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A History Blog by W. E. Skidmore II

Archive for February, 2013

The Questions of Race and Labor During Reconstruction

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

In Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (2006), Moon-Ho Jung investigates southern efforts to import Chinese laborers (coolies) into the sugar plantations of Louisiana in the decade after the Civil War.  W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1935) heavily influenced Jung’s monograph.  “More than any other work,” Jung writes, “Du Bois’ landmark study has guided my interpretation of the age of emancipation” (Jung, 222).  For this post, I will highlight how Jung’s study engages with Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction and provides a new view of race and southern labor during the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877).

W.E.B. Du Bois

Both Jung and Du Bois, in short, argue that white Americans sacrificed true egalitarian democracy in order to uphold “white supremacy.”  During Reconstruction, Du Bois argued, poor whites and blacks should have formed a working class alliance against the rich elite planters, but instead the white working class rejected freedmen and joined forces with southern white elites.  Du Bois wrote, “The poor white clung frantically to the planter and his ideals; and although ignorant and impoverished, maimed and discouraged, victims of war fought largely by the poor white for the benefit of the rich planter, they sought redress by demanding unity of white against black, not unity of poor against rich, or of worker against exploiter “ (Du Bois, 130).  For white Louisianans, Jung argues, the introduction of coolie laborers coupled with the recent military defeat and political reconstruction (universal male suffrage) “raised deep-seated fears” for all whites about the end of “white supremacy” (Jung, 166).  Whites, therefore, unified across class lines by rejecting coolie and black laborers, which led to their movement of “ white redemption” from “multiracial democracy” (Jung, 224).  Both Jung and Du Bois engage with Marxist language (Du Bois even uses the term “the Black proletariat”), but both historians conclude that race trumped class during this period.

Both studies, in their own right, make significant historiographical contributions.  Du Bois, writing against works such as Claude Bowers’ The Tragic Era (1929), attempted to shift the traditional Dunning Reconstruction narrative. In the 1920s and 1930s, the pervasive historical narrative of Reconstruction, formed by William Archibald Dunning and his followers (called the “Dunning School of Reconstruction”) argued that Reconstruction ruined the South.  White carpetbaggers and Radical Republicans were the “villains” who gave freedpeople the wrong ideas about equality.  They overturned the established social order and left southern whites, especially white women, vulnerable to retributive attacks by ex-slaves.  In turn white southerners, from all classes, joined forces and heroically came to the defense of their traditional “white society.”

William Dunning

Du Bois, writing well before his time, vehemently attacked this narrative.  In his historiographical chapter, which he aptly titled “The Propaganda of History,” Du Bois contested three Dunning School theses: “(1) All Negroes were ignorant; (2) All Negroes were lazy, dishonest and extravagant; and (3) Negroes were responsible for bad government during Reconstruction (711-712).  Throughout this work, Du Bois placed African Americans at the center of the Reconstruction story.  Through education, Du Bois argued, freedmen were the ones who actually lifted themselves out of slavery and became positive contributors to society (not the result of actions by northerners, abolitionists, or Radical Republicans).  Put in a different light, freedmen were agents in their movement out of slavery and into freedom.  He illuminates how freedmen worked hard and ushered in a new era of black political leadership and social revolution.  In his chapter “The Black Proletariat in South Carolina,” for example, Du Bois asserted that despite South Carolina, which held a black majority, raised taxes (a common accusation used by historians to demonstrate how Reconstruction ruined the South), it also “more than doubled it social responsibilities” which was essential “for the uplift of its laboring [black] classes” (425).  Unlike most scholars during this era, Du Bois recognized the positive influences Reconstruction had on southern and American society, especially by providing, at least initially, equality and education to African Americans.

In Coolies and Cane, Jung makes a similar historiographical interjection.  Although he does not provide as much detail as Du Bois (Du Bois’ work is 746 pages, while Jung’s study is only 275), Jung casts light onto an overlooked group of actors in the Reconstruction narrative: coolie immigrants.  “Throughout this book,” Jung writes, “I have tried to show how racial imaginings of coolies disrupted and reestablished a series of overlapping social and cultural dualisms at the heart of American culture—slavery and freedom, black and white, domestic and foreign, alien and citizen, modern and premodern” (222).  Like Du Bois, Jung demonstrates the role coolies played in shaping society after the Civil War.  Like freedpeople, coolie immigrants’ presence and actions led to the creation of “a white national identity across regional and class divisions, in the bayous of Louisiana as much as in the halls of Congress” (223). Jung study, in short, moves our attention away from the white-black dichotomy that has structured most of the scholarship on Reconstruction.  Like Du Bois’ characterization of freedpeople, Jung makes a strong case for coolies as actors who dramatically influenced the development of post-emancipation society, especially in regards to questions over race and labor.

Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction and Jung’s Coolies and Cane provide two groundbreaking works for the historiographical field of Reconstruction.  Both historians place the question of labor at the center of the struggle over Reconstruction.  They highlight how Radical Republicans, northern carpetbaggers, scalawags (southern whites who supported Reconstruction and the Republican Party), southern white Democrats, freedpeople, and coolies wrestled with the question of who would fill the labor void left by the emancipation of more than four million slaves.  Who would work for whom, and under what terms? Would freedpeople and coolies work as sharecroppers? Indentured servants? Wage laborers?  Or would they own their own land?  These questions over “race and labor” during Reconstruction, I believe, will rest at the heart of my final paper for this class.

Any advice or comments about further readings or where I should go from here would be much appreciated. I have also included a brief bibliography (see below).  Please feel free to note any works I should add or take off.

Reading List For Nineteenth-Century (Moon Ho-Jung Coolies and Cane)

  1. Alex Lichtenstein, “Was the Emancipated Slave a Proletarian?” Reviews in American History, 26 (March 1998), 124-45
  2. Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market
  3. Barbara J. Fields, “The Advent of Capitalist Agriculture: The New South in a Bourgeois World,” in Thavolia Glymph and John J. Kushma, eds., Essays on the Postbellum Southern Economy, 73-94
  4. Claude G. Bowers, The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln
  5. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (3rd ed., revised)
  6. _____, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913
  7. David Montgomery, Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans
  8. Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
  9. Elizabeth Ann Regosin, Freedom’s Promise: Ex-Slave Families and Citizenship
  10. Eric Foner, Reconstruction:  America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
  11. Eric L. McKitrick, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction
  12. Edward L. Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction
  13. Gregory Downs, Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 (North Carolina)
  14. Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction . . . 1865-1901
  15. Howard N. Rabinowitz, Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890
  16. James Alex Bagget, The Scalawags: Southern Dissenters . . .
  17. James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics
  18. James L. Roark, Masters Without Slaves: Southern Planters . . . 
  19. Joel Williamson, A Rage for Order: Black-White Relations in the American South
  20. John C. Rodrigue, Reconstruction in the Cane Fields: . . . 1862-1880
  21. Julie Saville, The Work of Reconstruction: . . . South Carolina, 1860-1870
  22. Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery
  23. Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South
  24. Paul Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, eds., The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction
  25. Peter Kolchin, “Slavery and Freedom in the Civil War South,” in James M. McPherson and William J. Cooper, Jr., eds., Writing the Civil War, 241-60, 335-47
  26. Rebecca J. Scott, Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery
  27. ______, “More Than the Woodward Thesis: Assessing the Strange Career of Jim Crow,” JAH, 75 (December 1988), 842-56
  28. Richard L. Hume and Jerry B. Gough, Blacks, Carpetbaggers, and Scalawags: The Constitutional Conventions of Radical Republicans
  29. Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household
  30. Theodore Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw
  31. Thomas Holt, Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina
  32. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America


The Master Class in Diaspora, in Exile, and in Empire

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Southern historians have often been preoccupied with the distinctiveness of the United States South.  Book after book and article after article have stressed the uniqueness of “the South,” not just from the rest of the United States, but from the rest of the world.  In many ways, the South’s distinctiveness has manifested itself throughout the historical profession.  We have the Southern Historical Association, the Journal of Southern History, and many schools offer a Ph.D. exam field in “southern history.”  Put a different way, many historians have treated the American South as a place apart from the rest.  Matthew Pratt Guterl’s American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation (2008), however, makes a compelling case against southern distinctiveness.  Instead, he suggests, “We need to refocus our energies on the far-reaching ‘hemispheric engagements’” that shaped the nineteenth-century American South (7).  More specifically, Guterl examines several southern elite cosmopolitan slaveholders (which he calls the “master class”) to demonstrate that the fate of American slavery “was closely intertwined with the fate of slavery elsewhere in the Americas” (6).  Southern elite slaveholders did not just see themselves as part of the United States (and later the Confederacy), but also as part of the “American Mediterranean,” a group of islands surrounding the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean (12).

Southern slaveholders, according to Guterl, could and did transcend the cultural and social divides between the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America.  These elites approached African slavery from a “universal perspective” and assumed what happened to slaveholders in other parts of the American Mediterranean could easily happen to them.  By the 1850s, Guterl argues, southern elites feared slavery was in mortal peril throughout the Americas.  Threatened by a growing number of emancipations, slave rebellions, and antislavery movements, these slaveholders viewed the American Mediterranean “with a mixture of fear and excitement” (33).  Cuba was the main source of Southern enthusiasm (many believed the annexation of Cuba as a slave territory was forthcoming), while Haiti served as a stark reminder for slaveholders about the dangers of slave revolution.

Although southern slave states saw themselves as part of the American Mediterranean, their appeal to “the revolutionary republican tradition, their lust for Caribbean territory, and the location of the South in a Pan-American context” led them to identify the southern United States as the “superior civilization in a singular, maritime system of economic, social and cultural exchange” (49).  Moreover, secession from the Union and the establishment of the Confederacy brought new light and air to this idea.  Following the military defeat of the Confederacy, however, the role of the South in the American Mediterranean changed.  The abolishment of slavery ended any chance of “southern expansion into the Caribbean” and drew the region under tighter control and supervision by the federal government (49).

During Reconstruction, many slaveholders wrestled with the idea of relocating to Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, or Mexico.  “A sense of dislocation, diaspora, and exile,” Guterl argues, “settled across the depopulated and destroyed the South” (80).  The slaveholder diaspora further demonstrates the close connections many slaveholders held with the larger American Mediterranean.  The other option many slaveholders considered was remaining in the South and reestablishing pseudo-slavery through labor contracts and “black codes.”  Guterl’s assessment of post-emancipation society in the South aligns nicely with other works on this period such as Seymour Drescher’s The Mighty Experiment, Rebecca Scott’s Degrees of Freedom, and Eric Foner’s Reconstruction.

Guterl concludes his study with a section on coolie and European immigrant labor in the American South.  Guterl adds to growing list of scholarly works that highlight the post-emancipation South’s search for labor, which extended beyond freedmen and incorporates “the triangulation of white, black, and yellow labor within the context of ‘imperial labor relocation.’” (151).  Like the rest of his work, this section clearly demonstrates that southern slaveholders were not constrained by the “borders of the Old South,” but were instead engaged with the outside world (185).  Following the Civil War, southern sectionalism, more than ever before, was international.

Like all works of history, Guterl’s study has a few issues.  Although the term “American Mediterranean” is provocative, it may cause some confusion for historians.  Guterl defines the American Mediterranean as a “fraternity of slaveholders” around the islands in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean (1).  Most of the Gulf Coast, however, was taken up by the republic of Mexico, which was antislavery and did not have slaveholders.  Guterl does not explain this exception. The scale of periodization also tends to be important for world and global histories.  Guterl, however, fails to mention when the American Mediterranean originated.  With American Independence?  With the independence of various Latin American countries?  With the Cotton Revolution?  Following the Haitian Revolution?   More clarification on periodization is needed.

Furthermore, Guterl’ focus on southern elite slaveholders leads him to ignore small slaveholders (at least for the most part).  As Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery (1994) has shown us, the majority of American slaveholders held fewer than 20 slaves.  This raises the question: how and where did the average American slaveholders fit into this American Mediterranean paradigm?  Furthermore, Guterl completely ignores the perspectives of Latin American slaveholders.  Was this understanding of slavery and the American Mediterranean a one-way street, or was there a consensus among the master class and Latin American slaveowners?  Finally, Guterl does not differentiate between societies with slaves and slave societies.  Guterl’s American Mediterranean includes both types of societies, and more clarification on this differentiation would have helped further contextualize his argument.

Guterl’s study, in short, forces scholars to rethink the history of the Southern United States.  Like Thomas Bender, Guterl takes issue with the limitations of examining United States history from the perspective of the nation-state.  To make sense of American history, Bender and Guterl argue, historians need to look beyond the physical confines of the nation-state and towards the “hemisphere engagements” of race, class, gender.  Doing so will provide a more globalized and transnational understanding of history.  Moreover, Guterl’s study aligns nicely with Rosemarie Zagarri’s assessment of “American exceptionalism.”  Guterl clearly points out that southern slavery was not a “peculiar institution,” but shared many qualities with other slave systems throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.  I wish Guterl had pushed his study as far as Zagarri’s and considered the implications of southern slaveholding on the Old World and vice versa (especially in the East Indies).  Guterl’s emphasis on transnational history and the implication of southern imperialism in the American Mediterranean also agrees with Paul Kramer’s essay “Power and Connection.”  I would have liked Guterl to push his argument a bit further and describe how these different slaveholding societies influenced each other.  Part of transnational history is not just showing an exchange of goods, people, and ideas, but also how these exchanges influenced the development of society.

Matthew Pratt Guterl’s American Mediterranean provides an important contribution to several historiographical fields.  Although many historians of southern history have focused on the South’s distinctiveness, Guterl clearly shows that southern sectionalism was actually a part of a larger international world.  This historiographical interjection is critical to understanding of southern history, United States history, and world history.  American Mediterranean, in short, is essential reading for any history student.

“Breathing Thoughts and Burning Words”

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

In 1852, Karl Marx observed, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx, On Historical Materialism, 120).  Following along similar lines as Marx, Patrick Rael´s Black Identity & Black Protest in the Antebellum North (2002) recasts our understanding of the origins behind black protest.  More specifically, Rael argues that the origins of the black protest movement did not start on plantations in the South, but in the urbanized North, among elite free black intellectuals.

Rael’s study counters the cultural/community studies movement, started in the 1960s and 1970s, which produced works such as John Blassingame’s Slave Community (1972), which argued “slave agency” was not just found in massive uprisings, but also in the creation of African folk culture on slave plantations.  Moreover, many of these scholars criticized and labeled northern free blacks as “integrationists, assimilationists, and accommodationists” (Rael, 283).  Such accusations were based on the fact that northern black elites weaved “their thoughts and words out of the disparate strands of the ideological fabric surrounding them” (8).  In other words, these historians questioned black elites’ commitment to the “freedom struggle,” because they shared many of the same fundamental values and presuppositions as their racist northern white counterparts, and failed to develop a broad critique of liberal-capitalist values (which encouraged the spread of slavery).

One of Rael’s main objectives is to “redeem” the northern free black intellectuals “from the charge that their elitism—whether based on social class, masculinity, or any other measure—rendered them unfit and insignificant spokespersons for the race” (289).  Rael not only achieves this objective, but also demonstrates how free black elites powerfully influenced the creation of “black identity,” “black nationalism,” and influenced future black protests movements.   For Rael, these free black northerners—such as Martin Delaney, James Forten, and Richard Allen—were “among the first and most ardent champions of the rights of the enslaved” (14).  These protesters used racial uplift, elevation, and respectability as tools in their assault on slavery and the belief in African American inferiority.  They also called for black conventions, education, and the amelioration of vices (alcohol, promiscuity, gambling, vagrancy, etc.) to support their cause.  Most importantly, these black elites wrote pamphlets, newspaper articles, and letters to promote their antislavery agenda and abolish slavery once and for all.  As these free blacks were “breathing thoughts and burning words,” they used the fundamental values associated with the American Revolution (freedom for mankind, equality, inalienable rights, etc.) to advance their antislavery initiatives.

Like most other works dealing with African-American resistance during the antebellum period, the issue of agency resides at the heart of Black Identity & Black Protest.  Rael suggests that the primary site for African-American agency was not on slave plantations in the South, but amongst free black intellectuals in the North.  Like Walter Johnson, Rael critiques previous historians who have pushed the idea of slave agency too far.  More specifically, both scholars understand the value of writing the story of American slavery from the bottom-up, but encourage historians to refocus their attention on the material determinations of agency.  In other words, Johnson and Rael support the Marxian aphorism (mentioned earlier): people make their own decisions, but those decisions are limited to the environment in which they reside.  For Rael, northern free blacks crafted a universalistic identity, nationalistic ideologies, and a vibrant protest movement around the mainstream intellectual values of northern white society, which was all they had to work with.

Despite the historiographic importance of this monograph, it has a few shortcomings.  Rael does not really delve too deeply into the backgrounds of the free black elites (Delaney, Forten, James Rapier, Richard H. Cain, etc.).  More information would have been helpful, especially for understanding their ideological positions.  Second, Rael makes the broad argument: “Black protest failed to understand, let alone critique, the nature of the economic order to which it owed its problems” (284).  In my opinion, Rael lets free black elites off easy.  James Forten, for instance, was acutely aware of the liberal-capitalistic order, and benefited greatly from it (he was one of the wealthiest businessmen in Philadelphia).  Therefore, the excuse that black elites did not understand the economic order does not suffice.  Why, then, did James Forten and other black businessmen not address this issue?  Did they value money over freedom?  Moreover, such an argument could easily be contested by an extension of John Egerton’s essay “Slaves to the Marketplace.”  It would be interesting to see how the influence of “cash power” played a role in the northern black protest movement (a topic which Rael avoids engaging).   It would also behoove Rael to take a page from Edward Baptist’s “Toxic Debt, Liar Loans, and Securitized Human Beings,” which illustrates how economics played an important role in both the social and political worlds, especially as slaves were becoming more and more important in the market economy.  After reading Baptist’s and Egerton’s essays, it becomes hard not to wonder how economics and the market influenced the development of the black protest movement.

The issue of agency has dominated the historiographic field of slavery and abolition for the last several decades.  Following the debunking of Stanley Elkins’ “sambo thesis,” historians such as Eugene Genovese, John Blassingame, Peter Kolchin, George Rawick, and Herbert Gutman have clearly demonstrated that slaves actively resisted their oppressors.  That being said, I agree with Egerton’s argument that for historians to fully understand slave rebelliousness, protest, and resistance, they need to come to grips with the “intent” behind slaves’ actions (Egerton, 631).   I have one major criticism for the works we read this week (although Johnson deals with this somewhat), and for other studies on slave resistance: historians continue to look for one or two major reasons why slaves rebelled (economics, retribution, religious, hope, etc.).  I find it hard to explain slave resistance—implicit or explicit, large or small—with just one or two reasons.  In fact, historians have often tried to seek one or two explanatory frameworks for the behavior and actions of slaves (especially with resistance).  A better approach, I argue, comes from historians’ realization that we need different explanations for the different ways slaves resisted, protested, and rebelled.