Hello World–Digital History

Wow. What a hiatus its been. This blog started almost a year ago as a site that featured reviews of Digital History projects on the web. At that time, it was a part of a course requirement for an English course called “Writing for the Web,” a class that should have been called “Digital Theory: English and the Humanities in the Age of New Media.” Of course, I sort of hijacked the course by molding each assignment to cater to my interest in history.

The site then evolved, becoming not just a “Digital History” site but a site that reviewed history of the traditional, non-digital, medium–books, that’s right, I will say it again, books. The site functioned as a way for me to organize my thoughts on works I perceived to be a part of the supposed “historical canon.” But is there such a thing? I quickly found that my “to read” list grew almost lockstep with my “finished” list, a revelation that I took to mean that the “canon” was far too large and far too nebulous to capture in its entirety. In short, my goal proved to be a futile one. But as futile a goal as it may have been, it was an intellectually stimulating practice. Reading the books exposed me to a myriad of complex arguments and topics, which I then grappled with independently, coming to my own–most certainly sometimes faulty–conclusions. In retrospect, it was an invaluable practice in preparation for Graduate School, the next step in my academic and intellectual life.

Now, the site has come full circle–sort of. Once again its being incorporated into a class requirement, but this time, its being done for a true “Digital History” course. As a first year graduate student at Clemson University studying the 19th century U.S. South, it’s my hope that this course will: 1) Sharpen my digital scholarship’s scope. From my previous experience with “Writing for the Web,” I feel that my understanding of digital scholarship straddles the two fields of History and English, a sort of amorphous bubble labeled “Humanities.” I want to make sure that I leave the course with a more grounded understanding of Digital History and how to better incorporate Digital scholarship into my own historical research. 2) I also want to make sure I become much more proficient and skilled in creating digital projects. My previous experience in a digital course had a dual focus, leaning, unfortunately more towards theory than practice. My wish, and it is perhaps a selfish one, is to balance the scale, bringing my functional knowledge to a more even position with my theoretical or academic knowledge. 3). And lastly, I want to make sure I master Arcgis. It’s a software that may or may not have caused me to lose my temper in the past. Digital mapping, in my opinion, has such a vast, untapped potential, and I want to make sure that I am involved in the process of reaching that potential.

This blog has evolved before, and my plan is for it to evolve once again. Going forward, I would like for it to be more of a catch-all–a place to compile all of my writing and intellectual interests accessible on the web. With that being said, over the holidays I was able to read A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, the winner of this years Manbooker Prize. I don’t usually get much time to read fiction, so I made sure that I finished it before getting started with the new semester. The book certainly did not disappoint. It’s a true “tour de force” as one blurb on its back cover claims, amassing a whopping 700 pages and a cast of characters so large that a four page character list had to be included in the front of the book. James harnesses his inner Faulkner in how he experiments with point of view, but his subjects are Jamaican, not Southern. The story is, to be brief and intentionally vague, is about the politically sponsored gang violence so endemic to West Kingston’s brutal ghettos in the 1970s, the failed assassination attempt of Bob Marley, The CIA and the Cold War, and a drug ring stretching from Columbia to New York by way of Jamaica. I will let you figure out just how all of that fits together. If that summary did not tempt you to read it, maybe this interview will:

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Final Freedom by Michael Vorenberg

The 13th Amendment clearly states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” But the process by which an antislavery amendment was adopted is not quite as clear. Sure, Steven Spielberg’s biopic of Abraham Lincoln, titled simply Lincoln, has done much to educate the common movie goer of the political intricacies surrounding the passing of the amendment, but the film still fails to do justice to the intense levels of political wrangling needed to get from the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to an amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Michael Vorenberg’s Final Freedom: The Civil War, Abolition, and the Thirteenth Amendment takes the reader into the halls of the congress and into the minds of political leaders across the country to chart emancipation’s legal evolution from antislavery executive proclamation to constitutional law, an evolution that effectively finalized black freedom and reshaped the contours of American society.

From the very beginning of book, Vorenbeg is quick to point out the varying ways in which 19th century Americans viewed the Constitution. Almost all looked upon it as a sacred text and revered those who brought it into existence. Therefore, the idea of amending it, carried very little traction. As Vorenberg points out, between the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791 and the 13th amendment in 1865, the Constitution had only been amended twice, once in 1794 and once more in 1894. Amend, after all, means change, so why would anyone want to change something as brilliant and comprehensive as the U.S. Constitution? The process of amending the document, as a result, took on new meaning in the eyes of the nation’s politicians and legal scholars. Amend came to mean “add to” not “alter,” making the idea of amending the document much more promising.

When confronted with the question of slavery, however, the view of the Constitution becomes muddied, and the question of how to deal with slavery within the legal confines of document becomes even murkier. Some abolitionists viewed the Constitution as an explicitly antislavery text, pointing to the 5th amendment and the passing of the Northwest Ordinance, a document outlawing slavery in the Northwest territories, as proof. To these “Radical Constitutionalist,” the constitution needed no amending as an amendment would only be an admission that the original Constitution was, in fact, a proslavery text, faulty in its intent not in its interpretation. Others, like William Lloyd Garrison, believed the Constitution to be an explicit proslavery pact with the devil. Garrison and his constituents wanted not to amend the constitution but tear it asunder so a new document, one outlawing slavery and making good on the promise of the Declaration, could be written. Still others found a way to establish a middle ground between these two views. Men like Salmon P. Chase argued that the Constitution was neither antislavery nor proslavery. Instead, they contested that the framers wanted to protect slavery in the states where it already existed so it could be abolished by state legislation but federally prohibit it in the territories where slavery did not yet exist so as to not infringe upon the rights of free laborers.

The legal contention over slavery’s place in the Constitution was only compounded when the issue of what course to take to abolish slavery arose during the tumultuous war years. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued, theoretically freeing the slaves in the Southern states, the slaves in the border states notwithstanding. But the Emancipation Proclamation was, first and foremost, a war measure designed to strike at the heart of the Confederacy. As a war measure, it could be revoked at war’s end; not to mention that its enactment was completely contingent on complete Union victory. An official constitutional prohibition of slavery was needed, especially since with the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the meaning of the war had changed. It was no longer a war to simply maintain the Union but a war to put an end to the question of slavery once and for all. The allure of reconciling the Union and readmitting the South with slavery intact, however, would prove to be a major thorn in the side of those hoping to push an amendment through congress.

If you have seen the movie Lincoln, then you know the major issue with the amendment had to do with racial equality. The famous scene, of course, being when Thaddeus Stevens, a leading Republican and abolitionist played by Tommy Lee Jones, stood at the front of the House of Representative and declared that he did not believe in social equality only equality before the law even though he was known to believe the opposite. The same issue haunted the amendment from its initial inception: does the amendment sanction or imply social equality? If so how would it be enforced?

In the drafting stage, Charles Sumner took a hardline stance by proposing an amendment that decreed “all men equal before the law,” a phrase he borrowed from the French Declaration of rights. His language, in essence, coalesced the intent of the antislavery amendment with that of what would later be the 14th amendment, the omnibus bill guaranteeing civil rights. The committee ultimately decided against Sumner’s phrasing, choosing instead to stick with the more moderate wording of the Northwest Ordinance that prohibited both slavery and involuntary servitude. To Sumner’s credit, the moderate wording left open the question of how the new antislavery amendment would be enforced. Vorenberg suggests that the committee members believed the amendment did, in fact, secure legal equality for all races and that they envisioned its enforcement would come through what would later come to be known as the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. They, of course, could not foresee the potential challenges awaiting the fates of both of those bills as well as the antislavery amendment at the hands of Southern intransigence. It should also be noted that a simpler bill, void of any hint of racial or social equality would be much easier to pass. If the writers put together an amendment prohibiting slavery, explicitly securing equality, and allowing for the creation of a government agency designed to help former slaves transition into freedom, the bill would take years to pass, if it was passed at all. The writers knew they had to strike quick while the war was still raging so they could procure the votes of the “War Democrats” who saw constitutional abolition as a mode of military expediency.

The amendment was without a doubt highly controversial, but it was made even more so by the tactics of the opposing Democrats. They immediately charged the Republicans with promoting what they referred to as “miscegenation,” essentially the genetic mixing of the races. Employed specifically as a fear tactic to shift the crux of the public debate away from slavery, the Democrats argued that by pushing for an antislavery amendment that may or may not endorse racial equality, the Republicans were therefore sponsoring a bill that would promote interracial sex and the dilution of white anglo-saxon blood. The Republicans repudiated the claim, but instead of writing it off as nonsense, they struck back by declaring the Democrats to the true miscegenationists since slavery, long protected by Democrats, allowed for the illicit rape of slave women by their masters. Fortunately, though, the rhetoric of miscegenation, as Vorenberg points out, remained mostly in the public sphere as the subject of stump speeches. For all of its bluster, rarely did it come up in the debates in the Senate. It would, however, take center stage during the house debates and the election cycle of 1864 as images of “Miscegenation Balls” depicting provocative images of delicate white women dancing with grotesque black men filled the newspapers.

The prevalence of miscegenation rhetoric should, at the very least, speak to the Democrats’ knowledge that abolition would fundamentally reshape American society. They knew that the passage of such legislation would dismantle the old social order, bringing with it the possibility of radical change and social realignment. The threat of miscegenationists, therefore, played off of American desire for stability, a facet of life long forgotten during the war years. In the minds of many, the Republicans, by advocating for an end to slavery, were seemingly adding to, not detracting from, the country’s dreadful state of instability. Yet, ideas about miscegenation should also speak even more clearly to the intense levels of racism found in the North. The idea that black freedom would somehow dilute white purity or even threaten white womanhood was a popular trope employed by white vigilante groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, roaming across the South. It was also a mainstay in the oppressive years of Jim Crow. The presence of miscegenation rhetoric in the antislavery debates, however, discloses the fact that Northern Americans, much less Americans from the border states, possessed deep fears about what they considered to be a form of “mongrolization.” They, just like their Southern counterparts, were deeply disturbed by the possible consequences of an interracial society.

Of course, the amendment passed, and if you have seen Lincoln, you know that it was not without drama or political arm-pulling in the form of patronage. Nevertheless, it passed, and those in favor lauded it as a linchpin of freedom. Yet, as Vorenberg belies in his rather pessimistic conclusion, the amendment proved to be a rather weak linchpin. Southerner’s, recognizing there was no way the law could be enforced, quickly developed their notorious black codes, trampling on the freedoms of the newly emancipated slaves. As a result, in 1868, Congress passed the 14th amendment, announcing citizenship and ensuring civil rights for all. Over time, the 14th amendment, not the 13th, became the beacon of freedom everyone had pinned on the antislavery act. The 13th amendment, as groundbreaking as it was, was quickly supplanted in hearts and minds of Americans and, more importantly, the American court system. The power of the 13th amendment still resonates, though, as it, not the hopelessly toothless Emancipation Proclamation, procured a Final Freedom for the country’s four million slaves.

Vorenberg, Michael. Final Freedom : The Civil War, The Abolition Of Slavery, And The Thirteenth Amendment. Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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The Claims of Kinship by Dylan Pennigroth

In the world of the enslaved, kinship and property are often thought to be components of life just beyond reach. Slaves, after all, were bought and sold at the will of their masters, displacing kin and disturbing the natural growth of multigenerational families; and since slaves themselves were considered property, anything they claimed to “own” was, in theory, also the property of their masters. However, in The Claims of Kinfolk, Dylan C. Pennigroth shows that property and kinship did indeed exist in the slave quarters and that the two composed a dialectic relationship of sorts—Kinship helped make property and property helped build kinship. Pennigroth’s outstanding book highlights the ways in which slaves accumulated property and explains that property or the acquisition of property, not blood, often served as the foundation upon which a slave’s social and familial connections were made.

Yes, slaves did own property despite being property themselves. But a slave’s idea of property varied from that of whites. In the 19th century, property was synonymous with land, but to slaves, property took the form of household possessions, crops, and goods. To foster plantation harmony and decrease any excess expenditures, slave owners often   set aside small plots of land away from the primary fields to serve as personal gardens for his slaves. These gardens offered a much needed form of sustenance to supplement the scant rations given to them by their owners. Any excess items, however, entered what scholars refer to as the slaves’ internal economy. Mostly on weekends, slaves would take their foodstuffs—these items were mostly items from the garden but they also could consist of fish, hunted game, or even handcrafted items like woven baskets or wooden furniture—to neighboring plantations, local markets, or to the big house looking to sell their goods for a monetary return. If able to sell their goods, slave families would then pool their money together, saving up if they had to, to buy valuable items such as chickens, hogs, the occasional cow or wagon, and, if lucky, their own freedom.

Slaves were also able to accumulate property by being “hired out.” In the slow, non-harvest season, slaves were able to go around the country side looking to be employed by someone in need of labor. The master himself would often broker these labor contracts, personally finding “hired” work for a slave with or without the slaves consent. The wage paid for the hired slave’s labor would be broken up with a portion going to the slave and a portion, probably a much larger one at that, would go to the master. Skilled slaves, those slaves with any craftsman skills or special abilities, invariable fared much better in the “hired” market. So too did domestic slaves. It was not uncommon for a family to host a large party in which extra servants and maids were hired from neighboring families in order to accommodate all of their guests.

The Low Country region of South Carolina and to an extent Georgia, where rice was the primary cash crop, offered a unique opportunity for slaves to accumulate property. There slaves worked according to the task system of labor as opposed to the gang system commonly seen on cotton plantations. Working by the task essentially meant that a slave was assigned a set number of tasks to perform each day or week, like, say, harvesting a set amount of rice, digging a specific number of canals, or clearing a particular acreage of forests. Once the assigned tasks for the given day or week was finished, slaves were then able to use their “free time” however he or she wished. Most, however, chose to spend it cultivating their own crops, hunting or fishing, or working extra jobs for which they would be compensated for in some way. Choosing to work once their assigned task was finished was absolutely essential, for it was the only way slaves could acquire “wealth’ that could improve their already base material well-being and ensure their sustenance considering the lack of resources provided to them by their masters. Therefore, a slave’s “free time” as it is often called, should not denote leisure, but it did offer a small reprieve from the constant control of the master by allowing slaves to determine how they would manage their own labor.

Kinship proved to be a critical component of the slaves’ internal economy. Working to accumulate property was a family affair as it took the efforts of every member to raise the collective material and monetary wealth of the family. But kinship bonds could extend beyond familial ties. Slaves that were completely unrelated to another by blood could “join” a family or network of kin by helping a family acquire property. In return, the unrelated slave would be given access to spoils of the family’s labor. This sort of agreement is best seen in the example of Charles Ball. Upon being separated from his family and sold South, Ball was inorganically placed in slave cabin on his new plantation. In his narrative, Ball remembers being hungry to the point of starvation, but he makes no mention of the slave family living in the cabin. It was not until Ball agreed to work with the slave family in return for his share of the food and clothing that the family is even mentioned. From there on out, he was taken care of and brought into the “family” and introduced to their pre-established social networks.

In the case of Ball, as it was with many other slaves, agreeing to work collectively for the acquisition of property allowed access to kinship bonds for slaves transplanted to a plantation where they had no ties to the other slaves. Property essentially made kinship, and, likewise, the collective labor of the kin produced property.


Penningroth, Dylan C. The Claims Of Kinfolk: African American Property And Community In The Nineteenth-Century South. John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture, 2003.

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Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy by Stephen Kantrowitz


Benjamin Tillman was a new breed of politician. He came of age during what he and his fellow white South Carolinians deemed a crisis. Out of the ashes of the Civil War, former slaves and “Yankee” Republicans formed a powerful political coalition strong enough to rule the state and alter the contours of South Carolina society. Freeing the slaves was one shock to the system, but now men like Tillman were convinced Northern Republicans aimed to overthrow the entire social order of white patriarchy. With formal military defeat already at hand and national Reconstruction underway, leading white South Carolinians responded with a reconstruction of their own: a movement Stephen Kantrowitz has dubbed a “reconstruction of white supremacy.”

But to be clear, the term “white supremacy,” is a little misleading. It simply evokes white over black, but as Kantrowitz points out in his aptly titled book, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy, white supremacy is synonymous with white manhood and to reconstruct white supremacy was to reassert white manhood as the center of Southern society. At times, resurrecting white supremacy called for the “vanquishing” other white men, particularly those “carpetbaggers” or “scalawags” working to, as men like Tillman perceived it, upend the patriarchal tradition of the South. These men along with those “capitalists” working as mill owners or furnishing merchants betrayed their own claim to white manhood by asserting an undo amount of authority over the “true” white men—the producing class of land owning agriculturalists.

Kantrowitz notes that reconstructing white supremacy worked and became so alluring to postbellum Southerners because it was “built on words and ideas with deep histories (4)” in South Carolina and the region as a whole. Antebellum Southerners had always expressed anxieties about outside influences and black resistance to white rule. They combated these perceived threats by developing a particular adroitness for social arrangement, displaying an almost esoteric understanding of how to manipulate race, gender, and economic position to preserve white patriarchy’s fundamental position in the culture of the South. Tillman’s postbellum efforts, in other words, were neither new nor extraordinary. They were simply the continuation of deeply ingrained cultural expectations he and his fellow South Carolinians had known their entire lives.

Following the Civil War, however, reestablishing white male cultural norms did not come easy. Social hierarchy, the source of law, order, and patriarchy in the antebellum period, had been shattered. Former slaves were participating in the political process, carrying weapons, and asserting their rights as land holders as if they were free men, and Republicans were stripping the traditional ruling class of their social and economic power. To men like Tillman, the situation was truly dire and violence, a defining characteristic of Southern white masculinity, proved to be the most effective means of resurrecting the situation in their favor.

In a concerted act of support for Wade Hampton, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the 1876 election, Tillman and others formed a paramilitary group notoriously known as the “Redshirts.” Spawning from Southern “rifle clubs” and consisting mostly of Confederate veterans, the Redshirts unleashed a reign of terror on would be black voters and white Republicans. They accompanied Hampton during his speaking tours across the state, showing up armed, mounted, and rowdy as to intimidate any Republican in attendance. When a Republican rose to speak—whether at a debate or Republican rally—the Redshirts would often demand to “divide the time” between Republicans and Democrats, only to commandeer the entire event so that the Republican message would not be heard. When Republican stood up to the terror group, the Redshirts did not hesitate to cause a ruckus by brawling with whoever stood in their way.

Their most heinous crime, however, came on July 4 of 1876, in the now extinct town of Hamburg, South Carolina, only a few miles across the state line from Augusta, Georgia, when a black militia organized a fourth of July parade through the middle of town. The militia was quickly confronted by a horse and buggy driven by two noted Hamptonites, Thomas Butler and Henry Getzen, whom refused to get out of the way of the parade, leading to a standoff. The militia readied their bayonets and the white democrats flashed their pistols before tensions cooled and both sides went on their way. Taken as an affront to their white manhood and a severe breach of the perceived social hierarchy, the white citizens of Edgefield County vowed to “teach the negroes a lesson (67).” Butler, Getzen, their lawyer, and at least seventy Redshirts led by Tillman descended upon tiny Hamburg, corralling the black men in their militia office above a local store. What happened next became “one of Tillman’s proudest memories (69)” as the white paramilitary force opened an artillery barrage upon the tiny upstairs office, forcing its black inhabitants to flee for their lives. Some were cut down by an array bullets as they left the building but close to thirty others were captured. Four of the captives were lined up one by one and shot through the back of the head while others were told to run while the white mob fired upon them.

Though considered an act of inhumanity by most, Tillman wore his leadership in the Hamburg Massacre like a badge of honor, using it as somewhat of substitute for his lack of service in the Civil War. Throughout his career, whenever one would question his commitment to the white men of South Carolina, Tillman would call on someone to vouch for the work of his Redshirts during the massacre at Hamburg or the “Ned Tennant Riot,” another militia confrontation provoked by a white paramilitary force. In the end, both Republicans and Democrats claimed victory in the 1876 election, providing a fitting end to the bloodiest year in South Carolina history. The South Carolina Supreme Court would go on to appoint Hampton as the winner, making him the first Democrat to be elected since the end of the Civil War and signifying the official return to white “home rule” in South Carolina.

Tillman’s leadership in the Hampton campaign earned him a place in South Carolina’s white political leadership, but in the late 1880s, Tillman found himself at odds with many of the same people he worked closely with during the ’76 election cycle. Though never wavering from his commitment to white supremacy, Tillman launched an attack on the Democratic Party, asserting that it had veered away from its traditional base. According to Tillman, the real Democrats were the farmers—the “true” white men who tilled the earth, owned property, and made up South Carolina’s producing class. The Democratic Party, as Tillman saw it, had turned its back on the farmer in favor of the white aristocratic elite that populated the commercial centers of Columbia and Charleston.

The Tillman movement, as it is now known, benefited greatly from the national rise of The Farmers’ Alliance and its political offshoot, the People’s Party or simply the Populists. However, for all of his rhetoric in favor of placing the state back into the hands of its farmers, Tillman never embraced Populism and Populism never attained a strong foothold in the state. In the words of Kantrowitz, “Radical Alliance and Populist proposals went far beyond his [Tillman’s] modest program of reform and college building within a white man’s Democratic Party (147).” The Populist also offered a challenge to Tillman’s assumptions of white supremacy and white manhood. Many of the leading Southern Populist like Tom Watson of Georgia and Leonidas Polk of North Carolina reached across the color line and attempted to unite poor whites and blacks in an effort to seriously challenge the political establishment as a third party, a move that, by default, recognized black manhood and placed them on equal social footing with white farmers. In Tillman’s narrow and rather demented world view, the Populists had it all wrong in “believing that one could fight the ‘money power’ by forming a collation with its chief allies, black Republicans and the federal government (148).” In contrast, Tillman saw the rise of the poor farmer as the continuation of the process of white conservative “redemption” that overthrew “yankee misrule” during reconstruction and reasserted white supremacy as the primary fulcrum on which South Carolina society hinged.

Elected Governor in 1890 and serving as a Senator from 1895 to 1918, Tillman’s commitment to white supremacy manifested itself in a number of different, albeit sometimes just as violent, ways. As Governor he found himself toeing a fine line on the issue of lynching. Ostensibly, he portrayed himself of an opponent of lynching, recognizing that his positon as governor required him uphold the law at all times. But his opposition to lynching found itself at odds with his own racial views, leading to a subtle softening on his anti-lynching stance. In an 1892 he famously reshaped his views on lynching by framing them in the scope of black criminality and white womanhood by claiming he would “willingly lead a mob in lynching any negro who had committed an assault upon a white woman,” leading his followers to adorn him with banners that denoted him as the “Champion of White Men’s Rule and Women’s Virtue (169).”

His main objective as governor was to rewrite the South Carolina constitution in an effort to disenfranchise South Carolina’s large African American population. Seen as an attack on universal suffrage in general, Tillman’s efforts were opposed by many, both white and black. Nevertheless, he called for a referendum for a state constitutional convention that passed by way of widespread fraud and voter manipulation. The convention, with only six black delegates, went on to pass a litany of voting laws all of which were designed to inhibit black access to the electoral process.

Tillman’s political career began in 1890 with his ascension to the governor’s office, reached its apex in 1896 with a failed presidential bid, and ended with his death as a Senator in 1918. It was a career characterized by fraud, violence, and pure unadulterated demagoguery, the extent of which could never be fully realized in 1500-2000 word book review. His lifetime campaign to “reconstruct white supremacy” seemingly never ended and his ability to manipulate the hearts and minds of white South Carolinians knew no bounds. Now, almost 100 years since his death, we are left to deconstruct the violent legacy he has left behind, but Kantrowitz puts it best when he says that:

To undo Tillman’s reconstruction of white supremacy requires us not only to challenge the consequences of his actions but also to understand the words and ideas that he used and the sources of their power. Only that understanding can provide the basis for a real reconstruction of American democracy (309).


 Work Cited

Kantrowitz, Stephen David. Ben Tillman & The Reconstruction Of White Supremacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,2000.

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“Slave and Citizen in the Modern World” By Thomas Holt

We have all heard it before: History is about knowing dead people and long forgotten dates. Certainly, this popular refrain is at least partially true. I’m thinking of course of the multiple choice tests we were all forced to endure during high school. But far from this popular practice, the study of History is, in fact, a science. It stands as a systematic method of inquiry, where archived material, family papers, and public records are used to build interpretive frameworks that facilitate our understanding of the past. But History is not always retrogressive. These same interpretive frameworks can be applied to the present and, at times, the future, allowing for a bit of, shall we say, perspective as to our present condition, where we are going, and how to avoid the pitfalls that may arise along the way. The term “interpretive framework” is without a doubt vague, but they are highly familiar to us all. They manifest themselves in constructed ideas, phases, and concepts like “Paternalism,” “Antebellum,” and “Modernity” which come replete with their own sets of schemas and paradigms that help us make sense of a given historical topic.

The term “emancipation” is not quite as abstract. It is simply the act of being liberated from something, but it is most often applied to being freed from slavery. In American history, the national process of emancipation—I call it a process because that is truly what it was, starting with the Confiscation Acts and ending with the Thirteenth Amendment—was a monumental moment in our nation’s history, for it was the time when the promise of the Declaration of Independence was finally coming to fruition—at least for a while. Over the years, the study of our country’s emancipation process has since developed its own set of schemas and paradigms, making it, in my mind at least, its own interpretive framework for how we understand the dissolution of slavery in this country.

The only problem with these frameworks, however, is that sometimes they set limits to our understanding when our perspective on a given topic desperately needs to be expanded. In After Slavery, a collection of essays dealing with the challenges freedmen and women faced following the Civil War, Thomas C. Holt’s introductory essay titled “Slave and Citizen in the Modern World: Rethinking Emancipation in the Twenty-First Century” calls us to do just that.

Holt’s essay draws striking parallels between the worlds of plantation slavery and “slave-like” sweatshop labor, forcing the reader to consider the implications behind the reality that ancient methods of labor extraction still exist in a country that places the expansion of freedom at the center of its world view. Using a 1995 case occurring in the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte and a similar case in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn, New York as a point of departure, Holt blurs the line between the diabolical and utterly inhumane Atlantic Slave Trade and the late twentieth century process we now know as Globalization. Both movements, he points out, arose out of a concerted effort to satisfy world markets with, in the case of the Atlantic slave trade, raw materials and under globalization, cheap goods—both of which could not have been accomplished without a steady abundance of cheap, mobile labor.

Parsing out the differences between slave labor and the “slave-like” labor found in sweatshops is a valid undertaking, but for this comparison, in-depth analysis is not needed. All that is needed to know is that sweatshop laborers are forced into oppressive labor situations where an undue amount of control is exerted over them. They are, to briefly paraphrase and add to Holt, often pushed into unfair labor contracts which sometimes mandate that a worker’s wage be withheld until a certain quota of production has been met, disallowed from organizing themselves as a bargaining labor force, inhibited from seeking outside allies, and often racialized–meaning that many of the workers come from other parts of the globe, creating what Holt calls a “not-us” or outsider mentality, allowing them to be tucked away in enclaves out of plain site. In essence, they are not in any way the single independent agents in their own lives, which, in my mind, is enough to grant validity to the comparison. Might I point out too that Holt’s essay does not even mention the nefarious and all too real world of sex slavery, a system that I would presume warrants an even stronger comparison.

But so what? What purpose does this comparison serve and how does it relate to thinking about Emancipation? Well this topic is certainly one that needs more study for a final conclusion to be made, but I think the message, at this stage at least, is simple. The comparison proves that just as the Civil Rights Movement did not eradicate notions of white supremacy (do we need to look any farther than Charleston, S.C. for proof of this?), our country’s national emancipation process did not put an end to the terrible human quality that beckons one to exploit the labor of another for personal gain. It is a quality, quite frankly, that is engrossed in greed, making it inherent to human nature. As a result, our country’s emancipation process is one that, I believe, is never ending, and its history should help shape our future policy, lest slavery, in any of its nuances or variances like sweatshop labor or sex slavery, creep back into our society.




Holt, Thomas. “Slave and Citizen in the Modern World: Rethinking Emancipation in the Twenty-First Century.” in Baker, Bruce E., and Brian Kelly. After slavery : Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South, Gainesville : University Press of Florida, 2013.

Image Url: http://positiveactivism.org/2013/09/11/sweatshops-child-labor-and-what-you-can-do/

The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It

America’s political history is defined by points of contention. Whether it be in ideas or principles, disagreement is natural, if not essential, to the political process. It is what turns the dial, so to speak, of political thought, weaving the country through various phases and periods. It should come as no surprise, then, that our most celebrated political thinkers have been those who arose during the most contested moments in our history. These men—the likes of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln among others—harnessed the moment, fashioned their own iconic set of ideas, and, consequently, wrote themselves into the pages of history. It was their stature, in the midst of such strife, that has elevated them to the lofty status we now hold them at today.

In his classic 1948 work, The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It, renowned historian and public intellectual Richard Hofstadter charts a different course. Rather than pointing out the differences dividing the American political class, Hofstadter argues that there is a “mute organic consistency” embedded within our political framework. A dedication to the principles of freedom and democracy seem to be obvious components of such consistency, but Hofstadter moves a step further, pointing out that, regardless of party affiliation, the American political consciousness is traditionally rooted in a belief in the rights of property and economic independency. These foundational beliefs, according to Hofstadter, march lockstep with the development of modern industrial capitalism and allow for the coexistence of both democratic governing structures and capitalist systems. Moments of strife have naturally arose, but when taken on the whole, these moments prove to be stark outliers. That America has been able to maintain itself for so long serves as a testament, at least in the eyes of Hofstadter, to strength of the country’s “fundamental working arrangements (xxxvii).”

Hofstadter’s argument is perhaps best embodied by the men who hashed out these “fundamental arrangements.” The brilliancy of the American Government, he points out, is that it checked vice with vice, not vice with virtue. The founders believed man to be naturally greedy and self-interested. Therefore, the government, which would be driven by man, was designed to halt the ambition of one branch with ambition of another, a system commonly thought of as checks and balances. But this system of controlling the vices of man goes farther than what is often taught in schools. With an incredible amount of foresight and circumspect political thinking, the founders designed a government that controlled man’s cupidity in other equally fundamental and successful ways.

For one, the country was designed as a federation of states. In one state, a minority, driven by their own misguided and corruptible passions, could overthrow the power of the majority, but in a federation of states, the others, acting on behalf of the majority, held the power to suppress the fractious minority and maintain civic harmony. Representative government itself, is another way to control the passions of man. Direct democracy places the mechanism of government in the unstable hands of the people, but in a representative democracy, the onus of government is given to members of society believed to be more prudent and morally resolute. The most brilliant of all, however, lies in the split assembly. To the makers of the Constitution, the divided congress represented the interests of the commoners (the House) and those of the perceived American aristocracy (the Senate). Having the two houses neutralized one from subjugated the other through governmental control. These three principles of American government, at their core, establish an environment of peace and moderation by disallowing the government from undergoing violent swings of power, also known as revolutions, and safeguarding the power of the majority from the discontent of the minority. Under such a government, freedom was not created; harmony was simply maintained. Only the opponents of the constitution—Jefferson and his anti-federalist—were concerned with prescribing freedom. They famously refrained from signing the revered document until the Bill of Rights were written in.

As Hofstadter points out, liberty, after all, was essentially property—or the ability for one to acquire property, invest it, and use it however he or she pleased. The founders, he asserts, “aimed to create a government that would act as an honest broker among a variety of propertied interests, giving them all protection from their common enemies and preventing any one of them from becoming too powerful (15).” The lineage of political thinkers that followed, from Calhoun to Roosevelt, Clay to Wilson, sought to maintain this “brokerage.” Thus, Hofstadter comes to the conclusion that a concurrent strain of what can only be referred to as a moderate conservatism runs through the heart of the American political class, seeking social and economic harmony at all times and advocating for reform only when one interest grows large enough to threaten another.

Hofstadter, Richard. The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1948. Print.

Image Courtesy of www.newsworks.org


Liberty and Power by Harry Watson

Liberty and Power by Harry Watson is about what the title suggests. Amazon will tell you it’s about the political career of Andrew Jackson. But at its core, the book is about the coexistence of liberty and power in the political environment of the early 19th century. Jackson’s career–the source of much squabbling between Whigs and Democrats alike–just happens to be the perfect embodiment of that coexistence, laying the foundation for a political structure still in use today.

Prior to Jackson, liberty and power had been two irreconcilable terms in the American political arena. America’s republican government rested on liberty for the common man, and the preservation of that liberty was secured through the collective virtue of the populace. As Watson notes, the Market Revolution, along with the many societal changes it precipitated, threatened America’s supposed collective virtue by giving rise to powerful institutions like the National Bank. These institutions, as the Democrats saw it, trampled on the independence of small landholders and the laboring class as a whole. As a result, power—in any sense of the word—quickly became the antithesis to the sanctity of American liberty.

Andrew Jackson entered the oval office as a democratic crusader bent on fighting the powerful in the name of the not so powerful. His presidency ushered in an era of universal white male suffrage and witnessed a return to the political ideals of the early Democratic Republicans. On the surface it appeared as if liberty would forever be safeguarded from the corruptible nature of power as long as Jackson and his “Kitchen Cabinet” romped through the halls of the White House.

Of course, the inherent irony at the center of Watson’s argument is that Jackson protected liberty by combating the growth of power with his own executive strength. Jackson’s presidency teetered on the brink of demagoguery, growing the stature of the executive office with every action. Of course, to Jackson, it was all in the name of the common man. Take for instance his crusade against the National Bank. Jackson believed that banks were simply a means of perpetuating monied monopolies and none was a larger culprit than the country’s National Bank. In 1832, a bill to recharter the bank and keep it in existence passed both the House and the Senate. Jackson, however, vetoed the bill—an action, mind you, that did not occur as often in the 19th century as it does today. In an attempt to kill the bank for good, Jackson then issued an executive order mandating that federal deposits be taken from the Bank and dispersed to other state and local “pet banks,” effectively negating the Bank’s ability to loan money.

As Watson points out in the concluding chapters of the book, Jackson’s legacy lies in the birth of the American two party system which, more often than not, divides itself over this delicate balance between liberty and power. In fact, even in today’s modern political climate, much of the haggling between the two parties is derived from this very issue. And even still, the language used to describe the balance has not changed. Jacksonian rhetoric can be found throughout the history of American politics, particularly during its most contentious episodes. The Populists, for instance, acting in the 1880s and 90s, harkened back to the same Jacksonian theme of “The People” in an effort express the common plight of poor labors in the face of corporate America. Similarly, the rhetoric used to describe the Watergate Scandal placed virtue at odds with corruption in a fashion akin to how Jackson and his democratic supporters rallied support on the campaign trail. Therefore, Watson perhaps says it best when he remarks that “If Andrew Jackson could never restore the Old Republic, he succeeded remarkably in shaping the changing Republic that followed him.”


Work Cited: Watson, Harry L. Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America. New York: Hill and Wang. 1990.

Image of Andrew Jackson as “King Andrew I,” a popular moniker used by his political opponents is courtesy of History.com

The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America by Lawrence Goodwyn

In The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America, an abridged version of the much larger and more widely celebrated Democratic Promise, Lawrence Goodwyn offers a concise review of how agrarian political insurgents challenged America’s two party political system and the corporate state it protected. Beginning with a discussion of the dreaded crop-lien system, Goodwyn traces the history of the “People’s Party” from its origins as the political off-shoot of the Farmers’ Alliance to their eventual fusion with the Democrats over the issue of silver coinage–a fusion that ultimately led to their own dissolution.

But Goodwyn’s short history is more than a simple retelling of the Populist movement. In his own unique way, he also brings up a number of particularly pressing issues for scholars, authors, and students alike. He challenges readers to think critically about the inherent irony embedded in the fact that the Populist Movement was a politically charged, democratic uprising taking aim at the institutions of an ostensibly democratic society. Goodwyn points out that even in democratic societies, cultural hierarchies govern the shared social institutions that citizens are expected to adhere to. These hierarchies take shape in rather inconspicuous forms, but they generally lead to rather unjust and often self-serving political decisions, such as the decision to place the U.S. back on the Gold Standard, filling the pockets of Eastern bankers and further ensnaring the rural farmer in the precarious crop-lien system.

Goodwyn lays out a detailed process for how democratic movements grow to the point in which they are capable of combating these cultural hierarchies. According to Goodwyn, the movements are started by a select few who possess a high level of self-respect and develop a message they seek to advance. In the case of the Populists, this message was the idea, first, of cooperative buying, and then later, the sub-treasury system. While refining the message, those men of self-respect organize themselves by consolidating under one name, like the Farmers’ Alliance. Though the message may not be completely clear just yet, the name conjoined with the rather murky message creates cooperative “movement” between interested actors. Once the message is established, the actors behind the message embark on a recruiting campaign to politically educate those who share a similar set of interests, turning the growing movement into a mass movement. For the Populists, these were men like S.O. Daws and William Lamb who rode from town to town on a Populist lecture circuit sparking debate and creating intraregional political dialogue. With consistent recruitment and good ideas, the simple movement turns into what Goodwyn calls a “movement culture,” where everyone involved develops a new political consciousness.  From there, with everyone cognizant of their own political ability, the movement that started out as a simple message can effectively seek to bring about social change through politics.

For the “People’s Party,” however, the political milieu of post-Civil War America proved to be too big of an obstacle to overcome. As Goodwyn notes, the same dreaded sectionalism that helped drive the county into civil war remained. Southern Whites excoriated the thought of turning against the Democratic Party—the party of their fathers and the party that fought supposed “Yankee rule.” Likewise, Northern Republicans abhorred the idea of getting into cahoots with Southerners they once deemed enemies. When the issues of sectionalism were overcome and bilateral political cooperation existed between farmers from Texas to Kansas and down to Georgia, internal disputes divided the party. Some, like Charles Macune—the movement’s most celebrated ideologue—propagated the message of the Farmers’ Alliance but resisted any sort of break from the Democratic Party. Others joined the effort to coin silver, a move that ran completely counter to the interests of the “Greenbacks,” whom, for the duration of the Populists’ existence, occupied the party’s political base.

These divisions ultimately inhibited the Populists from generating the levels of support needed to truly tackle corporate America and infiltrate the offices of the U.S. Capitol. As a result, their experience can easily been identified as a failure and even Goodwyn notes that many study the Populists to see where they went wrong. But to be fair, the Populists attempted to unify a people still rife with sectional difference and memories of war in order to topple the one true bulwark of American society—corporate America. Put in this perspective, it becomes clear; the demise of the Populists owes itself not to the effort but to the gargantuan size of the task.


Image Courtesy of Vassar College: http://projects.vassar.edu/1896/populists.html

Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made by Eugene Genovese

Wikipedia summarizes the historiography of American slavery as this: U.B. Phillips wrote about what slavery did for the slaves, scholars writing in the 1950s like Kenneth Stampp pointed out what slavery did to the slaves, and Eugene Genovese documented what the slaves did for themselves. As it pertains to Eugene Genovese and his highly acclaimed Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Wikipedia’s concise summary only offers a cursory assessment. Genovese did, in fact, write about what the slaves did for themselves, but his analysis of the slaves’ cultural creations is embedded within a complex argument about the law, class distinction, and, above all, the conveyance of power.

Genovese’s central argument is centered on the notion of paternalism, commonly thought of as the practice by which a figure in a position of authority asserts power by assuming the role of a subordinate’s mother or father. As Genovese points out, there were deep contradictions in how the country’s legal codes and the slaveholders themselves governed the enslaved. In theory, slaves existed only to be extensions of their master’s will, and the slave codes treated them as such, addressing them only as property void of any legal rights or human qualities. The slaveholders, however, could not ignore the human qualities of their slaves. Whether it be for reasons associated with increasing agricultural output or plantation harmony, the slaveholders regularly interacted with their slaves on a basic, human level. More often than not, these interactions were governed by the practice of paternalism which, to the slaveholders and many northerners, justified the hegemonic nature of the master-slave relationship and the institution as a whole. But the slaves themselves also had a role in paternalism’s development. As Genovese notes, the slaves quickly recognized that in the absence of legal protection, their defense could only come from the hands of their supposed “benevolent” masters.

The slaves’ appeal to the slaveholders for defense only reinforced the slaveholder’s claim to paternalism, but it also entered the two sides into a paternalistic relationship—a dialectic relationship replete with its own set negotiations as to the nature of slave life. Genovese argues that through these negotiations the slaves defined paternalism in their own way, using the slaveholders need to justify their status as patriarchal overlords to claim basic rights and ameliorate their conditions. Issues such as time off, church participation, and the ability to produce their own food through gardening or hunting became quasi “rights” that all slaves could claim for themselves. This relative amount of “freedom”—as in the freedom to make certain choices for themselves—Genovese argues, is how slaves were then able to assert their own cultural creations and build a “protonational consciousness.”

Genovese pays, perhaps, too much homage to the idea of paternalism. While no one can discredit its role in the master-slave relationship, the range of slave experiences varies to the point that paternalism cannot be listed as the sole or even primary governing factor. Other factors such as racism and the basic market value of slaves also dictated how masters, in particular, interacted with their slaves. Yet, with that being said, Genovese lays out a precise and thorough argument for how slaves eked out a life—rife with its own set of customs and expectations—under the hegemonic rule of their masters. While not a frontal challenge to slavery itself, these customs and expectations limited the reach of the slaveholder’s hegemony. As Genovese succinctly puts it, the slaves’ assertion to basic rights under the master’s guise of paternalism “rendered unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s, but it also narrowed down considerably that which in fact was Caesar’s.”



Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll; the World the Slaves Made. New York:       Pantheon Books, 1974.

Image: https://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=2912

The Valley of the Shadow

For this post, we are going way back. I mean, we are all History enthusiasts, right? So, with that being said, I thought it would be cool to look at both History, in the traditional sense, and the history of Digital History. That’s right, we are going to look at one of the earliest Digital History sites, Ed Ayers’s The Valley of the Shadow. In all of its archaic glory, this site tells the story of two communities–Augusta County, Va and Franklin County, Pa– on the eve of, during, and after the Civil War. The site acts as an archive, and the documents for each community is arranged in a comparative manner. A user can easily find tax records, census records, church records, letters and diary entries, newspapers, statistics, and even battle maps for the two communities. These types of records can then be compared across the two communities which allows for the user to draw conclusions about what the turbulent time of the 1850s, 60s, and 70s were like for the two different yet inherently similar communities.

As I said, the site is a bit archaic, but its age doesn’t diminish how innovative it is. It was one of the first sites to take advantage of digitized records and the vast storage space of computers. In many ways, I feel that this site set the bar for other Digital History projects. It is also incredibly well thought out. It is very hard for sites to be an archive and to relate a story. Yet, Ayers has found a way to do both masterfully. Through the exploration of archival material, the lives of people and the story of two communities come to life. It is for this reason that I think the site is so innovative and, above all, remarkably well designed.

Below is a video of Ayers sharing his thoughts on the field of Digital History:

To access the site in full, Follow the link below: