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 19th century America, African Americans, education, Ku Klux Klan, law, marginalization, material culture, missionaries, paternalism, religion, resistance, slavery, violence

Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom

Williams, Heather Andrea. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Heather Andrea Williams’ study emerged from one historical question: “What did ordinary African Americans in the South do to provide education for themselves during slavery and when slavery ended?”[1] Williams dispels common myths that African Americans did little to educate themselves while enslaved and that white Northern missionaries were chiefly responsible for educating emancipated slaves. Self-Taught claims that the fight for education was inseparable from the fight against slavery. Williams shows that enslaved and free African Americans highly regarded literacy for practical purposes (e.g., recording children’s births, reading the Bible), and as a means for freedom. Both before and after enslavement, African Americans organized to educate themselves, and in the wake of their newly found freedom, collectively pursued public education as a right, which positively influenced the overall development of public schools in the South. The sight of black adults and children filling schoolhouses inspired many whites to seek an education for themselves. But many white leaders worried that blacks would ultimately surpass poor whites and upset the traditional social order.[2] By declaring their right to public education, formerly enslaved people paved the way for state-funded education for all races in the 1800s.[3]

Williams’ first book is based on her 2002 dissertation from Yale University, “Self-Taught: The Role of African Americans in Educating the Freed People, 1861—1871.”  Before returning to graduate school, she served as an Assistant Attorney General and Section Chief for the State of New York and as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice.[4]  Clearly, Williams’ legal background assisted her nuanced interpretation of evidence, which came from diverse archives, such as the Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands; U.S. Senate reports on the Ku Klux Klan; U.S. War Department 128 volume The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; and the American Missionary Association Manuscripts, 1839—1882. In addition, she scoured historical newspapers and periodicals published by sources that offered first-hand accounts, such as the American Missionary Association and black presses. Through detailed biographical descriptions, Williams invites her readers to enter into the captivating details of individuals’ lives and struggles.

Williams acknowledges the research that her study was built upon, most of which she challenges. In 1941, Henry Lee Swint was the first to write a monograph on the topic, The Northern Teacher in the South, 1862-1871. The book justified white southern hostilities towards black education, focusing mostly on how northern abolitionist beliefs disregarded the southern way of life.[5] Williams values the contributions of Robert C. Morris’ Reading, ‘Riting, and Reconstruction (1981), but points out that it focuses more on missionary teachers than on freedpeople.[6] And Jaqueline Jones’ Soldiers of Light and Love (1980) showed African Americans as active participants in their education; however, the main focus of the book is on missionary teachers and their motivations for heading South to teach.[7] To balance these biased accounts, Williams crafts her narrative of the early stages of African American education from the perspective of slaves and free blacks.

The story is told in nine chapters, an epilogue, and an appendix that documents various antebellum statutes that prohibited teaching slaves and free blacks. The first three chapters are instrumental in setting the foundation for the rest of the book. Chapter 1, “In Secret Places,” explores what literacy meant to enslaved people and recounts how they achieved this goal against almost insurmountable odds. Williams mentions that many historians attribute antiliteracy legislation to Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831; however, she notes that it began a century earlier in 1739 in the aftermath of the Stono Rebellion.[8] Fearing insurrection, southern legislatures implemented laws to prevent people from instructing slaves or free blacks to read and write. Around 1830, as southern states “ratcheted up their efforts to sustain a way of life that depended on slavery,” northern abolitionists shifted into action prompted by a North Carolina statute that articulated the connection between slave literacy and slave control.[9] Other states soon followed suit. Williams discloses how slaves developed superior listening and memory skills, which enabled them to share news through word of mouth. Slaves observed the intense surveillance and control related to their literacy skills, and recognized them as a means to freedom. Williams explores the ways African Americans stealthily grew literate and shared their skills with one another.

Chapter 2, “A Coveted Possession: Literacy in the First Days of Freedom,” follows African Americans out of slavery into contraband camps and freedpeople’s villages. Community leaders contacted Northern missionaries requesting their assistance. Williams presents the story from the vantage point of former slaves, challenging earlier studies framed solely by missionaries’ perspectives. Earlier works promoted the notion that newly freed slaves passively accepted their education from northern missions. In contrast, Williams reveals freedpeople’s motivations and drive for obtaining an education for themselves. They built and taught within their own schools, many times facing great risk of violence from white southerners. Benevolent societies, including the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association, often took credit for single-handedly educating former slaves. Although the resources provided by these groups were essential, many well-meaning reformers carried their racial misconceptions with them, which in turn, colored their interactions and resulting documentation of the events.

Chapter 3, “The Men Are Actually Clamoring for Books: African American Soldiers and the Educational Mission,” also follows African Americans out of slavery, but this time, into the Union Army. Williams discusses the link between perceived manhood and soldiering. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, many African American men joined the Union Army in the hope of finding equal treatment, which they did not find. Literate men, however, were afforded elevated status within black communities. Central to Williams’ discussion are the men and women who were integral to the “teaching corps” for soldiers.[10] These soldiers helped to build and teach in schools across Arkansas, Virginia, Georgia, and other states. Additionally, these teachers contributed thousands of dollars toward the founding of the Lincoln Institute, a permanent legacy for future generations. The most notable personality was Elijar Marrs, a self-taught slave who became a sergeant in the Union Army. Following the end of war, he became a teacher in Kentucky for thirty years, modeling the highest ideals of Williams’ study.

Chapters 4-9 focus on African American schools, students, and communities. Chapter 4, “We Must Get Education for Ourselves and our Children: Advocacy for Education,” examines the political organizing of newly freed people, revealing the importance of self-help and self-determination as community values. The chapter also traces early efforts to make education a civil right. Chapter 5, “We are Striving to do Business on our own Hook: Organizing Schools on the Ground,” explores how African Americans initially implemented their schools and the resulting conflicts with white northerners over their control. Chapter 6, “We are Laboring under Many Difficulties: African American Teachers in Freedpeople’s Schools,” exposes the struggle to secure adequate physical supplies and the fight to attain suitable levels of education for teachers. African American teachers in Georgia in 1866 are the main focus of the chapter.  Chapter 7, “A Long and Tedious Road to Travel for Knowledge: Textbooks and Freedpeople’s Schools,” investigates the content and availability of textbooks for freedpeople’s schools. This chapter also examines the proslavery ideology taught to white children in Confederate States. The primary focus of chapter 8, “If Anybody Wants an Education, it is Me: Students in Freedpeople’s Schools,” is students’ motivations for attending school and their expectations of teachers. The chapter also focuses on how teachers assessed student intellect and potential. Finally, chapter 9, “First Movings of the Waters: The Creation of Common School Systems for Black and White Students,” traces how African Americans influenced white communities’ interest in education in the South.

The book concludes with a short summary of a 1911 study of black Southern schools by W. E. B. Du Bois and a team of researchers at Fisk University. Du Bois concluded that most black teachers were underpaid and undertrained and school facilities were “wretched and inadequate.”[11] By this time, Jim Crow legislation had been enacted across southern and western states. The team emphasized that the educational focus on industrial training reduced the amount of time students should be spending on basic academic skills, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

My only disappointment with the book is that it ended too quickly. Williams’ ending leads particularly well into the “education of black people” debates that Du Bois and Booker T. Washington had during the early part of the twentieth century. There is also much to be said about Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington’s collaboration on the Rosenwald Schools of the 1920s through the 1940s, which is a topic of great interest among historic preservationists today. Hopefully, Williams will write a sequel.

[1] Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 1.

[2] Ibid., 183.

[3] Ibid., 176.

[4] Lauren Feiner, “Historian to Join Africana Studies Department as a Presidential Professor,” The Daily Pennsylvanian, May 14, 2014, accessed January 22, 2017, http://www.thedp.com/article/2014/05/heather-andrea-williams-presidential-professor-africana-studies.

[5] Williams, 3.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 13.

[9] Ibid., 15.

[10] Ibid., 49.

[11] Ibid., 199.

Posted in African Americans, capitalism, class, historiography, homelessness, immigrants, labor, marginalization, material culture, paternalism, racism, reformers, slavery, urban studies

Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore

Rockman, Seth. Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

(Review and historiography)

Seth Rockman’s Scraping By explores the precarious lives of poor, unskilled workers and the ways in which wealthy employers exploited them in Baltimore between 1790 and 1840. The title alludes to the book’s “street scrapers,” whose task of removing manure from the streets offers a fitting metaphor for the unrewarding employment opportunities facing thousands of African Americans, European immigrants, and others who flooded the city in search of a better life. These diverse populations vied for work in a common labor market and occupied the same neighborhoods.”[1] Rockman counters myths of upward mobility and liberty for all by illustrating how prosperity and privation are two sides of the same coin.[2] America’s new economy offered new possibilities for the few because it closed down opportunities for everyone else.[3] The story of American opportunity and freedom encompasses the story of “brute labor, severe material privation, and desperately constrained choices.”[4] Importantly, Rockman argues that the work of “chronically impoverished, often unfree, and generally unequal Americans…made the United States arguably the most wealthy, free, and egalitarian society in the Western world.”[5] Rockman’s arguments challenge a long historiographical tradition set forth by Frederick Jackson Turner.

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper entitled, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” to a gathering at the American Historical Association. His ideas were later expanded into a series of articles and books. According to Harry (Frankel) Braverman, Turner’s main point was that “American democracy is fundamentally the outcome of the experiences of the American people in dealing with the West. That the Western land areas were decisive in American history, and that their chief result was “democracy.”[6] Turner presented Jacksonianism as a protest by “rugged individualist” frontier people against the conservative aristocracy of the East. For Turner (and many historians that followed in his footsteps), a government that was responsive to the will of the people rather than to the power of special interest groups was represented by Jackson.

In an article published in 1958, Charles Sellers argued that men of Turner’s generation perceived Jacksonian Democracy as an egalitarian, anti-monopolistic tradition, but that “classes and inequalities of fortune played little part” in frontier democracy.[7] Yet, later historians who were influenced by Turner could not deny that “inequality of condition had become so gross that its danger to democracy could no longer be ignored.”[8] Sellers points out that Turner’s “vague conception of democracy remained prevalent in Jacksonian historiography until 1945, when Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., published The Age of Jackson.”[9]

In 1946 at the age of 27, Schlesinger won the Pulitzer Prize for his book.[10]  He was an American liberal historian, social critic, and prominent Democrat who later served as Special Assistant to President Kennedy. The Age of Jackson presented a “new” interpretation of Jacksonian Democracy by rejecting the view that it was a western sectional movement. Instead, he argued that it was a class-based movement stemming from eastern working men and intellectuals.[11] In Schlesinger’s view, Jacksonian Democracy continued to celebrate a strong spirit of equality, which was aided by extending the vote to men who did not own property.

Most historians refer to the economic transformation of Jacksonian America as the “Market Revolution.” Charles Sellers argues in his 1991 book, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, that the greatest transformation in America was a revolution from an agrarian to a capitalist society: “Establishing capitalist hegemony over economy, politics, and culture, the market revolution created ourselves and most of the world we know.”[12] Sellers argues that the Jacksonian Era was driven by a tension between market and democratic forces, which follows in same historiographical tradition of class conflict as was presented by Schlesinger.

Even though class was being highlighted in historical debates, Seth Rockman feels that these discussions missed important points. In a 2005 article, “Class and the History of Working People in the Early Republic,” Rockman points out that discussions of class did not account for “the experiences of women or people of color, for whom unequal access to property was not the starting point of inequality, but rather the result of other powerful forces like racism, sexism, and imperialism.”[13]  He also observed that following the publication of The Market Revolution, scholars debated whether economic development promoted or precluded democracy.[14] Yet, many historians mistakenly argued that broad access to consumer goods tended to equalize people. Rockman notes,

Manufactured goods allowed a wider percentage of the population to claim a modicum of comfort and refinement, but behind every yard of cloth purchased at a crossroads store or an urban emporium were slaves picking cotton and mill girls toiling amid the whirl of machinery. Yet despite these inequalities, access to standardized consumer goods allowed more Americans to look and feel more equal than ever before.[15]

But for many of these historians, as Michael Zakim observed, “the economic relations of capitalism became confused with the political possibilities of democracy.”[16] In Scraping By, Rockman shows through multiple case studies how many of the poverty-stricken people in Baltimore were unable to purchase even the most basic goods needed to survive.

A more critical interpretation of Jacksonian Democracy reveals its intrinsic connections to slavery, the eradication of Native Americans, the subjugation of women, and the celebration of white supremacy, leading many scholars to dismiss the notion of “Jacksonian Democracy” as a contradiction in terms. Rockman asserts that, when read critically, a phrase like “Jacksonian Democracy” points to a very particular type of society that “predicated white male equality on the enforced inequality of virtually everyone else.”[17] He adds,

In a Jacksonian democracy, an orphaned child of humble means could rise to be the president of a nation whose expanding boundaries, economic vitality, and promises of individual upward mobility could never be disentangled from slavery, Indian removal, imperial warfare, white racial identity, and capitalism. In this light, a Jacksonian America conveys the contingent relations of power that allowed some Americans to be freer than ever before precisely because others were not.[18]

Rockman refers to this idea as “unfreedom.”

Rockman asserts that “[l]abor was available for purchase by the hour, day, season, year, and lifetime, and by placing waged and enslaved workers on the same continuum, historians are less inclined to see two antagonistic modes of production but instead a capitalism whose appetite for labor was nearly limitless.”[19] Slaveowners maximized their investments with slaves, while at the same time, northern manufacturers used the legal maneuvers to restrict the mobility of its “free” labor force through “vagrancy statutes, debt imprisonments, and wage forfeitures for early departures from a job.”[20] Rockman claims that a new direction for labor history would be for historians to invest less effort researching processes of class formation, and instead, highlight how slaves were involved in an “American working class defined by its common commodification and material circumstances of poverty.”[21] In Scraping By, Rockman offers many examples of what this type of history looks like.

Near the end of the book, in his “Essay on Sources,” Rockman identifies several books that have influenced his approach to Scraping By. He explains that Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution asserted the idea that “American independence created extraordinary opportunities for ordinary people to pursue their economic self-interest.”[22] This view seems to echo the versions of Jacksonian Democracy put forward by Turner and Schlesinger. But Robert Fogel’s book, Without Consent or Contract, showed a more critical view of capitalism, where “exploitation was the dynamic engine of the American economy and a crucial component of in the history of capitalism.”[23] Rockman explains that his project is driven by the “challenge of reconciling these two frameworks.”[24]

In a 2001 conference paper entitled “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” Rockman challenges the myth that American capitalism stemmed from ideas of democracy and freedom by asserting that the “free labor” economy that flourished during the early-nineteenth century was inseparable from various forms of unfreedom.  He asserts that “capitalism did not triumph because the American Revolution had created an appropriately democratic political culture. Similarly, democracy was not ascendant because the Market Revolution generated the optimal form of economic organization for a free society.”[25] Instead, capitalism thrived due to its essential “relationship with the sizable segment of the American population lacking a meaningful freedom.”[26]  In other words, capitalism and democracy worked for the few at the expense of the many.

Rockman urges historians to abandon the master narrative of American capitalism and democracy that is tied to the myths of Jacksonian Democracy, and embrace a more inclusive history. He assures historians that telling an American history that revolves on unfreedom will open up a far more dramatic history.  He says,

Unfreedom begets a narrative of contingency that recognizes how freedom for some hinged on the lack of freedom for others. The triumph of liberal capitalism in the early republic United States depended on unfreedom— the expansion of plantation slavery, the household subordination of women, and the legal confinement of wage earners. Telling these stories together and as interrelated creates a history that is inclusive and responsible.[27]

 

 

[1] Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), xi.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 259.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Harry Frankel, “Three Conceptions of Jacksonianism,” Marxists’ Internet Archive, accessed October 29, 2016. https://www.marxists.org/archive/braverman/1947/03/jackson.htm.

[7] Charles  Sellers, “Andrew Jackson Versus the Historians,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44, no. 4 (1958): 624.

[8] Ibid., 625.

[9] Ibid., 626.; His father, Arthur Schlesinger Sr., had replaced Turner at Harvard, according to an American Studies Association ASA Newsletter, June 1996. Accessed October 29, 2016. http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/biographies/merle-e-curti/

[10] He also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for A Thousand Days, which focused on John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

[11] Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Age of Jackson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1945), 263.; Donald B. Cole pointed out that Schlesinger’s work was not as original as his reviewers made it out to be, citing Economic In terpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) and J. R. Commons and others their Documentary History of American Industrial Society (1910), the Marxist writer Algie Simons published his Social Forces in American History (1911), in which he explained Jacksonian Democracy as an eastern labor movement. A decade later Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., called attention to the same movement in his influential book of essays, New Viewpoints in American History (1922), and gave credit to Willis Mason West, who had explored the subject in his American History and Government (1913). Donald B. Cole and Arthur M. Schlesinger, “The Age of Jackson: After Forty Years,” Reviews in American History 14, no. 1 (1986): 153.

[12] Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution : Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 5.

[13] Seth Rockman, “Class and the History of Working People in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 25, no. 4 (2005): 528.

[14] Seth Rockman, “Jacksonian America,” in American History Now, ed. Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 68.

[15] Ibid., 69.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 72.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 71.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore, 349.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Seth Rockman, “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” (paper presented for Library Company of Philadelphia Program in Early American Economy and Society Inaugural Conference “The Past and Future of Early American Economic History: Needs and Opportunities,” Philadelphia, April 20-21, 2001). Accessed October 28, 2016. http://ibrarian.net/navon/paper/THE_UNFREE_ORIGINS_OF_AMERICAN_CAPITALISM.pdf?paperid=3980164. 1-2. A modified version of this paper was published in Cathy Matson, ed., The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives & New Directions (2006), 335-361; The term “Market Revolution” is pointing to Charles Seller’s 1958 book by the same name.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Rockman, “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” 40.

Posted in African Americans, Japanese Americans, law, marginalization, Native Americans, paternalism, racism

What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America

Pascoe, Peggy. What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally shows how miscegenation laws turned courts and state legislatures into factories of institutional racism, producing race in everything from “language to criminal prosecution to the structuring of families.”[1] Pascoe argues that beginning in the 1860s, the idea that interracial marriage is unnatural converged with a belief in white supremacy, giving birth to the term “miscegenation.”[2] At a time when slavery was still legal in the U.S., but on the verge of the Civil War, these new laws didn’t discourage slaveowners from sexually engaging with their slaves or having mixed-race children. However, they legally prevented these men from turning female slaves into respectable wives who were entitled to citizenship rights and property inheritance.[3] Judges established these laws through a process that delineated legitimate marriage against illicit sex, which ultimately cast all interracial relationships as immoral. Interracial couples found themselves in a legal and moral quandary because those who were not allowed to marry could be prosecuted for illicit sexual relations. Pascoe successfully demonstrates through legal case studies that fundamental matters of citizenship and freedom were at stake, not only for Whites and Blacks, but for people defined within any racial category.[4]

Signifying the wide reach of these laws (both in time and place), the cover photo displays Harry Bridges and Noriko Sawada, who in 1958, tried to get married in Reno, Nevada, but were refused by license clerk, Viola Givens, who insisted that race outweighed citizenship rights where marriage was concerned.[5] The couple was married later that same afternoon after Bridges, a well-known labor leader, took Sawada, his lawyers, and an entourage of reporters to the office of district judge Taylor Wines to request him to order the clerk to issue the license based on California’s exception of miscegenation law.[6]  Pascoe shows through this and other court cases how marriage licensing became the dominant enforcement tool for these laws.[7]

Reform activism challenged prevalent notions of the unnatural nature of interracial marriage by framing marital partner choice as a natural and civil right. One case in particular, Perez v. Sharp, set the precedent in 1948 for finding miscegenation laws unconstitutional when California lawyer, Dan Marshall, argued the case as a freedom of religion issue. Experts were challenged in open court about outdated and debunked racial evidence that the law was originally based upon. Black newspapers reported the testimonial shift from “‘democratic’ America to Nazi Germany” as the “grotesque reasoning of eugenicists” came under fire.[8]  In the end, the six judges were equally divided on the decision. The seventh and deciding vote came from Justice Douglas Edmonds who accepted Marshall’s religious freedom argument.[9] Unfortunately, the decision did not settle matters once and for all; however, Pascoe shows how it open the door for other couples, such as Bridges and Sawada, to legally marry.

Pascoe indicates that the NAACP maintained conventional views of sex and gender, fearing that challenging anti-miscegenation laws would jeopardize their anti-segregation efforts.[10] It wasn’t until the 1950s that the NAACP adopted a legal strategy around the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The Supreme Court heard the case of Loving v. Virginia in 1967 and overturned miscegenation laws on the basis that they denied a “fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications.”[11] Pascoe seems wary about the long-term effects of the Loving decision, especially related to notions of colorblindness, noting how the conservative right has used colorblindness to “roll back hard-won civil rights programs,” such as Affirmative Action.[12]

Pascoe effectively uses sources to illustrate how state-sanctioned marriage became the cornerstone of America’s institutional racism. However, she did not include many examples of the victories won by the other side or of instances where interracial couples were allowed to marry. She briefly discusses legal marriages between Filipino and other races in Los Angeles up until the early 1930s, but does not analyze that example within the context of her larger narrative.[13] Her overall argument would have been stronger had she analyzed why, when, and where some interracial marriages were allowed while others were denied. This information would have helped support her contention that laws shape social norms.

What Comes Naturally reveals how marriage law can be used as a powerful tool for discriminating against others based on what is considered “natural.” Pascoe’s argument is relevant to current debates over gay marriage.

[1] Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 14.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] Ibid., 12-13.

[5] Ibid., 235-37. Givens stated, “It’s not where you were born. It’s blood that counts.”

[6] Ibid., 235-36.

[7] The power and authority that county clerks have over issues of a person’s right to marry was recently called into question by the actions of Rowan County, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis in September 2015 following the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage nationwide. Davis claimed that her religious convictions prevented her from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The state responded by passing a law that no longer require clerks to sign their names to the license. “Kentucky Bows to Clerk Kim Davis and Changes Marriage License Rules,” The Los Angeles Times, December 23, 2015, accessed September 26, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-kentucky-kim-davis-20151223-story.html.

[8] Pascoe, 217-18.

[9] Ibid., 218.

[10] Ibid., 186, 204.

[11] Ibid., 284.

[12] Ibid., 303-04.

[13] Ibid., 132-33.

Posted in African Americans, marginalization, material culture, paternalism, resistance, slavery

Soul by Soul

Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

In Soul by Soul, Walter Johnson explores the inner workings of the Southern slave market through the divergent viewpoints of slaves, traders, and buyers in order to unearth the complex human dimensions of slavery. He illuminates the importance of seeing sales transactions through the eyes of the people who were sold and not just through the eyes of slaveholders and traders. Johnson declares that the history presented in the book is not organized around “change over time,” nor does it offer a theory or formal definition of the institution of slavery.[1] Rather, he takes a single moment, a slave sale, and tells the story from the three different perspectives, claiming that “the history of any struggle, no matter how one-sided its initial appearance, is incomplete until told from the perspectives of all those whose agency shaped the outcome.”[2] His story shows how the actions of each of these agents influenced the actions and decisions of the others.

Translating facts amassed from court records, financial documentation (such as notarized Acts of Sale, slave traders’ record books, price lists, etc.), and letters written by slaveholders, Johnson reveals the process of turning human beings into commodities.[3] Yet, most of book relies on nineteenth-century narratives of former slaves.[4] Johnson does not present these first-hand accounts of slavery as “transparent accounts of history,” but instead acknowledges that both southern slavery and organized antislavery conditions influenced their outcomes.[5]

The book is organized into two general sections that encompass seven chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. The first three chapters explore the disparate views of the slaves and the slaveholders, and the ways slaveholders coaxed or coerced resistant slaves to the market. Subsequent chapters examine the contested bargains made by the traders, slaveholders, and slaves in the showrooms and auction houses.[6] Each chapter of this book drives home the ingenuity, callousness, and pure violence with which slaveholders and traders manipulated human beings for capital gain, while also shedding light on the agency which enabled slaves to form communities and resist their enslaved conditions. Johnson astutely points out that “many slaveholders were forced to consider their slaves a party to their own sale.”[7] He also illustrates ways in which slaves worked together to prevent or postpone their sale. For example, Moses Grandy’s mother hid her children in the woods. They lived on berries, potatoes, and raw corn that must have been left by other slaves who lived nearby.[8]

In addition, Johnson shows how “[s]laves were the information brokers of the slave market.”[9] Slaves often stood by as traders and buyers argued back and forth about the sale. Many slaves learned how to gather important information from potential buyers as they were questioned in the course of a sale. William Wells Brown, for example, was not able to prevent his sister’s sale, but he was able to help prepare her for it.[10]

In contrast, Johnson also claims that white slaveholder identity was constructed out of relationships with slaves and other slaveowners. He writes, “They bought slaves to make themselves frugal, independent, socially acceptable, or even fully white.”[11] Through purchasing slaves who could free their wives from manual labor and provide financial security for their families, white slaveholders were viewed as good providers by other members of southern society.[12]

Scholarship on the subject of America’s domestic slave trade has been on the rise for the past twenty-five years; however, much of this previous work has focused on demographic and economic aspects of the business.[13] Yet, two previous works provided a foundation for Johnson to build upon: Frederic Bancroft’s Slave Trading in the Old South (1931) and Michael Tadman’s Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (1989).[14]

The book does have a couple of problems. Most of the book’s examples came from large New Orleans slave traders, rather than from diverse markets across the South. Considering the size and importance of Charleston’s slave market, it seems like an oversight for Johnson to have focused so heavily on just New Orleans, especially with the book’s subtitle “Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market.” The other issue may be just a personal peeve. I found Solomon Northrup’s narrative to be overused and a bit of a distraction. There is no way to know how many free black men and women were captured and sold into slavery, but certainly Northrup’s experience is an anomaly compared to most of the other stories presented in Soul by Soul. Even so, Northrup’s highly articulate narrative offers valuable first person contributions to the story.

[1] Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 15.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Ibid., 12-14.

[4] Ibid., 9.

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] Ibid., 16.

[7] Ibid., 30.

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid., 176.

[10] Ibid., 167.

[11] Ibid., 116.

[12] Ibid., 110.

[13] Richard Bell, “The Great Jugular Vein of Slavery: New Histories of the Domestic Slave Trade,” History Compass 11, no. 12 (2013): 1150, http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/hic3.12114; Steven Deyle, “Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market by Walter Johnson Review,” Journal of the Early Republic 21, no. 1 (Spring, 2001): 184.

[14] Caryn Cosse Bell, “Soul by Soul (Book Review),” Journal of Southern History 67, no. 3 (2001): 650; Deyle,  184; John David Smith, “Soul by Soul (Book Review),” Business History Review 74, no. 3 (2000): 492.