Rice University logo
Top blue bar image A Nation Of Abolitionists
A History Blog by W. E. Skidmore II

Free Labor: A Historiographical Inquiry

October 25th, 2013 by wes3

Old Labor History was institutional, focusing on political debates, formal labor organizations, worker strikes, and labor leaders.  E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) changed this field.  His study marked an important intellectual shift, which led scholars to examine capitalism, labor, and slavery from the perspectives on the non-property holding working class, especially in northwestern Europe.  The growing curiosity for uncovering the lives of workers and their roles in the industrialized Atlantic (mainly the U.S. North and Europe) breathed new life into the historiographical debates over nineteenth-century free and slave labor.  These new investigations on the migrants, the proletariat, indentured servants, and the self-employed opened new avenues for comparison with other labor regimes in the New World, especially with chattel slavery.

By the 1980s, historians of labor, slavery, and anti-slavery started asking new questions about labor systems in the nineteenth-century Atlantic World: how free was “free labor”?  Was wage slavery a natural extension of chattel slavery?  What were the fundamental differences between slavery and free labor?  Such inquiries have shaped recent studies on this subject.

For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on how the works I read in the first half of this semester addressed the topic of “free labor.”  More specifically, I will examine how these historians engaged, directly and indirectly, in discussions about the parameters of “free labor” and its application in the British Empire.  I will end this blog with a brief examination of how movements towards transnational and global history have further complicated our understanding of “free labor” in the Age of Emancipation.

It is important to start with Robert Steinfeld’s Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor because this study provides a strong foundation for understanding how free labor worked on the ground.  In this monograph, Steinfeld debunks the traditional fixed binary of labor: workers were either free (voluntary) or unfree (involuntary).  Intellectually, free labor ideology was defined by wages and contracts, while unfree labor (including slavery) was characterized as involuntary and coerced.  It should be noted that in the Mighty Experiment, Seymour Drescher traces the origins of this fixed binary back to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

All workers, according to Steinfeld, faced various degrees of coercion (slavery being the harshest).  He suggests that we think “about labor relations in terms of the degrees of coercive pressures” (Steinfeld, 16).  For him the distinction between free and unfree labor is arbitrary, because in reality all workers faced some form of coercion.  Understanding how free labor worked on the ground is Steinfeld’s greatest contribution, however.  His argument weakens when he suggests that all forms of coercion were attempts to induce and control workers.  Steinfeld ignores what Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams explicitly shows: slaveholders and overseers used coercive tactics for other purposes than extracting labor.  Although slaveholders and overseers were capitalists, some of them were also sadists, who enjoyed the physical and psychological torture of slaves for other purposes than extracting labor.

Both historians agree, however, that slavery was a form of labor.  Johnson’s and Steinfeld’s works also highlight an important fact: on the ground free white workers and slaves were a part of the Atlantic labor system, which was based on coercive tactics.  When we look the labor experiences of slaves and wageworkers, the distinctions between free labor and slave labor becomes blurry.  Free labor is messy, and when investigating how this labor-system was employed and under what circumstances it becomes apparent that it was less free than many people originally assumed.

Where did this separation between free labor and slave labor develop?  Seymour Drescher’s The Might Experiment attempts to answer this question.  Following the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807, many anti-slavery activists searched for proof of free labor’s superiority over chattel slavery.  Abolitionists started experimenting with free labor in Sierra Leon, Berbice, and Trinidad, granted none of these ventures succeeded.  I was also surprised to learn at UCD’s “Ireland, Slavery, Anti-Slavery, and Empire” conference that many Irish laborers were also part of these experiments.  Following the abolition of African chattel slavery in the West Indies, British reformers saw a wonderful opportunity for a “mighty experiment” in free labor.  Drescher agues that this experiment ultimately failed and led to declining public faith in anti-slavery and free labor by the 1840s.

This decline of British public faith in “free labor” and anti-slavery during the Victorian Era has been the traditional historiographical narrative (notably espoused by Drescher and Howard Temperley).  They have suggested that British anti-slavery buckled in the face of new imperialistic ambitions, growing racism, and public indifference.  Richard Huzzey’s Freedom Burning challenges this assumption.  He makes a compelling case for the continuation of anti-slavery sentiment throughout the Victorian Era.  At the heart of British society was a core set of anti-slavery principles, “where opposition to the ownership of humans was the core of the ideology” (8).  If we accept Huzzey’s “anti-slavery pluralism” thesis, can we not also argue that free labor was also a part of the anti-slavery core?  If British society rejected the ownership of human workers (mainly slaves), then did they not also implicitly support free labor (what nineteenth century ideologists and philosophers posed as the opposite of chattel slavery)?

The answer to this question is complicated.  As Steinfeld shows, free labor was never completely free, while other historians have argued that “wage slavery” was a natural extension of chattel slavery.  Ideologically, however, British society universally accepted a core set of ideas about free labor.  Just like anti-slavery ideology, free labor ideology allowed for differences and nuances, which could be contained beneath the wider British rejection of chattel slavery.  Another possible option is to invert Huzzey’s approach (working inside-out, instead of outside-in).  Where Huzzey traces a variety of opinions, methods, and definitions to a core anti-slavery ideology, maybe historians should examine how the core ideology of free labor (the opposite of chattel slavery) led to the creation of multiple labor system in the Victorian Era (indentured servitude, contract labor, free labor, wage labor, sharecropping, etc.)?

The movement towards transnational and global history has also dramatically shifted our understanding of free labor ideology.  Sven Beckert’s article “Emancipation and Empire,” for example, demonstrates how the British Empire searched for new ways “to extract labor for cotton production, without the use of slaves” (1424), during and following the American Civil War.  This search induced new forms of coerced labor (indentured servitude and debt peonage), especially in Brazil, India, and Egypt.  This transnational historiographical shift raises new questions about the tensions between the metropolitan ideas of anti-slavery and free labor with the reality of labor needs (and its shortages) in distant colonies.

Were the working classes of England willing to pay higher prices for “free sugar”?  The simple answer is no.  The victory of free trade over protectionism demonstrates their desire to find the cheapest goods possible.  However, Richard Huzzey complicates this narrative by showing how reformers used the banner of “free labor and anti-slavery” to raise public support.  Once again, we see the complexity behind the idea of free labor versus the reality of enacting this practice on the ground, especially when we look at how the need for labor in the colonies created a massive push to control laborers through pecuniary and non-pecuniary pressures.

So what is free labor and how different is it from slavery?  Although both labor forms share many qualities, there is one significant difference: slaves were human capital.  Slaveholders could buy and sell Africans, making large profits, as noted in Walter Johnston’s study.  Moreover, slaveowners investments in human chattel were protected through their respective legal systems.  Once emancipation occurred, at least in the United States, this fictive capital disappeared.  This was not the case for “free labor.”  Employers, at differing levels, were dependent on the cooperation and production of their laborers.  They did not own them.  This difference is critical when trying to parse out the dissimilarities between both labor systems.

Moreover, the movement towards transnational labor history demonstrates that there was no set definition of “free labor,” except that it was the opposite of chattel slavery.  Ex-slaveholders, in fact, often exploited the ambiguous definitions of free labor to garners stronger control over their employees.  The core tenet of free labor, however, was the complete rejection of owning humans.  By rejecting chattel slavery, Britons explicitly and implicitly declared their support for “free labor.”

Seymour Drescher was correct when he argued that mass mobilization was the key to the success of British anti-slavery.  I argue, however, that free labor was also the key to extending anti-slavery sentiment into the Victorian Era.  This labor system offered an answer.  An answer to what would come next after emancipation removed a labor system that was centuries old.  As scholars continue to follow in the footsteps of E.P Thompson, we are forced to rethink about what “free labor” meant and how it was different from chattel slavery.


Free Labor is Not Free?

October 17th, 2013 by wes3

Reviewed Work: Robert J. Steinfeld, Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 330, $14.80.

In Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor, Robert Steinfeld examines the development of free labor ideology in the nineteenth century.  More specifically, he attempts to breakdown the historiographical binary opposition between free and coerced labor.  Steinfeld muddies the waters by showing that all laborers in the nineteenth century experienced varying degrees of coercion, both pecuniary and non-pecuniary.

Steinfeld wants to debunk the “traditional wisdom” that has drawn a sharp line between free and unfree labor.  He suggests we “think about labor relations in terms of degrees of coercive pressure” (16).  In short, wage laborers, contract workers, and slaves all experienced different degrees of pecuniary and non-pecuniary pressures.  Therefore, the judgment about “where to draw the line to separate free from coerced labor turns out not to be a judgment about whether the labor is voluntary or compelled but rather a judgment about what kinds of coercive pressures are legitimate and illegitimate in labor relations” (16).  This approach is persuasive to a point.

Steinfeld argues that all workers are forced to choose between unpleasant alternatives in labor.  For wageworkers, this might entail working under less than stellar conditions or starving and being homeless.  For slaves, this meant either death or engaging in backbreaking labor.  Such an assessment leads him to argue that where we draw the line between free and unfree labor “is arbitrary” (15).  I agree that free wage laborers, contractual workers, and slaves were almost always in constant conflict with their employers/owners.  However, Steinfeld claims, “The choices presented in slavery were normally vastly harsher than the choices presented in free wage labor, so we may rightly say that the degree of coercion in one form is generally vastly greater than in the other…but we have to say either that both are involuntary in different degrees or that both involve free choice of a lesser evil (15, emphasis mine).

In my opinion, the non-pecuniary pressures (specifically physical violence) impressed on human chattel is not just more extreme, but completely different.  This issue touches on one of the more controversial debates in American historiography: what fundamentally changed for Africans after emancipation?  After reading Steinfeld’s work, I believe he would say nothing; it only lessened the harshness of their labor situation.  In my view, however, something fundamentally did change with emancipation.  Africans gained some ownership over themselves and their labor; they were by definition no longer chattels. As a scholar of anti-slavery, this is one question that I will continue to wrestle with for the foreseeable future.

Outside of this issue, Steinfeld correctly points out that workers continually faced labor situations based on coercion.  In England, employers used penal sanctions to control their workers, while in the United States employers threatened their workers with wage forfeiture if they did not fulfill their labor agreements.  In other words, Steinfeld poses the question: how free was free labor?

Steinfeld argues that our modern conceptions of “free labor” do not apply to nineteenth century Anglo-American and European laboring worlds.  In England, workers who breached their labor contracts faced imprisonment and hard labor.  In the United States, workers who absconded or left their jobs were not paid, and their families (in Europe) were held financially responsible for their debts.  By the 1860s, however, labor organizations began lobbying on behalf of workers.  In England, they demanded for shorter contracts (from annual to fortnight, monthly, or minute contracts) and the removal of penal sanctions.  This led to the 1875 Employers and Workman Act, which abolished the Master and Servant acts, and made it more difficult for employers to use penal sanctions.  It is important to note that the United States followed a different path, where legal sanctions were not available for employers.  Instead, they threatened their employees with forfeiting their wages if they did not follow through on their contractual obligations.  In 1908, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bailey v. Alabama (1908) that involuntary servitude violated the liberties of Americans, influencing African Americans.

Steinfeld’s work raises many questions about nineteenth-century free labor ideology.  More specifically, how activists in both the United States and Britain used the notion of free labor to further their anti-slavery crusade.  Did their beliefs in the superiority of free labor over slave labor include some form of coercion?   How did abolitionists reconcile the visions of free labor espoused by Hume, Smith, and Burke, with the reality of capitalism’s need for laborers, usually gained through coercive tactics?  Did employers and planters exploit the free labor ideology for their own purposes?  Most importantly, how does Steinfeld’s work complicate Richard Huzzey’s anti-slavery pluralism argument?  Did employers seriously value the core anti-slavery principles that Huzzey argues remained relevant throughout the Victorian Era?  If so, they did a horrible job of showing it.

Steinfeld’s Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor provides a detailed examination of common and positive laws, regarding labor, individual court cases dealing with employers and employees, and the political, social, and economic debates surrounding free labor in the nineteenth century.  His work challenges the traditional binary opposition of free versus unfree labor, and forces scholars rethink nineteenth-century labor relationships in England and the United States.


Experimentation in Free Labor

October 17th, 2013 by wes3

Reviewed Work: Seymour Drescher, The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor Versus Slavery in British Emancipation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 307, $31.81

Seymour Drescher’s The Mighty Experiment provides an insightful study on British abolitionism and free labor.  Following suit with his previous works (Econocide and Capitalism and Anti-Slavery), he maintains that slavery was abolished in the British Empire through “mass abolitionism” (7).  In this examination, however, he focuses on how social science shaped the politics of slavery from the late-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century.  He argues that the rise of the “cultural status of science” during the Enlightenment Era brought many opportunities to “bring new methods and findings to bear on the increasingly politicized discussion of slavery” (6).  He identifies three main areas of social science, which influenced the political debates over slavery: political economy, demography, and racial/epidemiological science.

Drescher’s narrative arc starts with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  Smith’s study provided three important legacies for subsequent discussions over slavery and emancipation.  First, Wealth of Nations was the initial scientific exploration into differences between slavery and free labor, where Smith posited that contractual labor was more efficient than coerced labor.  Second, he attacked slavery as an economic institution in this work.  Finally, Smith presented a “bifurcation of labor relations in the Americas”: laborers were either slaves or free workers (32).

Drescher illuminates how abolitionists did not immediately engage with Smith’s “free labor” thesis until after the abolition of the slave trade.  This most likely happened because Smith’s assessment worked for northwestern Europe, but quickly fell apart when applied to the Americas—a region he mostly ignored in his writings.  Instead, abolitionists focused on demography.  Anti-slavery politicians and activists such as Thomas Fowell Buxton argued that the failure of African natural reproduction in the post-slave trade British Caribbean demonstrated the inhumanness of this labor system (first espoused by Malthus’ 1806 study Essay on Population).  Moreover, abolitionists linked the “reproduction argument” with the “civilizing principle” (the idea of civil, cultural, and economic improvement).  In other words, the “backwardness of Africans,” highlighted by their deficiencies in technology, art, education, and manners—was only aggravated by the European slave trade and slavery (84).  This line of argument was the most difficult to resolve for the British “slave interest.”

By 1807, abolitionists started searching for evidence of free labor’s success in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.  Sierra Leon and Haiti are two examples that Drescher draws from.  These experiments were not successful, or controversial at best, but abolitionists protected their “free labor ideology” by dismissing such failures as the result of the local populations not being “truly free” (104).  This raises an interesting question about how the early “free labor” failures in Sierra Leon, Haiti, Trinidad, and Berbice might have influenced the argument made by reformers such as George Thompson.  Did he argue for East Indian emancipation, but not independence, because he was fearful of India reverting barbarism, as was the case in Haiti (in their view)?  Or did such beliefs protect his imperialistic ambitions?

Nevertheless, the abolition of African chattel slavery in the British West Indies provided the perfect opportunity for the British government to test the free labor superiority thesis.  The “Might Experiment,” coined by Colonial Secretary Edward George Stanley in the House of Commons, was Britain’s attempt to prove that liberated slaves could “produce tropical staples, as abundantly, more cheaply, and more efficiently” than slaves (144).  Drescher does a wonderful job of showing how decades of scientific research and analyses led up to this one experimental moment in history.

Initially, the Might Experiment appeared success.  The British government abolished chattel slavery peacefully, unlike the cases of France and Spanish America.  Reproduction of African populations also started increasing naturally.  The standard of living for ex-slaves improved.  Antigua, who forwent apprenticeship, even maintained the same rates of production in sugar.  Abolitionists used this success to launch their global anti-slavery crusade.  Although Drescher mentions that slavery in the British East Indies was not abolished until 1843, he surprisingly leaves out this important topic in his discussion of the 1840 General Anti-Slavery Convention.

Drescher shows that British abolitionists belief in free labor started to ebb in the 1840s, following the failure of Buxton’s Niger Expedition in 1841.  Moreover, fluctuating sugar prices and the rise of racism also led to a decline in the faith for free labor.  Thomas Carlyle’s essay is one example Drescher uses to prove this decline.  Soon land values plummeted, creditors stopped supporting planters, and new forms of labor coercion (Indian indentured servitude) arose.  The British West Indian failure, moreover, led the government to adopt indentured servitude and a “slow death of slavery” approach in its eastern colonies (235).  Drescher attempts to end of high note by arguing that the British emancipation kick-started the human rights movement of the twentieth century, but the reader is left with an dreadful notion of the failures in free labor experimentation.

Drescher places political economic scientists at the heart of his study, and shows how social sciences were used for and against instituting free labor into the British West Indies.  He continually reminds his readers, however, that the “true root of antislavery lay in its successful mass political mobilization around a fundamentally uneconomic proposition” (237).  This assessment aligns with Drescher’s previous assessment of British abolitionism (expressed in all his works).  He shows that despite political economists’ arguments against free labor (think about the Parliamentary debates over slavery during 1832-33), anti-slavery activists somehow found a way to mobilize massive public support for emancipation (more 1.3 million signatures in the last petition campaign).

While reading Drescher’s study, I could not help but think about my own dissertation idea.  Could I argue that free labor experimentation in postemancipation India was Britain’s “Second Mighty Experiment?”  Did the failure in the British West Indies lead anti-slavery activists to explore free labor in India?  I think there is something to this.

I also contemplated how Richard Huzzey asserts that many reform groups during this period claimed to be the heirs of their anti-slavery predecessors.  But if we follow Drescher’s argument, that legacy was not very positive:  abolitionists failed in their Mighty Experiment, they practically bankrupted the West Indian sugar colonies, and opened the door for a new forms of “near slavery.”  Men like Thomas Carlyle, moreover, attacked abolitionists for their misguided views of Africans as hard working and industrious citizens.  What value did abolitionists offer reform groups in the 1840s and 1850s?  Is Drescher’s assessment of their failures too critical?  Or maybe the better question is how did abolitionists maintain their preeminent standing in public opinion, even after these failures?

Seymour Drescher’s The Mighty Experiment provides an important window into understanding the role of free labor in the postemancipation Empire.  This is work that I will continually return to throughout my career.

Baptists and Anti-Slavery

October 3rd, 2013 by wes3

Reviewed Work:  Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 556, $35.65

Catherine Hall’s Civilising Subjects is a thought-provoking book that engages with a number of fascinating topics.  First, she provides a wonderful examination of several generations of British Baptist missionaries in Jamaica and Birmingham.  She examines how their ideas about slavery, emancipation, race, and freedom for Africans shifted over time.  Second, she places Jamaica and Birmingham in one “analytic frame” (a fundamental tenet of post-colonial historiography) making the metropole-colony dynamic “mutually constitutive” (8).  In other words, to understand the national formation, Hall argues, we “have to look outside it” (9).  Finally, Hall’s work incorporates several mini-biographies, “A Cast of Characters,” throughout her work, which includes but is not limited to: Baptist missionaries (i.e. William Knibb), colonial politicians (Edward Eyre), and abolitionists (Joseph Sturge).  These actors wrestle with a number of questions over ideological, social, and cultural issues arising in both colonial Jamaica and metropolitan Birmingham.

The fulcrum of Hall’s lengthy text is Baptist ministers and missionaries, which she follows from 1830 to 1867.  In Part I, Hall introduces us to these missionaries, such as William Knibb.  They were important agents for anti-slavery because they argued that Christianized black workers in Jamaica would industriously work without compulsion. Baptists evangelists like Knibb were “shocked by the moral degradation of slavery and the mindless existence…to which enslaved were condemned” (100).  Missionaries and slaveholders clashed over the religious future of slaves.  On one side, men like Knibb argued that slaves needed to be baptized and brought into the Christian faith.  On the other side, planters feared that Christianity would lead slaves to demand for more freedom.  By the 1823, a propaganda war erupted between anti-slavery missionaries and pro-slavery planters.  Like Gelien Matthews, Hall argues that following the Jamaican Slave Rebellion of 1831 (later called the First Baptist War), abolitionists adopted the framing positions that emancipation would prevent another Haitian Revolution.

Following the abolition of African chattel slavery and apprenticeship (Part II), Hall examines how Englishmen started to question emancipation, especially in Birmingham.  With the fall in West Indian sugar production, the removal of protective tariffs (free traders won out), and growing reports about the reemergence of African religion and African idleness in Jamaica—Englishmen started to claim that abolition was disastrous.  This was most pronounced in Thomas Carlyle’s 1849 essay “Occasion Discourse on the Negro Question” (republished in 1853 with a more racist title).  He clearly identified with the planters’ cause and argued that abolition “led to the ruin of the colonies, the ruin of the planters, and the ruin of black people who would not work” (349).  The Baptist Missionary Society’s (BMS) hopeful vision of Jamaica as a Christianized industrious colony was no longer credible.  The watershed moment for this change in thinking was the Morant Bay Rebellion (1865), led by a black Baptist leader named Paul Bogle (see video below).  Following the rebellion, biological essentialism ascended to prominence.  Englishmen used science to claim a genetic difference between whites and blacks, civilized and heathens.  Although stalwart abolitionists continued their humanitarian crusade, according to Hall, Joseph Sturge’s death marked the passing of an older generation and the arrival of more racist one.

Hall’s work is wonderful and will play a large role in the development of my dissertation.  First, her work has encouraged me to explore the British Missionary Society Archives.  Religion has not been a major aspect of my preliminary research, so far, but the BMS collections at both Yale and Wheaton College will most certainly be fruitful.  I also have her footnotes to help guide my archival research.  Although she downplays the BMS’s involvement in India, it was helpful to see the Jamaican side (which I knew little about).

Second, I like the structure of this work and how Hall handles a large group of characters.  I also deal with a diverse group of people who thought about anti-slavery in the Victorian Era.  Her prose and intertwining of narrative, biography, and argument provides a nice blueprint for writing the intellectual and cultural histories of several individuals, groups, and societies. Finally, I enjoyed her transnational framework, which does not favor either the colony or metropole.  She moves fluidly between Jamaica and Birmingham, making her argument and thoughts easy to follow.  Moreover, I am also excited to see how the Morant Bay Rebellion influenced India.  Both Matthews and Hall focus on rebellions and their importance in transforming abolitionism, ideas about race, and humanitarian reform movements.  This is something I would like to explore as I move forward with my own research.

I want to conclude with a few words on her overarching narrative, which highlights the rise and fall of humanitarian sentiment in England during the Victorian period.  I understand why historians like Hall make this argument, but I am still finding myself aligning with Richard Huzzey’s anti-slavery pluralism.  I believe that the British Empire held a core set of anti-slavery principles, which was used for various ends.  After reading Huzzey and Hall, however, I am thinking about how central these core anti-slavery principles were at any given time.  This issue will most likely be my end project for this class.  I agree with Huzzey that anti-slavery never goes away, but I also think it was not static.  My feeling is that we should look at these core principles on a continuum.  How central were these values during events such as: the debates over free trade, East Indian emancipation, the Morant Bay Rebellion, the Sepoy Rebellion, the scramble for Africa, and so forth.  Instead of the solar system metaphor espoused by Huzzey, maybe we should think of it as a pendulum, where anti-slavery swings from one side to the other based on certain events.

Video of Morant Bay Slave Rebellion with Stuart Hall, Catherine’s Husband



Slave Rebellions and the British Anti-Slavery Movement

October 2nd, 2013 by wes3

Review Work: Gelien Matthews, Caribbean Slave Revolts and the British Abolitionist Movement (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), pp. 197, $24.95.

For the last several decades, historians have explored slave resistance from a multitude of perspectives.  Walter Johnson (Soul by Soul) and Eugene Genovese (Roll, Jordan, Roll) examine the relationship between “slave agency” and “resistance” (passive versus active).  Seymour Drescher (Abolition) and Robin Blackburn (American Crucible) focus on how the Haitian Revolution influenced the advancement of anti-slavery.  Hilary Beckles (Afro-Caribbean Women) and Michael Craton (Testing the Chains) explore how slaves used resistance (passive & active) to negotiate their place in colonial society.  These various works and many others have pointed towards the importance of slave resistance and rebellion in the larger narrative about the rise and fall of New World slavery.

Gelien Matthews joins this overcrowded subfield with her thought-provoking work Caribbean Slave Revolts.  She offers a new perspective, if possible, to consider when examining the relationship between slave insurrection and the British Anti-Slavery Movement.  Matthews is writing against the traditional view that slave insurrection retarded the growth and progress of abolitionism.  The older view suggests that massive slave rebellions (Nat Turner, Haiti, Barbados) hurt the abolitionist cause and gave weight to pro-slavery arguments (social stability and control over the “unruly and dangerous” slaves).  Writing against this assessment, Matthews illustrates how slave rebellions in Barbados (1816), Demerara (1823), and Jamaica (1831-1832) created an environment from which British abolitionists drew their thoughts for immediate emancipation.  In her own words, “slaves in rebellion [during the abolition period] contributed to the metropolitan attack on colonial slavery” (11).

The general gist of her narrative goes as follows:  At the opening of the nineteenth century, abolitionists were conservative and defensive about slave rebellions, often trying to disassociate themselves from these events (Wilberforce).  By the Baptist War (1831, Jamaica), however, Matthews shows that abolitionists were no longer attempting to avoid blame, but instead used these rebellions to their advantage.  Rebel slaves were agents of change, which allowed abolitionists to make demands for immediate eradication of slavery throughout the Empire.  They believed that slaves were fighting for freedom and liberty.  They also used the threat of another Haitian Revolution to further their claims for emancipation, which would quell the tensions between African slaves and planters (which they argued would lead to race war).  In short, slaves’ decision to rebel “unlocked an offensive and defensive pro- slavery and anti-slavery debates that centered on slave revolt, (28)” which in turn led abolitionist to become more radical and aggressive.

This “unlocking” raises an interesting question about how abolitionists were limited by their environment (the Marxian idea of “agency”).  Matthews asserts that slave rebellions “succeeded in shifting the abolitionists’ conservative policy progressively to the left” (10).  Does this mean that these reformers would not have been “immediatists” (stealing language from the American anti-slavery historiography) without slave rebellions?  Or did these three insurrections provide the room for anti-slavery activists to make bolder demands on the Parliament and British public for emancipation?

This switch from gradualist to immediatist was not immediate, but happened slowly over time.  Starting with Thomas Fowell Buxton’s speech to the House of Commons on slavery in 1823—where he vacillated between accepting the necessity of slave rebellion for the larger humanitarian cause and outright disapproval of such actions—and ended with the Anti-Slavery Society’s call for immediate emancipation following the Baptist War in Jamaica.  This change is interesting when looking at the larger transnational context.  During the same period, abolitionists in the United States made a similar movement, going from the gradualism of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society to the immediatism of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (see Rich Newman The Transformation of American Abolitionism).  For the most part, Matthews stays within the national boundaries of the British Empire, but provides a wonderful opportunity for comparison.  Would Matthews’ argument hold up in the American context?  Did Nat Turner and Daniel Walker have the same impact on anti-slavery as the Demerarean and Jamaican rebellions?

At first glance, it would appear to be yes.  American abolitionists and free blacks moved from moral suasion arguments to outright calls for black rights and freedom.  Think about the difference in approaches between Richard Allen (Mother Bethel) and William Parker (Christiania Riot).  British and American abolitionists both called for immediate abolition during the same period, in the midst of violent rebellions (Jamaica and Nat Turner/Walker).  However, one institution of slavery ended shortly after and the other existed for another thirty years?  Why the difference?  This might be a fruitful question to explore.

Gelien Matthews, Caribbean Slave Revolts is a social history of slave resistance.  She uses the agency of a marginalized group of people (slaves) to show how they influenced larger societal changes (the ending of slavery).  The value of Matthews’ work is even more pronounced when considering how other historians have written about these revolts.  Emilia Viotti da Costa, for example, provides the most comprehensive examination of the Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823.  Viotti da Costa, however, ends her study in 1824.  Leaving the reader curious about the how the Demerara Rebellion was linked to the actual abolition of slavery.  Matthews provides an answer to this question and many others, filling in an important the historiographical gaps.

Slave rebellions database for the United States.  This LINK provides an interesting overview of the various types of rebellions and how we can possibly categorize them.  This might be useful to consider when reading Matthews’ work.

Empires, Cotton, and Slavery

September 19th, 2013 by wes3

Reviewed Works:

Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013), pp. x-526, $35.00

Sven Beckert, “Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the American Civil War,” in The American Historical Review, vol. 109, no. 5 (December 2004), 1405-1438.

Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams and Sven Beckert’s “Emancipation and Empire” are two complimentary works.  Both studies explore the relationship between slavery, capitalism, labor, and empire during the nineteenth century.  Johnson’s monograph traces the rise and fall of the Cotton Kingdom in the Mississippi River Valley, while Beckert’s article investigates how the production and trade in cotton reestablished itself throughout the world following the American Civil War.  Both works raise several questions about the place of cotton in the world’s economy and its influences on labor and trade (foreign and domestic).

The general gist of Johnson’s argument was that imperialism, capitalism, and slavery came together in the Mississippi River Valley, starting after the Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase.  Jefferson believed that an “Empire of Liberty” could be achieved through yeoman republicanism, but this dream was quickly dissolved with the rise of steam power.  The introduction of steamboats in the 1810s nurtured capitalist development, which gave rise to the Cotton Kingdom.

Although parts of Johnson’s work read like a stream of consciousness, especially his Braudelian descriptions of steamboats, cotton cultivation, and environmental changes—he also presents several thought-provoking ideas.  First, he makes a compelling argument about how the western frontier and the rise of capitalism shaped, among other things, race relations, the environment, and class relations among whites.  As the Cotton Kingdom rose to power, opportunities to make significant economic gains flourished.  Everyone from riverboats captains to merchants in New Orleans made fortunes of the bourgeoning cotton trade.  In many ways Johnson’s argument resembles a reoriented version of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis.”  As frontier, this western region offered unlimited opportunities for economic gains.  Unlike Turner, however, this frontier did not give rise to democracy, but instead Slaveocracy based on slave labor and cotton production.

The massive investments in slaves and plantations, however, made this empire dependent on the North for things such as food and clothing (this led to massive southern support for free trade).   Outside material objects, this Cotton Kingdom also changed the environment (soil erosion and exhausted soil) and reified a harsh racial hierarchy.   Also the Cotton Kingdom flourished in the first several decades, by the 1830s, intense economic competition between each other, soil exhaustion, and the Panic of 1837 destabilized their society.  Although this interpretation is not new, Johnson connects this instability to elite slaveholders’ desire to expand their empire and reopen the slave trade.  For example, he looks at slaveholders’ attempts to colonize Cuba and Nicaragua. Many slave-owners, arrogantly, believed in what he calls global “whitemanism.”  This was the idea that expansion coupled with the reopening of the Transatlantic Slave Trade would solve the problems of the empire and solidify white slaveholders position at the head of the “interlocking circulatory networks” of the Atlantic World (418).

Although there is much to like in this work, Johnson leaves a few glaring holes in his assessment.  First, he does not discuss religion, which many would argue was a key ideological component of the southern United States.  Second, he does not discuss the role of slaveholder paternalism, which I was curious about in his sections on the “expansionist movement.”   Did southerner slave masters present their arguments for expansionism in a paternalistic manner?  Finally, Johnson does not spend enough time talking about the role of non-slaveholding whites in the development of the Mississippi River Valley.  Despite these quibbles, this work is powerful testament to Johnson’s knowledge of American slavery.

The Cotton Kingdom fell with the outbreak of American the Civil War.  This major event is where Sven Beckert starts his article.  He argues that the Civil War gave rise “to the global empire of cotton.”  This global empire was “structured by multiple powerful states and their colonies” and “worked by non-slave laborers” (1405).  Why the rise of this global empire of cotton?  Because in 1861 cotton production employed more than 20 million people across the world, and the United States provided more than 75% of the world’s cotton.  The Civil War halted the production of this raw material, which led to the Great Cotton Famine.   This forced countries around the world to search for a new source of cotton.

The search raised many questions, especially how “to extract labor for cotton production, without the use of slaves” (1424).  Beckert uses three cases studies—India, Brazil, and Egypt—to demonstrate how the world searched for a new source of cotton and labor.   The result of these searches was the foundation of “an entirely different system of labor control: unlike in sugar production, which, after emancipation, relied to an important extent on indentured laborers, cotton would be grown by cultivators who would work their own or rented land with the input of family labor and metropolitan capital” (1424).  The movement to produce cotton in different regions led to major social changes such as the establishment of railroads in Berar, India; new telegraphic communications; the construction of the Suez Canal; and “moneylenders” became the slaveholders.

As peasants were used in the production of cotton outside of the United States, they became more dependent on moneylenders for advances in cash to support themselves.  This, in turn, created a vicious cycle of debt, which led to different forms of slavery.  Ironically, the emancipation of four million slaves in the United States—what some would argue as one of the greatest humanitarian achievements in history—actually led to the same vast system: “the destruction of slavery, along with the emergence of the United States as a power in manufactured cotton in its own right, motivated nearly all European states to secure labor, cotton lands, and markets in territories they controlled (usually through indentured servitude and coercion)” (1438).

This raises a major question: Did the Civil War actually enslave more people than it emancipated?   In other words, did slavery actually expand on a global scale, following the War? Could one argue that imperialism, slavery, and capitalism created the Cotton Kingdom, led to the destruction of American slavery, and then gave birth to a new form of slavery.

These two works have changed how I understand the historiographical debate between slavery and capitalism (which I will outline—any comments here are more than welcome!)–

Two major schools of thought have dominated this debate.  In the first group, historians such as Eric Williams and Eugene Genovese argue that capitalism arose in seventeenth century and was defined by the separation of workers from land, the establishment of the factory system, and the development of contract labor.  Slavery, in their minds, defined non-capitalist society.  Immanuel Wallenstein (world systems theory) and Fernand Braudel (Annales School) are two leaders of the second school of thought.  They argue that capitalism emerged in the fourteenth century with the rise of global trade.  In most cases, slave-produced goods were the commodities of choice exchanged between various places, therefore, making slavery a cornerstone of early capitalism.

If we accept Johnson and Beckert’s arguments, can we say that capitalism could not exist without slavery?  Does capitalism require slavery to be successful?  Has there ever been a time when capitalism existed without some form of slavery?  (I am using slavery in a very general term here).  These two studies have led me to ask such questions, which I am excited to explore further this semester.


Them Burnin’ Days

September 5th, 2013 by wes3

Reviewed Work:

Richard Huzzey, Freedom Burning: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012),pp.303. $22.09

Historians have argued that British antislavery collapsed following the termination of African apprenticeship in 1838.  Scholars have argued that British abolitionism buckled in the face of new imperialistic ambitions, racism, and public indifference.  They point towards the declining number of abolitionist societies, new imperial projects, and the reappearance of indentured servitude as indications of antislavery’s decline.  Richard Huzzey challenges this historiographical assumption in his new work Freedom Burning (2012).  Although the number of organized abolitionist societies waned during the Victorian period, Huzzey argues that “antislavery sentiment” did not follow suit.

Before breaking down Huzzey’s argument, we must first understand two important terms used throughout this work.  The first term is “antislavery pluralism.”  In the Victorian Era, “A national abolitionist society was no longer the principal vehicle for anti-slavery ideas” (7) and ultimately led to the diversification of anti-slavery sentiment.  The second term is “ideology,” and more specifically an antislavery ideology—one that “refers to the family of ideas regarding the wrongfulness of slavery” (8).  Huzzey’s metaphor of an “antislavery solar system” was particularly helpful in understanding this concept.  At the center of this solar system sits the core belief (the sun) that chattel bondage was wrong.  Orbiting this core belief are different and often competing bodies of ideas and practices (planets).  During this period, various groups of anti-slavery supporters approached the “question of slavery” from different perspectives, which led to disagreements over issues such as racial equality, women’s rights, universal suffrage, imperialistic ventures, economics, and compensation for slaveholders.

Huzzey’s main goal is to address the question: what did it mean to be an antislavery nation—meaning the nationalization of antislavery sentiment—during a period “where slavery still openly existed” throughout the world (7)?  What he finds is that the discord and tensions created from these varying antislavery views have “hidden its ubiquity and significance” (20).  In the first two chapters, Huzzey sets out to prove that antislavery was ubiquitous throughout England by illuminating how antislavery sentiment spread through cultural productions (plays and music), literature (the wide British readership of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and the machinery of government (the Slave Trade Department).

Chapter Three, in my opinion, is the most important section of this work because it lays the foundation for his entire monograph.  Huzzey introduces us to the “Anti-Slavery state,” which is literally the British state transformed into a determined enemy of slavery. This transformation started in the 1820s with the formation of the Slave Trade Department and continued through the turn of the century.  In several ways, this was the first attempt by Britain to define what it meant to be an antislavery nation. Huzzey highlights a somewhat discernable shape of British antislavery mentality, which was linked to “trade, Christianity, and civilization ending the slave trade” (64).  Despite this underlying unity, however, he clarifies that the Anti-Slavery state “was not a homogeneous organism; there was plenty of disagreement between officials” over different approaches to ending the slave trade in various countries (he uses the examples of the United States, Brazil, and the Ottoman Empire, 65).

After examining how British antislavery was expressed in foreign affairs, Huzzey moves into investigating how this sentiment disseminated in the domestic sphere of England.  In two chapters, Huzzey spends significant time examining how antislavery sentiment was used to fight both economic slaveries (free trade versus protectionism) and political slaveries (universal suffrage, women’ rights, democracy).  Ironically, these various constituencies all claimed to be the rightful heirs to British antislavery, which they believed gave them political and cultural currency for their causes.

In the final two chapters, Huzzey explores an interesting and often contested topic of Victorian antislavery and British imperial ventures.  He argues that imperialism was actually linked to antislavery sentiment.  “Anti-slavery ideologies,” Huzzey writes, “were one of the principal ways that commercial, strategic, spiritual, and moral objectives could be combined.  Anti-slavery helped create commercial interests; anti-slavery translated commercial interests into national interests; anti-slavery was a principal public expression of imperial enthusiasm” (176).  Although Huzzey presents strong evidence to support his claim, this section left me with a larger question: If antislavery sentiment was used in so many different ways, does it lose value and become a meaningless idea.  I believe Huzzey would say no and argue that antislavery was more than an ideology; it was a belief system that Britons used to achieve various goals.  If true, I am then curious about how British people negotiated or prioritized their needs based on their understanding of Victorian antislavery.  What did it mean when someone like Joseph Sturge used one version of antislavery to support his pacifist approach to ending the slave trade, and later used a different version of antislavery to threaten conservative MPs with African rebellion, if they remained under the apprenticeship system (see pages 65 and 66 for this paradox)?  Huzzey, unfortunately, does not explore this issue.

Richard Huzzey’s Freedom Burning has changed our understanding of Victorian antislavery.  He proves that “the transformation of Britain into an anti-slavery nation…was a messy, bloody, and confused process,” which created disagreements, discord, and divergence amongst the Britons (203).  Unlike previous historians, however, he did not accept the idea that antislavery was losing authority in the Victorian period, but showed that antislavery sentiment continued to thrive in the Empire, just in many different forms.

I’m Back

August 30th, 2013 by wes3

Reviewed Work:

David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 464. $30.00

David Brion Davis Talks About His Book (interesting video and discussion)


In the last several decades, historians of slavery and abolition have started engaging with a transatlantic framework.  This shift has encouraged scholars to reexamine the implications of events such as the French Revolution, the Demerara slave rebellion, and the American Civil War on the various systems of slavery throughout the New World.  David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage is one of the foundational works using such an approach (Blackburn’s trilogy also deserves mention).  His study provides a synthesis in two ways.  First, he narrates the connectedness between the “rise and fall” of various systems of slavery throughout the Americas.  Second, he delivers an overview of the historiographical debates on slavery and abolition in the New World, offering insightful comments wherever possible.  Such a combination is difficult to achieve for any scholar, not to mention Davis’ ability to use narrative and structural writing methods.

One of the major themes running throughout Davis’ work deals with the flexibility, adaptability, and “multinational character of the Atlantic Slave System” (12).  Following a brief anecdotal chapter on the Cuban slaver La Amistad, Davis moves into a discussion about the foundations of slavery, starting with neo-Babylonian society.  Here he builds on Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death (1985) and the idea that “inhuman bondage” is the treatment “of humans as nonhuman beasts of burden” (35).  This understanding is the first of two definitions given for his phrase “inhuman bondage.”  The second connotation of “inhuman bondage” refers to “special harshness” of New World slavery, which white colonists confined to black Africans (and Native Americans).  After establishing the foundations of “inhuman bondage,” Davis quickly moves into history of the “rise and fall” of slavery in the New World.

After reading Davis, it is apparent that from the beginning slavery was full of contradictions, which later fueled the debates between proslavery and antislavery constituencies.  One contradiction, for example, deals with the slaves being legally defined by the various legal bodies as chattel (the equivalent of dogs, cattle, or horses), but also held accountable for being morally sensible people (the law recognized the slaves could runaway, commit murder, steal, and in times of desperation they even armed slaves).  This, according to Davis, was the basic “problem of slavery” (35).  Another interesting contradiction was the issue of slavery in the United States.  Davis argues that slavery in the United States was “the most hypocritical contradiction in all-human history,” a nation that promoted freedom and democracy, which was built off the backs of slaves.

Historians have vetted both paradoxes, but it raises a series of interesting questions: how important were these “paradoxes” to the larger downfall of the Atlantic Slave System?  Was this system doomed to fail from the beginning?  Are these paradoxes specific to the development of the New World?  Could these uncertainties help explain why antislavery activism began in earnest in the late eighteenth century, after almost three thousand years of existence?

After reading Davis’s comparative chapters on British and American abolitionism, I also was struck by another intriguing question: where does religion and economics fit into our understanding of Atlantic abolitionism?  More specifically, it appears that historians explain British abolitionism through economics and American abolitionism through religion.  I am not saying that historians have completely ignored one or the other.  However, after reading Davis’ summary of the historiographical fields, I realized that historians of slavery and abolition often focus on British economics (i.e. Williams’ thesis or the benefits of free labor) and American religion (i.e. moral suasion and the Second Great Awakening).

Davis’ study is a wonderful work for both experienced and novice students of slavery and antislavery.  This work also provides a wonderful introduction for undergraduates and the general public, especially those unfamiliar with such topics.  Davis’ monograph has a few shortcomings such as the lack of attention on Native American slavery, the sometimes-jarring switches from topics such as colonial North American slavery to the Soviet Gulag, but such inadequacies should be expected in a work that covers such as vast geographical and temporal range.  I also believe it would be fruitful for historians to extend this examination with a comparative analysis of slavery and abolition in the East, especially in regions such as India and China.  In short, Davis’ Inhuman Bondage provides a wonderful introduction or fresher on the similarities, differences, and connections between various system of slavery and abolition throughout the New World.

Slowly but Surely

April 15th, 2013 by wes3

Hi everyone,

My paper is coming along…slowly.  This week I have added my summary of Du Bois and introduction to my first section (Revisionist).  Du Bois was very difficult to summarize, mostly because this work covers several topics and does not have a clear thesis.  Nevertheless, I have attempted to outline his major arguments.  If you think I should add or take away anything from this section, please let me know.

This is a direct continuation from from last section.


I also want to provide a brief overview of W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction (which I will expand on throughout this essay).[1]  It is difficult to summarize Black Reconstruction because it covers such a broad range of topics.  Nevertheless, this works has three overarching arguments, which I will expand on throughout this work.  First, blacks were central agents in both emancipation and Reconstruction.  During the Civil War, for example, African Americans went on a “general strike.”  “It was a strike,” Du Bois writes, “on a general basis against the conditions of work.  It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps a half million people.  They wanted to stop the economy of the plantation system, and to do that they left the plantations.”[2]  Du Bois is clearly ascribing agency to African Americans and bringing them to the forefront of the Civil War and Reconstruction narratives, which is a continuous theme throughout his work.

The second argument Du Bois makes suggests that labor and property were the central issues at the heart of Reconstruction.  For Du Bois, the question of who would work for whom, and under what conditions fueled the hostilities between whites and blacks in the South.  “The emancipation of man,” Du Bois opines, “is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black.”[3]  Using a Marxian approach, Du Bois places Reconstruction and emancipation within the larger history of labor, the worldwide struggle between the owners and workers.  He even titled two of his chapters “The Black Proletariat in South Carolina” (chapter 10) and “Counter Revolution of Property” (chapter 14).

Finally, Du Bois argues that Reconstruction was a “splendid failure.”  Du Bois sheds light on the paradox of the working class’s failure to unite against rich elite planters in the South.  Instead, poor whites “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.”[4]  Northern labor parties never accepted freedpeople, while white southern elites prevented the white and black working classes from joining forces.  Put in a different light, the failure of Reconstruction was the failure of biracial democracy.  “The attempt to make black men American citizens was in certain sense all a failure,” Du Bois comments, “but a splendid failure.”[5]  It was a “splendid failure,” because the defeats (Black Codes and sharecropping) encountered by freedpeople outweighed the achievements (13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and black education) of Reconstruction.

Revisionist scholars first returned to W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in the 1960s.  This generation of scholars argued, among many things, that the “negro rule” was a myth (southern whites still held the majority in state legislatures, Alexander Stephens was back in the House of Representatives by 1873), Reconstruction provided education and political participation to freedpeople, and helped the South transition from slave to wage labor.  Like Du Bois, Revisionists paid greater attention to African Americans’ collective efforts to achieve autonomy and unity.  Although these historians were aware of the conflicts within black communities, they overlooked such divisions in order to demonstrate the “agency” and power of freedpeople.  In other words, Revisionists, like Du Bois, set out to prove that African Americans had agency in both emancipation and Reconstruction.  Joel Williamson’s After Slavery (1965), Kenneth Stampp’s The Era of Reconstruction (1967), and Robert Cruden’s The Negro in Reconstruction (1969) are three representative works from this generation of historians.[6]


[1] Although the Dunning School dominated the historiographical field, African-American scholars were not silent.  Goaded by works such as Bower’s Tragic Era, Du Bois secured a five thousand dollar grant from the Rosenwald Fund and a supplementary grant from the Carnegie Corporation to write Black Reconstruction.  In 1935, Du Bois published his masterpiece, which sold a modest 1,984 copies in 1938.  White historians of Reconstruction, however, argued that this lengthy monograph’s “temper is as bad as the sources” (Craven Review, 535).  For reviews of Du Bois’ work see: Avery Craven, Review of Black Reconstruction, in The American Journal of Sociology, 41 (January 1936), 535-536; Merton Coulter, Review of Black Reconstruction, in Georgia Historical Quarterly, 20 (March 1936), 95; Arthur Cole, Review of Black Reconstruction, in Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 23 (September 1936), 278-280; and Benjamin Kendrick, Review of Black Reconstruction, in Southern Review, 1 (Winter 1936), 540-550.  Despite the harsh and biased reviews, Du Bois’ study was replete with insight and revolutionary ideas (which scholars noticed three decades later) such as slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War, freedpeople were agents in emancipation and Reconstruction, and issues of property and labor were central to the conflicts over Reconstruction.  It is also important to note that although Black Reconstruction was never reviewed in American Historical Review and most scholars agree that Black Reconstruction was “largely ignored by the historical profession until the 1960s” (Foner, Nothing But Freedom), some scholars such as David Levering Lewis have argued that historians did not ignore this work.  See David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 (New York: Holt, 2000), chapter 10.  For sales of W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, see Leon Litwack and Kenneth Stampp, Reconstruction: An Anthology of Revisionist Writings (Baton Rough: Louisiana Press, 1969), 428-430.

[2] W.E.B Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (New York: The Free Press, 1935), 67.

[3] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 16.

[4] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 130.

[5] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 708.

[6] Kenneth Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction 1865-1877 (New York: Vintage Books, 1967); Joel Williamson, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction 1861-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965); Robert Cruden, The Negro in Reconstruction (New York: Prentice Hall Publishing, 1969)


Introduction to Essay

April 7th, 2013 by wes3

Hi everyone,

Here is the introduction to my final essay.  As we move towards the end of the semester, I will start posting sections of my essay on this blog. Feedback is welcomed (on anything).

For this week, I worked on writing the introduction and thesis, while also outlining which books I will review in this work (See footnote 4):

“The Splendid Failure of Reconstruction Historiography”

            In July 1940, Howard Beale published a provocative essay in the American Historical Review where he called for a sweeping reassessment of American Reconstruction.  More specifically, Beale posed the question, “Is it not time that we studied the history of Reconstruction without first assuming, at least subconsciously, that carpetbaggers and Southern white Republicans were wicked, that Negroes were illiterate incompetents, and that the whole white South owes a debt of gratitude to the restorers of white supremacy?”[1]  This question struck at the heart of many basic assumptions of the Dunning School’s understanding of Reconstruction.[2]  Outside of attacking Dunning and his followers, Beale’s essay also drew heavily on a work that many contemporary historians disregarded: W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America (1935).  “In describing the Negro’s role,” Beale wrote, “Du Bois has presented a mass of material, formerly ignored, that every future historian must reckon with.”[3]  Beale’s essay correctly assumed that scholars for the next several decades would have to wrestle with questions first posited by Du Bois, especially on issues such as labor relations and black agency during the American Civil War and Reconstruction.

As a scholar, activist, leader of pan-Africanism, and the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Du Bois was a towering figure in modern American society.  Until the late 1950s, however, the historical profession largely dismissed Black Reconstruction as serious scholarship.  In fact, this work was never reviewed in the American Historical Review, the profession’s leading journal.  As the Civil Rights Movement gained traction in the United States, however, scholars returned to Du Bois’ study with a new appreciation.  Using his work as a springboard, revisionist historians overturned the Dunning School’s interpretations by placing African Americans at the center of the Reconstruction narrative.  This historiographical essay will trace the influence that W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction had on subsequent generations of historians.  In light of the large corpus of Reconstruction literature, this essay will only review a small representative sample of monographs from three generations of scholars (revisionists, post-revisionists, and modern scholars).[4]  My intention is to understand how Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction has shaped the historiographical field of Reconstruction since the 1960s.

Before continuing, it is important to establish two things.  First, I want to highlight the basic underpinnings of the Dunning School of Reconstruction.  From 1900 to 1950, William Archibald Dunning and his followers established the mainstream narrative of Reconstruction.  Dunning historians often described this period as the “nadir of national disgrace.”[5]  In the Tragic Era (1929), Claude Bowers, for instance, portrayed Reconstruction as a “tragic era” (hence the title) where the “Constitution was treated as a doormat” and southern whites were “put to torture by rugged northern conspirators” (such as Thaddeus Stevens). Bowers, in short, provides a stunning indictment of “Republican rule” in the “black and bloody drama” of Southern Reconstruction.[6]  Other Dunning scholars also illustrated Reconstruction in a similar vein.  They blamed Radical Republicans, northern carpetbaggers, southern scalawags, and freedpeople for the devastating socioeconomic turmoil of the period, while praising white southerners for restoring order to the South (“redemption”).

Second, I want to provide a brief overview of W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction (which I will expand on throughout this essay).

My next move is to provide a brief overview of Du Bois’ work and then continue with assessing the the revisionist generation of Reconstruction.  For this, I will examine three work in the next section (outside of Du Bois):

Kenneth Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction 1865-1877 (New York: Vintage Books, 1967)

Joel Williamson, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction 1861-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965)

Robert Cruden, The Negro in Reconstruction (New York: Prentice Hall Publishing, 1969)


[1] Howard K. Beale, “On Rewriting Reconstruction History,” American Historical Review, 45 (July 1940): 808.

[2] For Dunning School accounts on Reconstruction see:  William A. Dunning, Reconstruction Political and Economic 1865-1877 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1907); Walter Fleming, The Sequel of Appomattox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919); Claude Bowers, The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln (Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin, 1929); E. Merton Coulter, The South During Reconstruction 1865-1877 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1947).

[3] Although Beale criticized Du Bois for distorting his work in order to “mold facts into a Marxian pattern,” he praised Du Bois for his “race and social philosophy,” which “gave Black Reconstruction freshness.” See Beale, “On Rewriting Reconstruction History,” 809.

[4] Kenneth Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction 1865-1877 (New York: Vintage Books, 1967); Joel Williamson, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction 1861-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965); Robert Cruden, The Negro in Reconstruction (New York: Prentice Hall Publishing, 1969); Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Vintage Books, 1980); Jonathan Wiener, Social Origins of the New South: Alabama 1860-1885 (Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 1978); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988); Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005); Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2008); Dylan Penningroth, The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Michael Fitzgerald, Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South, (New York: Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 2008).

[5] Dunning scholars have often described this phase in American history as the “Tragic Era,” “The Age of Hate,” “The Dreadful Decade,” and “The Blackout of Honest Government.”  William A. Dunning, The American Nation: A History; Reconstruction Political and Economic 1865-1877 (New York: Harper Book, 1907), 281.

[6] Claude Bowers, The Tragic Era, vi.