Tag Archives: slavery

The Violence of Colonial Slave Codes

slaveryBaylor University history professor Thomas Kidd writes about the violent and cruel laws used in Anglo-British colonial America to control slaves’ behavior. The brief article is particularly interesting because he describes how in 1710 one evangelical Christian congregation’s response to a particularly brutal form of punishment was decidedly mixed. According to Kidd, Christians looking for condemnations of slavery in the Bible were disappointed by what little support for opposition they found there, but they did find support for the anti-slavery position based on the cruelty of the institution.


Filed under History of the Declaration of Independence

Edmund S. Morgan, RIP

Edmund S. Morgan, one of the nation’s greatest historians and a scholar who tackled the dilemmas of American slavery, American Edmund S. Morganfreedom, and Puritan faith in a carnal world, is dead at 97. The New York Times reports that Morgan died Monday.

His books such as American Slavery, American Freedom and The Puritan Dilemma were points of departure for historical understanding in colonial American studies when I was a graduate student. Both are still widely assigned to undergraduates today. Morgan combined excellent scholarship with a concise, readable prose rare among professional historians. His long life was a gift to the study of history in this nation. He will be missed. RIP.

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Maybe Jefferson Isn’t All That Bad: Push-Back Hits “Master of the Mountain”

From the New York Times comes an interesting article on the firestorm of controversy ignited by Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, which I examined in an earlier post. Apparently, there is something new to be said about this book as professional historians dog-pile on Wiencek, an independent scholar who has written other impressive books such as An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America.  Frankly, the contretemps appears to me as another bout of professional jealously that rears its ugly head when a non-professional historian (i.e. someone outside the world of tenured professors in the academy) scores with readers who transform his or her book into a popular tome. Read Wiencek’s blog responses here. They are as enlightening as the article. Equally tantalizing are arguments that Wiencek’s dark view of Jefferson is an exaggeration. Are representatives of the neo-patriotic school of historiography alive and well in academe? The pendulum swings back when it comes to historical opinion and I wonder if a Jefferson renaissance is in the wings.

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What John Quincy Adams Tells Us About One-Term Presidents

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, 6th president of the United States of America

Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal, prolific biographer and writer Harlow Giles Unger offers an essay on John Quincy Adams, a forgotten Founding Father whose career before and after his single presidential term is little remembered even by many professional historians. As Unger writes, JQA  was “the oldest son of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams seemed destined for greatness from birth. He served under Washington and with Lincoln; he lived with Ben Franklin, lunched with Lafayette, Jefferson, and Wellington; he walked with Russia’s czar and talked with Britain’s king; he dined with Dickens, taught at Harvard … negotiated the peace that ended the War of 1812, freed the African prisoners on the slave ship Amistad … restored free speech in Congress, (and) led the anti-slavery movement … .” It was a stellar career, one that Unger portrays excellently in his new biography of the polymathic president.

One other message of the article is that JQA could serve as a role model for President Obama should he lose this November and himself enter the ranks of one-term presidents. (“One-term president” is usually a criterion used to suggest that the individual was also a failed president.) I suggest the best purpose of the essay is to remind readers of the long-lasting living link between the founding period and the mid-nineteenth century. People like John Quincy Adams (d. 1848), Dolley Madison (d. 1849), James Monroe (d. 1831), and even the infamous Aaron Burr (d. 1836) were long-lived individuals who spoke frequently of the times which created the United States. These individuals witnessed the formative years of American history from the dawn of the American Revolution to the eve of the Civil War. New research on the War of Revolution, how the Declaration of Independence was received by Americans of the era, and the political attitudes of the Founding Fathers and Mothers would be greatly expanded by new examination of the papers of these individuals, as well as memoirs and commentators written by family and friends that recall the reminiscences of those seminal individuals.

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October 6, 2012 · 6:41 am

Let Freedom Ring: 150 Years Since The Emancipation Proclamation

Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. President, 1809-1865

On this day a century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln issued the first version of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of this nation’s most important political documents and the beginning of the official transformation of the Union’s wartime strategy to the goal of freeing enslaved Americans. His proclamation warned the Confederate states that if they remained in rebellion against the U.S. on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln as commander-in-chief would on that day declare all slaves to be free in areas under Confederate control. Lincoln’s measure came just five days after the agonizingly costly Northern victory at Antietam, easily the bloodiest single day in American military history. 

The decision to issue the proclamation may have been one of the most politically dangerous wagers ever made by an American president. An essay in yesterday’s New York Times by Richard Striner, a history professor at Washington College, points out that Lincoln received warning from fellow Republicans that he had just lost the upcoming elections for the Republican Party. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair warned that it would “endanger our power in Congress, and put the next House of Representatives in the hands of those opposed to the war, or to our mode of carrying it on.” Southerners would be outraged by the decision, seeing it as confirmation of every fear that had driven them to secession and war.

We often forget that Lincoln was an unpopular president, a plurality president elected with about 40 percent of the popular vote in an election with three other candidates, and a president during a controversial war killing more Americans than all of the nation’s other wars combined up to that time. With that in mind, I have often considered the Emancipation Proclamation, written as it is in the dull prose of a lawyer, the greatest and most principled statement of moral leadership by any president. Lincoln lived by the words of the Declaration of Independence and those words are ringing enough for all times. It was through that presidential proclamation, its twin issued in 1863, and the gutsy decision to fight a great war to purposeful victory that made the words of both documents matter for all Americans. Liberty is measured by results, not by the number of rhetorical flourishes in an executive order or the flowery prose displayed on a TelePrompter.

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Is there anything new to say about Thomas Jefferson and slavery?

Monticello. A picture from my visit there in 2008.

The October edition of Smithsonian Magazine has an expansive essay based on chapters from Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. Archaeologists at Monticello have been working for more than a decade to show that the topic of Jefferson and his relationship with the humans he enslaved is far from completely known, and the excerpt from the new book emphasizes the life of young boys who worked at the nailery, which was one of the many cottage industries Jefferson operated in an effort to turn a profit.

The paradox of slaveowning Jefferson the author of the Declaration of Independence is old ground covered by many historians. “One cannot question the genuineness of Jefferson’s liberal dreams,” writes historian David Brion Davis. “He was one of the first statesmen in any part of the world to advocate concrete measures for restricting and eradicating Negro slavery.” But in the 1790s, Davis continues, “the most remarkable thing about Jefferson’s stand on slavery is his immense silence.” Wiencek contends that from the 1790s onward Jefferson also openly embraced rough treatment of slaves in an effort to increase profits from his various enterprises like the nailery, rejected opportunities including a generous inheritance from an old Revolutionary War friend specifically bequeathed for the purpose of purchasing the freedom of his slaves and providing for their new lives, and ordered the whipping of children who failed in their tasks. It is not a flattering portrayal.

What is amazing in the essay is that the information is nothing new, just more clearly examined. Most of the documentary evidence cited has been known for half a century. But the reputation of Jefferson the Apostle of Liberty even led one historian to suppress letters he found that detailed Jefferson’s brutal treatment of young slaves in an effort to motivate production. George Washington is offered as a model of a privileged, slave-holding individual from the Founding Generation who eventually freed his slaves and believed that the United States could become a nation where the races lived side-by-side. He does what Jefferson would not do.

The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway once commented on Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator by dryly noting, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.” More than just sentimental respect for the myth of Thomas Jefferson motivates me to continue my admiration for what he created intellectually (the promises of the Declaration) and physically (the astoundingly beautiful spaces at Monticello and the University of Virginia).  However, it appears Wiencek’s new book does offer us something new: A fresh chance to decide whether Jefferson is a paradox or a profiteer when it comes to his role in the perpetuation of chattel slavery in the South.


Filed under Book reviews, Scholarship and Historians

Full Trailer for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” available on YouTube

I always try to remember that a trailer often packages a movie’s best two minutes when it comes to what you see in the theater while nibbling your popcorn and waiting for the main attraction. Still, I am impressed by what Steven Spielberg promises moviegoers in the full trailer released Thursday for his Lincoln, which opens November 9. Daniel Day-Lewis displays a characterization of Lincoln as a brooding, intense, and highly principled man who struggles with his role in history. Even more promising are the supporting actors. Tommy Lee Jones  portrays Radical Republican firebrand Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most powerful lawmakers during Lincoln’s administration and an often sarcastic gadfly who endlessly goaded President Lincoln to do battle against the Slave Power and issue an emancipation proclamation. Spielberg cast David Strathairn as William Seward, the 16th president’s secretary of state and a founding force in the young Republican Party who vied for the party’s nomination during the Election of 1860. Despite the schmaltzy tones of sentimentality that comes from the piano tinkling away in the soundtrack, the intensity of the national division during the Civil War comes through loud and clear in the scenes selected for the trailer. Most importantly, there are hints that Lincoln’s devotion to liberty and freedom that he repeatedly acknowledged as stemming from his dedication to the principles of the Declaration of Independence will take center stage in the film. Movies rarely do a good job of presenting history rather than just simple entertainment, but I have even more reason to believe Spielberg’s film will the double-A plus biopic I hope it will be.

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A Review of “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln And American Slavery”

Eric Foner

Understanding the intellectual processes of Eric Foner has always been a problematic exercise for me. He is one of the most respected and honored historians in the United States: student of my idol Richard Hofstadter;  one of only two persons to serve as president of the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians; and one of perhaps a half-dozen historians to win both the Bancroft Prize (the “Academy Award,” if you will, of professional historians in the scholarly academy who acknowledge the best book of history published during a given year) and the Pulitzer Price for non-fiction in the same year.  Recognition like that isn’t exactly the historian’s equivalent of a free prize in every package of cereal.  Yet, perhaps one of the surest signs of brilliance is inconsistency. He readily recognizes the unique qualities of American freedom but possessed little more than the expected academic liberal’s knee-jerk reaction to the U.S. war in Iraq.  For example, he rejects American exceptionalism but readily concedes  that “in every index of power — military, economic, cultural, scientific — the United States far exceeds any other country,” an exceptional status unlike any other except Rome’s. (I have found that many scholars are very comfortable with the idea of American exceptionalism when it is applied to the idea of how uniquely wrong or bad the U.S. is.)  It’s silly of me to accuse him of ideological faults when I obviously have my own ideological underpinnings.  But, outside of his neo-Marxist interests in “people’s history” he has landed on both sides of the fence when examining a historical issue more times than not. My goodness, the man had a hand in revising the Disney Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World.

But Foner stands out because of his long-standing respect, admiration, yet intense scrutiny of Abraham Lincoln. For 50 years, Lincoln has been one of the biggest heroes in the American pantheon to take down a notch.  I won’t take time to write a histriographical essay on Lincoln revisionism, but I urge readers to consult Thomas L. Krannawitter’s Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President to get some sense of the mud that has been slung at the marble statue called Abraham Lincoln. However, I have to give the late, great Howard Zinn honorable mention.  In his A People’s History of the United States, Zinn described Lincoln as man who only became interested in the question of slavery when it was politically expedient to do so, and he was motivated to end slavery only when it would be done under the control of white business elites.

However, Foner recognizes something very human and very relevant about Lincoln: The man changed during his lifetime, and he changed with the times. In Foner’s latest book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln And American Slavery, he explains that Lincoln always said slavery was unjust and there is no proof anywhere that he thought otherwise. The crux of the matter is the obvious question: If slavery is unjust, what do you do about it? Lincoln, a man fascinated with politics and the pursuit of office for much of his adult life, absolutely examined the political issues around slavery, proposed policies, and had a view of what good policies toward the elimination of slavery would be.  That doesn’t mean that Lincoln knew exactly how abolition would take place, or what kind of abolition the American people would stomach. In 19th century America, who did? We tend to think of abolition as a monolithic political movement. It was not. William Lloyd Garrison and his followers were the radicals who called for the secession of the North from the South and the destruction of the U.S. Constitution as a policy that would end slavery. John Brown wanted military uprisings. Various northern Whigs, then Republicans,  floated policy ideas centered on containment. Not surprisingly, Lincoln was heavily influenced by his beaux ideal, the Great Conciliator Henry Clay who supported the colonization movement from his earliest days in Kentucky politics. Foner does a superb job of examining Lincoln in the light of the various strains of abolitionism, the support each garnered, and the practical questions of whether the legislative branch would be willing to support anything that eliminated slavery rather than limited it.

But Foner is at his best when he sees Lincoln aroused by the events of the 1850s, a period I will always call the Decade of the Impending Crisis thanks to my professor in those matters. From the Peoria Speech until the war, Lincoln embraces colonization, sticks with the idea of limiting the expansion of slavery (one of Henry Clay’s signature achievement is the Missouri Compromise), and sees political abolition as the route for the nation. However, Foner’s examination of the Emancipation Proclamation, proclaims that it is a radical document (that’s an opinion far removed from Hofstadter’s assessment of the proclamation) that is among the most important presidential decisions in U.S. history. In addition, Foner examines how Lincoln did two things that changed the nation forever: He withdrew any comment regarding compensation for the freeing of slaves and placed slaves in a position to seize their own freedom as soldiers in the Union Army.  Throughout his lifetime, Lincoln had seen nothing but the clashes that occurred in inter-racial society. Now, he would as president begin the nation’s quest for an inter-racial society that treated black Americans as human beings.  Not a surprising result from a man who said publically that all of his political thoughts stemmed from the Declaration of Independence.  Foner’s book is my pleasant surprise during my summer review of the latest titles I can find in U.S. history.


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“The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” by Eric Foner: How Lincoln and America Changed Their Minds About Slavery

Eric Foner is my favorite Marxist — really. He’s an accomplished historian whose scholarship and intellectual rigor are never second-place to an ideological goal such as the political outcomes desired by New Left historians. His new history of Abraham Lincoln’s response to the expansion of slavery in the 1850s and the ideas in Lincoln’s Peoria Speeches is thoroughly reviewed here by NPR’s Terry Gross. The review also includes a generous excerpt from the new book. I am reading the book myself and will offer some observations at a later date.


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How Lincoln Changed His Mind About Slavery In A Month

From the New York Times, an article from their continuing coverage of the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War about the crucial month of July 1862. Politically, President Lincoln had rejected efforts by Army commanders and Congress to make the war a fight to abolish slavery. The article explains how that all began to change. 

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July 23, 2012 · 8:07 am