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A History Blog by W. E. Skidmore II

Archive for March, 2013

Coolies and Cane Questions

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

Hi Everyone,

Here are a few questions to get us thinking (I have a couple more for class).  I hope everyone enjoyed reading Coolies and Cane!

  1. What is the argument of this work?  What sources does Jung engage with to support his overall argument?
  2. What and who were “coolies”?
  3. What were the various American perspectives of “coolieism,” and how did these views change over time?
  4. According to Jung, how were debates over coolie laborers in the United States integral to the ideological constructions of race and citizenship in the United States during Reconstruction?
  5. Why does Jung engage with both the Haitian Revolution and the British West Indies?  What does this bring to his argument?
  6. Does Jung challenge the traditional Reconstruction narrative, or does he rehash the same story with different characters?
  7. Does Jung see “change” or “continuity,” especially in regards to southern labor relations, between the antebellum and postbellum periods? More specifically, was coolie labor a continuation of slavery, or a different form of exploitative labor practices?
  8. Was emancipation a failure?  Did Reconstruction result in a “tragedy,” a “splendid failure,” or something else?  How so?
  9.  In this work, Jung focuses heavily on Louisiana (among other regions).  Is Louisiana representative of the larger United States?  The Caribbean?  The Southern United States?
  10. Jung estimates that between seventy-one and two thousand coolie laborers were in Louisiana by 1870 (p. 184).  Is Jung upfront about these limited numbers, and how does this affect his overall argument?
  11. What kind of history is this? (Social, Cultural, Political, Transnational, etc.)  If written from the perspective of Chinese immigrants, how would this work be different?


Paper Update!

Sunday, March 24th, 2013


My project will evaluate how W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction (1935) changed the direction of Reconstruction scholarship.  More specifically, I will examine how scholars in three specific historiographical periods (revisionism, post-revisionism, and present day) engaged with Du Bois’ groundbreaking work by extending, challenging, or reaffirming his arguments (sometimes doing all three simultaneously).

Rough Outline with Works:

Note: The works I have selected not only directly engage with W.E.B Du Bois’ work, but they also provide, in my opinion, the best representation of works coming out for each period.  Moreover, these works also engage with previous generations of scholars.

My goal is not to provide several book reviews, but to show how the characterization of Reconstruction changed over time, especially in regards to questions over labor and freedpeople.

Revisionism (1950s-1970s)

  1. Kenneth Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction 1865-1877, 1965
  2. Joel Williamson, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction, 1965
  3. Robert Cruden, The Negro in Reconstruction, 1969


  • Accomplishments of Reconstruction
    • The establishment of southern public school system
    • The granting of equal citizenship to black
    • Transition to revitalize the southern backwards economy (through transition from slave labor to free labor)
  • “Negro rule” or the “blackout of honest government” was a myth (argued by the Dunning School)
  • Blacks were agents in Reconstruction
  • Radical Republicans and southern freedmen were the “heroes”
  • White Redeemers and southern racists were the “villains”
  • This era was “tragic” because it did not go far enough
  • Described the black community as a whole (downplayed divisions and conflicts in black community)
  • Labor, Freedom, and Land major issues in Reconstruction
  • Reconstruction was a Revolution


Post-Revisionism (1970s-1980s)

  1. C. Vann Woodward, review of the Confederate Nation, New Republic, March 17, 1979
  2. Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, 1979
  3. Jonathan Wiener, Social Origins of the New South: Alabama 1860-1885, 1978
  4. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution
    • Foner’s Reconstruction was the first full synthesis since the Dunning School.  His prospective was different from the rest of post-revisionism, because he provided a middle ground.  He was Reconstruction as “revolutionary” but also identified many of the issues evolving within the black community.  He provides a nice segue between revisionist and post-revisionist works.  


  • Reconstruction was “conservative” or “non-revolutionary” (save Foner)
    • Especially with Republican policymakers lack of progress
  • They saw continuity from Old South to New South
  • Persistent racism prevented any real change
  • Political rights for blacks was tenuous at best
  • Land Distribution and Labor big focus for these historians
  • Lack of land distribution prevented freedmen from achieving autonomy
  • Studies emphasized the survival of the old planter class and the continuities between the Old and New South
  • Reconstruction was “tragic” because it did not go far enough (similar to revisionists’ argument)
  • Emphasis on black community tensions and conflicts


Modern Scholars (1990s-present)

  1. Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet, 2005
  2. Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane, 2008
  3. Dylan Penningroth, Claims of Kinfolk, 2002
  4. Michael Fitzgerald, Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South, 2008


  • Black involvement in Reconstruction was “revolutionary”
  • Class labor system in South changed, workers had more power
  • For a brief moment, whites and black linked their plight as workers together.
  • Race and class were linked for these scholars
  • Change in periodization (pushing well beyond 1877)
  • Emphasis on race and other topics (international relations, gender, and religion)
  • Implementation of a more transnational framework, not just the United State Reconstruction, but an era of “Reconstructions”


The explosion of Reconstruction scholarship in last several decades makes it somewhat difficult to comprehend.  Eric Foner’s Reconstruction marks the closest to achieve such an ambitious goal.  Nevertheless, W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction has made a significant impact on each work, along with each historiographical school of thought.  My goal, therefore, is to trace how the understandings of Black Reconstruction changed over time, and how this “change” influenced the direction of the Reconstruction historiographical field.  I argue Black Reconstruction, unlike any other work in this field, has made the great impact on the scholarship.

Revisionists, for example, closely identified and extended on W.E.B Du Bois’ arguments, especially with the ideas of black agency and community.

Post-revisionists have provided the largest critique (if we can call it this) of W.E.B Du Bois and revisionist scholars.  They have argued that Reconstruction was non-revolutionary, and have focused more on the conflicts and tensions within the black community.  As C. Vann Woodward eloquently wrote, “historians now understood how essentially nonrevolutionary and conservative Reconstruction really was (review of Confederate Nation, 1979).

Present scholarship has extended on many topics briefly noted by Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, such as look comparatively at other postemancipation societies and the role of gender in Reconstruction.

This is the bare bone outline of my paper and any ideas or thoughts would be appreciated.  Thank you for reading.

The Field A Changin’

Monday, March 18th, 2013

William Archibald Dunning’s Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction and Related Topics (1897, 2nd ed., 1904) provided one of the most influential overviews of American Reconstruction.  As one of the founders of the American Historical Association (he was president in 1913), Dunning’s systematic and comprehensive work on the Reconstruction period made such an impact on the historiographical field that it is customarily referred to as a school of interpretation (the Dunning School).  From 1900 to 1950, the Dunning School argued that Reconstruction was a “tragedy,” because it went too far in changing southern society.  They argued that southern whites were crushed by greedy northern carpetbaggers, southern scalawags, and blacks who were unfit for self-rule.  Put in a different light, Dunning scholars (such as Claude Bowers, Walter Fleming, J.W. Garner, Ellis Merton Coulter, etc.) characterized American Reconstruction as an era of sordid corruption, misrule, and disorder.  Southern whites, therefore, valiantly banned together and restored “home rule” and white supremacy (called “Redemption”).

This line of thinking ultimately led W.E.B Du Bois to write Black Reconstruction (1935). He challenged the Dunning School’s interpretation by arguing that Reconstruction was an idealistic attempt at interracial democracy, which highlighted a prolonged struggle between capitalism and labor (a Marxian analysis if you will).  He accused the Dunning School for ignoring African Americans’ crucial role in both emancipation and Reconstruction.  Du Bois viewed this era as a “splendid failure” because it offered African Americans a window into how “free society” should look, but it ultimately failed because of white racism (which trumped class unification between whites and blacks).  Unfortunately, scholars ignored Du Bois’ work for almost thirty years.  In the late 1950s, however, Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction resurfaced as Revisionists historians began criticizing the Dunning School’s assessment.

The Revisionist approach to Reconstruction (late 1950s to 1970s) rejected the Dunning School and argued: the “Negro Rule” was a myth (southern whites still held the majority in state legislatures, Alexander Stephens was back into the House of Representatives by 1873); Reconstruction provided an educational system throughout the South; it provided blacks with full participation in politics (which marked one of the many accomplishments of Reconstruction); and it helped the South transition from slave labor to wage labor.  Needless to say, Black Reconstruction deeply influenced Revisionist studies by Kenneth Stampp, John Hope Franklin, and other luminaries.  Du Bois, like Revisionist scholars, also paid greater attention to African American’s collective efforts to achieve autonomy and unity.  Although aware on the conflicts within black communities during Reconstruction, these historians overlooked such divisions in order to demonstrate the “agency” and power of freedpeople.  In other words, Revisionists attempted to prove that blacks had agency in both emancipation and Reconstruction.

In the late 1970s, post-Revisionist historians arose to provide a more sophisticated understanding of the formation of the black community during Reconstruction.  Granted Revisionist scholars did not lack sophistication nor did they present a monolithic “black community,” but post-Revisionists were able to assume black agency existed (because Revisionists proved it), and therefore, focused more on the differences, divisions, and conflicts amongst freedpeople in the postemancipation South. Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long (1980) and Dylan Penningroth’s Claims of Kinfolk (2003) are two works that focus on the internal dynamics of the black community.  They highlight both the cooperation and conflicts between various segments in black society.  Litwack and Penningroth, along with several other scholars, argue that the lack of land distribution, limited black political power (which was tenuous at best), and restricted access to resources prevented freedpeople from achieving true autonomy.  The “tragedy” of Reconstruction for post-Revisionists, therefore, was that Reconstruction did not go far enough for freedpeople and was more conservative and non-revolutionary than Revisionists believed.

Although Revisionist and post-Revisionist historians vehemently attacked the Dunning School’s interpretation of Reconstruction, these historians struggled to provide a synthesis of American Reconstruction.  This changed with Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (1988).  Foner’s work is important for two reasons.  First, he provides a wide-ranging political and social synthesis of Reconstruction, which replaced the Dunning School’s synthesis.  Second, he does a wonderful job of mediating between Revisionist and post-Revisionist interpretations (in other words, he provides a nice middle-ground).  Like Du Bois, Foner identifies the major theme in his work as “the centrality of the black experience” (xxiv).

Like most scholars of Reconstruction, Foner views Reconstruction as a “tragedy.”  He writes, “It remains a tragedy that the lofty goals of civil and political equality were not permanently achieved” (279).  This directly relates to the subtitle of his book (America’s Unfinished Revolution).  Foner characterizes the heroes and villain of Reconstruction like Revisionists: freedmen and their allies were the protagonists, while white planters and their constituencies were the antagonists (unlike Revisionist, post-Revisionists were more critical of Radical Republicans, because they did not go far enough for African Americans).  Thematically, Foner explores everything from Reconstruction in the North to the influences of freedom on emancipated slaves.  Despite the broad thematic scope, Foner illuminates subtle regional nuances of the social, political, and economic changes created by the Civil War and abolition of slavery.

For this blog, I want to mention a few sections in Reconstruction that are important for my final project.  Foner grapples with the historiographic debates over change versus continuity in Reconstruction.  Du Bois and other Revisionist scholars viewed Reconstruction as a “revolutionary period” for both black people and the United States.  Post-Revisionists such as Leon Litwack, however, questioned the true revolutionary nature of Reconstruction.  They characterized Reconstruction as more conservative than revolutionary, because of the persistent racism throughout the period (which negated the revolutionary changes between the Old and New South).  In the last chapter of Been in the Storm so Long (which ends with the Presidential Election of 1868), for example, Litwack writes, “Except for a few sporadic skirmishes, Election Day in most of the South passed quietly—and with it, some mistakenly thought, the old political and social order” (556).  Foner disagrees with Litwack, and takes a neo-Du Boisian approach by arguing that “Reconstruction transformed [freedmen’] lives and aspirations in ways unmeasurable by statistics and in realms far beyond the reaches of law” (11).

In recent years, historians (what might be called post-post Revisionist) such as Steven Hahn have made similar arguments about the “revolutionary nature” of Reconstruction (see Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet).  Hahn declares in the introduction to his massive study, “African Americans in the rural South contributed to the making of a new political nation while they made themselves into a new people” (9).  Although Foner would question Hahn’s argument that black people made themselves into a “new people,” he would agree that this era was revolutionary.

Like Du Bois, Foner argues for the centrality of freedpeople in the Reconstruction narrative.  Blacks were neither dupes nor victims, but instead they pushed for emancipation, equality, and autonomy. Foner judiciously addresses the question of who freed the slaves.  Historians have answered this question in a number of ways: James McPherson argues that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves (Drawn with the Sword, 207); James Oakes asserts that Republicans freed the slaves (“Freedom National: The Origins of Emancipation”); Steven Hahn and Ira Berlin insist that slaves freed themselves (Hahn, 88; Berlin Slaves No More, 4). Foner finds that a culmination of actors and events led to slaves achieving freedom.  Foner writes, “The Emancipation Proclamation and the presence of black troops ensured that, in the last two years of the war, Union soldiers acted as an army of liberation…By 1865, no matter who won the Civil War, slavery was doomed” (110). Foner, in essence, suggests that free blacks, slaves, the Union army, Radical Republicans, and Abraham Lincoln all played fundamental roles in abolishing slavery.

Foner most clearly demonstrates black agency in the chapters “The Meaning of Freedom” and “Ambiguities of Free Labor.”  In these sections, Foner focuses on the freedmen’s role in building communal institutions, developing political awareness and initiatives, and struggling to find a niche in the postslavery labor system (Foner, 88-110,153-160).  Moreover, Foner spends significant time in Chapter Seven, “Blueprints for a Republican South,” discussing the freedmen’s fundamental role in the new emerging Republican Party (post-1867).  Unlike Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long, Foner focuses on the freedmen’s actions throughout the entire Reconstruction period, from emancipation to the Compromise of 1877.

Although Foner identifies the different experiences of freedmen throughout various regions of the South, his work does not fully come to grips with the internal divisions among the black communities in the postemancipation era.  He briefly touches upon how free blacks (who were free before the Civil War) resented the blurred distinctions between themselves and freedmen (slaves who were freed after the Civil War).  Foner writes, “Free blacks also discovered that ‘vagrancy’ and curfew regulations issued in conjunction with the Banks labor system did not respect the distinction between themselves and the freedmen” (62).  Outside of this section, Foner does not deal with the divisions among blacks, especially with the creation of the post-Civil War family.  In Claims of Kinfolk, published almost a decade after Reconstruction, Penningroth comes to terms with this issue.  He argues that thousands of displaced freedmen sought new beginnings, and “their arrival sometimes caused friction, partly from competition over scarce resources” (Penningroth 177).  Penningroth eloquently challenges historians such as Foner and Hahn who have ignored the internal divisions and conflicts among blacks in the postbellum period.

One of Foner’s more innovative arguments in Reconstruction deals with the transformation of the “free labor ideology” and its connections to the altering identity of the Republican Party.  After being used as the battering ram against slavery in the 1860s, free labor ideology went into decline in the 1870s, and was eventually replaced with a more conservative approach (a view that society was stratified and disharmonious).  This change in free labor ideology went hand in hand with the transitioning identity of the Republican Party during the 1870s, which abandoned its commitment to equal rights and turned its attention towards the “labor question” (512-527).  Moreover, the changes in attitudes towards free labor ideology, the Republicans abandonment of freedmen, and the Depression of 1873 all played significant roles in opening the door for “Redemption” by white southern Democrats (535-552).

Foner does an impressive job of working into his study the economic changes incurred from emancipation, the rise of contract and wage labor, and the contradiction between freedmen’s struggle for economic independence and white planters need for a disciplined labor force (54-58, 166-77, 400).  During his examination of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Foner demonstrates that Bureau held an important influence over defining the southern economy and labor force.  Like Du Bois, Foner shows that the Freedmen’s Bureau was full of ambiguities.  Part of these ambiguities, according to Foner, was the “Bureau’s attempt to put freedmen back to work on the plantation (which aligned with planters’ interests), while at the same time trying to promote black independence and non-coercive labor discipline” (144).  The need for a stable workforce and protection of freedmen’s rights placed the Freedmen’s Bureau in a tough situation.  Eventually, under President Johnson’s orders, the Freedmen’s Bureau moved away from the idea of granting land to blacks and moved towards persuading them to enter into annual labor contracts with planters.

Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, in short, has served as the cornerstone of Reconstruction studies for more than twenty years.  Foner not only delivers a compelling synthesis of the Reconstruction period, but he also provides a broad overview of Revisionist and Postrevisionist scholarship.  What makes his work even more exciting is that he finds a harmonious combination between in depth detail and a generalized overview of Reconstruction.  Foner’s work is indeed worthy of its laurels, which include the Bancroft Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize.  That being said, this study might benefit from a few updates and revisions.  Foner could follow in the footsteps of C. Vann Woodward and revise his study based on new historiographic scholarship.  Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under our Feet, Leon Litwack’ Been in the Storm so Long and Dylan Penningroth’s The Claims of Kinfolk are three works that might allow Foner to rethink his position on the freedmen in the post-Civil War era.

W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction has made a significant impact on Revisionist and post-Revisionist scholarship, especially over identifying the conflicts surrounding the labor question.  One major challenge to Du Bois’ work, however, focuses on the question of unity and autonomy of freedpeople during Reconstruction.  Did African Americans achieve autonomy through unity?  Such questions are critical to my project, which explores the influences of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction on the historiographical field of Reconstruction.

Any comments or suggestions for further reading are welcomed.  Thanks for reading!




Postemancipation Challenges

Sunday, March 10th, 2013

Rebecca Scott’s Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba After Slavery (2005) examines the postemancipation struggles faced by people of African descent in Cuba and the United States.  More specifically, Scott traces the challenges freedpeople confronted as they tried to enter civic life, gain economic independence, and achieve public respect.  Her main objective is to understand how two similar slave systems evolved “over time into dramatically different end states” (6).  In other words, how did these slave societies adopt such different approaches to the questions of citizenship and labor following emancipation?  To answer this question, Scott builds on the historical tradition of the comparative study of slavery and emancipation (similar to works such as Eric Foner’s Nothing But Freedom, Peter Kolchin’s Unfree Labor, and David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage).

Scott’s first chapter examines the similarities between sugar plantation slavery in Cuba and the United States.  “Louisiana and Cuba,” Scott writes, “shared markets, technologies, and a bedrock reliance on coercive labor systems marked by brutality” (27).  In other words, these two slave systems were fundamental similar, and only different “at the edges” (27).  The major differences between these two regions developed after emancipation.  In the United States, the Civil War was fought, for the large part, in defense of slavery.  During Reconstruction, the emancipation of slaves opened new doors for the struggles over political and economic power in the postbellum South.  Following the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment, Scott argues, “the question of the structure of work, authority, and access to resources remained altogether up in the air” (37).  Freedpeople’s access to resources such as land, wages, and ballots presented a bevy of new challenges for whites, blacks, and the United States government.

Scott ardently argues that these “new challenges” all stemmed from the central issue of labor relations and the “emerging debate over the definition and prerogatives of citizenship” (39).  For Scott, the prerogative of citizenship was directly connected to the issue of labor.  W.E.B. Du Bois makes a similar argument in Black Reconstruction.  He illustrated a close relationship between freedpeople understanding of politics and labor.  He asserted, “They were beginning, more and more clearly, to see that their vote must be used for their economic betterment, and that their right to work and their income depended upon their use of the ballot” (Du Bois, 361).   Although Du Bois and Scott agree about the connection between labor and politics, Scott does not goes as far as Du Bois, who argued that the white and black labor movements were in “singularly contradictory positions” (Du Bois, 359). Instead, Scott demonstrates that the Louisiana backwoods’ labor force (including both whites and blacks) was engaged in “intimate interaction…vestiges of the more Caribbean pattern of social relations that had characterized French and Spanish Louisiana” (74).  Following the presidential election of 1876, however, white leaders and politicians began to systematically strip away the significant gains made by freedpeople (politically or economically), which forced them into wage or contractual slavery.

Cuba, in many ways, demonstrated the inverted image of the United States’ Reconstruction.  While fighting for independence, Cuban slaves’ involvement with the independence movement coupled with the growing support for abolition undermined this despicable labor system.  “Even [Cuban] racists,” Scott notes, “had staked their claims…on the grounds of transracial patriotism” (252).  In this section, Scott brings the United States and Cuban narratives together.  She uses anecdotes about black Louisianans fighting against the Spanish military in Cuba.  The quick U.S. victory over Spain and subsequent occupation of Cuba, however, brought unforeseen consequences.  African American volunteers witnessed the interracial cooperation and lack of racism (although racism was still somewhat present) in the Cuba population.  This, in turn, emboldened African Americans on their return home, where the contrast between Cuba and the American South became even more evident.  Scott concludes that the failure to achieve an interracial class structure in the United States locked  “inequality into Louisiana’s World of cane,” while the cross-racial alliances in Cuba opened up opportunities for equality.

In her final chapter, Scott concludes that Cuba and the United States took divergent paths because “Cuba’s expanding economy drew in immigrants and smallholders from the countryside, ensuring a multiracial workforce; Louisiana employers had less to offer and relied on subordinate black laborers” (264).  True enough, but as we will see in the coming weeks, Moon-Ho Jung’s Coolies and Cane will challenge this assumption.  Jung definitely sees a more diverse labor force in Louisiana, which might call Scott’ conclusion into question.  Nevertheless, Rebecca Scott’s Degrees of Freedom demonstrates that central question/conflict for postemancipation societies deals with questions of labor.  Who will replace the slave laborer?  Immigrants?  Freedpeople?  Poor whites?  Scott’s monograph also raises new questions about Reconstruction and the issue of labor:  How separated were blacks and whites following Reconstruction (especially compared to how W.E.B. Du Bois and his followers have argued)?  How important was labor to the notions of citizenship, and vice versa? How different was labor relations in backwoods societies versus urbanized societies?  I will hopefully address these questions as I move forward with my project.

Any suggestions for further reading are welcomed!

Slavery By A Different Name?

Monday, March 4th, 2013

In From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (1988), Amy Dru Stanley examines the origins and meanings of contracts (labor and marriage) in the United States during the Age of Emancipation.  There are two parts to this ambitious work.   In the first, Stanley explores how abolitionists (during the antebellum and Civil War period) used debates over slavery to promote freedom of contracts.  “The conflict over slavery,” Stanley argues, “infused the principles of self ownership, consent, and exchange with new ideological urgency” (17).  For abolitionists, the ability to enter into a labor or marriage contract—something slaves could not do—became tantamount to “freedom.”  In the second part, Stanley investigates how contracts, in many ways, came to resemble slavery.  Following the Civil War, “reformers gave new moral legitimacy to labor compulsions that came perilously close to slavery” (137).  This blurring of the lines between freedom and slavery during Reconstruction serves as the central focus of Stanley’s work.

The major problem for Americans during Reconstruction was distinguishing between “what was saleable and what was not” (xi).  Like W.E.B. Du Bois, Eric Foner, and Moon-Ho Jung, Stanley argues that the conflict over Reconstruction arose from the labor question (who would work for whom, and under what conditions).  Stanley differs from these historians, however, by focusing on both the North and South, and examining other groups (often overlooked by historian during this period): northern hirelings, women, wageworkers, prostitutes and beggars.  In each of her six chapters, Stanley returns to the major paradox of wage labor replacing chattel slavery, which was created by both the labor void left by abolition and the rise of industrial bourgeois capitalism.  In other words, this paradox came form the “domestic dependencies of slavery,” which after emancipation was replaced by the “subjugation of workers under the wage system” (87).   Although the differences between enslavement and freedom appear evident, Stanley questions what truly changed with the movement from bondage to contract.

Part of the novelty of Stanley’s argument is that she complicates the traditional “slavery versus freedom” binary so often evoked by Reconstruction historians.  Instead, she offers a range of possibilities between slavery and freedom.  Coercive labor contracts, vagrancy laws, home life, and marriage all served as arenas for the formation of these shades of freedom and slavery.  Marriage, for instance, represented both a women’s ability to claim self-ownership (by entering freely into a marriage contract), and her acceptance of submission to her husband (creating a quasi-slave status as a dependent). As Helen Hawkins, a black nineteenth-century female writer, opined, “A husband’s claim to property in his wife violated inalienable rights much as did the slave master’s claim to his chattel property” (31).  Marriage, for whites and blacks, provided no pretense for equality, but instead forced wives to become dependent on their husbands for survival.  As abolitionists lobbied for African American women’s rights to enter marriage, they unknowingly raised new questions about women’s rights, once they entered into marriage (the ability to earn wages, hold jobs, and support themselves).

Labor served as another contested arena for contracts and free labor ideologies.  Abolitionists argued that all people deserved the right to own and sell their labor as they pleased.  They believed that “slave emancipation would convert freedmen into sovereign, self-owning individuals” (29).  While proslavery advocates, such as George Fitzhugh, suggested that free labor and free markets would only support the strong while crushing the weak.   Put in a different light, the institution of slavery reduced the pressure placed on the white working classes, and prevented their exploitation.  As free wage labor replaced slavery, Stanley acutely demonstrates how coerced labor contracts came to closely resemble chattel slavery, favoring the employer over the employee.  True enough, but I am still skeptical of Stanley’s conflation of chattel slavery to wage slavery.  For me, there is a significant difference between buying and selling humans versus buying and selling one’s labor.  I feel that Stanley over exaggerates this connection, which in turn, makes her conclusions problematical.

Stanley draws heavily on Eric Foner’s Nothing But Freedom and Reconstruction (she cites him numerous times, usually regarding the Freedman’s Bureau actions in the South).  Stanley also extends W.E.B Du Bois’ “revolutionary argument” in Black Reconstruction.  In the postbellum United States, emancipation dramatically changed the relationships between various groups.  As Du Bois suggests, Reconstruction led to significant changes in the relationships between whites and blacks.  Stanley, however, goes further and argues that the relationships between whites and blacks were not the only thing that changed, but also the relationships between men and women, northerners and southerners, and laborers and employers.  She connects these changes by demonstrating how they represented the movement away from bondage and towards contract.  In other words, the shift from slavery to wage system raised new questions about the roles of men, women, whites, blacks, laborers, and employers in postbellum society.  In short, Stanley, like many other historians, argues that labor question, specifically the movement away from bondage and towards contract, was the central issues facing Americans during the Reconstruction era.


Nothing But Freedom

Friday, March 1st, 2013

In December 1865, former Confederate General Robert Richardson declared: “The emancipated slaves own nothing because nothing but freedom has been given to them” (6).  Did freedom not imply something more?  What was the definition of “freedom?”  Were slaves not entitled to land and property (forty acres and a mule: General Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15)?  For African Americans and their Radical Republican allies the answer to this question was yes.  They believed freedpeople deserved unrestricted access to politics, education, landed property, and some even argued they deserved compensation.  For General Richardson and former slaveholders, however, this was not the case.  They believed freedpeople were only entitled to emancipation, nothing else.  Put in a different light, the struggle over Reconstruction stemmed from questions over African Americans’ rights to property, labor, and equality. These debates are the focus of Eric Foner’s Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and it Legacy (1983).

Foner’s short study first appeared in the Walter Fleming Lecture Series, sponsored by Louisiana State University (other works in this prestigious southern history series include: Eugene Genovese’s From Rebellion to Revolution, John Hope Franklin’s A Southern Odyssey, Peter Kolchin’s A Sphinx on the American Land, and C. Vann Woodward’s Thinking Back).  In three chapters, Foner addresses the issues surrounding emancipation at the international, national, and local level.  In the first section, he examines emancipation and its aftermath in a comparative context with Haiti and the British Caribbean.  Foner uses both locations to identify the struggles over labor found in all postemancipation societies.  Former slaveholders attempted to retain their autonomy over their laborers through legal and extralegal coercion, while freedpeople “lacking political power…employed the labor shortage as their principal weapon—a weapon inconceivable apart from emancipation” (37-38).  In other words, ex-slaves attempted to achieve and maintain their independence by squatting on vacant land, owning property, moving from employer to employer, and migrating to various islands and port cities

In his second chapter, Foner extends this analysis and comparison into the United States.  Although “the quest for former slaves for autonomy and the desire for planters for a disciplined labor force” was similar between “the American experience and other societies,” Foner demonstrates that American Reconstruction was unique in many ways (43).  First, nearly four million slaves were emancipated in the United States, which far outnumbered any other society.  Second, the “cast of characters in the United States was far more complex than in the West Indies” (39).  Finally, freed slaves, unlike their Caribbean brethren, initially received full political rights and power.  This chapter raises many questions about the characterizing Reconstruction as a “failure.”  One of Foner’s more subtle arguments in this chapter shows that although American Reconstruction failed in many respects for ex-slaves (“Redeemer Legislation” limited blacks’ freedom in the South), it was more progressive and successful than Reconstructions in other areas such as Brazil, Cuba, Russia, Jamaica, and Haiti.  Put differently, Foner poses the question: was American Reconstruction a true failure, especially when compared to Reconstructions?  Reconstruction in the United States provided freedpeople with more social, economic, and political opportunities than in other postemancipation societies.  Therefore, is it correct to suggest that Reconstruction was a “failure,” comparatively speaking?  Foner does not really provide a complete answer to this question, but I agree with his assessment that we need think about Reconstruction internationally.

The final chapter of Foner’s Nothing But Freedom moves us to the rice plantations of South Carolina.  He demonstrates a similar argument by illuminating how freedpeople not only challenged the planter class through voting and holding office, but also with labor strikes.  The chapter ends with the conclusion of Reconstruction and the return of Democrats to power (which ultimately placed the power back into the hands of the southern white planter class).  In many ways, this last chapter—as well as the entire book—is Foner’s homage to W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction.  Foner writes in his introduction, “The dedication of this book is a small tribute to one of the towering figures of modern American life.  Poet, activist, father of Pan-Africanism, and the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, W.E.B. Du Bois was, as well, an outstanding scholar, a pioneer in recovering and interpreting the black experience.” (5).  Like Du Bois, Foner uses South Carolina as a case study to show how many of issues over freedom and labor during Reconstruction “were resolved at the local level “ (3).

Moreover, Foner answers Du Bois’ call for an international examination of Reconstructions (Haiti, British Caribbean, and the United States).  Du Bois believed that if historians were to understand the true significance of Reconstruction, they would need to examine the struggles of “that dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America…that great majority of mankind” (Black Reconstruction, 15). Both historians viewed American Reconstruction as a radical revolutionary experiment in interracial democracy.  Du Bois argues this experiment failed.  Foner, however, demonstrates that Reconstruction, comparatively speaking, went further in the United State than in any other postemancipation society.  Although this is a slight change from Du Bois assessment, Foner agrees with most of the original arguments made by Du Bois in Black Reconstruction: (1) slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War; (2) blacks played an active role in the Civil War and Reconstruction; (3) land and labor were crucial issue during Reconstruction; and (4) and an account of Reconstruction written from a whites only perspective was hopelessly flawed.

Like all works of history, my project has changed a little since my last post.  My focus for my final project will now examine how W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction influenced historians’ understanding of this period.  Jung’s Coolies and Cane joins a long list of historical studies that have been deeply influenced by Du Bois. That being said, I believe Jung would agree with most of Foner’s arguments, except one.  Foner states that coolie labor in the South during Reconstruction “never exceeded a handful.  And many who were introduced proved less docile than anticipated, abandoning planation labor to set up a small-scale merchants and truck farmer” (48).  Jung, I believe, would contest this assumption.  In fact, Jung makes a clear distinction that although that federal census of 1870 only recorded 71 Chinese laborers in Louisiana (which Foner uses in his monograph), other contemporary estimates (which Jung uses) ranged from 2,000 to 5,000 Chinese living in New Orleans during the early 1870s (Coolie and Cane, 184).  I am a bit perplexed by this difference, and will read Rebecca Scott’s Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery next week for further clarification.

It is clear that W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction laid the foundation for works by revisionist and post-revisionist historians of Reconstruction.  He not only shed light onto the actions of freedpeople, but also opened up other avenues for further consideration (hence Foner and Jung both go beyond the United States and the black/white paradigm).  After reading these works, it is apparent that the question of labor sits at the heart of Reconstruction, and created a hostile environment that led to the establishment of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and the disenfranchisement of African Americans. In short, my paper will examine how historians have either agreed, extended, or challenged argument first set forth in W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction.

Once again, I welcome any comments on further readings or suggestions about forming my final project.  Thank you for reading.  Stay tuned for more!