visual exploration of demographic information. Gordon notes that the Race and Property, Municipal Zoning, and Urban Renewal series are based on a number of archival sources and public data, which he further explains and provides links to relevant collections. The Urban Renewal link is outdated, but a Google search located the appropriate link to St. Louis’ Open Data page, which includes census data, property information, and geospatial data.

Even though I appreciate the scholarship and ingenuity that went into Gordon’s study, and resulting book and website, I could not help but feel that the project felt isolated from larger, related social issues and lacked much needed counter narratives and personal stories. Although much different in scope and context, one example of a study that connects forced segregation with consumerism is Liz Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003). Cohen shows how the mass-consumption-driven economy offered false promises of political and economic democracy following World War II. Her study also revealed how federal policies and local racism prevented people of color from upward mobility and access to white suburbia. And Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert’s Banished: The New Social Control in Urban America (2011) shows how a set of almost invisible policing practices ban the homeless and other “disorderly” people from occupying certain public spaces. Once “zoned out,” they are subject to arrest if they return. Gordon might have connected his findings to issues, such as consumerism or the control of unwanted urban populations, that would have enriched his overall story.

Gordon also failed to provide counter narratives to the arguments and maps he presented or to personal stories that could have helped the reader connect to the lived experience of African Americans living in St. Louis. Additional research using newspaper articles, letters, or oral history interviews would have shown how people in African American communities fought against the discriminatory practices highlighted in Mapping Decline. Gordon briefly mentioned actions by the NAACP, but did not convert any of their court cases into visual data.

Even with these oversights, Gordon’s study has successfully connected to recent social and political events. In 2014, Gordon’s maps helped frame a discussion about unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the Michael Brown shooting, an event that launched the Black Lives Matter movement. On August 14, 2014, BloombergBuisinessweek published an article, “The County Map That Explains Ferguson’s Tragic Discord,” which highlights the maps posted on Gordon’s website. The article begins with the question, “What does a map have to do with a riot?”[13] The rest of the article connects Gordon’s maps to other recent scholarship to show how a history of racism and inequitable development of the city contributed to the recent tragedy.

Gordon and his research have become authoritative resources for people all over the country who are trying to make sense of events in Ferguson and St. Louis at large. Earlier this year, Gordon became the star witness in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of the Missouri NAACP against the Ferguson-Florissant School District in North County, St. Louis. In his testimony, Gordon exclaimed that “white flight patterns moved first from the city of St. Louis into the northern suburbs in the county. Blacks became concentrated in various large apartment complexes east of West Florissant Avenue, such as those on Canfield Drive, where Michael Brown was shot on Aug. 9, 2014.”[14] Gordon contends, in his book and testimony, that the city’s boundaries were drawn to keep black people out. “The seeds of that past discrimination are blooming now.”[15]

Another news article that references Gordon’s research went beyond the city’s physical restrictions to explain why white people and people of color continue to be separated psychologically. Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis underscored centuries-long white fear of African American franchise and agency with the following questions: “What would happen if the slaves revolted? If they got the right to vote? If thousands came and took our jobs? If they lived next door? If they came to the suburbs we built to get away from them? Or the suburbs we built to get away from those suburbs?”[16] This same article also suggested that any transition out of the current state of affairs would be difficult for a city that has been finding ways to control black people’s movements for hundreds of years, noting that “Today’s rules are about curfews, sagging pants, and evening protests. In the late 1770s, Spanish colonial ordinances restricted slaves from holding nocturnal assemblies, dressing ‘in barbarous fashion,’ and leaving their cabins.”[17] The parallels are eye-opening.

Seeing the connections between the historical and urgent current events in our country has given me a greater appreciation for Gordon’s book and website. As his research and news stories show, the results of systemic racism are not easily overcome. I expect that Mapping Decline will continue to contribute to this national conversation for years to come.

[1] Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 4.

[2] In addition to Mapping Decline, Gordon authored Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality (2013); Dead on Arrival: The Politics of Health in Twentieth Century America (2003); and New Deals: Business, Labor and Politics, 1920-1935 (1994).  His digital projects include “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City” (http://mappingdecline.lib.uiowa.edu/), an interactive mapping project based on his St. Louis research; “Digital Johnson County” (https://worldmap.harvard.edu/digitalJC/), which provides access to a wide range of map and data layers documenting the social, natural, and political history of Johnson County, Iowa; and “The Telltale Chart” (http://telltalechart.org/), a data visualization project that focuses on historical and recent economic data.

[3] Gordon, 70.

[4] Ibid., 83.

[5] Ibid., 84.

[6] Ibid., 71.

[7] Ibid., 98-99.

[8] Ibid., 221.

[9] Ibid., 96-97, 103-09.

[10] Ibid., 162-63.

[11] Ibid., 222.

[12] Ibid., xiii.

[13] Peter Coy, “The County Map That Explains Ferguson’s Tragic Discord,” BloombergBusinessweek, August 15, 2014, accessed November 1, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-08-15/how-st-dot-louis-countys-map-explains-fergusons-racial-discord.

[14] Tony Messenger, “Historian Highlights Racial Divide That Haunts St. Louis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 13, 2016, accessed November 1, 2016, http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/columns/tony-messenger/messenger-historian-highlights-racial-divide-that-haunts-st-louis/article_8c83ef3c-522a-5634-b816-e10d181e4d4f.html.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Jeannette Cooperman, “St. Louis: A City Divided,” Aljazeera America, August 18, 2014, accessed November 1, 2016, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/8/18/st-louis-segregation.html.

[17] Ibid.

Posted in 18th century America, 19th century America, African Americans, assimilation, capitalism, gender studies, historiography, imperialism, marginalization, material culture, Native Americans, paternalism, racial cleansing, racism, resistance, slavery, violence

American Slavery, American Freedom

The ‘Origins Debate’; Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom; and Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage

Glymph, Thavolia. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003 [1975].

(Cheating a little. This paper discussed two books, so I am posting the same paper under both titles.)

During the 1960s, distinguished scholars engaged in an “origins debate” that explored how and why a slave society in North America rose to such prominence. Initial questions had focused on when and why “Virginians first began enslaving blacks (and whether racism prompted or followed their decision).” [1] Eventually, historians expanded their research to encompass capitalist concerns, specifically questioning when and why plantation owners turned to slavery as the primary form of bound labor.  Later studies placed domestic slavery within a global context where it was foregrounded as the Civil War’s inevitable cause.[2] The “origins debate” was part of a longer conversation by scholars trying to make sense of the Civil War and developed alongside a larger debate over American exceptionalism in a war-torn world.[3]  This scholarship goes far beyond proving that slavery was the primary cause for secession. As Frank Towers points out, “Slavery now seems more integral to antebellum society, and secession looks more like other episodes in the creation of nineteenth-century nation-states.”[4] This paper examines the “origins debate,” Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) as the embodiment of this debate, and argues that Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage (2008) embodies a literature that now transcends the once pivotal “origins” question that runs through Morgan’s work.

Cathy Matson notes in her essay, “The Early Modern Chesapeake Redux–Again,” (2013) that scholars are indebted to a “long line of distinguished historians in the Chesapeake School” whose research provided the foundations for this field. Recent scholarship reveals the continued benefits of revisiting slave society localities from new vantage points with fresh sources.[5]  Matson revisited the long historiography in her 2013 essay, noting that some historians had subscribed to Winthrop Jordan’s “unthinking decision” thesis about the relationship between slavery and racism.  In his Bancroft Prize-winning book, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968), Jordan argued that English and Anglo-American perceptions about difference were used to justify race-based slavery, and liberty and justice for whites only. While other scholars “boldly reconceptualized” political and social history by integrating “religion, slavery, tobacco economies, and elite power.”[6]

In 2011, Frank Towers offered a historiographical review that outlined how historians attempted to make sense of the Civil War era. He noted that even as late as the 1970s, a grand narrative still told the story of America’s transition from “small-scale, agrarian communities with unfree labor to large-scale, industrial cities without it.”[7] Leading the way, Eugene Genovese had emphasized the role that Southern paternalism played. In this view, planters worked to maintain traditional order through master-slave relationships and proslavery Christianity.[8]

Also published in 2011 were two works by John C. Coombs: “Beyond the ‘Origins Debate’: Rethinking the Rise of Virginia Slavery” and Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion, which he co-edited with Douglas Bradburn. In both works, Coombs reconsiders the “origins debate” and challenges conclusions asserted by several leading scholars, including Edmund Morgan.

In 1975, Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia not only embodied this debate, it became the “most authoritative argument about the ‘paradox of slavery and freedom’ for the next thirty years.”[9] Morgan selected Virginia as the surest place to illustrate the “American paradox” of the “marriage of slavery and freedom.”[10] He shows that as the colony progressed, the elite landowners shifted their reliance on the labor of servants to slaves in order to demarcate and maintain their higher status and to increase production.[11] Converting enslavement into a permanent condition also helped to significantly reduce the growing number of impoverished freedmen in a society “where opportunities for advancement were limited.”[12]

Morgan asserts that white elites developed a racially-based slave system in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 as a way to control lower-class whites: “Resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class. For men bent on the maximum exploitation of labor the implication should have been clear.”[13] But Coombs challenges Morgan’s argument by insisting that African slavery already existed by the late seventeenth century, “These [elites] were not men on the verge of turning to slavery; they already had. And neither Bacon’s Rebellion nor the steep decline in the availability of white servants that occurred in the years after the revolt had anything to do with it.”[14]

Morgan presents a convincing argument that illuminates the progression from temporary servitude to lifetime slavery for nonwhites. He also offers strong evidence of white racism (upper and lower class) towards both Indians and Negroes. Some of the most revealing evidence of changing attitudes presented by Morgan involves the shift away from wanting to Christianize and civilize nonwhites because of a “lingering uneasiness about holding Christians in slavery.”[15]  As slavery became more profitable, laws were enacted to protect masters’ monetary investments by “building a wall between conversion and emancipation.”[16] Baptism no longer could be used to release Negroes or Indians from bondage.[17]

Morgan explains a similar “unthinking” transition from servant to slave labor as Winthrop Jordan argued in White over Black. For example, he writes, “The planters who bought slaves instead of servants did not do so with any apparent consciousness of the social stability to be gained thereby.”[18] However, Morgan concentrated extensive attention on Anglo-American/Native American race relations in the first half of the book in order to establish his argument. He conveyed these relationships as historically contingent processes rather than portraying them as inevitable nemeses.

Morgan concludes that elite white Virginians devised a system of slavery built on racism in order to focus lower-class white workers’ attentions on racial differences, away from the economic disparities between themselves and the elite. Yet, if Morgan’s assertion is correct, that elite white (male) planters further developed an already existing culture of racism in order to exert social control over poor white people, we need to carefully examine white women’s investment in racism and slavery. As noted historian Kathleen Brown points out in her review of American Slavery, American Freedom, “Only if white women actively promoted and reproduced the cultural values supporting slavery out of their own self-interest can we make sense of the deep and rapid proliferation of the racism.”[19] Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage (2008) makes great strides addressing this gap by revealing the power dynamics between black and white women in plantation households and uncovering the small acts of resistance that were central to enslaved women’s sense of self and dignity.

Glymph notes that many historians have questioned the power relations between slaves and slaveholders and between women and men; however, few historians have focused on the power relations solely between women. In Out of the House of Bondage, Glymph concentrates on the relationship dynamics between women of different races, rather than following in the footsteps of prior gendered discourse that examined men and women in opposition. Key to Glymph’s argument is her focus on “relations of power between women, and contests over that power.”[20] Although previous historians have recognized white slaveholding women’s privileges, they also treated these women as “suffering under the weight of the same patriarchal authority to which slaves were subjected.”[21] Glymph argues that presumptions about relationships between black and white women in these paternalistic households, “rest ultimately on uncritical acceptance of a huge assumption: that a gentle and noble white womanhood had once existed in fact, together with a cult of domesticity to which enslaved and free women mutually ascribed.”[22]

She reconstructs the daily practices of domination and defiance within the antebellum, wartime, and postbellum plantation households, while ceaselessly emphasizing that plantation mistresses were slaveholders who quite literally held the power over the life and death of enslaved people.[23] According to their diaries and letters, plantation mistresses considered themselves to be on a mission to civilize slave women. But, as Glymph reveals, enslaved women were notorious for not complying with their mistresses’ vision: “Slave women did not so much resist slavery as they resisted its supposed civilizing mission, no matter that slaveholders believed their status as slaves made them ineligible candidates for civilizing.”[24]

Parts of Glymph’s arguments are not new. Even Edmund Morgan described Virginians’ early attempts at civilizing Indians and Negroes. Glymph, however, refocuses attention within the “private” realm of the plantation household to expose its inherent violence and to demonstrate how myths of domesticity developed. She believes that when mistresses wrote about their attempts at civilizing their servants, they were actually trying to cover-up their own inadequacies and frustrations about slave resistance within the household.

Household slaves were restricted to the plantation, and were therefore severely limited in their ability to partake in violent rebellion.[25] Instead, they opted for subtle types of resistance, such as feigned illness, or stealing food or clothing. Many historians, even those who concentrate on gender studies, have overlooked these small acts of rebelliousness and the inter-female dynamics within the plantation household. Glymph underscores the importance of slave women’s small, ongoing acts of insubordination: “Resistance of this sort did not break the back of slavery, but it made the job of maintaining slavery more difficult and was central to black women’s sense of self and dignity.”[26] The agency of black women is visible in their daily defiance of white women’s demands for obedience.

Out of the House of Bondage transcends the origins debate in part by offering readers a glimpse of the politics of memory and the experience of the once enslaved. Along with the voices of ex-slaves gathered through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) slave narratives project, Glymph discloses the details of notes written by interviewers, which illuminate social undercurrents not otherwise seen. For the most part, local white women interviewed former slaves who brazenly exposed a “nongenteel white womanhood that was at odds with the Lost Cause propaganda” that permeated the North as well as the South.[27] These women actively challenged the symbolic and ideological apparatus of southern racism. Glymph asserts that by accusing former mistresses with “violent, unladylike conduct, with manufacturing dehumanizing spectacles for sadistic pleasure,” these former slaves intentionally violated the South’s racial creed. Making these accusations to other white women “added to the aggravation.”[28]

These personal notes shine a light on the enduring racism former slaves experienced long after the war, even within the realm of well-intentioned conversations. During one interview, George King recounted his memory of the “she-devil Mistress whipping his mammy.”[29] The interviewer seemed to be undisturbed by the nature of the punishment and simply concluded that the mistress “was a great believer in the power of punishment.”[30] Glymph notes that, for King, his mistress’ brutal actions and her ability to “walk away, laughing” prompted a different assessment of the event. “It fixed in his mind a portrait of southern white womanliness cropped of the metaphor of religiously sanctioned parental chastisement.”[31] These revelations also disclose the callous obliviousness of at least some of the WPA interviewers towards the former slaves they interviewed.

Like Steven Hahn’s A Nation under Our Feet, Glymph recognizes the Civil War as an episode in a much longer battle for black freedom.[32] In this view, the origins of slavery are a mere footnote to an epochal history of slavery and freedom. Hahn’s argument stressed the “national protections for slavery and the ‘revolutionary’ effort required to end the institution.”[33] However, this “institution” did not end with emancipation or the Civil War. Quoting Harold D. Woodman, Glymph emphasizes that “slavery was ‘more than a legal relationship; it had social and psychological dimensions that did not disappear with the passage of a law or a constitutional amendment.’”[34] She shows throughout her book that “the victories black women won in the first years of freedom, however, were not to last. Poverty, landlessness, peonage, discrimination, and violence forced them back to the fields and white homes on a full-time basis.”[35]

Glymph has offered a unique contribution to historical studies on slavery and the Civil War by reinterpreting plantation life and its aftermath through the lens of black women’s labor relations in white people’s homes. She highlights African American women’s political consciousness and agency by focusing on the small acts of defiance in which female slaves, and later freed women, engaged.  She also demonstrates that “white women’s agency has been profoundly underestimated.”[36] Although historians have not been clear about the role mistresses played in the construction of the social values of the Old South and in disciplining slaves, Glymph has thoroughly addressed these issues and set the bar for future scholarship.

[1] John C. Coombs, “Beyond the ‘Origins Debate’: Rethinking the Rise of Virginia Slavery,” in Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion (University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, 2011), 239.

[2] Frank Towers, “Partisans, New History, and Modernization: The Historiography of the Civil War’s Causes, 1861-2011,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 2 (2011): 245.

[3] Ibid., 238.

[4] Ibid., 256.

[5] Cathy D. Matson, “The Early Modern Chesapeake Redux–Again,” Reviews in American History 41, no. 2 (2013): 190.

[6] Ibid., 181.

[7] Towers,  247.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Matson,  181.

[10] Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003 [1975]), 6.

[11] Ibid., 307-09.

[12] Ibid., 308.

[13] Ibid., 269-70.

[14] Coombs,  in Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion, 249.

[15] Morgan, 332.

[16] Ibid., 331.

[17] Ibid., 332.

[18] Ibid., 308.

[19] Kathleen Brown, “Review: American Slavery, American Freedom,” Common-place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 1, 4 (July 2001), accessed December 8, 2016, http://www.common-place-archives.org/vol-01/no-04/reviews/brown.shtml.

[20] Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 235.

[21] Ibid., 23.

[22] Ibid., 135.

[23] Ibid., 2, 227.

[24] Ibid., 66.

[25] Historian Stephanie Camp refers to this restricted and surveilled space as a “geography of containment” in her book Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (2004).

[26] Glymph, 72.

[27] Ibid., 12.

[28] Ibid., 14.

[29] Ibid., 39.

[30] Ibid., 40.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Towers,  255-56. This refers to Hahn’s A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2004).

[33] Ibid.

[34] Glymph, 136.

[35] Ibid., 11.

[36] Ibid., 31.

Posted in 19th century America, African Americans, assimilation, capitalism, class, gender studies, historiography, imperialism, labor, marginalization, material culture, Native Americans, paternalism, racial cleansing, racism, resistance, slavery, violence

Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household

The ‘Origins Debate’; Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom; and Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage

Glymph, Thavolia. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003 [1975].

(Cheating a little. This paper discussed two books, so I am posting the same paper under both titles.)

During the 1960s, distinguished scholars engaged in an “origins debate” that explored how and why a slave society in North America rose to such prominence. Initial questions had focused on when and why “Virginians first began enslaving blacks (and whether racism prompted or followed their decision).” [1] Eventually, historians expanded their research to encompass capitalist concerns, specifically questioning when and why plantation owners turned to slavery as the primary form of bound labor.  Later studies placed domestic slavery within a global context where it was foregrounded as the Civil War’s inevitable cause.[2] The “origins debate” was part of a longer conversation by scholars trying to make sense of the Civil War and developed alongside a larger debate over American exceptionalism in a war-torn world.[3]  This scholarship goes far beyond proving that slavery was the primary cause for secession. As Frank Towers points out, “Slavery now seems more integral to antebellum society, and secession looks more like other episodes in the creation of nineteenth-century nation-states.”[4] This paper examines the “origins debate,” Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) as the embodiment of this debate, and argues that Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage (2008) embodies a literature that now transcends the once pivotal “origins” question that runs through Morgan’s work.

Cathy Matson notes in her essay, “The Early Modern Chesapeake Redux–Again,” (2013) that scholars are indebted to a “long line of distinguished historians in the Chesapeake School” whose research provided the foundations for this field. Recent scholarship reveals the continued benefits of revisiting slave society localities from new vantage points with fresh sources.[5]  Matson revisited the long historiography in her 2013 essay, noting that some historians had subscribed to Winthrop Jordan’s “unthinking decision” thesis about the relationship between slavery and racism.  In his Bancroft Prize-winning book, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968), Jordan argued that English and Anglo-American perceptions about difference were used to justify race-based slavery, and liberty and justice for whites only. While other scholars “boldly reconceptualized” political and social history by integrating “religion, slavery, tobacco economies, and elite power.”[6]

In 2011, Frank Towers offered a historiographical review that outlined how historians attempted to make sense of the Civil War era. He noted that even as late as the 1970s, a grand narrative still told the story of America’s transition from “small-scale, agrarian communities with unfree labor to large-scale, industrial cities without it.”[7] Leading the way, Eugene Genovese had emphasized the role that Southern paternalism played. In this view, planters worked to maintain traditional order through master-slave relationships and proslavery Christianity.[8]

Also published in 2011 were two works by John C. Coombs: “Beyond the ‘Origins Debate’: Rethinking the Rise of Virginia Slavery” and Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion, which he co-edited with Douglas Bradburn. In both works, Coombs reconsiders the “origins debate” and challenges conclusions asserted by several leading scholars, including Edmund Morgan.

In 1975, Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia not only embodied this debate, it became the “most authoritative argument about the ‘paradox of slavery and freedom’ for the next thirty years.”[9] Morgan selected Virginia as the surest place to illustrate the “American paradox” of the “marriage of slavery and freedom.”[10] He shows that as the colony progressed, the elite landowners shifted their reliance on the labor of servants to slaves in order to demarcate and maintain their higher status and to increase production.[11] Converting enslavement into a permanent condition also helped to significantly reduce the growing number of impoverished freedmen in a society “where opportunities for advancement were limited.”[12]

Morgan asserts that white elites developed a racially-based slave system in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 as a way to control lower-class whites: “Resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class. For men bent on the maximum exploitation of labor the implication should have been clear.”[13] But Coombs challenges Morgan’s argument by insisting that African slavery already existed by the late seventeenth century, “These [elites] were not men on the verge of turning to slavery; they already had. And neither Bacon’s Rebellion nor the steep decline in the availability of white servants that occurred in the years after the revolt had anything to do with it.”[14]

Morgan presents a convincing argument that illuminates the progression from temporary servitude to lifetime slavery for nonwhites. He also offers strong evidence of white racism (upper and lower class) towards both Indians and Negroes. Some of the most revealing evidence of changing attitudes presented by Morgan involves the shift away from wanting to Christianize and civilize nonwhites because of a “lingering uneasiness about holding Christians in slavery.”[15]  As slavery became more profitable, laws were enacted to protect masters’ monetary investments by “building a wall between conversion and emancipation.”[16] Baptism no longer could be used to release Negroes or Indians from bondage.[17]

Morgan explains a similar “unthinking” transition from servant to slave labor as Winthrop Jordan argued in White over Black. For example, he writes, “The planters who bought slaves instead of servants did not do so with any apparent consciousness of the social stability to be gained thereby.”[18] However, Morgan concentrated extensive attention on Anglo-American/Native American race relations in the first half of the book in order to establish his argument. He conveyed these relationships as historically contingent processes rather than portraying them as inevitable nemeses.

Morgan concludes that elite white Virginians devised a system of slavery built on racism in order to focus lower-class white workers’ attentions on racial differences, away from the economic disparities between themselves and the elite. Yet, if Morgan’s assertion is correct, that elite white (male) planters further developed an already existing culture of racism in order to exert social control over poor white people, we need to carefully examine white women’s investment in racism and slavery. As noted historian Kathleen Brown points out in her review of American Slavery, American Freedom, “Only if white women actively promoted and reproduced the cultural values supporting slavery out of their own self-interest can we make sense of the deep and rapid proliferation of the racism.”[19] Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage (2008) makes great strides addressing this gap by revealing the power dynamics between black and white women in plantation households and uncovering the small acts of resistance that were central to enslaved women’s sense of self and dignity.

Glymph notes that many historians have questioned the power relations between slaves and slaveholders and between women and men; however, few historians have focused on the power relations solely between women. In Out of the House of Bondage, Glymph concentrates on the relationship dynamics between women of different races, rather than following in the footsteps of prior gendered discourse that examined men and women in opposition. Key to Glymph’s argument is her focus on “relations of power between women, and contests over that power.”[20] Although previous historians have recognized white slaveholding women’s privileges, they also treated these women as “suffering under the weight of the same patriarchal authority to which slaves were subjected.”[21] Glymph argues that presumptions about relationships between black and white women in these paternalistic households, “rest ultimately on uncritical acceptance of a huge assumption: that a gentle and noble white womanhood had once existed in fact, together with a cult of domesticity to which enslaved and free women mutually ascribed.”[22]

She reconstructs the daily practices of domination and defiance within the antebellum, wartime, and postbellum plantation households, while ceaselessly emphasizing that plantation mistresses were slaveholders who quite literally held the power over the life and death of enslaved people.[23] According to their diaries and letters, plantation mistresses considered themselves to be on a mission to civilize slave women. But, as Glymph reveals, enslaved women were notorious for not complying with their mistresses’ vision: “Slave women did not so much resist slavery as they resisted its supposed civilizing mission, no matter that slaveholders believed their status as slaves made them ineligible candidates for civilizing.”[24]

Parts of Glymph’s arguments are not new. Even Edmund Morgan described Virginians’ early attempts at civilizing Indians and Negroes. Glymph, however, refocuses attention within the “private” realm of the plantation household to expose its inherent violence and to demonstrate how myths of domesticity developed. She believes that when mistresses wrote about their attempts at civilizing their servants, they were actually trying to cover-up their own inadequacies and frustrations about slave resistance within the household.

Household slaves were restricted to the plantation, and were therefore severely limited in their ability to partake in violent rebellion.[25] Instead, they opted for subtle types of resistance, such as feigned illness, or stealing food or clothing. Many historians, even those who concentrate on gender studies, have overlooked these small acts of rebelliousness and the inter-female dynamics within the plantation household. Glymph underscores the importance of slave women’s small, ongoing acts of insubordination: “Resistance of this sort did not break the back of slavery, but it made the job of maintaining slavery more difficult and was central to black women’s sense of self and dignity.”[26] The agency of black women is visible in their daily defiance of white women’s demands for obedience.

Out of the House of Bondage transcends the origins debate in part by offering readers a glimpse of the politics of memory and the experience of the once enslaved. Along with the voices of ex-slaves gathered through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) slave narratives project, Glymph discloses the details of notes written by interviewers, which illuminate social undercurrents not otherwise seen. For the most part, local white women interviewed former slaves who brazenly exposed a “nongenteel white womanhood that was at odds with the Lost Cause propaganda” that permeated the North as well as the South.[27] These women actively challenged the symbolic and ideological apparatus of southern racism. Glymph asserts that by accusing former mistresses with “violent, unladylike conduct, with manufacturing dehumanizing spectacles for sadistic pleasure,” these former slaves intentionally violated the South’s racial creed. Making these accusations to other white women “added to the aggravation.”[28]

These personal notes shine a light on the enduring racism former slaves experienced long after the war, even within the realm of well-intentioned conversations. During one interview, George King recounted his memory of the “she-devil Mistress whipping his mammy.”[29] The interviewer seemed to be undisturbed by the nature of the punishment and simply concluded that the mistress “was a great believer in the power of punishment.”[30] Glymph notes that, for King, his mistress’ brutal actions and her ability to “walk away, laughing” prompted a different assessment of the event. “It fixed in his mind a portrait of southern white womanliness cropped of the metaphor of religiously sanctioned parental chastisement.”[31] These revelations also disclose the callous obliviousness of at least some of the WPA interviewers towards the former slaves they interviewed.

Like Steven Hahn’s A Nation under Our Feet, Glymph recognizes the Civil War as an episode in a much longer battle for black freedom.[32] In this view, the origins of slavery are a mere footnote to an epochal history of slavery and freedom. Hahn’s argument stressed the “national protections for slavery and the ‘revolutionary’ effort required to end the institution.”[33] However, this “institution” did not end with emancipation or the Civil War. Quoting Harold D. Woodman, Glymph emphasizes that “slavery was ‘more than a legal relationship; it had social and psychological dimensions that did not disappear with the passage of a law or a constitutional amendment.’”[34] She shows throughout her book that “the victories black women won in the first years of freedom, however, were not to last. Poverty, landlessness, peonage, discrimination, and violence forced them back to the fields and white homes on a full-time basis.”[35]

Glymph has offered a unique contribution to historical studies on slavery and the Civil War by reinterpreting plantation life and its aftermath through the lens of black women’s labor relations in white people’s homes. She highlights African American women’s political consciousness and agency by focusing on the small acts of defiance in which female slaves, and later freed women, engaged.  She also demonstrates that “white women’s agency has been profoundly underestimated.”[36] Although historians have not been clear about the role mistresses played in the construction of the social values of the Old South and in disciplining slaves, Glymph has thoroughly addressed these issues and set the bar for future scholarship.

[1] John C. Coombs, “Beyond the ‘Origins Debate’: Rethinking the Rise of Virginia Slavery,” in Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion (University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, 2011), 239.

[2] Frank Towers, “Partisans, New History, and Modernization: The Historiography of the Civil War’s Causes, 1861-2011,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 2 (2011): 245.

[3] Ibid., 238.

[4] Ibid., 256.

[5] Cathy D. Matson, “The Early Modern Chesapeake Redux–Again,” Reviews in American History 41, no. 2 (2013): 190.

[6] Ibid., 181.

[7] Towers,  247.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Matson,  181.

[10] Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003 [1975]), 6.

[11] Ibid., 307-09.

[12] Ibid., 308.

[13] Ibid., 269-70.

[14] Coombs,  in Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion, 249.

[15] Morgan, 332.

[16] Ibid., 331.

[17] Ibid., 332.

[18] Ibid., 308.

[19] Kathleen Brown, “Review: American Slavery, American Freedom,” Common-place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 1, 4 (July 2001), accessed December 8, 2016, http://www.common-place-archives.org/vol-01/no-04/reviews/brown.shtml.

[20] Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 235.

[21] Ibid., 23.

[22] Ibid., 135.

[23] Ibid., 2, 227.

[24] Ibid., 66.

[25] Historian Stephanie Camp refers to this restricted and surveilled space as a “geography of containment” in her book Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (2004).

[26] Glymph, 72.

[27] Ibid., 12.

[28] Ibid., 14.

[29] Ibid., 39.

[30] Ibid., 40.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Towers,  255-56. This refers to Hahn’s A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2004).

[33] Ibid.

[34] Glymph, 136.

[35] Ibid., 11.

[36] Ibid., 31.

Posted in 18th century America, capitalism, Christianity, gender studies, material culture, religion, slavery

Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America

Brekus, Catherine A. Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

University of Minnesota religious historian Kirsten Fischer originally followed in the footsteps of other historians who had written about Elihu Palmer as the “most outspoken campaigner for deism in the new United States.”[1] Yet, she realized that some of Palmer’s writings failed to support the “deist notion of a transcendent Creator God.”[2] She went back to what Palmer had studied in order to trace his ideas to their sources and concluded that he was actually promoting a vitalist cosmology, which contributed to the “most radically iconoclastic and egalitarian ideas available in the new republic.”[3]  Her July 2016 article, “Vitalism in America: Elihu Palmer’s Radical Religion in the Early Republic,” reexamines Palmer’s writings in order to help elucidate the “full spectrum of ideas that shaped the debates over religion, democracy, and the direction the new nation [took].”[4] She asks, “why should we care now about Palmer’s vitalist proselytizing when it remained a minority view, failed to start a lasting movement in America, and has been largely overlooked ever since?”[5] What can a book that focuses on a such a narrow piece of religious history and that seems to have little relevance to the current state of the world offer us? Fischer’s inquiry can be extrapolated to not only ponder the current state of religious history in general, but this week’s primary reading in particular.

On one level, Catherine A. Brekus’ Sarah Osborn’s World is a biography of an obscure eighteenth-century Rhode Island schoolteacher who narrates her struggles and triumphs through personal writings. Brekus examined Sarah’s diaries and letters that were written between 1743 and her death in 1796 to uncover how she tried to make sense of her life. In these writings, Sarah reflected upon losing her only son at the age of 11, her ongoing poverty, and the role she played as an outspoken religious leader in her community at a time when women were not allowed to preach. Yet, Brekus goes far beyond Sarah’s struggles by connecting them to key developments in eighteenth century America, which both encompassed the nascent stages of evangelical Christianity and the tenets of modern society. She asserts that “it is clear that the movement [evangelicalism] emerged in response to momentous changes in politics, economics, intellectual life, science, and technology that laid the foundations for our modern world.”[6]

Brekus offers a complex analysis about the ways Sarah’s faith and lived religion helped her find and make meaning in her life. She presented Sarah’s insights concerning slavery and discussed some of the problems with her neighbors Sarah faced due to the large interracial and interdenominational meetings she held. But Sarah’s popularity continued to grow because people were drawn to her “because of her steadfast faith in the midst of suffering.”[7] Sarah’s spiritual convictions awarded her agency to affect her community and to be a part of a religious movement that continues to reverberate today.

This work challenges current scholarship that places evangelical Christianity at odds with Enlightenment thought. Brekus explains that neither evangelicalism nor the Enlightenment was a “single, coherent movement;” rather, they each interacted and developed in tandem as a response to momentous societal conditions and changes such as the rise of merchant capitalism, slavery, technological advances, the consumer revolution, the American Revolution, and expanding personal freedom.[8] She asserts that “evangelicalism was a heart-centered, experiential, individualistic, and evangelistic form of Protestantism that was intertwined with the rise of the modern world.”[9] But the question about the importance of religion to the study of early American history remains.

During a 2013 Juntocast (podcast), several academics, Kenneth Owen, Michael Hattem, and Roy Rogers, discussed different aspects of religion in early America, recent historiographical developments, and pedagogical practices.[10] They agreed that religion is central to all types of histories. Hattem suggested that people today fail to understand how important religion was to those living during the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, “not in a theological way, but in a cultural way.”[11] He mentioned that there is currently a turn away from the secular narrative towards the role of religion within Enlightenment thought. He added that the problem with much of the current history is that religion has been treated as an isolated topic, which is the opposite of how he thinks it should be approached.[12]

Rogers noted that three key changes can be seen in the historiography of early American history over the past twenty years, which can be attributed to the great strengthening of the history of evangelicalism: focus on what Rogers termed as the “democratization thesis,” lived religion, and race.[13] He claimed that recent history of evangelicalism has affected all history focused on this time period and has successfully united all three of these main topics. Of particular importance has been recent scholarship’s attentiveness to the transformative power of evangelical conversion.[14]

Based on the assessments of Juntocast’s academics and Kirsten Fischer’s example, Sarah Osborn’s World seems to model the best types of scholarship being done in early American history today.

[1] Kirsten Fischer, “On (Finally) Seeing What’s Right in Front of You When It’s Not What You Expected,” Uncommon Sense – The Blog, December 2, 2015, accessed October 14, 2016, http://blog.oieahc.wm.edu/on-finally-seeing-whats-right-in-front-of-you-when-its-not-what-you-expected/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kirsten Fischer, “Vitalism in America: Elihu Palmer’s Radical Religion in the Early Republic,” William & Mary Quarterly 73, no. 3 (July 2016): 507.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 506.

[6] Catherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 7.

[7] Ibid., 254.

[8] Ibid., 7-8.

[9] Ibid., 11.

[10] Kenneth Owens, Michael Hattern, and Roy Rogers, host, “A Podcast on Early American History : Ep. 4: Religion in Early America,” The JuntoCast, 2013, accessed October 14, 2016, http://thejuntocast.libsyn.com/ep-4-religion-in-early-america.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Rogers explains that “the social control” thesis argues that the “always-rising middle-class used evangelicalism to solidify their social, economic, and political position through evangelicalism’s promotion of market-friendly values, thrift, delayed gratification, temperance, etc. This middle-class evangelical benevolent empire, over time, sought to impose its values upon the classes both above and below on the antebellum social ladder.” On the flipside, the “democratization thesis” reverses the logic of arguing, that “evangelicalization was a liberating process, not a reactionary one.” Roy Rogers, “After Democratization?,” The Junto, 2013, accessed October 16, 2016, https://earlyamericanists.com/2013/03/14/after-democratization/.

[14] Owens, Hattern, and Rogers,

Posted in African Americans, capitalism, material culture, racism, slavery

River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom

Johnson, Walter. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013.

In River of Dark Dreams, Walter Johnson presents a “materialist turn in the study of slavery” in the way that he examines how the “lives of enslaved people were limited, shaped, even determined by their enslavement–bales per acre per slave, pounds per day, lashes and rations, field and woods, solidarity and betrayal: these were the circumstances in which slaves made history.”[1] Johnson reveals slaves as historical agents within the limitations of their enslavement, furthering his ongoing project on agency.[2] Johnson’s 2003 essay, “On Agency,” admonishes social historians for trying to “give the slaves back their agency,” claiming that such attempts obscure important questions about the experience of the enslaved that need to be asked.[3]  Johnson claims that the term “agency” remains ensconced within a (white) liberal notion of self-determination that is inherently at odds with the conditions of slavery, which reduces the complexity of human agency  to just “resistance” to slavery.[4] He implores historians to “try to imagine a history of slavery which sees the lives of enslaved people as powerfully conditioned by, though not reducible to, their slavery.”[5] He asserts that a new way of thinking about slavery can evolve from  questioning the conditions of enslaved humanity, rather than searching for evidence of resistance (“humanity as indexed by the presence of acts of self-determination”).[6] Johnson proposes that to sort “humanity” from “agency” from “resistance,” historians should focus on forms of human “agency” that are not considered practices of resistance at all, specifically, collaboration and betrayal.[7] In order to correctly address human agency, Johnson prompts historians to ask how enslaved people created relationships and political movements; how they talked to one another about slavery, resistance, and revolution; and how they figured out who they could and could not trust.[8]

In River of Dark Dreams, Johnson sheds light on the love, practices of solidarity, and “ethic of care” within communities of enslaved people that took shape through sharing food, tending to the wounded, sheltering the escaped, and mourning the loss of those who had been sold.[9] In one telling example, John Parker, “whose hunger drove him to ‘desperation’” tried to steal some food, but was discovered by the cook. In that moment, he was sure that “it was all over” for him, but she recognized his situation. Parker said, “Without either of us saying a word, she went to the cupboard, took out a good-sized bowl, put it in front of me, handed me a ladle, pointed at the pot of soup, and went out of the room.”[10] This enslaved woman’s willingness to put herself at risk to help a man that she did not know hints at a “wordless affiliation among the enslaved.”[11] For Johnson, slaves cannot be reduced to the conditions of their slavery. Their actions transcended and actively reshaped their environment.[12]

Johnson’s call for historians to consider the conditions of slavery when addressing issues of agency is not meant to suggest that historians should steer clear of stories of violent resistance. In “On Agency,” he also urges historians to consider how individual acts of sabotage and subterfuge might have led to an explicit threat to slavery and to question the relationship between individual and collective acts of resistance.[13]  The Haitian Revolution, as discussed in River of Dark Dreams, is a case in point. Johnson declares that the history of the Mississippi Valley’s cotton empire, which sad come to symbolize the word “slavery,” has always been closely tied with the history of the most successful slave revolt in the world, the Haitian Revolution.[14] Johnson asserts that in Napoleon’s global vision of the French Empire, the Mississippi Valley would “provide the food that would support Haitian slaves as they cultivated sugar for European markets.”[15] The success of the Haitian Revolution diminished the value of the Mississippi Valley to Napoleon significantly, which consequently facilitated the Louisiana Purchase. The first image insert in the book notes, “The revolution in Haiti haunted Valley slaveholders all the way up until the Civil War.”[16] Throughout River of Dark Dreams, Johnson shows how the success of the world’s most successful slave revolt influenced pro-slavery discussions and decisions.[17]

Whether through simple acts of kindness or large-scale violent revolts, slaves are shown to be historical agents in River of Dark Dreams.

[1] Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013), 217, 473fn22.

[2] Ibid., 217.

[3] Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37, no. 1 (2003): 114.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 115.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 116.

[8] Ibid., 118.

[9] Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, 146.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 147.

[12] Ibid., 217.

[13] Johnson, “On Agency,” 116-17. Emphasis in original.

[14] Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, 22.

[15] Ibid., 23.

[16] Ibid., 23, 33, image insert 1.

[17] Ibid., 84, 314, 17, 21, 61-63, 405.

Image from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324880504578297992942894884