Summer 2016 Vol. 36.2
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Recent scholarship presumes that the word “nigger” has always been a racist epithet thrust upon African Americans to demean Black social identity in the United States. But how is it, then, that the word “nigger” emerge as a slur more virulent than other racially coded language from the post-revolutionary period such as “African,” “Black,” and “darky?” This article demonstrates that before 21st century hip hop made popular the word “nigga” with a soft “a,” “nigger” had long been two words with multiple meanings: one for Black speakers and another for white. Using evidence drawn from blackface literary and cultural productions from the 1770s to the 1840s and from the writings, speeches and memoirs of Black activists and authors from the 1820s to the 1860s, this article shows that the violence and power behind the word was based precisely on the fact that African American laborers used the word themselves. “Nigger” had once described an actual labor category. Black laborers thus adopted it into their own vocabulary as a social identity to claim a sense of national belonging, akin to a proto-pan-Africanism. Once blackface theatrical productions gained popularity in the early 1830s, in a trick of ventriloquy, white performers and later their audiences put the word “nigger” into the mouths of Black caricatures to authenticate these anti-Black portrayals. In doing so, whites blamed Black people for using language meant to subjugate them and thus accused African Americans for being self-acknowledged “niggers,” a discursive weapon in the fight for white supremacy that, in turn, buttressed white notions of national belonging. In response, Black transatlantic abolitionists denounced white usage as a great verbal symbol of American hypocrisy.
Taking a series of popular jokes about fictitious “anti-societies” as its point of departure, this article explores the responses to the transformation of reform in the decade between 1825 and 1835 and places them in the context of social and political change brought about by Evangelicalism and Jacksonian democracy. Rooted in the tradition of the moral reform society, through specialization of its aims, the anti-society seemed to become a democratic pendant of older reform societies and was thought to play a divisive role in local communities. Critics denounced the new societies for their prescriptive character, the prominent role women played, and the “spirit of opposition” they triggered.
Contemporaries increasingly understood the evolution of reform culture from the relatively harmonious religious and moral reform societies of the Benevolent Empire of the first quarter of the 19th century to the oppositional and highly contested organizations of radical antislavery and temperance of the 1830s as a serious threat to the social order and the future of the United States. Using the Benign Violation Theory of Humor, this article argues that the American reaction to anti-societies suggests that while they were broadly perceived as a threat to the social order from the late 1820s on, this threat was at first understood to be benign, and thus could be laughed off, while from 1833 on, anti-societies were increasingly regarded as a destructive force, and provoked substantial fears that could justify violent responses as an alternative way to reinforce the “normal” order of things.
Scholars of the early republic have tended to overlook the extent to which elite U.S. officials feared that enslaved and free people of color might collude with local Spanish officials in the Louisiana borderlands, and in so doing threaten plans for westward expansion. By exposing these fears and explaining the reasons for them, this article attempts to show how enslaved and free people of color, combined with local Spanish officials, posed a serious challenge to the United States’ attempt to gain control over the trans-Appalachian west. Several factors explain why U.S. officials feared Spanish and black collusion: First, U.S. officials worried that Louisiana’s black population might rebel at the loss of the rights granted to them during period of Spanish colonial rule. Second, after the U.S. took control of Louisiana, slaves continually escaped to Spanish Texas with the explicit encouragement of local Spanish officials, who tried to weaken U.S. authority over Louisiana. Last, enslaved and free people of color exploited the tumult unleashed by the Spanish Atlantic empire’s rapid collapse. By the end of the territorial period, U.S. officials’ fears of a slave revolt, I argue, had less to do with the Haitian Revolution than with the Latin American Wars of Independence, which began in 1810. Ultimately, this paper suggests the need to take seriously the joint role played by local Spanish and black actors in the broader imperial struggle for the trans-Appalachian west.
Politics in and of Women's History in the Early Republic
This introduction to a forum interrogates whether the vast explosion of scholarship about women in the early American republic has changed the way in which the history of that period is now written. It locates the work of forum contributors Lori Ginzberg, Patricia Cline Cohen, Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, Amy Dru Stanley and Jennifer L. Morgan in relation to each other, and to relevant historiography.
In this think piece, the author argues that the “grand American narrative” has remained surprisingly impervious to several decades of the feminist challenge. She muses about why this might be the case, notes some political implications of sustaining a traditional narrative, and offers several metaphors to help historians re-imagine a new history.
This essay assesses the degree to which the field of nineteenth-century U.S. Women’s History has had an impact on the basic narrative of U.S. History as presented in general survey courses and associated textbooks over the last four decades. What methods did scholars in the 1970s envision to mainstream this new body of specialized knowledge into the curriculum? How successful has that project been?
The study of the history of political economy seems indifferent to gender or the actions of women. Emphasis on financialization rather than industrialization de-emphasizes the role of paid and unpaid women’s labor. Highlighting gender makes for a truer, richer history.
This essay argues that the insights of a previous generation of feminist historians about the significance of sex and gender in the history of American political economy have been overlooked by scholars calling for the writing of a "new" history of capitalism.
In this article, Jennifer Morgan considers the scholarship on histories of gender and slavery with a particular focus on the conceptual framework of "Early Republic," and how periodizing frames both highlight and occlude the historiography of gender and slavery.
Surveying the Fields
Scholarship on religion in the early American republic is often shaped by two historical narratives. One is the story of the efflorescence of religion—its power, pervasiveness, and plurality. The second is the account of secularization. Once seen as the waning of religion’s power with the advent of modernity, secularization has recently been reimagined and recast by scholars in several disciplines. But to explore some themes at the intersection of recent religious histories of the early republic and neo-secularization theory is no easy task because of the instability and ambiguity of the very terms at the center of discussion: the religious and the secular. This essay reviews recent studies of the Enlightenment, the Revolution, and disestablishment and shows how they employ the categories of the religious and the secular in strikingly different ways. Seeing how these authors construct (or assume) these categories brings their works into a more productive conversation.
Emmanuelle Perez Tisserant
Spring 2016 Vol. 36.1
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Science in the Early Republic
William Blanding, physician and naturalist, was born in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, in 1773. He graduated from Rhode Island College (Brown University), studied with a Massachusetts doctor and moved to Camden, South Carolina, where he spent the next several decades, treating patients and running an apothecary shop. In the 1830s, he retired to Philadelphia and then finally returned to Massachusetts to die in 1857 on the farm where he’d been born. This essay, based on the 2015 SHEAR presidential address, uses Blanding’s correspondence to explore connections between the everyday concerns of this man and his family and the larger economic, political, and cultural issues that shape the history of the Early American Republic. It explores Blanding’s place in a network of amateur American naturalists, looks at the importance of his wife’s benevolent networks, traces his ties to the slave-based economy of South Carolina and to former slaves settled in Liberia, and, using the Cistuda blandingii (“Blanding’s turtle”) that bears his name, teases out histories behind the specimens Blanding collected and donated to Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences.
Portraits of famous cattle, sheep and horses crowded the agricultural journals on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s. More than simple representations, these images were intended to shape the animals they showed-establishing standards of taste that would allow breeders to create “thrifty” meat-producing bodies, while advertising the bloodlines of already thrifty animals. In doing so, they became central to the expansion of a new form of domestic animal: the “improved breed.” In the early eighteenth century, “breeds” had been understood to emerge from particular kinds of places. Emerging in the mid-eighteenth “improved breeds” came to be defined by rules of ‘blood’ and kinship. Improved cattle were novel bodies; they grew to enormous sizes, came in new shapes and colors, and dominated the new agricultural fairs. Their blood relationships, the source of their value, were recorded not only in internationally circulated record books, but also in a linked and elaborate tradition of portraiture. This article shows how the transatlantic circulation of cattle portraits shaped both the changing definition of breed and the bodies of the animals defined. As cattle were bred to match new forms of taste, made concrete by prices in the market, portraits and cattle became more uniform. At the same time, the paper argues, ideas about the meaning of these changes diverged and fragmented. Recorded over generations by portraits, changing cattle bodies lent themselves to radically different ideas about nature, and about human and divine capacity to shape living bodies.
Conevery Bolton Valencius, David I. Spanagel, Emily Pawley, Sara Stidstone Gronim, Paul Lucier
This collaboration promotes a broad reconsideration of science in the early American republic. We argue that scientific activity permeated early American society, but appeared in different forms and in different places than most historical literature has identified. Mathematical tables and astronomical charts in almanacs, snippets on chemistry and climate in agricultural journals, illustrations of mineral resources in geological maps, accessibly-written resource analysis in consulting reports, and articles in local newspapers arguing about causes of phenomena from the mundane to the surprising: all express a pervasive commitment to scientific ideas, questions, and investigation. These diverse genres of print, moreover, evidence a society that strongly valued studies of the natural world for their connections with important contemporary human endeavors. In the early republic scientific questions were deeply interwoven with commerce, with territorial claims, and with moral order: Early Americans mapped the world conceptually in order to claim it for some people and not for others. We identify a constellation of interests that we call the ‘‘sciences of territoriality’’ centered on the description and appropriation of natural resources. Our investigation of print culture both emphasizes an often-ignored facet of the early American republic-that scientific thinking was as ubiquitous and as taken for granted as religion or politics-and reveals particular, often unrecognized, characteristics of science in the early United States. The commercial and moral forces underlying the ‘‘sciences of territoriality,’’ combined with widespread literacy and an active broad-based print culture, deeply shaped early epistemological hierarchies in the United States.
Robert W. Smith
Between January and March of 1798 the House of Representatives debated the foreign intercourse bill, which would fund the diplomatic corps for the next two years. This was a generally a routine function, but it soon became a wide-ranging debate over the basis nature of American diplomacy, and of the American republic itself. The debate revealed something important about the politics of the 1790s. Given that republics were inherently fragile, even seemingly small matters might destroy the American republic. Both Republicans and Federalists proceeded from this assumption. The debate fell into three broad categories. First was the question of who should be appointed. The Republicans accused President Adams of using additional diplomatic appointments as a vehicle to create a patronage machine that would corrupt Congress. The Federalists that countered that amount of patronage available was insignificant, and that that the president was justified in excluding Republicans from office. Second was the question of who should control the appointments. This led back to the control of American foreign policy. The Republicans argued for congressional control through the appropriation and war powers. The Federalists contended for presidential control through the treaty and appointment powers. Third was the question of whether diplomats should be appointed at all. The Republicans believed that trade would allow the United States to secure its diplomatic goals without recourse to the normal institutions of diplomacy. The Republicans considered the United States as existing outside the European balance of power. The Federalists saw no choice but to play by the generally established rules, and thus must appoint diplomats.
Vivian Bruce Conger
William B. Warner
Lawrence B. A. Hatter
Brie Swenson Arnold
Michael D. Robinson
Erin Austin Dwyer
Winter 2015 Vol. 35.4
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The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, which headed the Republican attack on the Alien and Sedition Acts, are almost always described as being “rebuffed by all the other states” so that “none of the other fourteen state legislatures followed” in “declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional.” That is puzzling, since Madison’s and Jefferson’s resolutions are also generally regarded as the opening shots of the election of 1800, in which by contrast the Republicans were far from rebuffed or rejected.
That conventional description, besides being puzzling, is false. This article revisits the legislative journals, manuscript evidence, and period newspapers for each of the other states, and concludes that only half the sixteen states opposed the resolutions, while fully half of the sixteen states either supported or did not oppose the resolutions. It finds that Virginia and Kentucky received the support they requested through overlooked Tennessee and Georgia Resolutions (which called for repeal of the Alien and Sedition Acts), and that legislatures divided in two states, while legislatures chose not to oppose the resolutions in the remaining two states. These findings, based on original research, challenge the conventional view of the abject failure of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and of their rejection by the other states.
There are many broader implications of an accurate view of the reception of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which challenge conventional views about constitutional theories of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in the Resolutions, about their expansive view of freedoms of press and speech being newly formulated, and about the Republican interest being undeveloped and far from a coordinated political party.
Anelise Hanson Shrout
In 1847, Cherokee and Choctaws in Indian Territory raised over $800 to help victims of famine in Ireland. Their donations were part of one of the earliest instances of transnational disaster philanthropy, and Cherokees and Choctaws were extremely unlikely donors. Just over a decade earlier they had forced off of their lands in the American southeast and marched west along the “Trail of Tears.” These events cost much in both property and lives. In the aftermath of this trauma, American Indians found the resources – both monetary and emotional – to give to a suffering population an ocean away. While many American commentators considered these contributions as evidence of the success of missions to “civilize the Indian,” this article argues that these philanthropic acts should be read neither as acts of acculturative generosity nor as unconnected and unique charitable outbursts. Rather, I see them as engagements with American political culture, as ways to comment on missionaries’ projects and to engage with American Indian policy. These donations were products of intersecting loyalties, sympathies and animosities that grew out of parallels between Indians’ experiences at the hands of the American government, and Irish experiences at the hands of the British government. The Cherokee and Choctaw donations exemplified a new set of meanings that came to be ascribed to philanthropy in the nineteenth century. This article positions Native philanthropy as part of a constellation of familiar, but nonetheless deeply political practices that those excluded from formal politics were able to deploy in nineteenth-century America.
Scholars have long recognized the Jay Treaty as a definitive, divisive moment in early American political culture. As the first treaty the U.S. negotiated with a European power under the Constitution, this moment also marked the first public debate over many of the Constitution’s foreign policy provisions. To a greater extent than has been traditionally acknowledged, the Jay Treaty debate was a controversy about which branch(es) of government would dominate American foreign policy.
This essay examines that debate, with a focus on Republican criticisms levied during the summer of 1795. While Republicans disapproved of the Jay Treaty for many reasons, they immediately and consistently charged the treaty was unconstitutional. The sum and spirit of their critique rested on the premise that the treaty violated the separation of powers. More specifically, Republicans maintained that President George Washington and the Senate had usurped their constitutional authority by exercising powers that were reserved to the legislature, or the Senate and House of Representatives in Article I Section 8 of the Constitution. The fight over the Jay Treaty quickly became about much more than the specific terms of the Jay Treaty or treaty-making in general; because the nation’s foreign and domestic affairs were intertwined, the Republican experiment itself seemed at risk. The debate over the Jay Treaty demonstrates the difficulty of putting abstract constitutional principles like the separation of powers into practice and reminds us that many precedents that would later be taken as givens remained undefined in the 1790s.
The Star Spangled Banner is typically considered in relation to the immediate story of its composition – that during the War of 1812, while in full view of battle, Francis Scott Key found the inspiration to write a truly and enduringly patriotic anthem. However, it’s less well understood that Key’s moment of patriotic inspiration occurred within a particular political context and that its composition built on a long legacy of Federalist musical thought and action. This article connects Key and The Star Spangled Banner to an older Federalist conception of music in politics and in so doing contributes to an ‘elite turn’ in our understanding of early American political culture. Through a distinctively historical approach to the examination of music and politics it is found that Federalism may bear more responsibility for the rise of popular American political culture than commonly thought. Influenced by contemporaneous English debates, Federalists justified their own top-down approach to popular patriotic music by appealing to music’s capacity to moderate the temperament, to instill support in the nation’s leaders, and to soothe rather than inflame factional differences. The composition of The Star Spangled Banner, in effect, represented a culmination of Federalist efforts to use music as part of a political strategy to ensure their elite values were reflected in national culture.
Mary Carroll Johansen
Beth A. Salerno