When historians collect primary source documents during research, they must determine which of these sources can be relied upon when crafting an accurate interpretation of the past. This challenge is harder than it might seem at first blush. Most historians would agree that finding primary sources that are contemporary to the historic event or person being researched is more ideal than something produced years later. For example, an official report, letter, or diary entry created during the Battle of Gettysburg is most likely a more reliable source for understanding what occurred during the battle than an interview conducted fifty years later with an aged veteran.
There are some benefits to hindsight, of course, and mistakes in recollection can be made at any time during the event itself. Knowing how the Battle of Gettysburg turned out and having a general understanding of that battle’s consequences has its benefits. Hindsight offers time for personal reflection and can help inform one’s understanding of their role in a historic event. But memories are fickle and finite. Fine details and particulars of an event fade with time and can be overwhelmed by the creation of new memories during subsequent moments of importance. A veteran’s recollections of Gettysburg fifty years after the fact straddle the line between history and memory, and between a reliable source and an unreliable one. They must be used with caution and taken with a grain of salt.
I think about this challenge all the time within the scope of my work interpreting the life of Ulysses S. Grant. While there is an abundance of primary source documentation from Grant himself and others chronicling his experiences as a Civil War general and Reconstruction era president, hardly any documentation exists about Grant’s life before the Civil War that was created at that time. The number of letters in Grant’s hand from his five years in St. Louis at the White Haven plantation (1854-1859) numbers around a dozen. The number of documents created by other family members around Grant at that time is close to zero. And nothing from the perspective of the enslaved people owned by Grant’s father-in-law was created during that time. How can a reliable interpretation of these experiences be crafted with such a paucity of documentation?
The imperfect solution offered by historians, Grant biographers, and public historians alike has been to look at Grant’s actions in the absence of his words. More imperfectly, they also look at the words of people who claimed to know Grant at the time and reflected on his life forty or fifty years after the fact. With regards to the latter there are a number of resources to rely on: Grant’s 1885 Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant barely discussed his St. Louis experiences, but his wife Julia Dent Grant wrote her own Personal Memoirs in the 1890s and dedicated a good portion of her book to the family’s experiences at White Haven; likewise, writers Hamlin Garland and William Conant Church both conducted interviews with people who claimed to know Grant and wrote biographies of him based on those interviews in 1898 and 1899, respectively. In the absence of primary source documents from the 1850s, these latter documents are frequently used by contemporary historians to provide insights into Grant’s life before the Civil War. These sources, however, sometimes contradict each other and are frequently ambiguous or outright wrong.
One such example of an ambiguous document is an interview with Mary Robinson, an African American woman in St. Louis who was enslaved at White Haven by Grant’s Father-in-law, Colonel Frederick Dent, at the time that the Grant family lived there. The interview was conducted by the St. Louis Republican on July 24, 1885, the day after Grant died of throat cancer. In it, Robinson recalls her interactions with Grant and makes the following claim about his views on slavery:
Grant was a very kind man to those who worked for him, and he always said that he wanted to give his wife’s slaves their freedom as soon as he was able.
This line has been used more than once by historians to argue that Grant opposed slavery before the war. As I pointed out in this essay, Julia Dent Grant did not actually have legal title to any of the enslaved people at White Haven, but her father did loan her four slaves to attend to her needs while at White Haven. One historian in particular has recently claimed, on the basis of the Robinson interview, that the reason Julia did not have legal title to those enslaved people was because her father feared that Grant would free them. Is that a reliable interpretation to make?
What little we have of the record from the 1850s is far more complex. Grant himself never espoused antislavery views in his letters before the Civil War. He made the decision to move to a slave plantation in 1854 and at one point even owned a slave of his own, William Jones, that he later freed in 1859 (see the above link for more info). Furthermore, when Grant made his views on slavery publicly know in an August 1863 letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne during the Civil War, he argued that “early in the rebellion” he had come around to believe that slavery had to be abolished, but that “I never was an abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery” before the Civil War.
An important factor in determining the reliability of Robinson’s recollection is the context in which it was produced. Grant had died the day before. The white interviewer had no interest in learning about Robinson’s own experiences in slavery and probably edited her comments to paint Grant in a positive light. Would the article really be edited to point out that Grant had been a slaveholder? I doubt it. If one were to read this interview and know nothing else about Grant’s life in St. Louis, they’d have no idea that he owned William Jones. Can it be trusted as a reliable source in uncovering Grant’s views on slavery before the war? Many historians have cited it, but I’m not so sure.
The point here is not to determine whether Grant was truly antislavery or proslavery before the war. As we can see, the evidence is mixed, and in any case I think it’s far safer to argue that there was an evolution in Grant’s thinking over time. The bigger challenge here and in so many other instances during historical research is that the absence of definitive primary source documentation from the time in which an event took place makes the task of painting an accurate portrait of the past all the more difficult. When historians are faced with interpreting the recollections of people long after the fact, they must exercise caution and sharp judgement in determining that source’s reliability.
In my last post I excerpted a Letter to the Editor in the August 4th, 1860 edition of the proslavery Missouri Republican from “Slaveholder.” The letter explained why voting for Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas for President was the only way for both the Union and slavery to continue peacefully in the United States. It was a fascinating plea against secession as a form of protecting enslaved property, and it highlighted the thoughts of many proslavery Missourians as the country spiraled towards war less than a year later.
In that very same issue of the Missouri Republican–on the front page, no less–the paper posted a comprehensive of listing of auctions and items for sale in St. Louis. And if you look closely enough, you’ll see a listing about a runaway slave and a couple listings from Bernard M. Lynch, the city’s most prosperous slave trader. One of those ads is for an enslaved boy “between ten and twelve years of age,” conveniently placed right next to ads for furnaces, steam engines, and other pieces of property.
I’ve been reading Historian Jelani Cobb’s essay on the four New Orleans Confederate monuments that have either come down or are slated to come down soon. I think we have to be careful about who we generalize as opposing the removal of these monuments and why they do so, but he makes the point that many protestors–some of which are making death threats against the city’s Mayor and/or using racist language and Confederate flags to intimidate the city’s African American population–are enamored with a glorified “a-la-carte relationship with history”:
the protesters who lined up to defend the monument wish to maintain an à-la-carte relationship with history. They have cloaked their defense of the monuments by presenting it as a recognition of the valor of the men who fought for the Confederate cause. But that excuse falls flat when recognizing, for instance, that there is no monument in New Orleans to the mass slave revolt that took place in 1811, when some two hundred men who had endured the brutality of bondage marched on the city, killing two white men and burning plantations as they went. This is not the version of valor recognized by the crowd before the Lee memorial, or those phoning in death threats to Landrieu’s office.
I feel like we have a tendency in the United States to glorify and valorize the nation’s soldiers, past and present, without assessing why they went to war in the first place. The exceptions to that theory are probably the Revolutionary War and World War II.
As long as we commemorate the Confederacy’s legacy purely in terms of its soldiers’ military service and frame the erection of Confederate monuments as an apolitical extension of that commemoration and nothing else, we will downplay the politics of why the Civil War occurred in the first place. And we will minimize the stories, experiences, and legacy of thousands of ten-year-old enslaved boys and girls who were sold out of slave pens in the Land of the Free while Lee and Beauregard marched to Dixie.
The Washington Post recently wrote an article about an ongoing debate between economic historians and historians of capitalism (the two are not the same) about the role of slavery in the U.S. economy before the Civil War, particularly the relationship between slavery and capitalism. This debate has been taking place for a number of years, from what I can gather, but I find the Post’s handling of this extended conversation to be mildly annoying.
Generally speaking, the historians of capitalism argue that the two were intimately related and that slavery thrived and expanded in the U.S. precisely because of capitalism. Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman have recently argued that the sheer number of enslaved people throughout the South, combined with Northern (and British) capital investment in the institution renders “an unclear line of demarcation between a capitalist North and a slave South, with consequences for how we understand North and South as discrete economies—and whether we should do so in the first place.” In the Post article we hear from Edward Baptist, another historian of capitalism, who argues that the torturing of enslaved people was foundational to slavery’s growth and expansion by forcing them to produce at higher and higher rates to account for the increased demand in slave-picked cotton during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Economic historians, on the other hand, generally caution that collapsing the distinctions between Northern and Southern economies runs the risk of complicating our ability to explain how the Civil War came about. If the institution of slavery was so strongly supported in the North, then how do you explain the rise of popular anti-slavery parties in the North during the 1840s and 1850s that campaigned on the argument that slavery was a threat to the value of one’s labor and a less efficient production system than one based on free labor principles? How do you explain the origins of a bloody civil war between the two sections if their economic systems were so intimately connected? Where do discussions over sectional disagreements about economic policies like tariffs, taxes, public land sales, and government involvement in infrastructure projects fit within the capitalist historians’ focus? Furthermore, in responding to Baptist, Alan Olmstead argues that new seed technologies accelerated cotton production and played the most crucial role in fostering slavery’s growth, not slave torture.
I don’t propose to offer any concrete answers to this discussion other than to say that I find the way the Post has framed the issue isn’t really productive. Must historians’ explanation for slavery’s growth in the United States–an incredibly complex topic that could take a lifetime to study–be whittled down to a single cause: torture or seeds? Isn’t it more plausible to suggest that the two ideas (and probably more) of the various camps can coexist and complement each other? I think so. Increased cotton production in the South by enslaved labor before the Civil War was possible because of political and economic policies (national, state, and local), social practices, scientific and religious beliefs, and a strong law enforcement/police state that allowed for this state of affairs to flourish and grow.
I do not mean to suggest that historians must put equal weight to all factors when explaining a particular historical event or topic; weighing out these factors is part of the fun in debating these issues. Whenever possible, I think the quantification of empirical evidence allows historians a chance to put more weight into their claims for one particular factor over another. But historians should always strive for complexity and nuance rather than either-or propositions as the Post would have us understand this topic. When the goal becomes over-simplification and monocausal explanations for complex historical processes, I think we end up doing more harm than good to the historical record.
In recent years an interpretation that might be best described as “emancipationist” has emerged to explain the motives of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party with regards to slavery at the beginning of the American Civil War. This interpretation—advanced by historians such as Adam Goodheart and James Oakes—argues that most Republican politicians at the beginning of the war conceived the conflict as a fight to end U.S. slavery. Remembering John Quincy Adams’s earlier claim that slavery could potentially be abolished as a military necessity during a time of war, these Republicans used the Civil War to seek a quick, deadly end to slavery as soon as shots rang out. In Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, Oakes argues that “secession meant war and war meant immediate emancipation” in the minds of most Republicans.
Historian Daniel W. Crofts puts the brakes on this interpretation in his new book, Lincoln & The Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union. In an exhaustive analysis of the secession crisis that emerged following Lincoln’s 1860 electoral victory, Crofts convincingly demonstrates that most Republicans—Lincoln included—had no intention of interfering with slavery where it already existed or turning the war into an emancipation crusade. They made repeated overtures to the South expressing these views, and they even worked to pass a proposed thirteenth constitutional amendment (with Lincoln’s blessing) promising that Congress could not “abolish or interfere” with slavery in the Southern states where it already existed. Crofts offers one of the first major analyses of the “other” thirteenth amendment and proves that the Republican party’s embrace of legal emancipation emerged only when the contingencies of war made the abolition of slavery a necessary element for military victory over the Confederacy.
Lincoln & The Politics of Slavery is broken up into four parts. The first part focuses on anti-slavery thought before the Civil War and the limitations the Constitution placed upon any effort to abolish slavery throughout the country. While a small minority of abolitionists such as Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, and Lysander Spooner argued that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document—particularly the Fifth Amendment’s clause against any person being deprived of “life, liberty, and property”—most abolitionists and less radical anti-slavery thinkers acknowledged that the Constitution protected slavery in the states where it already existed and could therefore do little beyond encouraging residents and political leaders in those states to voluntarily abolish it. The antebellum anti-slavery political movement populated by Whigs, Free-Soilers, and later Republicans therefore pushed to “denationalize” slavery. “Denationalization” called for the federal government to reject all responsibility for maintaining slavery where it already existed, leaving the matter to the slave states themselves. Where the federal government had jurisdiction, however, “denationalization” supporters called for the the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., no future slave states to be established from the western territories, the end of the interstate slave trade, and repeal of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.
The remaining three parts of the book focus on the aftermath of Lincoln’s 1860 election and the effort to assuage the concerns of white Southerners who believed the Republican Party would abolish slavery in the South. Republicans took several measures to address these concerns. Crofts argues that most Republicans believed themselves to be constitutional conservatives. They asserted that their anti-slavery beliefs squared up with the Founding Fathers, who considered slavery a national embarrassment. They hoped to block slavery’s future westward expansion and believed the institution would eventually die, just as the Founders had intended, but at the same time they accepted slavery where it existed and had no intentions of promoting immediate nationwide emancipation as had some of the more popular radical abolitionists like Douglass and Spooner had asserted. Moderate and conservative-minded Republicans like Lincoln even took steps to separate the party from the larger abolitionist movement and expressed their intentions to enforce every law in the book, including the hated Fugitive Slave Act.
Crofts shines in his detailed analysis of the origins of the “other” thirteenth amendment. Conciliatory Republicans like William Seward and Thomas Corwin pushed to have this amendment passed as a gesture to Southerners, particularly Southerners in the border states, to prove their intentions to not touch slavery in the South. Some Republicans even went farther by agreeing to allow New Mexico territory to be organized for the purpose of establishing one or more slave states. Not all Republicans were ready support this amendment, however. More radical Republicans like John Bingham, James M. Ashley, and Charles Sedgwick opposed any amendments or conciliation with the South, arguing that the Constitution should be enforced instead of amended. Lincoln himself encouraged Seward and Corwin’s efforts to gain support for the amendment and expressed his own support for it in his First Inaugural Address, saying that he considered “such a provision to now be implied by constitutional law.” Crofts masterfully analyzes these sharply intense debates within the Republican Party about the extent to which compromise was necessary to keep the Union together.
Another important goal for Crofts is assessing the way historians have previously analyzed Lincoln, the Republican Party, and slavery at the onset of the Civil War. Crofts critiques various scholars throughout the book itself and in a detailed historiographical analysis at the end of the book who have, in Crofts words, produced “history from the heart – history as we might like it to have been” (277). Doris Kearns Goodwin, Harold Holzer, Goodheart, Oakes, and even the writers behind Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster film on Lincoln are all taken to task for making Lincoln more radically anti-slavery than he really was. Oakes in particular receives a great deal of criticism from Crofts for mishandling primary source evidence and for downplaying the importance of the original thirteenth amendment as merely a “pointless” and “meaningless” gesture to appease angry Southern politicians.
Most of these critiques are fair, but Crofts overstates the degree to which contemporary scholars still view Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator.” Furthermore, Oakes’s scholarship, in the opinion of this reviewer, still does much to highlight how the end of U.S. slavery came about through a gradual, evolving process of emancipation during the war—as opposed to one singular moment with the Emancipation Proclamation—and why a “second” thirteenth amendment in 1865 abolishing slavery throughout the country was so necessary. Nevertheless, Crofts packs many punches in Lincoln & The Politics of Slavery and convincingly highlights the candidness of many leading Republicans in 1860 and 1861 to acknowledge their inability and unwillingness to abolish slavery in the states where it already existed.
One of the most urgent questions in recent years for those of us public historians who work at slave plantations has revolved around the proper terminology for referring to the historical victims of black chattel slavery. For years historians–both public and academic–have used the term “slave,” but a vigorous and compelling argument has recently been made to replace “slave” with “enslaved people.” Last year I wrote an essay outlining some of those arguments, and since that time I have come around to believe that “enslaved people” is the better term to use (although I do a bit of interchanging between the terms for clarity and to avoid repetitiveness in my talks). The reasoning is simple. “Slave” runs the risk of portraying these people as property first and foremost, whereas “enslaved people” highlights the human dignity of those who labored under the status of enslavement. Enslaved people were people first and foremost, even if some at the time like Chief Justice Roger Taney considered “slaves” property and not people under the terms of the 5th amendment. While there are concerns about presentism in the word “enslaved people,” I am not as worried as I once was about that particular concern because we use “presentist” terms in other contexts without hesitation. “Negroes” are now referred to as Black or African American, and the “War of the Rebellion” is now commonly referred to as “The Civil War” or, if you are so inclined, “The War of Northern Aggression,” a term invented during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
In the course of actively using the term “enslaved people” more frequently on my tours, I’ve been impressed by the number of visitors who have asked questions about the term and/or praised my use of it. To be sure, the vast majority of visitors either have no opinion one way or the other or choose to keep their thoughts to themselves, but it’s nonetheless remarkable how many conversations have occurred with visitors over the term. Those who’ve engaged me in conversation have often commented on how they appreciated how the term more strongly brought out the humanity of enslaved blacks than did the term “slave,” and one visitor who works in the education field commented that the term represented one small step towards making historic sites more welcoming to people of color. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.
I recently experienced my first considerable pushback from a couple taking my tour, however. They were actually very friendly people and we had a good conversation about a range of topics, but it was obvious that the term “enslaved people” had rubbed them the wrong way. “Are you not allowed to use the word ‘slave’ anymore? Is the government making you say that term? ‘Enslaved people’ sounds like a politically correct term to me.” No, I’m not a leftist government agent tasked with engaging in an Orwellian project to push political correctness onto the American people. I just want to use inclusive, respectful language that accounts for the varied experiences of people who lived in the United States during the nineteenth century.
It’s unfortunate that someone could put up such a fuss about the term “enslaved people,” but the use of the term “political correctness” is instructive. One of the most obnoxious traits of contemporary society is to assume the worst intentions in what people say to each other. If everyone around you is perceived to have bad intentions, it’s not a stretch to say they might assume the worst of intentions in you as well. Of course intentions and outcomes are two separate entities, and one person’s positive or at least innocuous intentions can definitely lead to negative consequences. But to constantly assume that a person’s attempt at respectful language is “political correctness” is, in reality, a sign of personal sensitivity, anger, and defensiveness. And the term “political correctness” is typically used in an effort to shut down debate and enforce silence on potentially touchy topics.
Anyway. The effort to more frequently and consciously use the term “enslaved people” on my tours has been largely successful and I hope more interpreters at slave plantations consider using it in the future.
What is the Appropriateness of Living History Programs that Feature Actors Portraying Enslaved People?
One of the most powerful living history programs I have ever participated in is Conner Prairie Interactive History Park’s “Follow the North Star.” Located in Fishers, Indiana, Conner Prairie is a popular award-winning history park with strong leadership and innovative programming. “Follow the North Star” is one of the park’s most popular programs and is probably its most polarizing. Set in 1830s Indiana, visitors who participate in the program are designated as runaway enslaved people from Kentucky seeking help along the Underground Railroad towards eventual freedom in Canada. As a participant I was screamed at and belittled by reenactors portraying racist white Hoosiers, and ultimately I was physically and emotionally exhausted by the end of the program. “Follow the North Star” was powerful not in the sense that I felt happy or inspired at the end. It was powerful because it was an emotionally draining yet memorable experience that, in my own weird way of wanting to read more about American history when I learn about its most oppressive aspects, pushed me to learn more about the relationship between slavery and race and the depths of white Northern racism in the nineteenth century. In that sense the program was a success for me.
In an essay I wrote about the future of historical reenacting last year I cited “Follow the North Star” as a case study for future living history programs, many of which I currently find boring, uninspiring, and forgettable. In particular I was impressed with the way the program’s organizers undertook comprehensive research prior to going live and how they developed mandatory pre– and post-program activities that allowed people a space to prepare for what they were about to undertake and then mentally decompress afterwords. “Follow the North Star” has won several prestigious awards and was one of the first among several other programs over the past twenty years at public history sites that include actors portraying enslaved people in first- and third-person portrayals. Among other programs during this time, James and Lois Horton’s Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of Public History briefly discusses a 1994 slave auction reenactment at Colonial Williamsburg, renactors like Azie Mira Dungey (most popularly known through her Ask a Slave series) regularly interact with visitors at places like Mount Vernon and Monticello, and another slave auction took place in St. Louis at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial’s Old Courthouse in 2011 (reactions here and here to that event). I’m sure there are other similar events I’m missing.
“Follow the North Star” and other programs that feature renactors portraying enslaved people are far from perfect, however. The Indianapolis Star recently wrote a largely negative critique of the program, and after reading it a few times I think most of these critiques are fair. Among the problems journalist Olivia Lewis discusses are:
- The idea, as expressed by IUPUI professor Lori Patton Davis, that no reenactment whatsoever can truly convey the horrors and tragedy of slavery.
- That “Follow the North Star” diminishes the violence of slavery, with one student interviewed in the article going so far as to say that it made “a mockery of…the actual severity of things.”
- That the experience of role-playing as an enslaved person is a potentially traumatic experience for participants, particularly young people of color.
- That pre- and post-program activities need to focus on making connections between slavery and race, institutional racism, white supremacy, and racism in American society today, topics that are not always discussed among program leaders, school teachers, and students throughout the process.
I am sensitive to these critiques, particularly the potential for “Follow the North Star” being a traumatic experience for people of color, and I can understand how these sorts of programs could be perceived not merely as offensive but actually hurtful. Point four is difficult to define in precise terms because it’s one thing to make connections between past and present and another thing entirely to turn those connections into concrete actions through policy and/or changed behavior and social practices. I agree that the former is necessary, but there’s lots of room for debate on the appropriate measures for the latter step. I don’t have all the answers for that part of the equation.
But let’s backtrack to point one, the idea that in Dr. Davis’s words, “There were gruesome things that happened to people, black people, and there’s no amount of [historical] re-enactment that can help you understand the tragedy that slavery was.” Is there merit in this point? Should public history sites refrain from historical re-enactments that feature actors portraying enslaved people?
One argument to support this point is the idea that other traumatic events such as Indian removal and the Holocaust are not taught to students through historical reenactment. A lawyer quoted in the Indianapolis Star article takes this position, and my good friend and fellow public historian Nicholas K. Johnson took the same position as well. In a phone conversation with Nick he commented that “[I] find slavery reenactments gross. I feel that they are a step on the road to a Dachau reenactment (slippery slope, I know).” He added that “I find living history hokey and fake a lot of the time.”
But what about the good work of slave reenactors and dramatic performers like the aforementioned Azie Mira Dungey and Michael Twitty, whose living history performances focus on the experiences and foodways of enslaved people? Do public history sites that interpret slavery lose a bit of their educational appeal by eschewing living history performances that feature actors portraying enslaved people?
I think one of the big distinctions here is that “Follow the North Star” attempts to recreate something that really can’t be recreated, and in the process runs the risk of hurting people emotionally. And the process of historical role-playing as an enslaved person is at the very least extremely jarring and at its worst completely hurtful and traumatic. A dramatic performance by someone portraying an enslaved person doesn’t necessarily attempt to do the same thing or force participants to role play as slaves. A dramatic performance, however, isn’t without its own pitfalls and requires the performer to undertake extensive research to ensure that they know what they’re talking about and that they discuss slavery in accurate and respectful terms.
I’m very much thinking out loud with this post and don’t propose to offer answers to these questions or speak for anyone else besides myself. But I think these sorts of conversations are vitally important to have because the way public historians and public history sites talk about, interpret, and portray slavery matters a great deal.
What do you think?
Bill O’Reilly is at it again. Whatever merits the Fox News pundit may have as a commentator on current events, his endeavors in historical scholarship are less than stellar. I admit to not being a regular reader of his “Killing” series, but his book Killing Lincoln–which I have read–was a mistake-ridden flop that offered nothing new to the historiography of Lincoln studies. Historians roundly criticized the book and Ford’s Theater–the very place where Lincoln was assassinated–refuses to carry it in their gift shop. O’Reilly’s influential platform on a popular news station gives him an enormous presence to influence hearts and minds across the United States, however, and so all historians must take his historical claims seriously. Whether or not his claims are accurate or inaccurate is less significant than the fact that his “history” books sell well and his identification as a historian resonates with his television followers. I interned with the National Park Service at the U.S. Grant National Historic Site (where I now work full-time) around the time Killing Lincoln was released, and I must have had at least two dozen visitors to the park over three months who told me they came because they had read that book. Never once did someone say they were visiting because they read a reputable history of the Lincoln assassination by universally respected scholars such as James Swanson, Edward Steers, and Michael Kauffman.
And so it was with great disappointment when O’Reilly, citing his identification as a historian, felt compelled to respond to First Lady Michelle Obama’s acknowledgement of the White House’s construction by enslaved black Americans by stating that those enslaved people were actually well fed and adequately taken care of. O’Reilly’s comments continue a long history of Americans, particularly white Americans, addressing the history of U.S. slavery with qualifications, equivocations, and explanations that downplay the overarching influence of slavery in the building of this nation’s economic, social, and political foundations. “Slavery was bad, but…” “Slavery existed, but…”
In my years as a public historian on the front lines of historical interpretation–which include interpreting U.S. slavery–I have heard visitors claim that slavery was a benevolent influence on black Americans since it Christianized them and took them away from the savageries of Africa. I have heard visitors respond to my talks by saying that “black people owned slaves too” and that tens of thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy (“they don’t talk about that in the history books!”). They have told me that black slavery existed primarily “to address a labor shortage” and not because of race or racism. They have told me that these enslaved people, once they gained their freedom after the Civil War, largely chose to stay at their old master’s plantation because of their gratitude to the kindness and generosity of their former enslavers, and not because they lacked the economic resources or the freedom to obtain jobs, money, education, and land elsewhere. They have referred to the enslaved people as “the dependents,” a particularly ironic identifier given that “the dependents” were actually the white enslavers who relied on enslaved labor for their material success and high quality of life. They have told me that slavery had nothing to do with the coming of the Civil War. They have gone on TripAdvisor and called my tours “politically correct” because we as an institution have made the interpretation of slavery a central goal of our educational mission. O’Reilly’s comments about slavery at the White House, therefore, were not new to me because they fit into this unfortunate tradition of literally whitewashing slavery from the story of the United States. I get these viewpoints expressed to me by ordinary white Americans too often.
Many historians have responded to O’Reilly’s comments with thoughtful essays refuting his perspective and asking what, exactly, he wanted to point out by stating them in the first place. Of these essays the biggest takeaway in my opinion has been the distinction between understanding the material conditions of slavery and the legal framework of U.S. slavery. This distinction, most forcefully argued by Rebecca Onion and Caleb McDaniel, shows that the day-to-day slave experience took many forms–from enslaved people who were “treated well” to those who were physically, emotionally, and sexually abused–but that legally all enslaved people were bound to the same rules and regulations of chattel slavery. This is not to suggest that the abuse any particular enslaved person endured or the personal gains an enslaved person made (such as Elizabeth Keckley earning wages and obtaining enough money to purchase her freedom and eventually become Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker) should be disregarded, but that the bigger picture of the legal boundaries is necessary to understanding the crushing oppression of U.S. slavery. Whether or not the enslaved people who built the White House were well cared for must be fit within a legal context. That legal context includes the fact that U.S. chattel slavery was determined on the basis of race, that it was hereditary, that it was perpetual for the duration of one’s lifetime, that enslaved people always faced the fear of them or their loved ones being sold away, and that enslaved people lacked the most basic of individual freedoms, ownership of themselves. This is the context that is missing not just from O’Reilly’s comments, but many comments that I hear from Americans on a frequent basis. Part of my role as a public historian includes doing my part to provide a better understanding of this context for the people I interact with on a daily basis.
Here’s a list of articles by historians responding to O’Reilly:
- Rebecca Onion, “What Bill O’Reilly Doesnt Understand About Slavery”
- Caleb McDaniel’s Tweet Essay
- Kevin Levin, “Bill O’Reilly’s Benevolent Slaveowners”
- Glenn David Brasher, “Just Another Response to Bill O’Reilly’s Slave Comment”
- Peter Holley, “The Ugly Truth About the White House and its History of Slavery”
- David A. Graham,” How Abigail Adams Proves Bill O’Reilly’s Wrong About Slavery”
- Ed Ayers’s comments in Time Magazine
I will update this list if I find more articles on the topic.
Last year I wrote an essay about Ulysses S. Grant and a number of claims on social media alleging him to have owned slaves during the Civil War. Using primary sources in Grant’s own writing I demonstrated that these claims were completely false, and that a number of statements alleged to have come from Grant were actually made up quotes by people with too much time on their hands. The only enslaved person known to have been owned by Grant was William Jones, whom Grant freed in St. Louis in 1859. I wondered aloud if these claims intending to paint Grant as a slaveholding Union general spoke to a larger desire to portray the Civil War as a conflict that had little to do with slavery as a cause of the war. After all, how could the war be about slavery if the savior of the Union was a slaveholder? Moreover, I argued–and the credit for this argument goes to historian Brooks Simpson–that Grant’s views one way or the other towards slavery were irrelevant for understanding the causes of the Civil War since Grant had no political role in the coming of the war or the decision of eleven states to secede from the Union. He was a clerk for his father’s leather good store in Galena, Illinois, at the beginning of the war, far removed from the political crisis emerging in Washington, D.C. with the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
The other day I received three comments from a person eager to contest that essay, and one of his arguments (which had nothing to do with the subject at hand but is nonetheless revealing) seems to suggest that the Confederate Constitution could have been seen as calling for the eventual end of slavery in the Confederacy because it banned the international slave trade. Again, it wasn’t all about slavery! This claim is an interesting one and worth exploring further. Does it have any merit?
The U.S. Constitution states in Article 1, Section 9.1 that the international slave trade would be closed in 1808, but that Congress could not prohibit the trade until that time. The Confederate Constitution was in most regards almost an exact copy of the U.S. Constitution, and Article 1, Section 9.1 of the Confederate Constitution also bans the international slave trade within the Confederate states. There are two significant changes in Article 1, Section 9.1 of the Confederate Constitution, however. One is that while the U.S. Constitution only vaguely refers to “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” the Confederate Constitution clearly stipulates that the subjects under consideration were “Negroes of the African race from any foreign country.” The other extremely significant change is that the Confederate Constitution did not call for a complete ban on the international importation of slaves. An additional clause stipulates that slaves from “the slaveholding states or territories of the United States of America” (which were now considered part of a foreign country) could still be imported into the Confederate states. The Confederate Constitution, in other words, still allowed for the importation of enslaved people from the border slaves states and Western territories like New Mexico that had not yet seceded from the Union.
This is when the date of the Confederate Constitution’s ratification comes into play. That constitution was adopted on March 11, 1861, roughly one month before the firing of Fort Sumter to start the Civil War. At that time there were only seven states in the Confederacy, and eight border slaves states remained in the Union: Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. Banning the international slave trade was one method by which the Confederacy aimed to convince these states to secede, especially in the case of Virginia, whose economy by 1860 largely revolved around the interstate slave trade and the shipping of slaves to the South and West. By allowing the slave trade to continue between the U.S. and the Confederacy, the Confederate Constitution allowed the uncertain border slave states a chance to continue selling their slaves to the Confederate states in the short-term while they debated their next step. In the long-term, after these border slave states had ostensibly left the Union and joined forces with the Confederacy, their continued financial interests in the slave trade would not be challenged by international trade with slaveholding countries in South America, Africa, and elsewhere. Removing all protections for the domestic slave trade and embracing a “free trade” approach ran the risk of lowering the price of slave labor and putting border state slave traders out of business. There was also an international motivation for banning most of the international slave trade. The Confederacy attempted to make a pitch for support from European countries like England and France that had already banned slavery by demonstrating that they were willing to ban parts of the slave trade, even though they really had no desire of ending slavery as a whole any time soon.
Through these examples we can clearly see that the Confederacy’s banning of most of the international slave trade in its Constitution was not done in the hope of eventually abolishing slavery in the Confederacy, but to strengthen its domestic slave trade while hopefully winning points with England and France.
It’s also worth mentioning that a good number of Confederate supporters–although probably not the majority–supported the idea of re-opening the slave trade precisely because they knew it would help lower the cost of slave labor. James Paisley Hendrix, Jr.’s 1969 article in Louisiana History shows that support for a reopening of the trade increased greatly in the 1850s, and that a Southern convention in 1859 passed a resolution saying as much. The New Orleans Delta reflected these desires when they wrote an editorial in support of opening the trade, arguing that “We would re-open the African slave trade [so] that every white man might have a chance to make himself owner of one or more Negroes . . . Our true purpose is to diffuse the slave population as much as possible, and thus secure in the whole community the motives of self-interest for its support.”
So yeah, slavery had something to do with all of this.
Last week a number of coworkers and I participated in a webinar hosted by the American Association for State and Local History on interpreting slavery at historic homes, plantations, and battlefields. After the webinar concluded AASLH asked me about writing an essay for them about the experience, and they generously edited and published the essay a few days ago. Please give it a read here and be sure to let me know what you think about it.
I believe that cultural and political critiques don’t need to offer workable solutions in order to be valid. The act of criticizing is valuable in and of itself. I remember one time, for example, when a National Park Service official visited my place of employment and argued that “if you come to me with problems without offering solutions, you’re just whining and complaining.” I thought at the time and still believe today that that line of thinking is absolute crap. A problem doesn’t go away because there are no foreseeable solutions. Sometimes problems require teamwork, dialogue, and extended time for workable solutions to be implemented. Demanding that the critic bear the responsibility of solving the problem at hand is, in reality, a subtle defense of the status quo.
I mention this belief because we historians are a criticizing people. We interrogate the meaning of anything and everything, and we formulate interpretations of past and present events in ways that can elicit heated debate between members of the profession and between historians and their many publics.
Some of the most interesting and passionate conversations within the historical community occur when new films, performing arts pieces, and historical literature about the past are released and gain widespread popularity beyond the boundaries of the profession. Whenever something like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is released to critical acclaim, historians are always quick to throw their voices into the discussion and wag their fingers about historical inaccuracies and potential problems with the interpretive thrust of these cultural artifacts. Oftentimes they present thoughtful critiques that refrain from offering workable solutions that would enhance the historical accuracy of a given production, and that’s okay! But I must admit that I sometimes wonder what good these sorts of critiques really do for anyone besides making the reviewer look like a grumpy curmudgeon. Don’t historians realize that mediums like film, theater, and children’s books are not the same as academic scholarship and therefore require a different form of communicating the stuff of history to audiences? What would these historians do if they were tasked with writing a film, play or piece of literature? How would they interpret something like the American Civil War in ninety minutes as opposed to four-hundred pages?
The latest examples of historians-as-cultural-critics are taking place around Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical Hamilton and Ramin Ganeshram’s children’s book A Birthday Cake for George Washington.
Hamilton focuses on the life of Alexander Hamilton and the politics of early American history. The show has consistently sold out on Broadway and is slated to earn hundreds of millions of dollars as it prepares to tour theaters across the country. In recent months, however, historians have been pushing back against some of the musical’s themes and interpretations. I see Lyra D. Monteiro’s review in The Public Historian as a catalyst in pushing these critiques towards a larger discussion with Hamilton’s viewing audience. In the musical Manuel employs people of color to depict the founding fathers, partly as a way of showing how contemporary Americans of all backgrounds have the power to take ownership of American history. Monteiro, however, rightly points out that no actual people of color from the time period are depicted in the musical, and that while Hamilton is billed as “the history of Americans then, interpreted by Americans today,” such a distinction is actually hurtful in that it suggests no people of color were around during the Revolutionary Era. She also takes issue with the themes of individualism and the glorification of the American Dream that are prevalent in the musical. Meanwhile, William Hogeland and David Waldstreicher take issue with Hamilton’s portrayal as a leading progressive thinker, Jason Allen calls the musical “a color-blind Stockholm Syndrome,” Nancy Isenburg argues that Hamilton’s arch-nemisis Aaron Burr was actually not that bad a guy, and the front page of the New York Times on April 11th includes an extended discussion with other historians who have weighed in on the musical’s accuracy.
A Birthday Cake for George Washington was pulled from the shelves in January by its publisher, Scholastic, after intense criticism about the ways it allegedly depicted slavery in a benign fashion. Ganeshram discussed the banning of her book in the Huffington Post, arguing that she wrote the book under the “reasonable assumption that understanding the overarching horror and criminality of slavery was a given — and that parents and educators would share that context in a way that was most appropriate for their young listener,” but the essay has not brought her book back to the shelves at this point. One of the most vocal critics of the book was living history interpreter Michael Twitty, who, writing in The Guardian, argued that “our society has poorly dealt with slavery in relation to our children,” and that A Birthday Cake for George Washington represents a larger truth about America’s inability to deal with its history of slavery. But curiously, Twitty acknowledges that while he knows Ganeshram personally, he has never talked with her about the book, nor has he even read the book itself. And while Twitty is certainly right to point out that we need to do a better job of discussing slavery, especially with young children, his failure to further explain how he proposes to solve this problem leaves readers wondering how future authors can improve upon the messages conveyed in A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Perhaps we really don’t have a solid blueprint for discussing slavery with children, which in turn opens the door for historians to start discussing solutions for writing better historical stories about slavery rather than constantly critiquing each children’s book that comes out about the topic.
Again, I think it’s important that historians contribute their voices to larger conversations about the ways history is depicted in popular media, film, and literature, but I also wonder if and how we can add legitimacy to our viewpoints by going beyond the “historians say ______ is inaccurate” model. Historical interpretations in an artistic, entertainment-based medium are not going to meet the exacting standards of someone used to having books published by an academic press or someone working in a professional public history setting for a living. Historians should acknowledge that and act accordingly when critiquing popular media.