Posted in 19th century America, assimilation, borderlands, homelessness, journal articles, law, marginalization, Native Americans, reformers

To Domesticate and Civilize Wild Indians’: Allotment and the Campaign to Reform Indian Families, 1875-1887

Stremlau, Rose. 2005. “‘To Domesticate and Civilize Wild Indians’: Allotment and the Campaign to Reform Indian Families, 1875-1887”. Journal of Family History. 30, no. 3: 265-286.

By the 1880s, critics of Indian affairs proposed a solution to the “Indian problem,” which they saw as the refusal or inability of Native Americans to assimilate into American society. Native families lived in multigenerational, multifamily households. These extended households generated the social reproduction of Native societies. Reformers believed that Native American communal systems prevented assimilation, so they implemented federal policies to fracture the kinship relationships into male-dominant, nuclear families, modeled after white middle-class American households. The primary policy offered American citizenship and property ownership in exchange for agreeing to move away from tribal land.  This act was meant to foster individualism, defeat communalism, and instill the core values of white American culture.  It also provided the reformers with the excess tribal land not allotted to the Native Americans.  In 1887, President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Act. The reformers believed that they had freed the oppressed Indian people by dismantling communal and tribal relations.   These amendments resulted in dramatic losses of land that impoverished Indian communities. Stremlau concludes that “throughout the brutal poverty and oppression of the allotment period, Native kin continued to care for one another, however, and it was only this communalism that enabled Native people to survive.” (281)

Stremlau presents a strong argument that shows how misguided American people and lawmakers can be in their pursuit to inflict “American values” on other cultures, even within our own borders.  Their “well-meaning” policies stripped Native Americans of their land and heritage.  I disagree with the author’s assessment of the reformers’ and lawmakers’ good intentions; rather, arrogance, racism, and greed motivated these reforms.  The article shows how decisions made by those in power can disenfranchise communities and steal resources from large groups of people.  This article, along with Buried in the Bitter Waters, shows how those in power made entire communities homeless and established a precedent that promulgated multigenerational poverty.

Posted in 20th century America, assimilation, death, journal articles, Korean War, military, Native Americans, racism

Burying Sergeant Rice: Racial Justice and Native American Rights in the Truman Era

Kotlowski, Dean J. “Burying Sergeant Rice: Racial Justice and Native American Rights in the Truman Era.” Journal of American Studies 38, no. 2 (2004): 199-225.

In 1951, Sergeant First Class John Raymond Rice, an eleven-year veteran of the United States Army who had been killed in the Korean War, was refused burial in Sioux City, Iowa’s Memorial Park cemetery, because he was not white. The insult enraged many Americans, including President Harry S. Truman, who soon arranged for the soldier’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Kotlowski recounts the history of this event and notes three larger themes. First is the character of Truman, a President whose historical reputation has fluctuated over the years. Second, this event revelas how mid-twentieth-century liberals approached the issue of race. Kotlowski points out that Native Americans were often lumped together with African Americans’ fight for equality, whose leaders advocated integration into white society during the 1950s. Native Americans fought a different fight. And third, veterans and minorities were rightfully outraged when the Cold War mantra was for national unity. But again, Native Americans did not want to assimilate. They wanted to maintain their special rights, privileges, and institutions.

The Rice burial unfolded within the context of an evolving federal policy toward Native Americans. Kotlowski illuminated the postwar climate and federal programs meant to integrate disparate communities. He shed light on Truman’s affinity for Native Americans and also his disinterest in preserving them. Kotlowski also painted an intimate portrait of Rice, his community, and the bias against Native Americans, even in death.

Truman’s gesture was not politically motivated but generated out of moral outrage concerning racial prejudice against a soldier. (214) Kotlowski recounted a particularly vicious attack in 1946 against Isaac Woodard, a recently discharged African American sergeant, who had his eyes gouged out by a sheriff in South Carolina. Truman cited the Woodard attack when defending his decision to desegregate the armed services. (214) Many Americans applauded Truman’s gesture. Yet, it was interesting that non-assimilated Native Americans did not respond with the same enthusiasm. The government, including the President, continued to believe that Native Americans should not retain their unique, federally protected status.

Posted in 17th century America, African Americans, gender studies, marginalization, material culture, Native Americans, racism, religion, resistance, slavery, violence

The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast

Lipman, Andrew. The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Merrell, James H. “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians.” The William and Mary Quarterly. 69, no. 3 (2012): 451-512.

 

James Merrell presents evidence in his article “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians” that shows how many historians continue to propagate a flawed lexicon that impedes understanding of early American history. He points out that “early Americanists are still shackled to a lexicon crafted by the victors in the contest for America, one fashioned to explain, even justify, how things turned out (Merrell 2012, 458).  Merrell urges historians to find new ways to explore this history. Andrew Lipman’s book, The Saltwater Frontier, has been lauded for its new and insightful narrative that refocuses American Indian history away from the land towards the sea. Lipman’s intention was to do just that as evidenced by remarks in his introduction, “By looking towards the sea rather than the land, this book offers a new way of thinking about Indian history and a new way of understanding this all-too familiar region” (Lipman 2015, 4). In order to evaluate this claim, I contemplated what a new way of talking about early America might look like. I also considered places where Lipman succeeded and where he missed the mark.

Lipman asserts that “viewing saltwater as the primary stage of cultural encounters changes our simple narratives of colonization” (7). He acquaints readers with several simplified stories in the book’s introduction and discusses ways that many historians already have successfully challenged pervasive myths of the Great Frontier (8-13). Lipton’s work is built upon the work of other historians, so in many ways, Saltwater Frontier is a continuation rather than a new way of thinking about the frontier. In a particularly telling example, Lipman credits Olivia Bush-Banks and her poem “Driftwood” (1916) as his inspiration for reimagining America’s embattled territory as a sea story: “Her verses articulated the idea that the ocean was a frontier” (12). Poetry and metaphor are extraordinary tools for rupturing closed systems of thought. Unfortunately, most of Lipman’s prose remains within the limits of traditional historical writing, even though he has reimagined contested territory to include the ocean. In order to devise a truly new way of talking about early American history, Lipman could have infused his historical writing with meaningful creative insights such as his “Driftwood” example. Instead, his work is bounded within the academic norms of his genre.

Saltwater Frontier is “primarily about how three things—seafaring, violence, and Atlantic geopolitics—shaped one place” (14). All three of these topics are endemic to a male worldview. Lipman offers an extensive reading list for those interested in learning more about this time period through the lens of gender, slavery, religion, etc. Indeed, authors must select which information to include and leave out in order to create a coherent narrative; however, some of the particular choices Lipman made relegated his narrative to sit within the hegemonic ranks. Why show preferential treatment for the male propensity for conquest and domination? Of course, writing a book about “Indians and the Contest for the American Coast” would be near impossible without such a focus. So the question becomes, if Lipman wanted to meet Merrell’s challenge to talk about early American history in a new way, why did he choose to write a book that remains rooted in a dominant perspective? The answer to this question may be tied to another of Merrell’s insights.

Merrell referred to something that he called “cartographic mind games.” In essence, maps are tools of the elite that help to control how people view the world. Quoting Gregory H. Nobles and others, Merrell asserts that maps “often represented the world not as it really was but as the mapmaker (or, more to the point, the mapmaker’s sponsor) wanted it to be. Thus maps became important instruments of imperial policy” (Merrell 2012, 483). Maps and language are tools used to represent reality. Most academics are severely restricted within the confines of their professional fields (especially newly minted academics, such as Lipman). I would not go so far as to assert that historians at the top of the field and academic publishers intentionally manipulate the field. Nevertheless, they are the driving force as well as a part of the academic history apparatus. Academics have been trained to think and speak about the world in particular ways and are censured or rewarded accordingly. Perhaps, someday, Lipman will return to his “Driftwood” inspiration and find new ways to explore the territory.

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, 19th century America, borderlands, historiography, marginalization, material culture, myths, Native Americans, racial cleansing, racism, resistance

Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West

Blackhawk, Ned. Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

(This is also a borderlands historiography.)

Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron do not share the same conception of a “borderland” as Ned Blackhawk precisely because Blackhawk gives voice to the pain and violence suffered by Native Americans in his story, while Adelman and Aron remain focused on boundaries of imperial conquest.

What is borderlands history? Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett argue in their essay “On Borderlands” that borderlands histories are not traditional frontier histories, “where empires and settler colonists prepare the stage for nations, national expansion, and a transcontinental future.” They explain,

If frontiers were the places where we once told our master American narratives, then borderlands are the places where those narratives come unraveled. They are ambiguous and often-unstable realms where boundaries are also crossroads, peripheries are also central places, homelands are also passing through places, and the end points of empire are also forks in the road. If frontiers are spaces of narrative closure, then borderlands are places where stories take unpredictable turns and rarely end as expected.[1]

After recapping several early milestones in borderlands history, Hämäläinen and Truett identify Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron’s “From Borderlands to Borders” as a “landmark essay on the state of the field.”[2] Hämäläinen and Truett assert, “With an eye to distinctions, definitions, and membership, Adelman and Aron proposed a new frontier-borderlands grammar to connect current work and give it a shared lineage.”[3]

Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis once again is brought into focus as Adelman and Aron attempt to differentiate the terminology of “frontier” from “borderlands.” They claim that recent historians have simply substituted one term for the other, when in fact, the terms should be used quite differently. Adelman and Aron define a frontier as “a meeting place of people in which geographic and cultural borders were not clearly defined” and borderlands as “the contested boundaries between colonial domains.”[4] They assert that these distinctions should allow historians to address the often overlooked “competitive nature of European imperialism and the ways in which these rivalries shaped transitions from colonies to nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”[5] However, by framing borderlands history around European imperialism, instead of Native American experience and agency, Adelman and Aron appear to have replicated the same “triumphalist and Anglocentric narrative of continental conquest” that Turner was guilty of.[6]

In a scathing critique of Adelman and Aron’s “new paradigm for understanding Indian and EuroAmerican relationships,” John R. Wunder and Pekka Hämäläinen accuse the authors of relegating Native Americans to the “historical scrap heap” just as Turner had.[7] “In many ways,” Wunder and Hämäläinen argue, “Adelman and Aron’s model marks a return to a Turnerian tradition in which native populations are objects rather than subjects, mere pawns in the great colonial board game.”[8] Their article, “Of Lethal Places and Lethal Essays,” identifies and challenges four major problems in “From Borderlands to Borders” that include factual errors as well as conceptual ones. The biggest complaint was that Adelman and Aron left out the very people whose homelands were invaded. Wunder and Hämäläinen assert that

[Adelman and Aron] evidently believe empires are European and lead to nation-states; empires are never indigenous, nor is there such an entity as an Indian nation. By definition, treaties are fictive or cynical tracts. Frontiers are ambiguous, borderless meeting places that involve cultural mixing. Borderlands are places of European imperial rivalry where Indians slyly seek micro-diplomatic openings. Once the rivalry is over, borderlands can become bordered land, where national borders are defined, and indigenous peoples are swallowed up by national cultures.[9]

Hämäläinen and Truett show in “On Borderlands” how new borderlands historians have begun to rewrite North American history “as a history of entanglements—of shifting accommodations—rather than one of expansion.”[10] Historians now recognize that Early America was more native than formerly assumed. Native Americans played a “decisive and frequently unexpected role in the movements of empires and the rise of modern nations.”[11] Ned Blackhawk’s Violence Over the Land fits into this new form of borderlands history.

In Violence Over the Land, Blackhawk emphasizes the pain and the violence endured by the Shoshone, Ute and Paiute peoples during and following European and American conquests of the Great Basin region. He argues that for Native Americans, violence “became a necessary form of social, economic, and political survival, a practice that beleaguered as much as benefited.”[12] He underscores the pain and terror that Native Americans endured under European and American powers, and how many of these Indians inflicted similar violence on other indigenous groups. Blackhawk notes that “violence weds the history of these Native groups to larger imperial histories.”[13] Yet, his story is not just about the subjugation of Native Americans. He shows how they influenced imperial nations as well as other Native Americans.

Horses, introduced through Spanish colonization, became a defining technology for the indigenous people in the Great Basin region.[14] By 1730, Comanches were entirely equestrian.[15] Blackhawk asserts that “the emerging imperial borderlands between New Spain and French Louisiana became the primary centers of the Comanche world, and their former Ute allies lost the influence they had once achieved with their Comanche kinsmen.”[16]  Horses remade Native economies and polities.

Blackhawk claims that even though historians, such as Turner, “declare the process of American expansion as the foundational experience of American history,” few historians acknowledge that the effects of American expansion on Indian peoples are representative of the American experience.[17]

The challenge with addressing borderlands, according to Hämäläinen and Truett, is to “find ways to reconcile old empire-centered and nation-centered narratives with indigenous and nonstate space and territoriality.”[18] I think that Blackhawk’s work has done an excellent job of reconciling the two.

[1] Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, “On Borderlands,” Journal of American History 98, no. 2 (2011): 338. Pekka Hämäläinen is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University. Samuel Truett is associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

[2] Ibid., 344.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in between in North American History,” The American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (1999): 815-16.

[5] Ibid., 815.

[6] Ibid., 814.

[7] John R. Wunder and Pekka Hamalainen, “Of Lethal Places and Lethal Essays,” American Historical Review 104, no. 4 (1999): 1230. Note that these criticisms were published concurrently with Adelman and Aron’s article. Hamalainen’s (and Truett’s) (re)assessment of “From Borderlands to Borders” as a “landmark essay” came twelve years later.

[8] Ibid., 1232.

[9] Ibid., 1229. Evan Haefeli also challenged aspects of Adelman and Aron’s essay. Adelman and Aron published a rebuttal to the three authors in the same issue of The American Historical Review. Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, “Of Lively Exchanges and Larger Perspectives,” The American Historical Review 104, no. 4 (1999): 1235-39; Evan Haefeli, “A Note on the Use of North American Borderlands,” The American Historical Review 104, no. 4 (1999): 1222-25.

[10] Hämäläinen and Truett,  346-47.

[11] Ibid., 347.

[12] Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 265.

[13] Ibid., 8.

[14] Ibid., 19.

[15] Ibid., 61.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 9.

[18] Hämäläinen and Truett,  352.

Image from http://www.bitterrootranch.com/stories-from-the-ranch/horse-transforms-plains-indian-culture-life/