On the eve of the American Revolution, an unlikely band of ministers and benefactors devised a plan to send John Quamine, a free black man, and Bristol Yamma, a slave, as missionaries to Africa. The project was conceived by the two would-be missionaries themselves, and supported by controversial Congregationalist minister Samuel Hopkins and his more moderate colleague Ezra Stiles. In 1774, Stiles and Hopkins arranged for the duo to be sent to the College of New Jersey, where Presbyterian minister (and president of the College) John Witherspoon would train them. Their proposed mission gained some notoriety, and a diverse lot of supporters championed their cause, including Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet, New Jersey lawyer and politician Elias Boudinot, Scottish theologian John Erskine the noted black poet Phyllis Wheatley, Eleazar Wheelock and his Mohegan pupil-turned-preacher Samson Occum, and black Anglican missionary to Africa Phillip Quaque (though his endorsement came with serious reservations). The outbreak of war in 1775 and the subsequent death of Quamine in 1779 ultimately thwarted the planned mission. In spite of its failure, though, it remains an important but oft-ignored episode in what Edward E. Andrews calls “the tangled history of cultural encounter between Europe, Africa, and the Americas” (188). Continue reading
George Wythe represented the best of the Revolutionary-era Virginia gentry. Wythe, as a law professor, instructed and inspired many of the leading lights of the Patriot movement, including Thomas Jefferson. Wythe was also a racial liberal. After his wife’s death he freed the family’s slaves and even went as far as to adopt and pay for the education of one of their number, a young man named Michael Brown. By the opening years of the nineteenth century Wythe served as chancellor of Virginia’s court of equity where he handed down a monumental decision in the case of Wright v. Hudgins, which held that the burden of proof in cases of runaway slaves rested with the enslaver – not the accused runaway.
I hope that Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders (New York: A. A. Knopf, 2013) gets picked up for a Fox News segment. Denise A. Spellberg (UT-Austin) has synthesized a large body of scholarship into a readable, teachable, and thoughtful look at the significance of Islam in the American founding era. Conservatives pounced on Spellberg during a dust-up over a novel about Muhammad’s wife a few years ago, and in this book she suggests both that the Founders were occasionally wrong and that some of them believed Islam could have its place in the American polity. So it seems possible to hope that the usual suspects will take notice. She deserves the publicity. Continue reading
“The Revolution may be the most important event in American history,” James P. Byrd reminds us. Many of the readers of this blog will likely agree with him in that. Fewer, perhaps, will agree with one of the central arguments of his (very) recent Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution that “the Bible was arguably its [the Revolution’s] most influential book.” At the recent OIEAHC conference in Baltimore I was able to get my hands on a copy of this excellent new book and Sacred Scripture, Sacred War has given me a lot (despite it’s relatively conciseness) to chew on over the last two weeks. Continue reading
During a panel at this summer’s Revolution conference in Philadelphia, someone asked Annette Gordon-Reed whether she sees any hope for a synthesis of contemporary scholarship on race, class, and gender. She answered that she tries to achieve this by talking about people—that is, telling stories about particular lives.
Whether biography represents the culmination of decades of historical scholarship on identity and social power or an admission of its shortcomings is an interesting question. Either way, biography, including biographical microhistory, has a growing place in the field. British and American historians have taken part in the “biographical turn” with special enthusiasm, though it is hardly unique to us.
With Love in the Time of Revolution: Transatlantic Literary Radicalism and Historical Change, 1793-1818, Andrew Cayton advances biographical historiography by binding it unusually securely to two other trends in early American historiography: studies of print culture, broadly conceived, and studies of the Atlantic world as a system. Cayton builds the family life of Mary Wollstonecraft into the center of a narrative about what it could mean to be a revolutionary intellectual in the Atlantic republic of letters. Continue reading
I bet few graduate students these days haven’t read, or at least seen referenced, Walter Johnson’s essay “On Agency.” Published a decade ago, the essay was prompted by what had become hackneyed trope in slavery scholarship. Everyone seemed to ascribe slaves a role in shaping their lives—“agency”—despite the power asymmetries inherent in the slave-master relationship. Johnson famously called for an end to this kind of writing. But one of his subtler points may have been lost amid his overarching argument. It wasn’t that slave agency was unimportant, but that it had lost its contemporary relevance. Finding agency mattered in the Civil Rights Era, the years in which the scholarship flourished, because it bolstered African Americans’ claims on the nation’s past, and thus its future. Continue reading
Last week, the Mississippi River surged against the levees, finally shattering restraints near St. Louis. Up and down the waterway, authorities hurried to secure hometowns, farmlands, and highways against the potential breach. “It could be anytime,” the Rivers Pointe fire chief told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The hope is to keep Highway 94 open.” Even now, watching the water flow higher and faster still, it is worth thinking about how or why Americans have chosen to embrace life along the river: the shifting networks of politics and profit, the deep imprint of slavery on the region’s past, and the legacy of a South that may or may not have grown closer to the world, in the many ways that the Confederates or others have intended over time. This conscious construction of a river culture—as it was made and understood by the region’s black and white nineteenth-century predecessors, men and women who were also sensitive to sudden danger, but eager to maintain the dense traffic of the cotton trade—permeates Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams and guides his expert analysis through their winding stories. Continue reading
Ben, Mandy, Matt, and Roy have done a marvelous job so far this week summarizing the arguments, the strengths, and a few of the (few) weaknesses of River of Dark Dreams. I therefore want to confine myself to just a few general thoughts, and then focus in on the area where my expertise lies: what this book means for the non-expert in slavery studies. Continue reading
Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams is the best big book on slavery I have ever encountered. This is not faint praise; there is some about the subject that causes its best historians—Eugene Genovese, Winthrop Jordan, Kenneth Stampp and more—to write in at bullet-stopping length. Johnson’s volume stands out due to his ability to seamlessly place the history of antebellum slavery at the intersection of three of the nineteenth century’s key themes—imperialism, capitalism, and technological development. He does this, as other contributors to this roundtable have noted, at the sweeping level of the very geography of Mississippi River Valley and at the much more intimate level of the lived experience of enslaved laborers. Continue reading
The promise of a tie between the local and the global—a thread to join the dense fiber of individual life to the vast patterns of human interaction—has long lingered at the edge of the historian’s vision. “The hours should be instructed by the ages, and the ages explained by the hours,” wrote Emerson in “History.” “Each new fact in . . . private experience flashes a light on what great bodies of men have done.” Even the less Transcendental among us are lured by a link between the intimate and the infinite: every globalist, no matter how ambitious, must find their ground-level characters and illustrative anecdotes; the best microhistorians train their lenses to reveal not just cell particles but a whole cosmos. Few recent works in early American history, however, are so explicit in their equal pursuit of the local and the global, the hours and the ages, as Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013). Continue reading