Current Issue Article Abstracts

Winter 2022, Vol. 42.4

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Seeking Abolition: Black Letter Writers and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in the Era of Gradual Emancipation
Mary T. Freeman

During the era of gradual emancipation, between about 1780 and 1830, ordinary African Americans tested the power of correspondence in efforts to advance their claims to freedom. Their demands often exceeded the limits of emancipation laws, but the letters themselves became a form of evidence in cases that challenged the existing legal regime. This article draws upon the correspondence files of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society to reveal a pattern of antislavery activism in which enslaved and free Black correspondents communicated their views directly white abolitionists, seeing themselves as participants in a cooperative activist partnership. Writing as deferential petitioners, indignant parents, aggrieved victims, and shrewd negotiators—sometimes all within the space of the same letter—African Americans used correspondence to present their political concerns as inseparable from their daily lives. Harnessing the medium of correspondence, they made immediate demands for legal freedom and relief from suffering. They also made implicit claims to equality through their conscious deployment of language and letter-writing conventions to reflect good moral character—a prerequisite for equal membership in the body politic. Together, these sources demonstrate that African Americans used letter-writing to secure freedom for themselves and their families as well as to emphasize the universal injustice of slavery and the moral obligation to oppose it.


Mourning a Murder: The Death of John Pierce, Local Politics, and British-American Relations
Heather Carlquist Walser

This essay examines how localities shaped federal policy and influenced foreign affairs in the early nineteenth century. By examining the local, national, and international response to the accidental killing of John Pierce on the Leander by British warships off the coast of New York in 1806, this piece argues for the importance of studying national issues, like national sovereignty, in local contexts. Building off of recent political and diplomatic histories that have recentered individuals and cultural politics in the study of foreign affairs, this essay traces how the local response to Pierce's death created a national outcry, directly affected on-going negotiations with the British empire, and laid the groundwork for future protests regarding national sovereignty. By expanding more traditional ideas of diplomacy to include local political leaders and the cultural politics of people in the street, this essay seeks to reinvigorate the diplomatic history of the early republic. The aftermath of the Leander affair demonstrates how diplomatic negotiations happened on a local, state, national, and international level between formal and informal political actors and how local issues helped define national priorities, create a national identity, and shape understandings of national sovereignty.



Introduction: "What's in a Name?"
Nora Slonimsky, Jessica Choppin Roney, Andrew Shankman

The words we use matter, yet they undergo constant change in ways sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic. There is power in naming, or misnaming, and in who gets to decide. Ideally, this Critical Engagements forum will contribute to our collective, conscious, and rigorous interrogation of the terms we use and why we use them.


Indigenous, Native American, or American Indian? The Limitations of Broad Terms
Brooke Bauer, Elizabeth Ellis

This piece considers the use of the terms Indigenous, American Indian, Native American, and Indian in historical writing. Placing each of these labels in historical context, Bauer and Ellis trace the evolution of language used to talk about Native Americans and offer context and critiques of diverse usages. By tracking between the past and present, the authors also consider contemporary terminology usage among Native communities, and demonstrate generational shifts among their own communities. Bauer and Ellis argue in favor of using the specific names of tribal nations whenever possible and demonstrate that generalizing terms, like Indigenous and Native American primarily serve to describe Native peoples through their relations to colonization rather than on their own terms.


"I was born a slave": Language, Sources, and Considering Descendant Communities
Vanessa M. Holden

In this essay, Vanessa M. Holden foregrounds her experience working with her local community in an exploration of the use of the terms "slave" and "ensalved" in historical writing. She engages with primary material and historians' own careful public debate about both terms. An ongoing conversation in the feild of slavery scholarship accross multiple historical contexts, the two terms deserve to be approached with nuance and care for the lives of those held in bondage during the period of Atlantic slavery.


Black and African American
Elise A. Mitchell

The terms Black and African American are the products of twentieth-century political and cultural movements that struggled to find terms to define, unite, celebrate, and recognize the heritage and identity of people of African descent in the United States. Today, African American typically refers to the ethnicity, nationality, and culture of Black people residing in or born in the United States. Black typically refers to a racial category and an elastic cultural, ethnic, and, arguably, political identity that is not defined by nationality or geopolitical boundaries. These two terms are only the most recent articulations of a long tradition of collective self-identification that began during the earliest days of slavery and colonialism in the Americas. This essay examines the social and political shifts that engendered new ways of naming Black identity and the names and terminology intellectuals have used to describe people of African descent in the Americas in the past.


White/white and/or the Absence of the Modifier
Whitney Nell Stewart

This essay encourages historians to employ the term white when writing about white people, a seemingly simple practice but one rarely employed. White is very often an absent modifier, and when we do not name it, we omit the power that racial thinking and racist actions provided to white people. In so doing, we unthinkingly replicate and give support to racist power structures. By reflecting on the simultaneous precarity and power of whiteness in the past, we can see how the history of the term has shaped our contemporary writing and how we might improve it.

"What's in a Name?": They/Them
Greta Lafleur

The words we use matter, yet they undergo constant change in ways sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic. There is power in naming, or misnaming, and in who gets to decide. Ideally, this Critical Engagements forum will contribute to our collective, conscious, and rigorous interrogation of the terms we use and why we use them.

Sari Altschuler

The word disability originated as a legal, rather than a medical, term where it was used to limit individuals' access to rights. These linguistic roots have cast a long shadow over the legal and political lives of disabled people. Nevertheless, the word disability originally described more situational and malleable states than fixed conditions, and it was not until the antebellum era that disability began to be associated more commonly with bodily and mental conditions. When writing about disability history, scholars should keep in mind the shifting nature of the term disability and evolving understandings of the concept of disability during the period as well as the identity preferences and self-understanding of the groups whose histories they study. Cultural and epistemological humility as well as openness to change and correction remain essential. 

Survivance: About Process and Historical Structures
Christian Ayne Crouch

This short essay reflects on the meanings, use, and misuse of the term survivance. A key concept in Native American and Indigenous Studies, survivance offers methodological possibilities as well for researchers working in early American history but the term needs to be approached with care.

Reconsidering Theory and Accountability in Early American Studies
Elizabeth Ellis

The words we use matter, and our terminology is of great importance for the kind of scholarship we produce, and the audiences to which our work is legible. But the words themselves are more the means than the end of this analytical work. Each of the scholars writing in this issue of JER explains the importance of their assigned terms within a broader set of methodological and theoretical questions and framings, and so these terms act as a kind of shorthand for interdisciplinary and community-engaged approaches that are bringing new questions and perspectives to early American studies.


Names, Terms, and Politics
Leslie M. Harris

Historians' decisions about what words to use to describe historical actors can be affected by editing practices and community norms. However, historians must also be attentive to how historical actors understood their own identities and life experiences as well.


Creatively Anachronistic Grammars of Power
Daniel K. Richter

The contributors to the Forum "What's in a Name?" draw our attention to grammars of power. Words labeling race, ethnicity, gender, and ability assume distinct valences in the guise of pronouns, adjectives, and nouns, plurals and singulars, active and passive constructions.



Ireland and America: Empire, Revolution, and Sovereignty ed. by Patrick Griffin and Francis D. Cogliano (review)
Nicola Martin


North of America: Loyalists, Indigenous Nations, and the Borders of the Long American Revolution by Jeffers Lennox (review)
Mark Edward Lender


The Boston Massacre: A Family History by Serena Zabin (review)
Benjamin L. Carp


How Welfare Worked in the Early United States: Five Microhistories by Gabriel J. Loiacono (review)
Kristin O'Brassill-Kulfan


Perfecting the Union: National and State Authority in the US Constitution by Max M. Edling (review)
Donald F. Johnson


Feeding Washington's Army: Surviving the Valley Forge Winter of 1778 by Ricardo A. Herrera (review)
Ann M. Becker


Adams Family Correspondence, Volume 15, March 1801–October 1804 ed. by Hobson Woodward et al. (review)
Edith B. Gelles


Minds and Hearts: The Story of James Otis, Jr. and Mercy Otis Warren by Jeffrey H. Hacker (review)
Rachel Tamar Van


Jefferson's Muslim Fugitives: The Lost Story of Enslaved Africans, Their Arabic Letters, & an American President by Jeffrey Einboden (review)
Kambiz GhaneaBassiri


A True American: William Walcutt, Nativism, and Nineteenth-Century Art by Wendy Jean Katz (review)
Kara M. French


American Fragments: The Political Aesthetic of Unfinished Forms in the Early Republic by Daniel Diez Couch (review)
Kacy Dowd Tillman


An African American Dilemma: A History of School Integration and Civil Rights in the North by Zöe Burkholder (review)
Campbell F. Scribner


Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom by Spencer W. McBride (review)
Sasha Coles