Recent Reading (Septemeber-October 2016)

Gentle Readers, I feel like a tour of the bookshelf wouldn’t hurt. We left off back in August, where I had just finished Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. Since then, many pages have flown, and occasionally crawled, by.

I followed up Foner with Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Berlin made for a complicated, occasionally confusing, but valuable read. He does what he says in the title, taking us from the first enslaved arrivals to about 1800. He further does so in a regional format, separating out the Mississippi Valley, the Lower South, the Upper South, and the North for individual treatment. Berlin breaks each down into a rough sequence of generations, around which he organizes the book. The generation format proved very helpful in charting both regional differences and development over time. Berlin’s Mississippi Valley rushes through the tentative states of feeling out a slave system into an early plantation boom, which then falls apart in the face of a large slave revolt and only re-emerges as a slave society toward the end of the book. His North looks at first like it will always have only marginal slavery, only to ramp up and begin to resemble the South in the middle of the eighteenth century. It may have gone all the way, but the Revolution intervened and cut off the supply of new slaves. The Upper and Lower South chart more familiar courses, but distinguish themselves meaningfully toward the end where the less numerous free people of color in the Lower South, largely concentrated in cities, develop into something like a distinct class between black and white. In the Upper South, freedpeople find themselves instead forced to stay at the bottom with the slaves.

All of this makes for many moving parts. In doing so, it helpfully complicates a picture of slavery necessarily oriented more toward the mature late Antebellum system. The generalities largely hold, but highlighting the exceptions and nuances gives a far deeper understanding of just how slavery functioned with the constant tension between enslaver and enslaved. Berlin’s use of the term negotiation for that raised my eyebrows. He considers it problematic himself, taking pains to stress that the enslavers hold all the cards and he means nothing like a negotiation between equals. Berlin’s meaning becomes clear easily enough, all the same. The enslaved constantly want to exert control over their lives, protect their families, and secure what safety and prosperity they can. Enslavers want to eradicate that control and completely reduce their human property to the status of livestock, but the practical inability to govern or supervise every second of their lives makes that quest impossible. Looking at slavery like that does not minimize its cruelty, but does stress how real people with conflicting goals pushed against one another (and the enslaved almost always lose, but make important gains on the margins) in a constant dynamic rather than a static system of dominance.

From Berlin, I set into Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. Gentle Readers, I did not think I could like Lee much less than I did before I started. Pryor showed me otherwise. Please don’t read this as suggesting she wrote a hit piece. Frequently Pryor shows remarkable sympathy for her subject. His endless career frustrations and time spent away from his family clearly weigh on him. He has obvious talents as an engineer that often go neglected or wasted. He encourages loved ones to avoid the military and thus the mistakes he made. But Lee also has a petty side. His West Point cadets knew him as a martinet. He could do little for his friends, while expecting them to do much for him. He only dislikes slavery because he finds managing slaves disinclined to obey him and doubles-down on the cruelty as a remedy.

Pryor wrote a good, important work. One comes out the end of it with a much stronger understanding of Lee the man. But her format works against her on occasion. She insisted she would not write a biography, but then essentially did. Each chapter begins with a letter from or to Lee, usually in full. Sometimes full exchanges see print. They proceed in rough chronological order through his life. She does her best to make each chapter’s biographical essay and analysis about its own distinct subject, but they inevitably blend together. I might have had an easier time with it if she went with more standard thematic chapters, though it would come at the cost of understanding the arc of the Marble Man’s life. Given I don’t intend to read any other Lee biography, I can’t complain too much.

About halfway through Pryor, an acquaintance suggested that the two of us read Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 together. I happily agreed, even breaking with my usual practice to write real reading notes on each chapter. The book deserves all the praise it gets, though I feel Foner regrettably neglected to integrate the widespread violence into the story as much as he might have. Foner’s admiration of and inspiration by the twentieth century Civil Rights movement shines through on every page, to the point where one could slip and forget that politics happened as much or more with bullets, rope, whips, fists, flesh, blood, and terror as with ballot boxes and elected officials. I doubt Foner himself would write it that way today; he stresses the violence more in recent lectures he’s given. At some point I intend to revisit the era through more recent works that do highlight the violence more.

After Foner, I finished Pryor and then went on to Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War by Michael Morrison. I went into Morrison expecting largely old news, given how my studies for the blog have gone. Sure enough, I found parts where he reiterated things I already knew for pages on end. It happens to everybody once you start reading in depth about a subject. But Morrison brought an attention to party politics to bear that turned a theme of previous works into the dominant narrative thread. Doing so linked together more firmly many things I knew in general, particularly with regard to the breaking of the Democracy. That kind of history has gone somewhat out of fashion, for many good reasons, but getting a fresh dose of it proved extremely helpful to me.

Skipping ahead a few books, we come to River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson. After multiple books about white politics, I wanted something with a stronger slavery focus. Johnson delivered. His book concerns itself deeply with slavery, including frequent quotations from slave narratives. These form the center of the book, but on a broader level Johnson asks an unusual question. Most antebellum surveys begin at Sumter and work backwards. We know what happened, so how did we get there? Johnson focuses far more on on the world of possibilities open to the Mississippi Valley enslavers. He asks not what they seceded from, but rather what they hoped to secede to. Secession, while clearly the most important of the dreams they contemplated, comes at the end of a forest of options.

Of those, Johnson focuses the most on filibustering. That focus got me to read the book, as few historians treat filibustering as more than a sideshow. In doing so, Johnson paints a Deep South that has filled up as far as many of its boosters think it can manage. They need more something or the rising price of slaves means that white solidarity may soon crack as disgruntled nonslaveholders realize their economic mobility will never come. The Mississippi Valley defined itself on the move, improvising, expanding, lying, cheating, exploiting with no end in sight. But the might have dome to an end after all. Filibusters might open up new horizons once more. Poor whites could move to virgin land and buy slaves to work it. New Orleans merchants fretting over the railroad redirecting trade could look forward to a Caribbean empire centered on their port. Like Berlin, Johnson has a keen eye for the dynamism of the systems in play. He also has a keen appreciation for irony and symbolism. Nor, in all of that, does he for a moment let you forget that he talks about the dirty business of real lives spent for money; no amount of literary flourish obscures how Johnson writes about a world filled with horrors.

Some Recent Reading (August 2016)

I do a lot of reading for the blog. You see a great deal of it in the period documents quoted extensively in just about every post. I also read full-length books by modern historians, which appear less frequently as such but always inform my writing. Now and then I even get my hands on journal articles. Astonishingly enough, a history blogger frequently reads history. Often, I have read that history very slowly. Historians can produce excellent prose, but most do not. The job is to communicate information and analysis rather than to have one on the edge of one’s seat with suspense. We all know everybody died at the end. I mostly muddle through, though I possess sufficient quantities of boringness that now and then a book really does grab me.

The past three books have gone rather differently. I developed a system. Did you know they divide books into chapters? I have ignored these things for ages, just reading until I get tired of it and moving on. This produced considerably inconsistency. Sometimes I would read for an hour or two, sometimes ten minutes. Over time I got the sense that often I made no progress through books, which served as a disincentive to continue. Three books back, I decided to try what I do for this blog. You’ve no doubt noticed that I have a preferred length for blog posts. Ideally, they run for about one idea and 300-500 words. I hit the one idea mark rarely, but the words much more consistently. I usually end up between 500 and 600. Wordy nineteenth century authors work against me. Then I stop, most of the time. I often could write more, and sometimes bank a few days ahead, but it feels like a good balance between the willingness of readers to push on in a conventionally short form medium like a blog and my own endurance. I feel done, but not exhausted, when I finish. I have settled on using chapters as a similar benchmark. If I finish a chapter a day, I have done my duty to research and can move on or continue as I like. Gentle Readers, your author has reached the third grade at last.

That dazzlingly complex routine has pushed me along through James Huston’s Calculating the Value of the Union. A genuine slavery scholar recommended it to me. Huston, despite his protests, writes very little new. The South had a massive investment in slave property with which it would not lightly part. What distinguishes his work comes more in the remarkably thoroughness of it. He has economic graphs and charts upon charts, which he carefully walks through in prose sections. Huston approaches the question as an economic historian to an almost maddening degree at points, insisting always on an emphasis in property rights and varying conceptions of them. In other words, antebellum white Southerners considered people an acceptable form of property. At times it verges on recreating the strange theory that great political disputes come down to men discoursing politely in high society, but he pulls from quite crossing the line. As such, Huston wrote a good book that I hesitate to recommend. It features far more numbers than people and discusses almost everything at a highly abstracted level. But if you like that kind of thing, or just love economic graphs, Huston has one hell of a book for you.

From Huston I went to an essay collection: Contesting Slavery: The Politics of Bondage and Freedom in the New American Nation, edited by Matthew Mason and John Craig Hammond. You never know quite what to expect with these, as each chapter comes from a different author and addresses a different topic. I picked it up because I enjoyed Mason’s Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic, which argues persuasively that slavery constituted an important political issue long before either its otherwise anomalous appearance in the Missouri Crisis or the arrival of immediate abolitionism with William Lloyd Garrison in the 1830s. Mason’s book ends with at Missouri. The essays in Contesting Slavery reach from the 1750s to the 1840s, connecting the antislavery defeat in 1820 with the rise of militant abolitionism in the 30s and the re-emergence of more political antislavery in the 1840s. That puts Garrison and company in a much-needed context.

Along the way I also learned much more about the presence of early slave systems in the Old Southwest, which at least complicates the traditional understanding (which I have shared) that the founders simply chose not to bar slavery from the Lower South west of the Appalachians and so it came. Quite the opposite. Slavery already existed on the ground, if not on the scale that it soon would, and westerners of sometimes doubtful loyalty insisted upon it as the price for their allegiance. The weak federal government of the late eighteenth century had little power to either force them into line or enforce a slavery prohibition even had the will existed, though the will also did not exist.

Every essay has worthwhile things to learn; I heartily recommend the collection.

Which brought me to Eric Foner’s dissertation-turned book: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. I came warily to this book. I respect Foner tremendously as a historian, but his first book came out before my parents left high school and covers ground where you would expect subsequent scholars to frequently tread. I might pick up badly outdated ideas, or just see the original version of thought that has become so standard it appears everywhere; old news either way. I feared in vain. I have no doubt that some points of Foner’s have seen revision, but except for the dated language -Foner often refers to “the Negro” and “the race issue”- and a larger focus on direct political action than one would probably have now, it felt contemporary. Nor did Foner simply talk about ideology, though he organizes his chapters around ideological analysis and only does a chronological narrative within them. Rather Foner gave a relatively detailed account of just how the Republican party formed, warts and all. I saw him call it a book about how to build a political party a few years ago, via youtube, and it really is. The last few chapters even include some trailers for his more famous work on Reconstruction in the limits of Free Labor thought. If you want to understand Lincoln’s party before Lincoln led it, you do yourself a disservice not to get a copy.

How To Find and Avoid History Books

For the most part, history comes in book form. You can learn a lot from good documentaries, recorded lectures, and the like, but the main medium for communicating history remains the bodies of trees. Sorting the good history books from the bad can take some doing. For the most part, I find good ones by figuring out a standard survey text and then digging into the footnotes. My intensive study of nineteenth century America began in the citations of Battle Cry of Freedom. Books that appear often, especially if they’re cited in other good books, usually deserve a look. Over time, one builds up a sense for this sort of thing.

Gentle Readers, mine failed me. I picked up a used copy of Stephen Puleo’s The Caning: The Assault that Drove America to Civil War. It concerns the Brook-Sumner affair, wherein Preston Brooks of South Carolina breaks his gutta-percha cane over the head of Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Sumner was seriously hurt and absent from the Senate for a few years after. I got it a few months back and just had occasion to open it up over the last few days.

Puleo is an engaging writer, sometime you get to appreciate more the more you read academic prose. I probably kept on with him longer than I might otherwise have because of that, but I quit him all the same. This might sound like a silly reason, but I needed the footnotes. Puleo has none. At first I thought he might have declined to annotate the prologue, which mostly involves scene-setting. One must make judgment calls in these things. Then I noticed he would make direct quotes and not note them. The first few chapters came and went without a single number in superscript.

At this point, I had my worries. But books on the caning don’t come around often and his came most recently. I talked myself into continuing for a while longer, though I found myself less and less able to trust him. I don’t know that Puleo wrote anything but good, solid history. His might deserve a place of pride as the standard work on the subject. But given the total lack of footnotes, or even informal indications of where he drew quotes for the most part, I have no way to tell. I enjoy only very limited access to academic journals, but I went looking for reviews all the same. I couldn’t find any, not even to say Puleo had done an awful job and scholars should avoid the book. That did it; I have too many history books I want to read, and which might serve as springboards for further research, to spend more time with this one.

I told you all of that so I could tell you this. There are many ways to find solid histories to read. One of the best, even if you don’t intend to use them as a guide to future research, is to check for footnotes and endnotes. Scholars use, and sometimes misuse, them for professional accountability. Their presence doesn’t mean you’ve got a solid work for sure, but point to at least a serious effort toward one. If something does seem dubious to you, they give you the ability to look it up. Does that quote have ellipses in a place that looks odd? It should be cited and in principle you can go find the original. Absent the notes, who knows what really went on? Maybe everything remained above-board, maybe not. You just don’t know, unless you’ve had the good fortune to have read the same sources and remember them well.

Bad books can have footnotes too, of course. A relative layperson on the subject, a category which often includes your author, might have trouble telling a good footnote from a bad one.  The other signs I look for don’t make for infallible indicators either, or I would just use them, but here are two other ways to know if you likely have a solid history on your hands.

Check the publisher. A well-known university press makes a strong point in favor of a book. Popular presses can and do release good history, even doing peer review, but academic publishers exist for that job. They will still produce poor works now and then, as one must expect from institutions run by humans, but in general one can read with greater confidence.

If you can get the book in hands, or look at an Amazon preview, then you can hopefully flip to the acknowledgements. Every author will thank family members, editors, and the like, but check for archivists and other historians. In the second case, thanks given to big names in the field should carry some extra weight but any known good authority counts for something.

Failing all these, you can try the author blurb. This takes you well into the realm of promotional text, but they rarely lie about the author’s professional affiliations. If they teach at a university, the blurb will surely tell you. If they don’t, then it might say who they studied under and/or list their degree. These don’t count as the strongest indicators, but they beat nothing.

It bears repeating that none of this guarantees finding a solid work, but they do help when it comes time to browse the shelves.

Some Recent Reading

Writing this blog has encouraged me to read much more history, and much more consistently, than I did in years past. That reading both informs and inspires posts, but I don’t often take time out to write about the books themselves. I don’t know that I’ll get into the habit now, but in an effort to do better, I’ve decided to look back at some of the history I’ve read since the start of the year.

The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath by Robert Pierce Forbes

The Missouri Compromise hasn’t inspired many historians to write dedicated books. The survey before Forbes’ dates to the middle of the last century. I haven’t read it, though it has a spot on my ever-growing backlog. From Forbes, I learned that the prior survey originated the claim that had civil war erupted over the Missouri question the battles never would have left the floor of Congress. Forbes argues persuasively that the politicians of the time largely meant their dire threats and that the public, far from treating the matter with bewilderment or indifference, took an active interest and understood slavery’s future in Missouri as relevant to their own lives as well as the course of the nation. By doing so, Forbes joins other recent scholars in elevating slavery to a position of much greater import decades before the Civil War than previous historians have accepted. That challenges the old understanding of sectional conflict as a feature of the late Antebellum, something which will come up with some other recent reads of mine as well.

Forbes wrote a genuinely important book, if also one that reads like a dissertation. It takes a lot of work to follow the amorphous politics of the era. To that complexity, Forbes adds a line of argument based on sometimes tenuous circumstantial evidence. The old narratives holds that James Monroe played a largely passive role in the Missouri controversy. Forbes argues otherwise, but insists that Monroe had such a deft hand that he left few traces a historian could follow. Easy enough to say, but much harder to establish. I might have read too much into it, and do accept that Monroe did more than sit in the White House and watch the fireworks, but I don’t know that Forbes entirely made the case. He points to telling moments and makes interesting observations, but I still had trouble believing Monroe aggressively stage managed the affair to its conclusion.

The Slaveholding Republic by Don Fehrenbacher

I almost read this book right back when I started the blog, but on advice opted for The Impending Crisis instead. I made the right choice, even if Fehrenbacher finished Crisis after David Potter’s death. He set out to investigate the United States government’s dealings with slavery from start to finish. He did a thorough job, highlighting oft-overlooked issues like how the government sought compensation for lost slaves from foreign powers. Ultimately, Fehrenbacher argues that the United States government did not start out as a proslavery operation but soon became one and held fairly consistently to that ground right up to 1860.

For the most part, Fehrenbacher made a good case. I think he tried a little too hard to excuse the founding generation for their proslavery leanings, cutting them slack that he rightly denied to their children and grandchildren. Their intentions seem to matter more to him, at least at times, than their actions. Aside that, the book has two unfortunate shortcomings, only one of which a reasonable person could blame on the author. Fehrenbacher opted to write thematic chapters, which made it hard to see the full picture of policy as it developed or connections between contemporaneous issues. Fehrenbacher also died before finishing the work. The historian who completed it, Ward McAfee, has a much drier, often leaden, style. Aesthetic judgments will vary, but the clash between the two did the book no favors on my end.

Slavery’s Constitution by David Waldstreicher

I read this in part as a counter to Fehrenbacher, who hews to the standard argument that the founders lacked the means to act against slavery. Waldstreicher makes a convincing case for understanding arguments over the most fraught issue at the constitutional convention, how to apportion representation, as heavily inflected with concern about slavery. Representation always included slave representation, which would mean extra power and extra security for the enslavers or their loss of the same, depending how the convention voted.

Waldstreicher made for a decent read; I did the last half in a single sitting. He takes some well-earned historiographical swipes in the course of it too. A few of them got me smiling, but I suspect such things make for an acquired taste.

Slavery and Politics in the Early Republic by Matthew Mason

Mason looks at an alleged nadir in the national debate over slavery, the period before the Missouri crisis. There he finds a great deal of slavery talk just beneath the surface, which he takes as suggestive of a genuinely broad antislavery sentiment in the North. While nothing on what would emerge in later decades, Mason makes the point that the politicians who did embrace antislavery rhetoric did so with the expectation that it would pay off for them. The voters generally, though not always, agreed that it ought to. I happily took that on board as part of how I understand political speech in general.

The Internal Enemy by Alan Taylor

I have mixed feelings about this book. If you have an interest in Virginia, slavery politics, fugitive slaves, the War of 1812, or the development of proslavery ideology then you ought to pick him up straightaway. The fear of slave revolt, and the rare actual revolt, runs through the whole book. At one point, Taylor relates how Thomas Jefferson and James Madison have trouble understanding one another in letters as Madison didn’t want to put his fears in so many words. Along the way, you learn a good deal about how the British dealt with the slaves who looked to their military for liberation, what they did with their freedom (including leading armed parties home to free their families), and what happened to them after the War of 1812.

There arises my personal issue with the book. Though Taylor did lose me a few times with the affairs of a single enslaver family, mostly he wrote a different book then he’d led me to expect. The opening pages suggested to me something like a general history of slavery in Virginia from independence up through the early 1830s, with the War of 1812 as the centerpiece. Though Taylor devotes more than perfunctory space to the rest of the timespan, he really wrote a book about the war and how it disrupted slavery in Virginia. He did a great job with that book; I learned a lot despite expecting something else.

A Massacre in Memphis by Stephen Ash

The anniversary of the Memphis pogrom, where the city’s mostly-Irish police and firefighters rose up and attacked the freedpeople over a few days in early May of 1866 occasioned this read. I know less than I like about Reconstruction and a relatively short and focused work seemed a good place to change that. Ash wrote the book on what we euphemistically call a race riot. In it and its aftermath he found both the inspiration for Reconstruction era policies and the seeds of their undoing. It made for an extremely grim, if important, read. At points, Ash takes you through the riot almost body-by-body. Before that, he spends about half the page count setting the scene. Though occasionally one wishes he would get on with it, the description of Memphis could make for a decent short book of its own. Through it, Ash puts you into the situation so well that when violence finally erupts it seems less like the history-free spontaneous eruption that “riot” often recalls and more the consummation of months of tension.

Then Ash leaves you with most of the institutions of the black community in Memphis in ruins and, despite efforts by the freedpeople and the occasional well-meaning Freedmen’s Bureau worker and congressional committee, the rioters got away with it. The nation, both in the part of the small military post in Memphis at the time and the entire American state flush with its postwar power, stood by and watched. If the courts in Memphis, where no black person could give evidence or sit on a jury, would not give justice to the massacre’s survivors, then no one would. States rights orthodoxy, which consigned the police power exclusively to the states, demanded no less.

Alexander Hamilton and Slavery

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Gentle Readers, for the past few months yours truly has affirmed a certain stereotype of his people by obsessing over a musical. The Ten Dollar Founding Father without a Father charmed me sufficiently that I spent a fair portion of that time listening to the Ron Chernow biography that inspired the show. I don’t normally care for biographies. The author has to have so much sympathy for the subject that it frequently comes at the expense of a balanced understanding. This goes double for any subject generally revered. Double it again for anybody called a founding father. I expected that I would give up on Alexander Hamilton within a few hours. Maybe the musical primed me for it, and I certainly enjoyed picking out turns of phrase that became lyrics, but I ended up listening to every word and enjoying almost every moment. In the course of writing this I stopped and looked at the prices for a used copy of the book so I could have the footnotes.

Chernow wrote a really good, sometimes even funny[1], book. His affection for the Hamiltons, husband and wife alike, comes across from the first pages. Probably on some points a student of the founding era, or a Jefferson partisan, would have cause to complain. I lack either of those credentials, but I have spent a small amount of my time studying slavery politics. There Chernow roused my skepticism. Whenever slavery comes up, he calls Alexander Hamilton an abolitionist. The facts he cites to support that claim don’t really do the job, by late Antebellum standards.

That set me to thinking. Hamilton clearly opposed slavery. Chernow makes that case quite well. Furthermore, his opposition went beyond personal sentiment. When negotiating with British representatives as Washington’s ex officio Secretary of State before Thomas Jefferson returned from France, Hamilton essentially ignored one of the pressing issues between the countries: compensation for slaves lost during the Revolution. I haven’t written much about this issue in the past, but between the Revolution and the War of 1812, American diplomats demanded cash for slaves from the United Kingdom for decades. Even latter-day antislavery heroes like John Quincy Adams pressed the issue as a matter of policy. Hamilton, to my knowledge uniquely, did not and specifically cast his opposition in terms of moral abhorrence to bondage. One might pass over that as a partisan dig at Hamilton’s southern opponents. Federalists did take up antislavery in part to score points against Jefferson’s Republicans, especially once they largely gave up on building a party in the South. But Hamilton took his stand before the parties developed.

Opposition to slavery doesn’t necessarily turn one into an abolitionist, though. While no Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton married into a slaveholding family and dealt personally in slaves. Specifically, it seems that he bought and traded them on behalf of his in-laws. When Angelica Church (Elizabeth Hamilton’s sister) and her husband returned from Britain, he bought real estate and slaves on their behalf. Chernow doesn’t think that Hamilton ever bought a slave for himself, but it seems likely that he owned slaves on paper while waiting on his sister-in-law’s return.

You could join the New York Manumission Society, and Hamilton did, and still do all that. The Society’s program called for gradual emancipation, nothing at all like the immediate end to slavery preached by later generations of abolitionists. If Chernow ever has Hamilton advocate the immediate course, I missed it. By any reasonable standard, calling him an abolitionist seems in outright defiance of the facts.

By this I don’t mean to argue that we should necessarily consider Hamilton especially proslavery. Rather he seems like a fairly normal antislavery American. He makes his compromises, usually to the detriment or enslaved Americans, but also preferred and enacted policies that he understood as injurious to slavery and looking to its ultimate end. He didn’t publicize his views on the subject at length, a conspicuous rarity for Hamilton, but he did more than make excuses and fret impotently. He probably benefited from, and might directly have used, slave labor himself. But he didn’t organize his entire economic life around it as any number of famous founders did.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

We can stop here and declare Chernow’s argument a specimen of the hagiographer’s craft. Hamilton did not advocate anything like what the abolitionists did and so doesn’t warrant the title. However, this requires us to read late Antebellum distinctions back into the eighteenth century. In more stark cases, like Jefferson’s, that makes some sense. The Sage of Monticello’s policies amounted to slavery forever and must stand in the context of his hundreds of slaves. Hamilton occupies a more ambiguous space. In light of that, we ought to consider just how few people argued for immediate abolition in Hamilton’s time. To my admittedly incomplete knowledge, that position didn’t become politically significant until the 1830s. While this doesn’t make Hamilton into an antislavery radical, even by period standards, it does suggest a political spectrum more tilted toward slavery and with less conceptual space for abolition than would exist in later decades. Even John Adams, generally considered a fairly strong antislavery founder, preached against immediate abolition on the grounds that it might spark a slave revolt. Hamilton surely belongs closer to him, for all that the two men would dislike one another’s company[2], than to Jefferson.

Considering all of that, Chernow still exaggerated Hamilton’s antislavery credentials. Hamilton advocated no abolitionism, but he did preach and practice at least moderate antislavery politics. They didn’t occupy a central position in his agenda. He often compromised in slavery’s favor. He traded in slaves on behalf of others. But, unlike others, his scruples served as more than a vehicle to salve his conscience while advocating the practical extension of human bondage in perpetuity. Hamilton’s record doesn’t invite easy explanation, admitting many complexities and contradictions, but he deserves some credit for it.

[1] Seriously, go read the Republican responses to the Reynolds Pamphlet and try to keep a straight face.
[2]Adams’ insults? Also hilarious.

How Virginia Became Southern

American Slavery, American Freedom

American Slavery, American Freedom

The textbook narrative goes something like this: Roanoke disappeared. Weird, right? But then John Smith comes along and sets up Virginia. The first white Virginians, as good Englishmen, construct a tavern before they get around to a church. Then they commence dying in the swamps. The Indians come in as a footnote, usually just to name them and mention Pocahontas. They don’t really appear as rational actors who might have chosen to permit English settlement as a hedge against Spanish expansion, as such calculations implicitly belong to white people alone, and one doesn’t hear much about how the Englishmen depended on them nigh absolutely for food. That part of the story belongs up in Massachusetts. You might hear how the Englishmen spent much of their time hunting for gold rather than growing corn. Then tobacco came around and everyone skipped happily into the future. A Dutch ship brought some slaves, but let’s not dwell on that. The Middle Passage comes under a separate heading and usually deals with slavery in a matter of fact manner, with the standard picture of a slave ship’s hold and some vague gestures toward all the death.

This narrative tells us where the slaves came from. It might not go into the detail one wants, but you can only ask so much of a textbook. A good teacher can add more. Many do. But this still leaves us with an important lacuna in the account. A list of colonies that practiced slavery at the time of the revolution would include all of them. Yet those colonies, and later states, did not all practice slavery to the same degree. If all had slaves, not all organized their entire economy and society around it. In the standard demarcation, some colonies and then states had slaves. Others had slave societies. Slavery as a specific economic practice came in with the slaves. To develop a slave society one must necessarily have slaves, but enslavement alone doesn’t suffice.

When the Dutch landed their slaves in Virginia, they consequently did not bring with them a social system that took Jamestown by storm. The Englishmen came from a land that had not practice slavery for centuries. While no innocents, they lacked the built-in cultural machinery to at once turn from Englishmen of the early seventeenth century into Virginians of the middle nineteenth. That transformation deserves more attention. My curiosity about it, and the connection between slavery and American ideas of freedom, led me to Edmund Morgan’s classic American Slavery, American Freedom.

John Smith

John Smith

Morgan makes a compelling argument. He paints colonial Virginia as a place with land in abundance and a perpetual shortage of labor. Without labor, one could not grow the tobacco that made some Virginians rich. Contemporary England had the opposite labor situation: too many laborers who ended up wandering the country looking for ways to get ahead. The obvious solution to Virginia’s labor woes came thus from closer to home than Africa’s shores. Many Englishmen, and rather fewer Englishwomen, willingly signed indentures pledging their service for a term of years in exchange for their transport to the new world. Others signed less willingly. All doubtless felt the press of circumstance. They came as unfree labor, but not quite as slaves.

This did not stop the better off Virginians from exploiting them ruthlessly. They could and did beat their indentured servants. While people did vary, an indentured servant could expect a hard life. Their owners could beat them, bilk them out of their dues, and add time to their contracts for real or specious reasons, but eventually an indentured servant who didn’t feed Virginia’s ravenous appetite for European lives would turn free. Thus Virginia, from the perspective of well-off English Virginians, had partially solved England’s labor surplus problem by importing the same problem for themselves.

Contrary to the impression one might have from reading about early Virginia, its English inhabitants proved themselves a particularly industrious people. They needed only find the right work to turn themselves conspicuously productive. When confronted with the risk of competition from their white freedmen, they didn’t shrink, make excuses, or find the toil beneath them. Quite the opposite, the colony’s elites kept the lower orders from turning into peers

 

by creating an artificial scarcity of land, which drove freemen back into servitude; by extending terms of service; by inflicting severe penalties for killing the hogs that offered easy food without work. They had also through rents and taxes and fees skimmed off as much as they dared of the small man’s small profits for the benefit of burgesses, councillors, and collectors.

Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 6228-6231). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The lower classes, not appreciating the great exertions undertaken for their sake, seethed with resentment that threatened rebellion. The elites in turn developed a morbid fear of servile insurrection, this time against white servants, which sounds a great deal like that of their descendants. This legitimated systems of control already present, pushing laboring in the Virginia tobacco fields

Men served longer, were subjected to more rigorous punishments, were traded about as commodities already in the 1620s.

Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Location 6243). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The rebellion would eventually come in a very big way, plunging Virginia into a civil war a century before the Revolution. But that remained ahead of Virginia for the time. We might ask why the Virginians, already possessed of a pipeline of white labor to meet their needs, did not simply solve the problems with indentured servitude by converting it into proper slavery. Though not the products of a slave society, they knew about slavery well enough. They knew it as the means Spain used to mine New World gold and silver. They knew it as a thing inflicted upon them, and other Europeans, by Barbary pirates. As late as the 1850s, proslavery theorists considered the merits of enslaving poor whites alongside blacks. Surely with racial categories not nearly so firm in the seventeenth century, and to the degree they had firmed up more concerned with the exclusion of Indians from the moral community, that solution would have occurred to someone.

Morgan suggests that the Virginians already had too many unhappy indentured servants and marginalized freedmen for such an experiment. What they did do fueled the largest rebellion in North America prior to the 1770s, Bacon’s Rebellion. The labor force on hand rose up against a regime that, while undeniably harsh, fell still short of enslavement. They might have done worse, and sooner, if the Virginia planters dared try. Furthermore, any such plan would have to proceed slowly so as to avoid an immediate revolt and would likely end the flow of labor from Europe. You could plausibly lie and tell a person signing an indenture that he or she would do well in the end, but few sign up for slavery under any circumstances. Even if one could manage all of that, instituting slavery would surely invite the government in London to intervene in the interests of preserving its tobacco-taxing enterprise against a feared exodus from the colony.

All of this raises another question. Why, if indentures presented so much difficulty, did the colony persist with them for so long? The colony could dodge any issue with transition to slavery by simply buying the already enslaved. Some already lived among them. Why not more and sooner?

The answer lies in the fact that slave labor, in spite of its seeming superiority, was actually not as advantageous as indentured labor during the first half of the century. Because of the high mortality among immigrants to Virginia, there could be no great advantage in owning a man for a lifetime rather than a period of years, especially since a slave cost roughly twice as much as an indentured servant.

Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 6263-6266). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

A slave cost more upfront, and might die anyway. An indentured laborer cost less and if he or she died, then the planter might well come out ahead as the dead collect no freedom dues and rarely see fit to compete with the living. With the odds in favor of death likely better than even, a slave seems the poorer investment. Certainly a dearth of available slaves didn’t keep the system from taking root. The Dutch delivered their first in 1619. They continued to provide enslaved people to the British West Indies and they came to Virginia to buy tobacco anyway. A supply and a route to bring the demanded lives to their buyers already existed. Indeed, if any essential Englishness conspired against the wholesale adoption of slavery, then we must conclude that the Barbadians tobacco and later sugar magnates of the same era misplaced their nationality somewhere in the Atlantic.

Morgan suggests that Virginia began its transition in part thanks to the supply of indentured servants drying up. Bacon’s Rebellion, on top of Virginia’s already deadly reputation, can’t have helped. A colony amid people imagined as savage, across the sea, already appealed largely to the desperate. A colony with all of that, where Englishmen warred with one another must have seemed still less promising. More pressingly, things seem to have improved back home. However, Morgan doesn’t think this the decisive issue. Rather he points to Virginia finally consuming enough English lives to go on a diet. With servants living longer and dying before the end of their term less frequently, the economics changed.

The point at which it became more advantageous for Virginians to buy slaves was probably reached by 1660. In that year the assembly offered exemption from local duties to Dutch ships bringing Negroes.

Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 6294-6295). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

That suggests that the colony’s government understood slavery as the future. One exempts from taxation those practices one wishes to encourage, not those one abjures or greets with indifference. But then Parliament stuck its nose in and forbade trading with the Dutch. A century later, aggrieved Americans would list such Navigation Acts as among the reasons that justified their rebellion. In the short term, Morgan reasons that the law slowed the change to slavery. Certainly the planters, both in the West Indies and Virginia, complained that it kept from them the slaves they needed.

The Indies and Virginia soon found themselves in stiff competition for the slaves that did come. Barbados, Jamaica, and the other British possessions could promise greater profits and have its slaves for less, thanks to its proximity to Africa, than Virginia. Most of the slaves consequently went their way. However, the profits from sugar declined and the tobacco planters realized a different advantage: their slaves lived longer.  Morgan has the numbers:

The slaves on Barbados plantations had to be replaced at the rate of about 6 percent a year. 18 It is estimated that between 1640 and 1700 264,000 slaves were imported into the British West Indies. The total black population in 1700 was about 100,000.19 In the next century, between 1712 and 1762 the importation of 150,000 slaves increased the Barbados black population by only 28,000.20 By contrast, while Virginia imported roughly 45,000 slaves between 1700 and 1750 (figures from the seventeenth century are sporadic), the black population increased from perhaps 8,000 or 10,000 to over 100,000.21 In Virginia not only had the rate of mortality from disease gone down, but the less strenuous work of cultivating tobacco, as opposed to sugar, enabled slaves to retain their health and multiply. To make a profit, sugar planters worked their slaves to death; tobacco planters did not have to.

Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 6317-6325). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

With the price of sugar going down and that of tobacco largely stable in the last half of the seventeenth century, economics pointed not only to Virginians investing in slavery on their own, but also more slaves coming their way. Aside from tobacco, Virginians could also by this point feed themselves. It made more economic sense in Barbados to import food than to surrender valuable sugar land to its cultivation, much of which would come from Virginia. For a brief period, the ships turning up in Barbados to feed the island even returned to Virginia with Barbadian slaves in their holds. White Barbadians, hedged out by the island’s development, found their way to Virginia and, later, founded South Carolina.

Historians might argue forever over just when Virginia turned from a society with slaves into a slave society. As with any process, one can make reasonable arguments for any point as the decisive one. I know that subsequent scholars have added nuances and qualifications to Morgan’s thesis. But as a whole it seems to hold together quite well for an argument forty years old. Once the process of conversion began, nothing could do much more than delay it.

It doesn’t follow, of course, that this means we should just shrug it all off as something that no one could help. People responding to economic incentives make choices just as much as those responding to political incentives. If we understand them as making conscious choices in who they vote for, then we should do the same and give them the credit, and kind of credit, they deserve for arranging their labor system. People, not blind pitiless laws of physics, chose slavery. That they did it in response to economics does not diminish that choice. They looked at their world with the same faculties, if not all the same knowledge, as we do. They used their minds and reasoned their ways to a solution just as we might. If they had some enlightened feelings that they set aside in the face of “necessity” or a businessman’s practicality, then I don’t think it necessary point to the many of the ways we do the same. These things don’t just happen; people make them happen, even if they pretend otherwise now and again.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

These calculations bore fruit, decades after the colony transformed itself from the home of incidental, if still suffering, slaves into a slaveholding civilization, in a Virginia where

George Washington […] grieved that “the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood, or inhabited by Slaves.” It was, he thought, a sad alternative. But, he asked, “Can a virtuous Man hesitate in his choice?” Washington led his countrymen in arms, while another Virginian led them in a Declaration of Independence that founded the American republic. The starting point of that document, the premise on which it rested, was that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At the time when Thomas Jefferson wrote those words, he was personally depriving nearly two hundred men, women, and children of their liberty. When he died, on the fiftieth anniversary of his great Declaration, he still owned slaves, probably more than two hundred. When Washington faced his sad alternative, the happy and peaceful plains of Virginia had been inhabited by slaves for more than a century, and 135 of them belonged to him. When he died, he was master of 277.

Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 120-128). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The Army of Northern Virginia and Slavery: By the Numbers

The Confederacy’s latter-day partisans have no shortage of arguments, making up for the dearth of quality with a surfeit of quantity. One must use the tools one has. I’ve taken a swipe or two before at the idea that ordinary soldiers had no stake in slavery and therefore the Civil War and the Confederacy had nothing to do with it, as well as its slightly more plausible variant that we should not operate under a presumption of proslavery intent in understanding military service with the Confederacy. I think the case against the proposition that the average men and occasional woman in a gray or “gray” uniform doesn’t require much further development and planned to leave it be.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

Plans changed this week when I remembered Joseph Glatthaar’s statistical study, Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia. It concerns the Confederacy’s principal field army. For most of its existence, Robert E. Lee had command of the force. The ANV fought in all of the battles most laypeople have heard of, against the familiar rotating cast of United States generals that ended with Ulysses S. Grant. I took an interest in Glathaar’s study when it first came out, but flinched at the price tag and its distance from my usual interests. I don’t mind straight military history, but have a much stronger interest in the politics that produce it. Likewise my interests have skewed rather more than I anticipated when I started this blog toward the Antebellum. When it fell off my radar, I hadn’t read an ebook and didn’t own a Kindle. Now I do and the digital version comes with a very reasonable price.

Before I get into the findings themselves, Glatthaar’s method deserves some explanation. Using existing records, he developed a random sample of 600 soldiers. The sample took in infantry, cavalry, and artillery in proportion to their numbers in the army and represents officers and enlisted men similarly. It does not attempt to achieve the same balance with regard to the home states of the soldiers, though it does include men from all eleven Confederate states plus Kentucky and Maryland. The most in the sample hailed from Virginia (239), followed by North Carolina (96) and Georgia (86). Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, and Texas tied for last at four each.

According to Glatthaar,

Just under half (46.7%) of all soldiers in Lee’s army were born in Virginia or North Carolina. With South Carolina and Georgia added, 3 of every 4 (75.1%) troops came from those Southern coastal states. One in every 13 (7.8%) was born in the North (a state that remained in the Union) or in a foreign country. Those numbers included young Private Bishop, the son of a fisherman, who originally hailed from New York and moved with his family to South Carolina.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (p. 4). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

I cannot claim any special knowledge of statistics, but this sounds like about what one would expect for a fair, random sample from which we can confidently generalize about the ANV. Glatthaar also notes that 55.0% of the men resided in the Upper South, so one can’t claim he cherry picked a sample from the Cotton Kingdom’s black belts and then shockingly found them especially involved with slavery.

Right then, we’ve got a decent enough sample. What did Glatthaar find out about the men of the Confederacy’s preeminent army?

Soldiers were more likely to come from heavier slaveholding counties than the recruiting states as a whole. […] Their home counties on average had 16.6% more slaves to whites than the average of all the counties in those states.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (pp. 5-6). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

One would expect more enslaved counties to show up more prominently in the rolls of an army defending slavery in a nation created for that purpose. A persistent person might argue that residence in a highly-enslaved county doesn’t necessarily make you more likely to favor slavery. The argument doesn’t make much sense considering the centrality of slavery in the South as a whole, let alone in its more enslaved than average counties where human property would have a more prominent and pervasive role still.

We could stop here and content ourselves with a data point in favor of an already well-supported position, but Glatthaar had more data still. Here we get into the real meat of things. It turns out that not only did men from unusually enslaved counties, by the standards of their own states, appear more frequently in Lee’s army. Men from slaveholding households did as well:

According to the 1860 census, 1 in every 20 (4.9%) adults owned slaves and 1 in every 4 (24.9%) households had slaves. In Lee’s army, more than 1 in every 8 (13.0%) soldiers owned slaves, and for those who lived with family members, approximately 3 in every 8 (37.2%) had slaves. Four of every 9 (44.4%) troops resided in a slaveholding household, some 78.0% greater than the South as a whole.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (p. 9). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

Near to half of all men in Lee’s army lived in a slaveholding household. They grew up intimately acquainted with and materially benefiting from the stolen labor of black Americans. Furthermore, that number far exceeds the typical proportion of slaveholding families in the South.

Glatthaar doesn’t provide breakdowns by state for context, but I have them from my past work with the 1860 census. If recast as a state, Lee’s army would have had a greater percentage of enslaver households than any state of the Border or Upper South by a large margin. North Carolina, the most slaveholding among those states, topped out with 27.71% of households owning at least one person. It would even beat the Lower South’s average (37.01%), coming in between South Carolina’s 45.53% and Georgia’s 37.38%. This would make the State of Lee the South’s fourth most enslaving.

The Deep South in the 1860 census. (Click to enlarge.)

The Deep South in the 1860 census. (Click to enlarge.)

I’ve seen the complaint that Glatthaar went through a tremendous geneology project, pinning the slaveholding of fifth cousins, twice removed and essentially a strangers on some poor solider out of pure malice. Those who want to believe such things can, but Glatthaar used the United States census. It lacks any such remote information. The census takers organized their data by household. The parlance of the time called everyone who lived under the same roof or on the same property a family, even inmates at insane asylums and boarding houses where everyone understood no blood relation need exist.

Nor did Glatthaar cherry pick the wealthiest soldiers about, counting on the fact that wealth meant slaves in the antebellum South to make his point. Slaveholders, including the wealthy ones, do appear somewhat more prominently, but in measures of personal and family wealth the plurality of soldiers still could claim no more than $400 (35.8%). Another 5.9% came in below $800. By period terms, this made them poor. The middle class, between there and $4,000 accounted for another 22.8% of the ANV. The wealthy made up the remaining 35.4%. This creates a substantial gap in the middle, but the very wealthy would include large slaveholders who one would expect to have a stronger enthusiasm for the cause:

Approximately 92% of all soldiers’ households with a minimum total wealth of $ 4,000 possessed slaves. More than 1 in every 15 soldiers or his family (6.9%) achieved planter status— owning 20 or more slaves— and 1 in 11 soldiers (9.3%) resided in planter households. By contrast, 1 in 32 (3.2%) households in the South qualified as a planter. This was not, therefore, a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. Slaveholders, who also happened to be rich, served in disproportionately high numbers in Lee’s army. It was a rich, moderate, and poor man’s fight.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (pp. 9-10). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

I know none of this can persuade those who have convinced themselves that the ordinary soldier had no interest in slavery. If the documentary record and bare census figures can’t do the job, then one more study never would. But for the rest of us, the numbers clearly show not just an increased interest in slavery for Lee’s army, in every way one would think to look, but one radically higher than coincidence or mere statistical noise could ever account for. They also, I must add, exceeded my own already generous expectations. I imagined thirty to forty percent more slaveholding households than the Southern norm, not nigh eighty.

 

Two Books on Nullification

Gentle Readers, you may have guessed from the recent run of Modern Mondays that I’ve gone off on a bit of a nullification kick. Sectional strife did not just erupt full-formed over the annexation of Texas or the Wilmot Proviso, but rather had a pedigree extending considerably farther back. At a certain point, one arrives at crises resolved in ways that don’t seem to have pushed the nation closer to war, but which rather subsided into a more latent kind of sectionalism. For example, prior to 1854 southern radicals could complain about the Missouri Compromise but few expected it overturned. The serious controversy over Missouri’s admission to the Union with slavery intact had its lingering echoes. It did not help the white Americans of the two sections learn to love one another better. But neither did it inaugurate an era of continuing and intensifying tension over slavery. Somewhere between the last crisis where we see tensions largely subside and the first where we see them continue, we draw a line and declare the Civil War era commenced.

In doing so, we must remember that the past no more divided itself into discrete blocks than the present. Rather we see trends progress continuously, if not without some acceleration, some slowing down, and reverses. We use periodization to describe, not proscribe. The present trend in these things leans toward pushing the Civil War era further and further back, though not without controversy. Thus we can better tease out the deep roots of the conflict and trace the interdependent evolution of sectional identities that facilitated it. Since South Carolina began the secession movement, twice, the state’s defiance of two tariffs seems like a promising place to look for the war’s deeper roots.

Prelude to the Civil War

Prelude to the Civil War

I began with William W. Freehling’s 1966 book Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1816-1836. I knew Freehling’s work from The Road to Disunion, where he covers some of the same ground, and saw regular reference to him even in recent antebellum surveys. For an academic book to remain the standard text for a good fifty years speaks to its quality. I looked for other modern books, but found only Richard Ellis’ The Union At Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights, and the Nullification Crisis. Many other books discuss the controversy, but they generally do so in the course of studying something else. One finds footnotes referencing biographies of the principals, especially Jackson and Calhoun, but so far as relatively recent, dedicated works on the controversy itself Ellis and Freehling have the market cornered.

If you want to know more, which should you read? One generally does better to prefer the more recent publication, though not without exceptions. When it comes to Nullification, the exception proves the rule. If one wants to learn about the Nullification Controversy in detail and thoroughly, one should go first to Freehling. It wouldn’t hurt to read the important chapters once and then give them a thorough skim thereafter to help organize things in your mind. The Freehling of the 1960s has not yet discovered his love for especially convoluted turns of phrase and frequent nicknames, but he still writes careful, dense prose. None of that detracts from his probing inquiry, but it takes some getting used to. His biographical sketches probably tell fairly standard stories of South Carolina political careers often enough that he could have skipped several, but do a good job of fixing the diverse cast of characters in your mind. One comes away knowing who wanted what when, why they changed their minds, what tactics they chose, and informed of the critical whys and wherefores all along. To sum up Freehling’s argument in a sentence: South Carolina’s embrace of radical, novel nullification theories served a tactic to save slavery.

Ellis has almost none of that. He concerns himself almost exclusively with discussions of constitutional theory. He tells you right out that he takes theory seriously and views it as intensely important in its own right, whilst taking a few swipes at historians who inquire as to where the theories come from or why people would find them so compelling. Some of his criticism rings true, but I think overall he goes too far the other way. He deals in abstractions to the point that one wonders just why anybody cared so much. This runs a real risk of turning American history into a collection of white men politely discoursing on abstract matters with cultivated, disinterested manners. I don’t know that Ellis entirely avoided that pitfall.

Ellis’ book speaks far more about Jackson than South Carolina. He lists the Nullification Crisis third in his subtitle and in many ways it feels like an afterthought. He spills at least as much ink on the Bank of the United States and Indian Removal as the crisis. For my money, when Ellis writes about nullification he largely writes around it. He sees criticism of Jackson’s moves to suppress the nullifiers as the most interesting part of the story, rather than the thing itself. To the degree the book concerns nullification at all, Ellis argues that the nullifiers adopted a new and novel theory of states’ rights against older states’ rights theories, but their innovation had popularity elsewhere in the country. Jackson, as an exponent of old school states’ rights, overreached and overreacted in ways that generally undermined his position.

I hope the reader doesn’t take this as too damning of Ellis. His book really has a great deal going for it. He looks at the interplay between the Bank, Indian Removal, and Nullification in ways that Freehling does not. He plumbs distinctions between nullifier theories of states’ rights and more traditional varieties in a way that Freehling only references in passing. Ellis does a very good job of placing the crisis in the broader Jacksonian context. That he didn’t write quite the book I wanted, or that Freehling wrote, doesn’t constitute much of a criticism. Having multiple scholars attack a subject from different angles enriches the field. If you want to build a thoroughgoing understanding of the controversy, you should read his book after you read Freehling.

However, it now falls to me to damn Ellis. The Union at Risk has one critical shortcoming, already alluded to, that one needs to keep in mind. If you go to the index, you will find exactly one entry for slavery, referencing a single section of Ellis’ final chapter. The peculiar institution figures into several subheadings in other entries, but they almost invariably send you straight back to that short section. Most of this section downplays slavery’s significance. Ultimately, Ellis admits that slavery played the driving role in nullification. He quotes Calhoun’s admission of the fact to Virgil Maxcy. Buried in the endnotes, he confesses that he agrees with Freehling that slavery drove Nullification. He identifies the strong correlation between heavily enslaved areas and support for nullification, but then goes off the rails:

there seems to be no question but that the institution of slavery was becoming more widespread and that attitudes toward it began to harden after 1815. But the relationship of this to political developments between 1815 and 1854 is murky.

he Union At Risk

The Union At Risk

One might defend that statement for the early part of the time covered, or excuse it as the product of the 1980s lacuna in slavery historiography, but doing so would require us to neglect quite a bit of work on the later end of Ellis’ “murky” period available to him at the time of writing. I suspect that Ellis struggles here with the fact that through most of The Union at Risk, he remains critical of the nullifiers but broadly sympathetic to Jackson until Jackson declares firmly against them. This seems largely about rescuing Jackson’s traditionalist states’ rights ideas from association with nullification whilst simultaneously not delving into where those ideas also came from. The Old Republicans, especially the set around John Randolph in Virginia, had did not scruple to admit that they saw a too-powerful national government as wrong because it imperiled slavery. Daniel Howe Walker notes as much in What Hath God Wrought:

John Randolph pointed out that a protective tariff was in effect a tax on consumers. “On whom do your impost duties bear?” he demanded. The burden of these taxes on “the necessaries of life” would fall on two classes: “on poor men, and on slaveholders.” 66 Randolph had, as usual, cut to the heart of the matter. (page 83)

And

The strident John Randolph of Roanoke made this logic public: “If Congress possesses the power to do what is proposed in this bill,” he warned in 1824 while opposing the General Survey for internal improvements, “they may emancipate every slave in the United States.” (pages 221-222)

This points to an ideology rather less innocent of proslavery conviction than Ellis suggests and something much more in tune with John Ashcroft’s rendition of the Democracy as built, from Jefferson, on to at least implicitly shelter and preserve slavery.

Ellis’ distinction between traditionalist states’ rights and nullification theories deserves consideration apart from the connection to slavery, but even granting that we run into problems. He further denies Jackson’s and his supporters’ proslavery bona fides, casting them as latter-day Jeffersonians who viewed slavery as a necessary evil. Given both Jefferson’s own behavior and Jackson’s great enthusiasm for expanding slavery, this just doesn’t withstand scrutiny. More recent scholarship, as incisively explained by Howe, considers slavery and white supremacy a major priority of the Democracy:

One policy that the Democratic Party embraced consistently was white supremacy. The centrality of white supremacy in Democratic policymaking helps explain that party’s hostility toward Clay’s American System. Democratic suspicion of government aid to internal improvements reflected not a horror of the market revolution but a fear that such a program might threaten the institution of slavery. The danger, from the slaveholders’ point of view, was twofold. In the first place, national plans for internal improvements might be designed to wean areas in the Border States or Upper South away from slave-based agriculture toward a diversified economy in which slavery would become vulnerable to gradual emancipation. In the second place, national plans for internal improvements set a precedent for federal activity that might encourage interference with slavery— for example, by exercising the interstate commerce power over the interstate slave trade. Jacksonians welcomed transporting farm products to market, so long as it could be done without the centralized planning that raised the specter of emancipation. (pages 584-585)

 

This dovetails far better with that backlash against Jackson that Ellis describes than his account of constitutional abstractions isolated almost completely from the factors that drove people to adopt and defend them. More of Ellis’ work seems devoted to preserving “anything but slavery” as a motive than to the slavery he finally confesses to in his endnotes.

This all makes Ellis a contradictory, somewhat confounding read. What he does, he does well. He makes genuinely important points in the course of doing it. But when called upon the probe the reasons of historical actors, rather than just their reasoning, he leaves the history almost completely undone. You will gain from reading him, but reading him alone would leave one with a gravely incomplete understanding of the Nullification Controversy.

NB: My page numbers come from the Kindle edition of What Hath God Wrought, a book good enough to make an argument for ebooks even independent of the sufficient peril it threatens to wayward house pets, exposed toes, and small children. I’ll even forgive it the eyestrain headaches caused by reading hundreds of pages in at a time.

A Few Good Antebellum Political Surveys

Gentle Readers, I aim for transparency here. Where possible, I link you through to the primary sources I use. You can go and read them yourselves to see if I judge them fairly or not. I also try to quote generously so you have fullest context. There’s no reason anybody can’t just dive right into the primary sources and get history from there, but I also find secondary works indispensable. A good secondary source will not just give a narrative of events, and some don’t really do narratives as such, but also a generous helping of footnotes or endnotes to plumb for further reading. I have discovered most of the primary sources I use through these notes and hunting around the internet. A lucky search can land you free copies of even paywalled journal articles from recent decades that some kind professor put up for students’ convenience. But I advise getting some grounding in the secondary literature before diving in. This way you can learn the cast of characters, the major movements, and important background concerns that a primary source may simply assume familiarity with.

You can go to almost any bookstore and find a plethora of Civil War books, but the antebellum gets rather less coverage. So today I’d like to recommend some good survey texts, all of which I’ve used in one way or another in the course of writing. I know others exist, but I can only speak to those I have read. I have also restricted my list to books presently in print and present them in rough order of readability and friendliness to a layperson.

The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War 1848-1861 by David Potter.

A classic of the field, Potter’s work shows its age in some places. His dislike for abolitionist rhetoric shows through more than once. In some places, he sounds very much like a grumpy white conservative in the Civil Rights Era. In keeping with common usage at the time, he refers to black Americans almost exclusively as Negroes. Potter has a very old school approach to history with a strong focus on political actors, which I share to some degree, but the nuts and bolts narrative communicates very well just what happened when and who did it. Potter covers the whole era in good detail for such a short work, including valuable insights about the nature of state and national loyalties and the connection between antislavery politics and nativism. Furthermore, he writes well and with a minimum of jargon. If you read only one of these books, read Potter.

Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 by Elizabeth Varon

Varon’s work only came out in 2008. She writes in a very modern, approachable voice. Don’t let her introductory words on schools of historiography and the rhetoric of disunion put you off. The opening gives the impression that one has in hand a history of ideas about disunion. While that remains a theme of the book, Varon devotes most of her attention to a general narrative. Between the greater sweep and changes in historical fashion, she spends much less time on detailed analysis of policy evolution than Potter does. However, she integrates intellectual, political, and even gender history into the narrative to a far greater degree. She and Potter will both tell you what happened and why, but Varon looks further under the hood. If gender history doesn’t sound like it has much to do with politics, then Varon’s work will prove otherwise. She has a keen eye for the use of gendered language in period sources, both by women seeking to legitimate their political involvement in antislavery causes and the counters by proslavery writers that they emasculated antislavery men. If you ever wonder what social history in its various modes has to do with more traditional approaches, reading Varon will tell you.

The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854 and Secessionists Triumphant: 1854-1861 by William W. Freehling

Recommending a two volume work takes a bit of cheek, I know. Bear with me. Freehling’s survey of Southern politics from independence until secession does not always make for the most engaging read. Freehling can write very well, but can also turn convoluted and lose you in a forest of his personal slang. If that doesn’t do it, then the cast of characters might. Both of these criticisms apply less to the second volume than the first. The first also has slave dialog written in eye dialect, which strikes me as on the edge of good taste even by the standards of 1990.

His forward to the second volume makes it clear that Freehling understands the major issues with his first and sought to remedy them. He succeeded with the dialect and uses fewer nicknames, but I still had several points where I had to hit the index or look elsewhere to help me keep the players straight. If you stick it out with Freehling, he will introduce you to a colorful cast of characters and the ways their personal lives informed their politics. He writes a great biographical sketch. Some reviewers think he goes too far in this, reducing everything to individual eccentricities, but to my reading he generally keeps a broader perspective. That perspective comes deeply informed by social history, including many insights into the minds of slaveholders and the ways in which their authoritarian habits at home influenced both sectional and national politics. The first volume, for all its problematic writing, earns its keep in the introductory chapters alone. There Freehling gives a tour of the antebellum South right down to the number of times you have to change trains.

I understand that Freehling’s explanation of Upper South secession does not meet with universal acceptance; I don’t know that he entirely convinced me with it. However, his running argument that the fear of dissent within the white South informed a great deal of sectional politics bears consideration. It doesn’t explain the entire South or hold true to the same degree at all times, but he convinced me that we should take it seriously as a factor in proslavery thought and action. We have far too an easy a time imagining the white South as monolithic. The fear of white dissent arose out of tensions within Southern society, so attention to it as a theme helps explain just why proslavery radicals both became extreme and gained followers as time went on. Freehling confines most of his writing directed at fellow professionals to the endnotes, but they make for informative reading in themselves and include at least one moment where he graciously admits to a flaw in his own work.

Slave “mistresses” and the Slaveholder’s Lexicon

Julian Bond (via Wikipedia)

Julian Bond (via Wikipedia)

My copy of Between the World and Me arrived Friday. I read it at once, as we all should. If you know Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing, then you know to expect powerful, direct prose. A book allows him to deploy more of it than any magazine feature, but he does more than that in the slim space between the covers. Coates uses the epistolary format to address the reader directly. We all get to stand in for his son, more hearing him speak than reading words on a page. Even when I know what an author sounds like in person, I rarely read their writing in that voice. Coates had me doing it before the end of the first page. I hoped to share some insights of his here, but I think the work ill-served by easy excerpts. It has only three chapters and reads more like a single speech with brief pauses for breath than a conventional piece of non-fiction. The experience of reading it reminded me more of hearing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl performed, a beautiful eruption of thought and emotion rather than tamed sentences and paragraphs. I can’t do it justice. I considered just writing a review and moving on.

Then Julian Bond died. Via twitter, I learned how the New York Times chose to report on Bond’s ancestry in an otherwise decent obituary:

Julian Bond’s great-grandmother Jane Bond was the slave mistress of a Kentucky farmer.

This line, brought to mind several passages from Between the World and Me. “Slave mistress” sounds almost like a strange sort of job title. The law of white Kentucky, enacted and enforced by white Kentuckians, made Jane Bond a slave, but something else made her a mistress. Nobody forces anyone into an extramarital affair, but rather the principals engage willingly and as partners. The harm done falls on someone else, an absent spouse. But as a slave, Jane Bond did not have the luxury of any such consent. The law of Kentucky took that from her and placed it in the hands of the man who raped her. It did this not by some accident or oversight, but with the knowledge that he and others would do exactly that.

To call Bond a mistress requires one to read from the slaveholder’s lexicon. It literally whitewashes the whole affair, to the point that it can slip past an inattentive or uninformed reader. Much of our language does that, with conventional phrasing chosen to obscure rather than reveal. Coates began with a consideration of such things:

The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing-race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy-serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.

In obscuring these ugly facts we may slave our consciences, but we do so at the cost of making common cause with those who broke the bones, whipped the backs, and exercised the full power the law gave them over black bodies of both sexes. I say at the cost and not at our cost, as we have ensured that we do not pay the price for such things. As Coates says:

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons.

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

We can imagine Bond’s owner as a farmer. In a strictly literal sense, he might have owned a farm. But Thomas Jefferson owned a farm too. When he praised those who worked the earth, he imagined a very different set of people than those who worked the earth outside his window. He may as well have lived on a different planet from them, except when he called them in to cook his meals, do his laundry, clean his house, and satiate his lusts. Those people, in Coates words, “born out of mass rape, whose ancestors were carried off and divided up into policies and stocks” did not share in Jefferson’s sometimes fleeting prosperity. He experienced slavery as a wellspring of pleasures: status, wealth, and power. With a few hundred on hand, all of Jefferson’s slaves must have run together. How many of us could keep so many people straight? But

Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, as a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. “Slavery” is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world-which is really the only world she can ever know-ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history. Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains-whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.

Maybe some slave mistresses felt genuine attraction to the men who owned them, but even if they did they could not go entirely willingly to those men. Their owners held the power of life and death over them as surely with whip or gun in hand as they did with pen poised over a contract to sell away their loved ones or with a mere crooked finger. To refuse meant not vicious words or a dirty look, but death and destruction. The slave, made from the ruin of a person, could still have all the normal thoughts and feelings of a person, but rarely dared express them in full. Even if she did, they meant nothing to the man the law said owned her body. The enslaved fled from that reality when they could and dared, William and Ellen Craft specifically to spare their children such a fate. Knowing this, antislavery northerners declared the entire South a giant brothel. Mary Chesnut reports that the high society women of Charleston gossiped about it. One need not plunge deep into the history to know this, but only think about the most basic, brutal facts of slavery.

These hard facts all vanish in the Times’ obituary. It concerns Bond and not his great-grandmother, so we should not expect it to plumb the depths quite as Coates did. But if Jane Bond mattered enough to deserve a mention, than she mattered enough to deserve an honest one. It would have taken no more than an extra word or two to write instead that she served as the sex slave of a Kentucky enslaver. No one would misunderstand that or miss its significance. It would only have broken the rules of the white American syndicate.