Slavery and Reparations: A Voice from Barbados and a Report from Ghana

atlanticYou’ve probably heard about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s powerful Atlantic cover essay, “The Case for Reparations,” which appeared two weeks ago and has ignited a nationwide political conversation about the legacy of slavery and racial oppression in the United States. The level of debate among Coates’s many academic admirers and critics—including political commentators on both the Left and the Right—has been very high. Continue reading

Slavery, Abolition, and “Socialism” in the U.S. Congress

Personalities AE  6Ever since Richard Hofstadter called John C. Calhoun the “Marx of the Master Class,” at least, American historians have pondered the relationship between the pro-slavery critique of Northern wage labor and later left-wing critiques of capitalism. One of Calhoun’s great themes, as Hofstadter noted, was the inevitable “conflict between labor and capital,” a conflict that threatened to overwhelm the “free institutions” of the North. Continue reading

A Confederacy of Kidnappers: Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”

django cotton“There are few sights more pleasant to the eye,” wrote Solomon Northup, “than a wide cotton field when it is in bloom. It presents an appearance of purity, like an immaculate expanse of light, newly-fallen snow.” For Quentin Tarantino, such a beguiling simulation of chastity, of endless untroubled whiteness, could merit only one response: blood must be spilt on it. Practically the only scene in which cotton figures in 2012’s Django Unchained comes when an overseer, galloping across a blooming field, receives a rifle shot to the torso. The newly fallen snow of cotton gleams pink with fresh blood. Continue reading

Guest Post: Rediscovering the Pamphlisphere

Today’s guest poster is Ariel Ron, who earned his PhD in history at the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently a visiting research associate at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies.

Henry Carey (National Portrait Gallery)

Three or four years ago, while doing research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, I stumbled upon a lost cache of some ten-thousand pamphlets. I had been browsing the papers of Stephen Colwell, a nineteenth-century ironmaster and writer, when archivist John Pollack called me into the closed stacks behind the reading room. There he showed me Colwell’s personal pamphlet library, neatly bound into hundreds of volumes. The collection also included three thousand works from the library of Colwell’s friend, Henry C. Carey (see picture to right), without question the most important American political economist of the mid-nineteenth century. The sheer size of the corpus floored me. Continue reading

The Week in Early American History

TWEAHIt’s not every Sunday that we get to begin this recap with a genuinely fresh proslavery argument. But this week the International Herald Tribune ran a brief column by Humayan Dar, a self-described “Islamic economist” with a PhD from Cambridge.  Under the headline, “Modern slavery: how bad is bonded labour,” the essay decried “the negative perception of slavery and bonded labour,” and suggested that a legal forced-labor regime in Pakistan would “work for the mutual benefit of the parties, the employer and the worker and their families.”

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To See The World In A Bale of Cotton

JohnsonThe 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

The Week in Early American History

John Bull

‘Slave Emancipation; Or, John Bull Gulled Out Of Twenty Millions’

We begin this week with the launch of University College London’s new research database on the legacy of British slaveholding. The UCL project, introduced by Catherine Hall in a lecture on Wednesday, allows website visitors to search for individual Britons who received part of the £20 million in compensation devoted to slaveholders in the 1833 emancipation act. The database has gotten some good coverage in the British press, with the Independent eagerly reporting the lurid and stunning news about “Britain’s colonial shame.” There also seems to be some interest in the finding that the ancestors of George Orwell, Graham Greene, and David Cameron, among others, received compensation for the emancipated slaves. Continue reading