Baylor 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.
Tag Archives: slavery
Edmund S. Morgan, one of the nation’s greatest historians and a scholar who tackled the dilemmas of American slavery, American freedom, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.