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Fred Anderson. A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War. Chapel Hill: The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

The Seven Years’ War (also known in American grammar school textbooks as the French and Indian War) has often been cast aside as a colonial war, an aberration that was mostly a prelude to the American Revolution. Seen from the perspective of Massachusetts soldiers, however, the war was a singular events in their lives. In his groundbreaking book A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War, Fred Anderson blends military and social history to examine the lives of provincial soldiers from Massachusetts to find deeper meaning in the Seven Years’ War than typically ascribed to it in textbooks. Anderson argues that “the Seven Years’ War was anything but a deviation from business as usual. It was instead a world-shaping event, an occurrence with the power to unify the experiences of those across whose lives it cut. The Seven Years’ War, like World War I, was capable of creating a generation of men with a ‘common frame of reference’ that set them apart from those who had preceded them in time and which would ‘later distinguish the members of the generation from those who follow[ed] them.’” Yes, you read that correctly. Anderson compares the impact of the French and Indian War to that of the First World War. Anderson examines soldierly life for provincial troops, their social backgrounds, the lives they left behind to fight in the war, the leadership and organization of provincial armies, the effect of combat, and, perhaps most importantly, their interactions with the British Army. The experiences of provincial soldiers and their interactions with the Redcoats would ultimately lead them to think of themselves as a people distinct from the British, and this, in turn, provided fertile ground for Massachusetts’ support of the Revolution of 1776. Are you keeping up? Anderson uses to a blend of social and military history to make an argument that is germane to political historians of the American Revolution. If your head isn’t spinning by now, it should be. A People’s Army represents the ultimate tour de force for a historian - breathtakingly original, from a methodological and argumentative standpoint.

First, methodology. As I mentioned, A People’s Army is a blend of social and military history. While Anderson published the book in the 1984, it was based on his Ph. D. dissertation from Harvard, which he finished in 1981. It’s a good bet that it took, at the very least, three or four years of research and writing to complete his dissertation (and perhaps a good deal more). So, Anderson began his advanced training as a historian in the mid-to-late 1970s and when it comes to assessing this book, it’s useful ask what social history looked like in the late ’70s and also to look at what was going on in the world of military history around the same time.

Anderson writes that his book “differs from much recent social history…in that it concerns not the long durée, but the impact of an event, the Seven Years’ War, in the lives of the people it affected most directly.” The term long durée comes from the French Annales scholars, who were among the most influential historians of the 20th century. In the interest of brevity, I am not going to go into the history of Annales School, but if you want to learn more about what the Annales stood for (they were a diverse lot, to say the least), I can recommend you read Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge by Georg G. Iggers, in particular, pages 51 to 64. Anyway, for purposes here, we can say that the long durée was a discreet kind of time that “moved in slow cycles of hundreds of years or more.” Social historians hoped to understand society from ‘the bottom-up’ and used huge banks of statistical data, often with the help of computers, in order to tease out small, barely perceptible changes over the course of centuries. So, instead of writing about people and their lives in an almost geological sense, Anderson employed the same quantitative methodologies to learn about the importance of a discreet historical event (the Seven Years’ War) on very specific historical actors (provincial soldiers from Massachusetts). From the perspective of social history in the late ’70s early ’80s, A People’s Army was pathbreaking.

While social history in the 20th century proved to a dynamic category of historical analysis, military history was a first-rate specimen of methodological continuity. Anderson summarizes in one sentence the primary focus of military historians: “the narration of campaigns and the analysis of generalship.” Anderson levels strong criticism at such history. He writes, “Wars are waged to be won, and too many writers of military history have taken it as their main task to isolate the elements that have made for success or failure, trying (for example) to explain how General A could fight a battle brilliantly against great odds while General B could manage to dissipate his advantages and butcher his own men.” This incorrect focus of military historians led them to “judge past armies and soldiers by professional standards of discipline, efficiency, and cohesion.”  Instead, Anderson took a far different approach and instead “focused on the mundane aspects of soldiering – daily life, discipline, common attitudes toward war, and so on – in order to gauge the effects of military service on the provincial troops themselves.” So, from the perspective of military history in the late ’70s and early ’80s, A People’s Army was, again, pathbreaking.

And then there’s Anderson’s thesis, which is of interest to historians of the politics of the American Revolution. Anderson makes it very clear that the British Army and the provincial armies (who fought in the same campaigns on the same side of the war) were quite dissimilar in their backgrounds, economies, motivations for fighting, discipline, organization, leadership, and worldview. Relations with the Redcoats were often strained because of these differences. For example, a British soldier saw himself upholding the sovereignty of the king, and they served at his majesty’s leisure. Provincial soldiers saw themselves as fulfilling a contract (or covenant) they had made their local government that was to last for one campaign. Both sides had to fulfill the contract or it became null and void. British soldiers came from a world of intricate social stratification and the army’s organization bore out such social distinctions. Provincial soldiers came from a much more level society that knew a far less elaborate social hierarchy. Ultimately, these differences would inculcate to Massachusetts soldiers and officers the differences they had with the British. Because the war was a singular event in the soldiers’ lives – a major plot point, if you will - it created a common frame of reference for the men and, in turn, they learned a common lesson. Anderson explains that “[a]s spokesmen for political (and later military) resistance began to make themselves heard in Boston, the veterans in the countryside could scarcely ignore the similarities between what they were hearing and what they themselves had witnessed during the last war. Public criticism of the British, couched in the terms of republican rhetoric, found a ready confirmation in the veterans’ personal experience.” And so, Anderson finds that seeds of revolution in the Seven Years’ War of a very different variety than usually cited by scholars. And so, from the perspective of political historiography of the American Revolution in the late ’70s and early ’80s, A People’s Army was, yet again, pathbreaking.

So, I’ve (hopefully) made it clear that Anderson’s work is pathbreaking in regards to social, military, and political history. And this gets at what I think was Anderson’s even bigger message: Historians have too many categories. I said above that this book is a blend of social and military history, but I think it might be safer to say that it draws from those genres, but A People’s Army really transcends those categories. It’s really about the lives of soldiers. While I have no idea if this was Anderson’s intention, the moral of the story could not be clearer to me. First of all, these categories (military history, political history, social history, economic history, etc.) have very little to do with the lived reality of the past. These categories have become somewhat rigid over the years, and often define the nature of one’s primary and secondary research. The great southern historian Glenda E. Gilmore nailed it when she wrote that not only are these categories “drawn by and for historians,” but also that “subfields misrepresent the way people actually lived their lives.” Anderson described the lived reality of the Seven Years’ War for Massachusetts soldiers – a reality that defies historians’ categorizations. A People’s Army is as much as statement against historical categories that are very often so arbitrary and restrictive that they are ahistorical. And the message of understanding history and historical actors on their own terms, instead of our terms, is always a message worth sharing.

Edward L. Ayers. The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Imagine, for a moment, that you have been transported through time and place and now live in the South and the year is 1880. There are obvious differences between this time and our own. No electrical power, air conditioning, plumbing, cars, phones, internet, television, radio, or modern medicine. Aside from the absence of modern conveniences that have increasingly come to define our lives in the 21st century, you would notice that the South in 1880 was riddled with a variety of problems. Big problems that, to a very large degree, the rest of the United States did not face.

You would immediately notice the poverty. A series of depressions ravaged the region, leaving the South economically crippled. Cotton increasingly dominated agriculture on large and small farms, forcing many growers to scale back or even stop growing provision crops and raising livestock in favor of the dominant cash crop. In order to merely feed their families, farmers were now forced to go deeply into debt, placing a lien on their next crop to local merchants just to provision their farms and feed their families. As long as the price of cotton was relatively high, then both sides won – the farmer got what he needed to run his farm and also turned a profit on the sale of his cotton, while the merchant made a hefty profit on the interest. The crop-lien system worked better in theory than in practice. Many farmers became shackled to cotton and became mired in the vice grip of debt and declining cotton prices. While there were economic success stories in the South during this era, especially in areas of retail and industrial entrepreneurship, overall, the region faced severe poverty and this made daily life a struggle for countless southerners.

If you happened to pick up a newspaper, you’d notice that the South faced many problems in regards to its political system. Traditionally, we assume that, at least among whites, the Democratic Party ruled the region. While the party was very strong throughout the South, it suffered from intense factionalism. Furthermore, the Republican Party never died and was very active throughout the region and even quite powerful in certain areas, particularly the mountains. Corruption was a large problem in politics throughout the nation and the South was certainly not immune to the so-called Gilded Age. The average southerner, especially farmers, also felt like politicians didn’t really represent their interests. Many observers felt that corporations and big money interests, like railroads, controlled politics and many became disenchanted and stopped voting – even if they had passionate political views. Farmers, millhands, loggers, and many average folk simply felt ignored by state governments and by their representatives in Washington. As the economy worsened and the plight of farmers grew ever more desperate, a new political movement evolved into the Populist Revolt, reaching a fevered pitch in 1892. Populism ultimately went down in defeat, but the movement laid the ground work for a new breed of southern politician. Demagogues like Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina existed all over the South and knew how to manipulate popular sentiment into huge political capital through race baiting and inciting class warfare.

If you decided to take a railroad to travel while you were in the South, you’d immediately be confronted with racial strife. Race relations at the time in the South were particularly volatile. Many African Americans, now closing in on two decades out of slavery were starting to improve their lives financially. Some owned small farms, some owned businesses, and others were artisans. Many blacks were accumulating property, and this alarmed most white folks. It was on railroad cars that racial tensions reached an apex. If an African American could afford a first class ticket, they expected, quite reasonably, equal accommodations by the railroad. This set the stage for a showdown in court, that culminated the landmark (and notorious) Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896, which legalized “separate, but equal” accommodations on railroad cars, and eventually just about everything you could think of, including schools, toilets, water fountains, and theaters. For those blacks not lucky enough to accumulate property, sharecropping offered little but grueling work and continued poverty. By the end of the 19th century, not only was the South rapidly segregating, but white lawmakers were systematically disenfranching blacks. Stripped of their right to vote, black southerners faced not only an ever-expanding Jim Crow system but an epidemic of lynchings and desperate poverty.

You might also be struck how modern and non-traditional (if that means anything at all to you) life was becoming in the region. Old communities were dying while new ones emerged in their wake. Rural farm families, sometimes willingly (and even happily), sometimes more reluctantly, left the family farm to get jobs in textile mills, mushrooming all over the Piedmont in places like Greenville, South Carolina. In West Virginia and Kentucky, coal towns emerged out of mountain wilderness almost overnight. Throughout pine forests, men went to work in turpentine camps. Logging companies similarly expanded all over the region, transforming the workers and the landscape simultaneously. It is well documented that the shift from farming to “public work” (as it was known in the South) was a difficult and anxious process for middling and poor southern families. Even aristocratic families with huge plantations felt their traditional lives ripped apart. With no slaves to work the land, planters often rented parcels of their land out to tenets or sharecroppers. Eventually, most planters moved to town to take up residency, becoming absentee landlords. As absenteeism became more common, estates fell into disrepair as landowners, living the good life in town, became complacent and took less and less interest in their old homeplaces. In symbolic irony, these formerly grand examples of southern agricultural prosperity crumbled from neglect of their owners.

While cities and towns offered some benefits, there were problems here too. For the first time, consumer culture transformed the South and its people. Railroads brought quick transportation and relatively cheap freight rates. Not only did the Sears and Roebuck Catalogue changed offer a cornucopia of materialistic delight, local department stores filled with the latest trends, trinkets, technology, and other sundries changed southern culture in subtle ways. New stoves made it easier to cook. Grocery stores, for example brought new foodways to the South. One long time staple of the southern diet gave way to another, as biscuits replaced cornbread as the bread of choice on most southern tables. Coffee, previously something of a luxury, became cheap. Thanks to the wonderfully addictive nature of caffeine and coffee drinking in general, it moved from a luxury to a necessity. It was noted that “families whose aggregate earnings do not amount to three dollars a week will rather let their youngsters run barefoot than stint themselves in the use of the popular narcotic.” While these changes were not particularly harsh, they did signal a dramatic shift in southern life. And, as with industrialization, urbanization caused anxiety as the draw of the cities pulled families apart. The lure of the city was merely symptomatic of another problem the South faced in the waning decades of the 19th century. Generational conflict constantly caused agitation between the young and the old. The Civil War and its commemoration proved to be an issue of lasting friction. Old veterans scoffed at young men who grew up soft and did not understand the sacrifices they endured during the war. Beyond the war, different generations struggled over the meaning of politics, religion, gender, and commerce. New expectations of life among the New South generation placed them at considerable distance with their parents and grandparents.

So, still imagining that you are now living in the South, sometime between 1880 and 1900, and seeing all these glaring problems and anxiety-inducing social changes taking places, what do you think of the place?

You probably think it was a really awful place. So many problems – poverty, racism, and political corruption. And for decades southern historians, quite understandably, focused on the problems the South faced. After all, many of the great southern historians in the middle and later decades of the 20th century hoped that history could be used as a tool to change the South for the better in their own time. The names C. Vann Woodward and John Hope Franklin rush to mind immediately. But by focusing on the negative so much, historians grew to disdain the region they studied. In his landmark 1951 study, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913, Woodward burns with indignation on every page. Similarly, Paul Gaston proved dismissive in his important 1970 study The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking by comparing the short-sightedness of economic boosters on issues of race with that of the emperor’s foolish vanity in Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fable The Emperor’s New Clothes. By settling a research agenda that focused on moral failings, political corruption, violence, and oppression, historians unwittingly defined the South by its limitations. The New South, according to such highly regarded scholars, was a sad place populated by sad people.

In 1992, Edward Ayers published his landmark study The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction. Overall, the 400+ page book has topical chapters: politics, race relations, religion, country life, town life, literature, music, sectional reconciliation, consumerism, industrialization, and so forth. Each chapter gives a general historical overview of its topic, sometimes offering unique historiographic insights, but with such a big and expansive book, there’s little room to spend more than a few paragraphs discussing very large questions that southern historians have argued about for decades. There is a lot of historical information to chew on, and Ayers offered new perspectives previously passed over by scholars. The Promise of the New South asks new questions by “look[ing] beyond the public realm.” Ayers examined love letters, newspaper editorials, fiction, diaries, and countless other stories to give readers an account of what life was life for the people who lived in the South after Reconstruction. Ayers sharply asserts, “The New South appears far newer when we measure change by paying close attention to concrete differences in people’s lives instead of contrasting the region with the North’s more fortunate history or the claims of Southern boosters. To say that much was new in the South is not to say that things were fine. It is to say that people throughout the social order, top to bottom, faced complicated decisions.” Instead of a book about the poisoned politics of the region, the horrors of lynching, the sad story of disenfranchisement and Jim Crow, the brutal reality of the crop-lien system, sharecropping, or any other problem the South faced, we learn a little bit about almost everything in the New South. Ayers discussed topics including courtship, Christmas, Coca-Cola, college football, jazz, blues, the founding of Belk department stores, life in a mill village, black achievement, the Holiness movement, the Spanish-American War, railroads, and also includes all the negative stuff that historians have typically used to account for the South’s stunted economic growth, political system, and race relations. The result is a book that is incredibly honest but also looks beyond the pain of the region has both suffered and inflicted upon itself.

But as I was reading the book, I found that the “promise” the New South offered, the promise that inspired the title of book, is elusive to the reader. In the opening pages, Ayers does point out that “Southerners often managed to persuade themselves…that the new era held out unprecedented promise for the region.” While Ayers is correct in this statement, I can’t help but think that he used the word “promise” as a red herring to satisfy any curiosity the reader had regarding the title very early or, more likely, at the urging of an editor at Oxford or peer-reviewer who insisted that he address exactly what he meant by the word promise even though the sentence I quoted is not really what the book is about. When you finish the reading the book, with its great breadth and complexity, and then reconsider the vague promise he mentions in the opening paragraphs, you just have to scratch your head.

So what exactly does Ayers mean? I was struggling very mightily with this question after reading the book so I re-read the preface. Ayers writes that “we have focused so much so on the limitations Southerners endured that we have lost sight of the rest of their lives. The people of the New South have become synonymous with the problems they faced. Southerners of both races have become reduced to objects of pity, scorn, romance, or condescension. That is not enough.” In these sentence, Ayers elevates New South history out of the darkness imposed on it by an earlier generation of historians. In Ayers’ use, promise can be defined as something with readily apparent potential for good that has not yet been fully realized. By presenting an honest and richly textured account of the era that left room for tragedy, Ayers liberates New South history out the emotional darkness it existed in for a decades. The “promise of the New South” is thus a new way of looking at southern history. A duality that exists for southern historians who are themselves white southerners (especially males). There is an undeniable love of home, a joy that surrounds exploring southern culture and history that we adore. We want to love the South unconditionally, but we can’t get past the shortcomings - the soul crushing moral failures at every turn throughout southern history. Whether it be issues tied to race, gender, economics, religion, politics, or some combination there always seems to be as much to hate as there is to love. That tension is reflected perfectly in the title of The Promise of the New South. So much potential. So many reasons to love it. And always in the shadow of broken promises.

Simon Schama. Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution. New York: Ecco, 2006.

It’s become avant-garde for historians to use creative literary structure and narrative when telling their stories. This is due, in large part, to the tremendous influence that postmodernist theory has had on the study of history. Scholar Hayden White remains one of the chief proponents for the use of more creative forms of writing in academic circles. White goes as far as to suggest that historians should self-consciously write like novelists. He writes, “Viewed simply as verbal artifacts, histories and novels are indistinguishable from one another….[T]he aim of the writer of a novel must be the same as that of a writer of history. Both wish to provide a verbal image of ‘reality.’” When I first read White at the end of the my first year of graduate school, I received these words like thunder from heaven. I wanted to jump up in the library and stand on the top of the stacks and yell “AMEN” at the top of my lungs. After nearly two semesters of graduate school, I had read dozens and dozens of books and articles. Most of them were lively and engaging, but all too many of them were dry and extremely tedious. Every week I found myself struggling through some monograph on an interesting subject, but the writing had no soul. I found myself up to my neck in academic jargon and I felt (indeed I still feel) that this made most history so boring and difficult that nobody in the real world would ever want to sit down and read it. While it’s true that historians should never (EVER) write books that they think might become best sellers, writing a book bogged down in rarefied language makes the subject unattainable to even the most motivated non-academic interested in history. If nobody but other scholars will ever read your book, what the hell the point? Standards of research should never be watered down, but instead of writing in the formal academic tone so common among historians, scholars should strive to make their books flow like novels. I firmly believe that this sort of writing allows the reader to elicit a more emotional response while still faithfully representing the reality of the past. This makes history both an educational and emotional experience – and suddenly learning about the past becomes a powerful tool for intellectual growth and the development of an educated citizenry, instead of a required course that high school and college students simply endure. And thanks to the influence scholars like White (and others), there are some recent examples of books that use creative narrative, read like novels, and still adhere to the highest standards of research and intellectual rigor. Not all historians can pull this sort of thing off because it takes a very gifted writer to do this well. One recent example of an academic history book that reads like a novel and takes full advantage of a lively and creative narrative is Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution. The narrative and writing in Rough Crossings is everything that I dreamed history writing could and should be when I first read the work of Hayden White.

And I didn’t really like it. I am going to try to be fair to Schama because my criticism of Rough Crossings hinges on interpretation, details, and tone.

Schama’s research question is not new to historians - he asks the reader which side of the American Revolution would they have picked if they were black. I recently read Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone which, among other things, explored the black experience during the Revolution and came to the same conclusion that Schama did. The British clearly offered the best opportunities for a better life if you were black in America in 1776. It is well-known that the last Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, offered freedom to any slave who fought with the British to put down the rebellion. Other British leaders made similar proclamations and many historians have discussed their importance and consequences. Schama argues that “the genesis of African-American liberty is…inseparable from the British connection during and after the war” (his thesis is never clearly articulated, and that’s not uncommon in books like this). I don’t think that Schama is coming out of left field here and there is evidence to suggest that this is a viable and potentially path-breaking thesis. But while Schama correctly stresses that certain British officials or generals offered slaves freedom for defecting from their rebellious American masters, he fails to adequately qualify this argument. At no time – none whatsoever – did Great Britain ever have an official policy on what to do with the runaway slaves who flocked to the British lines.  Schama needed to, at a minimum, acknowledge that the promise of “British freedom” was never official government policy. To the British, the promise of freedom made the slaves a political football in a bitterly contested war. This realization throws cold water on Schama’s thesis - the British connection was, at best, shaky and never even officially acknowledged! Instead of arguing measured and carefully qualified language, Schama lacked the sobriety required of a historian when dancing through such a complicated minefield.

Berlin, on the other hand, presented, in just a few pages, a more measured (and thus more accurate) account of the experience of fugitive slaves. He discussed Gen. Henry Clinton’s promise for freedom for slaves who defected from rebel owners – a distinction that Schama made, but did not fully explore. Berlin and Schama agreed that slaves interpreted this proclamation as a general emancipation and, and such, the promises had tremendous importance in the lives of both slaves and masters. Slaves flooded to the British lines in places like Charleston and Savannah. Berlin described slaves who became laborers for the army and observed that “every British officer seem[ed] to have his own servant.” While most fugitive slaves did not become servants, many others built forts, drove wagons, and performed many of the countless tasks it took to maintain an army. Schama stressed slaves that become soldiers and indeed some fought bravely with great distinction under the Union Jack. But the number who actually took up arms was relatively small because the British were understandably uncomfortable to make slaves into soldiers because many loyalists owned slaves. And Berlin qualifies the whole business of promising freedom to slaves in a few tight sentences.

[T]he British proved to be unreliable liberators. The influx of fugitives frightened them, as they feared identification as the slaves’ friend would drive slaveholding Loyalists into the Patriot camp. Caught between the need to mobilize slave laborers and the fear of alienating slaveholders, British commanders wavered, developing no consistent policy. Although some officers and soldiers continued to harbor fugitives, others did not, and while some fugitives sometimes found themselves welcomed into British lines, others were jailed, whipped, and returned to their Loyalist owners in exchange for promises of loyalty, supplies, and information respecting the movement of Patriot forces.

He goes on.

Slaves of “unfriendly persons” were frequently forced to work on sequestered estates or awarded to Loyalists in compensation for slaves they had lost. British commanders also employed slaves as bounties to recruit white men to His Majesty’s service, or they simply sold runaways for profit. Loyalist partisans – aided and abetted by British authorities – raided rebel plantations, taking as many as 8,000 slaves to East Florida, where they invigorated the plantations of the British-controlled province. Yet others were sold to the sugar islands, West Florida, or Louisiana, sometimes by Loyalists and sometimes by privateers with no loyalty expect to themselves.

In summation, Berlin states that “despite the contradictory policies and inconsistent practices, slaves clung to the belief, however uncertain, that the enemy of their enemy was their friend.” This is pinpoint accurate analysis of a complex historical narrative that unfolded because of many small contingencies.

While I find it particularly disappointing that Schama never stated that the British never had an official or consistent policy toward runaway slaves, he does discuss in painful detail many of the perils that awaited slaves who made it behind British lines. He even used the line (without plagiarism) “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” to make clear that the British did not have clean hands. And in fact, there are only a few places in the book where Schama’s rhetoric soars beyond what is reasonable. I’m probably going to regret taking my review down this path, but there is a subtle, but still crystal clear, anti-American and pro-British tinge in Rough Crossings. Schama is British but teaches at Columbia University in New York City. The places where Schama clearly demonstrated this bias, which are all pretty early in the book, are the only places where his argument lacked sobriety. While Schama did criticize the British, he is entirely dismissive of Americans – a people, then and now, of vast intellectual diversity. While there were more abolitionists in England than America in 1776, evangelicalism was making tremendous strides throughout North America and this provided the chief moral underpinning for abolitionism throughout both England and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. If you read between the lines in Rough Crossings a little, Americans might feel like Schama is winking and nudging the reader and whispering something like “the British were bad, but the Americans were worse – long live the Union Jack!” Anybody who knows the history of British imperialism knows that the British have a terrible history when it comes to dealing with non-British people – Indians, Native Americans, Chinese, Irish, South Africans…and the list is truly endless. Furthermore, Schama indulged in hyperbolic language for dramatic effect. Consider this sentence, “To see the embryo of the first authentically free African-American society one has to look to the Union Jack.” The numbers of slaves who died of disease or who ended up as slaves back on plantations is large compared to the numbers who made it out and makes the sentence above seem laughably hyperbolic and homerish. As the narrative made perfectly clear, any slave who eventually won freedom as a reward for their service to the British during the Revolutionary War, whether in Nova Scotia or eventually in Sierra Leone, only succeeded because they were extremely lucky and determined to hold the British accountable for promises made. While the promise of freedom was politically important for blacks, the very idea of freedom is intuitive for anybody in legal bondage. The British did not create the idea of African American freedom – African Americans did! They did not start searching for ways to form a free society once generals promised freedom. That history dates back to the founding of slavery in the 13 colonies.

One argument Schama made actually made me mad. Eventually, the British Army left Charleston and Savannah after signing the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Many slave refugees remained behind, and instead of just going back to their old owners, many formed paramilitary organizations known as maroons. These settlements had always been present throughout the colonial South.  Schama described one group in particular: “In 1786, three years after the Treaty of Paris had been signed, a band of some three hundred former slaves, trained in arms by the British during the war, were still operating as freebooting partisans (or, depending on your point of view, outlaws) on both sides of the Savannah River.” Schama describes their village and their fortifications. This was classic maroonage, even if these blacks had been trained by the British (after looking at the footnotes, I think this is a claim of questionable veracity). These black Americans held a grudge against their former masters and were certainly willing to raid white settlements with impunity. It is historically inaccurate and misleading to assume they were anything other than slave maroons. Schama leads very briefly down another path, I suspect only to end a chapter with spectacular punctuation. He writes, “But to the blacks of the South they were something more. They were exactly what they had decided to call themselves: ‘The King of England’s Soldiers.’” Chapter over, moving on to a description of the evacuation of black refugees from New York City. I was enraged with this statement because it implied that these blacks were chiefly loyal to George III or even only existed to return British rule to what was now the United States. These former slaves were merely eking out an existence through banditry. They were black, refused to be slaves, and as such their options in southern society were quite limited. It is impossible to know why they named themselves “the King of England’s Soldiers,” but they probably used the name simply to be provocative or even to be ironic. I think the implication that these fugitives slaves were somehow loyal to the king (especially after they had been left behind by the British army) is simply Schama twisting information in an effort to raise hackles for dramatic effect. Academic history demands much more than this kind of soaring rhetoric.

While I’ve gone on at some length about Schama’s tone that seemed to be winking and nudging about British superiority and a few isolated statements that were blatantly hyperbolic, I thought the book wasn’t really bad, just flawed. The writing, from a purely literary standpoint, was wonderful. The bulk of the book is about the journey of those who actually got to leave the United States under the auspices of British protection - which amounted to only a very small fraction of the slaves who defected from their owners. The story of former American slaves who struggled, persevered, and made it to Nova Scotia or eventually back to Africa to found the British colony of Sierra Leone was riveting. Schama introduces characters like the renowned British abolitionist Granville Sharpe and the British Navy Lieutenant John Clarkson, who might have done more personally than any other white person in history to mitigate the suffering of blacks and see that they were treated as they deserved. The story stretches from the Savannah River, to the city streets of New York, to tiny hamlets in Canada, to parlors and back alleys in London, to ships on the Atlantic, to west coast of Africa – this is a story of the Atlantic world, powerfully told by one of the best writers in the academy. With a few caveats, I would recommend this book to anybody interested in history or just reading something that is entertaining. The book reads like a novel and Schama takes great pains to avoid the language of scholarly drivel.

It makes me sad that a book with so much potential is marred by two or three spots of excess and a few omissions that wouldn’t have dramatically altered the argument but would have required a more sober and qualified tone than Schama was willing to take. So instead of a ringing endorsement of a book that fulfilled my dreams of what history could be, the best I can offer you is a largely negative review of a book that could have been - no, should have been – much better.

Ira Berlin. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

There are many erroneous assumptions people have about American slavery that historians have not always done a great job of dispelling. For example, people often don’t know that slavery was perfectly legal in the northern states and many northern farmers owned a significant number of slaves well into the 19th century. Thinking bigger picture, it’s also easy to assume that slavery as an institution was fundamentally static. We might think that being a slave in 1680 on a tobacco plantation in Virginia probably meant just about the same thing as being a slave on a sugar plantation in 1810 in Louisiana. Sure, the work was different, but being a slave meant being a slave. Right? In Ira Berlin’s magnificent study Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, we learn that nothing could be farther from the truth. The thing that makes this book so convincing (to me anyway) and distinguishes it from so many other books is it’s simple and effective literary structure. It’s often easy for undergraduates and even graduate students to overlook the importance of literary structure in a work of history, but it is a critical element when it comes to selling your thesis.

And his structure had better be damn good, because the implications of the opening paragraph are indeed profound. Berlin writes that “it has become fashionable to declare that race is a social construction. In the academy, this precept has gained universal and even tiresome assent… But while the belief that race is socially constructed has gained a privileged place in contemporary scholarly debates, it has won few practical battles. Few people believe it; fewer act on it. This new understanding of race has changed behavior little if at all.” Could Ira Berlin really be suggesting that his goal is show how race is socially constructed in a way that it might substantively change the way we live? Well, not really, but he does set out to clarify what historians mean when they say “race is socially constructed” and then use the book’s narrative to demonstrate how this operated throughout history.  Just as the great English labor historian E. P. Thompson argued about class, Berlin asserts that race “cannot exist outside of time and place.” Thompson once famously wrote that “the English working class was present at its own making.” If the thought ever crossed his mind, Berlin (wisely) did not have the chutzpah to write something like “African Americans were present at their own making” (even though it’s true). Berlin convincingly argues that historical constructions such, as race and class (or gender for that matter), “exist on the contested social terrain in which men and women struggle to control their destinies.” If this all seems hopelessly convoluted, let me try to put it another way. By race, we’re not taking about mere skin pigmentation. Everybody knows (or should know!) that skin pigmentation is just that and nothing more. In this discussion, think of race as what it means to have certain skin pigmentation. Being black today means something very different than it did 50 years ago, 100 years ago, or 200 years ago. Paraphrasing Berlin, to understand how race is constructed differently throughout history, we need to zero into a time and place and find out what it meant to have skin pigmentation and then ask what conditions allowed those presumptions to exist. From there it is helpful to compare that place with other places from both the same time and from other times. From such a study, a broad idea of how the African American race emerged in America comes into picture.

Slavery, and indeed race, were based on a series of negotiations between master and slave. While the two sides were never equal, both sides implicitly acknowledged “a degree of legitimacy to the other.” In the end, “[s]lavery was never made, but instead was continually remade, for power – no matter how great – was never absolute, but always contingent.” Contingent on what? Time and place. And Berlin spent much of the introduction explaining some of the terms he used to help make such distinctions. For example, a “society with slaves” was any society where slavery existed alongside other forms of available labor. A “slave society,” on the other hand, was any place where slavery “stood at the center of economic production.” Depending on economic conditions, certain locales oscillated between the two. Moreover, Berlin finds three distinct chronological phases in what he argues was the “convoluted process” of establishing slavery in North America: the charter generations of slaves and their children who first arrived on the continent; the plantation generations, who came of age when certain staple crops took hold of certain regions; and the revolutionary generations, who found themselves struggling to redefine their lives during the milieu of the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions. Finally, Berlin divides North America into four regions: the North, the Chesapeake Bay (tidewater Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware), the lowcountry (South Carolina and large portions of Georgia and Florida), and the lower Mississippi Valley (Louisiana and West Florida). Many Thousands Gone contains three parts, each based on one of the chronological phases listed above. Each part contains a chapter on each geographical region. It was indeed a simple and elegant solution Berlin used show how race was historically constructed through twelve distinct and tidy chapters. The reader finds similarities and differences in how race was negotiated, perceived, and acted upon in different times and places. Social science theory meets literary structure for a knock-out punch.

Berlin begins the story of American slavery not on the Chesapeake Bay, but in Africa where white and black first met during the Age of Exploration. The first slaves who arrived in North America were creoles – a term that has often been used to describe the offspring of cultural blending. Creoles had brown skin, European names, African customs, spoke many languages, and were very fluent in the ways of the Atlantic littoral. Once in North America, creoles did not behave in the ways we typically associate with enslaved Africans. They were valuable members of burgeoning communities. Many were skilled laborers, and many worked alongside their masters. While slavery itself dictated that they were not the equals of Europeans, the extremely harsh and fluid circumstances of the new colonies proved to be a great leveling force. It was not until slaves ignorant of the ways of the Atlantic World arrived from the interior of Africa in large numbers that social barriers commonly associated with bondage became erected.

Berlin teaches us many surprising things about slavery during the first century of North America. Anybody who has studied southern history knows (or should know) that the Africans who populated the South were a very diverse group of people. But I was floored to learn that there were a substantial number of Roman Catholics among the black slaves who arrived in Charleston during the 1720s and 1730s. American history textbooks usually do not tell us that the royal family of the Kingdom of the Kongo converted to Christianity in the 15th century. For centuries, Portuguese missionaries worked hard to convert the Kongolese and they met with much success. Many of these believers wound up on the auction block in Charleston and Berlin correctly concludes that their white owners paid no heed to their religious beliefs. But the slaves themselves were neither ignorant nor oppressed such that they had no control over their own destinies. Spanish territory was merely 100 miles south of Charleston – and the Spanish provided a sanctuary for Catholics, offering the promise of freedom. Berlin writes, “During the 1720s and 1730s, these Catholic slaves and other slaves – many newly arrived in South Carolina – defected in increasing numbers. In 1733 Spanish authorities reiterated their offer of freedom, prohibiting the sale of fugitives and commending black militiamen for their service in the struggle against the British.” After the infamous Stono Rebellion of 1739, a number of Catholic refugees found their way to Florida and “Spanish officials would not surrender their co-religionists” to the British. As the number of former slaves in Florida grew, they waged a border war with their former owners in South Carolina. Eventually, the Spanish founded an all-black settlement north of St. Augustine as a line of defense against the British, a place known as Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose. Eventually British settlers from Carolina attacked, and the black men and women living their fought bravely, including one Francisco Menéndez who earned great fame worldwide for his life as a slave, soldier, and pirate. Furthermore, blacks, most of whom had fled slavery from South Carolina, became fully integrated into life in St. Augustine. The kind of stories that Berlin presents demonstrate that while life for slaves was certainly not easily, there were options available for slaves to redefine what it meant to be black by their own actions.

Life would unfortunately change for the worse once the plantation revolution struck large portions of the South. “The degradation of black life in mainland North America had many sources, but the largest was the growth of the plantation, a radically different form of social organization and commercial production controlled by a new class of men whose appetite for labor was nearly insatiable…they redefined the meaning of race, investing pigment – both white and black – with a far greater weight in defining status than heretofore.” Eventually, Berlin finds that the “‘two words Negro and Slave,’ had ‘by custom grown Homogeneous and convertible.’” Now all blacks were equated as slaves. Even if you were free, you were treated unequally, as a slave would be. In order to sustain such a radical shift in the social order, white supremacy would have to be forcefully and stridently institutionalized throughout North America.

And so it was.

Meanwhile, whites throughout the Thirteen Colonies began a revolution for their own independence. And blacks throughout North America successfully seized on the message of the Revolutionary Era to redefine black life. In the North, they won emancipation, albeit gradually and with an implicit racist message of inequality from white elites. In the South, some blacks won freedom from sympathetic owners. Other slaves rejected American hypocrisy and joined the fight against tyranny…as British soldiers (more on this in my next review). Others took advantage of the great disruption that the war caused throughout South Carolina and stole away to freedom. Blacks in Louisiana far from the fighting but well aware of the news of the day fled their plantations to from maroons – or paramilitary settlements of fugitive slaves deep in the bayou. By war’s end, blacks had renegotiated certain freedoms.

But another revolution was coming – one that would alter what it meant to be black for hundreds of years. Cotton would become king. A far more radical definition of racial difference was emerging. In his epilogue, Berlin explains that by the antebellum period, “Many, if not most, believed that the inferiority of black people originated not in their circumstance – be it enslavement in the South or poverty in the North – but in their nature. In this view, people of African descent were not simply less privileged but were congenitally different from people of untainted European ancestry.” How was this different from the white supremacy we saw earlier? Berlin writes, “Behind the most vicious assaults on the character of people of African descent during the first two hundred years of American slavery stood a firm belief that, given the opportunity, black people would behave precisely like whites – which was what made African and African-American slaves at once so valuable and so dangerous. The new racism rejected this logic.”

And so this new white supremacist formulation changed not only what it meant to be black, but what it meant to be white.

And the toll this has exacted on American history is great.

I just got home from an enjoyable weekend getaway to western North Carolina. The foliage is now past its peak color, but you can see from the photo I snapped with my cellphone that the weather and scenery was beautiful. Many of you – indeed most of you – know that I lived in western North Carolina for around two years while I working on my master’s degree at Western Carolina University. In addition to the sometimes all-consuming work load of graduate school, my life was a complete mess during much of my time in WNC. Going back to the mountains in the fall reminded of my how much natural beauty I missed while I was living there because I was either too busy, too emotionally numb, or both to really enjoy it. I know it’s a simple thing to say, but thinking about this makes me sad. I was in one of the most beautiful places on Earth for two years and I didn’t take a single day to enjoy the natural splendor all around me – and when I tried I wasn’t really able to. Of course, being back in the mountains also reminded of the things I enjoyed about my time at Western – the work load was heavy, but I did enjoy my studies. And being back in the mountains also reminded me that it won’t be long until I return to graduate school to pursue a Ph. D. Being as I don’t use the old blog here nearly enough, I thought that I was long overdue for a post that’s more personal than a book review I writing more for myself than anybody in cyberspace. And it’s a good time to update my faithful reader(s) on my progress in ending my so-called exile.  Or in the words of the old spiritual, I’m getting ready to travel on…

First things first, I took the GRE in late July.  If you are staring down this gauntlet that is useless as a predictor of future success, remember that it’s only a test. I let myself get a little too stressed over it. Practice and focus are key. Find your weaknesses and study those sections most. Both Kaplan and the Princeton Review sell workbooks and there are also a number of websites that offer free practice sections. Most history programs use the GRE verbal as a gatekeeper in the admissions process. All people below this score, please turn back. For most programs it’s 600 and some of the elite schools won’t look at anybody who scored under 700. This isn’t really fair, but it’s a practical way of separating the wheat from the chaff in the early stages of the admissions process. One tip for anybody getting ready to take the GRE: have a clear idea of where you plan to apply. ETS will send your scores to four places for free. I picked my four based on where I thought I might apply but I have since decided not to apply to two of them. ETS charges $23 for each additional report. Today, I cut a check for $69 to send three reports and if I had done my homework in advance I would have only had to pay for one additional report.

I scored high enough on the GRE so that I’ll never have to take it again. One hoop jumped through. My next step was to decide which programs to research. There were obvious choices for a specialist in southern history – Georgia, Chapel Hill, South Carolina, Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU, and so on. But I am also planning to have a heavy emphasis on religion, which also narrows the list quite a bit. To find out which professors are currently directing dissertations, I went to the American Historical Association’s website, where they keep a reasonably up-to-date directory of dissertations currently in progress, listing titles and advisors. From this, I made a list of schools where I thought my interests matched fairly well with some of the research currently underway. I ended up with a list of something like 20 universities. For the next phase of research, websites are a charm. University departments have pages for each faculty member that typically list research interests, publications, current graduate students, and sometimes even links to their CVs. After I narrowed the list down to ten or so professors, I sent out introductory emails to politely inquire if they are indeed taking new students.

After sending out my emails (which was a little nerve-wracking, since some of these people are very well-known in the field of southern history), I was able to start an email dialogue with several professors. I was also sure to find out about funding at their schools, always an important consideration. Out of eleven emails, all but two responded. One politely told me that I would not be particularly well-served working under him (I was disappointed with this one because I had met the guy a few times and had only heard extremely positive things about working under him). After this phase of correspondence, I winnowed some programs out of consideration and came up with my list of which schools I am applying to: Florida, Auburn, Chapel Hill, Temple, and Yale.

I have also started to assemble application materials. Most of these are not terribly difficult to pull together. I have a good writing sample and I’ve had my GRE scores sent to all the schools. I’ll need to get transcripts mailed and the applications actually filled out (this is usually the easiest part of the entire process). I’ve also written a statement of purpose (the most difficult part of the entire process), but I’ve sent it to some people to read over. When I have their comments and make the revisions, I’ll move on the paperwork with all possible haste. I hope to have all the applications in by the end of this month and then the waiting game begins.

Applying to Ph. D. programs in history involves a lot of waiting. You apply in the fall and hear back in the spring. When I get word sometime around April, then I will have to travel to each school I got into to visit with the professors and meet with other graduate students. Then I’ll choose where I’ll go for a Ph. D. It’s a huge decision – as serious in the life of an academic as picking a spouse. Not only is picking an advisor going to determine how smoothly your experience as a graduate student will go, but you will be forever linked to that dissertation director and the university for the rest of your career. This is no time to make a bad decision – goodness knows I’ve made my share of those.

This is very exciting for me – and also a time of great soul-searching. I’m essentially signing myself up for at least five years of indentured servitude. I will work 80 hour weeks and have to try to figure out a way to squeeze more time out of the day. Like ever other graduate student, I will be made to do the work that others refuse to do. I’ll sacrifice relationships with family and friends for the sake of doing more work. I will not get a full night’s sleep for months at a time. I will be resigned to a life of bare subsistence.I will endure the hazing ritual known as comprehensive exams. I will have to defend my research, writing, and ideas in the face of withering criticism. And when it’s all over there will probably not be a job waiting on me.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m traveling on.

Richard S. Dunn. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. Chapel Hill: The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

In the Fall of 2007, before my first semester in graduate school was even over, I stared at the class schedule for the following Spring with great trepidation. Because I was at a university with a small program, I didn’t have too many choices. I registered for a split-level graduate/undergraduate course on American religious history and I willingly faced the required historical theories and methods course – a difficult gauntlet that every graduate student knows. With great hesitation, I also registered for a graduate seminar in economic history. The Spring of 2008 turned out to be the most difficult of my entire academic career. And while I found the courses on religion and theory to be educational and enriching, the seminar on economic history left an indelible imprint on my mind. However, when I first faced the prospect on having to study economics – a subject that is as obscure to me as the history of professional bowling in Bulgaria – I was scared. A few days before the class started, the professor assigned us four journal articles to read, all of them seminal contributions to the field of economic history. While I was able to grasp most of the material, one of two these readings might as well have been written in ancient Hebrew. Then we got the book list – all but one of the weekly assigned readings dealt primarily with European history. I took a lot of European history as an undergraduate, but American history is much more in my comfort zone. I had no idea what to expect when I showed up for class on the first night, but I knew that just about all of my classmates were in the same boat as me: Americanists not especially mathematically inclined. Thankfully for us, our professor was Laura Cruz, a vibrant and enthusiastic teacher who, although she specialized in Early Modern Dutch economic history (that’s a mouthful), knew that she was dealing with a motley crew. I did southern religion. Christie was toiling away at a thesis on tourism and industry in Appalachia. Cale was ensconced in research on the Boy Scouts of America. Nathan specialized in Native Americans. Several of us were less interested in careers in academia, but instead preoccupied with becoming high school history teachers. If she were teaching a crew of graduate students who desperately loved economics and economic theory, Laura probably would have steered the course in a radically different direction. As it stood, however, she crafted a class that would work for students like us. It turned out to be an amazing – some might say life-changing – course.

We were loaded down with books from the likes of Eric Jones, Ferdinand Braudel, Max Weber, Joel Moykr, E. A. Wrigley, and Sidney Mintz (to name a few). Rather than forcing us to master the subtle nuances of economic historiography, Laura defined economics simply as “the study of human choice” and then taught us to apply the basic principles we learned in these books to our own research, whatever that happened to be.  Put another way, we learned to step out of our comfort zones to find heuristic value (as Laura termed it) in our reading. I don’t think that any of us who took Laura’s class that Spring came out quite the same. We pushed our research through economic models and surprised ourselves. I’m not sure if I’ll undertake another quantitative study again, but the experience of doing something so radically different from what I was used to pushed to me to be a better historian, and, dare I say, a better person. When it comes to assessing the historical books I read, I came away knowing that the truly great historians write books that have heuristic value. That is, certain critically important books introduce concepts, methods, and models that, regardless of the author’s historical subject, can radically reshape the way scholars understand any historical subject.

Some books exist because the author was inspired by the heuristic value of another book. This seems to be the case with Richard S. Dunn’s Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. Dunn’s book owes much of its existence to the pioneering work of Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age, which we read for Laura’s class. Laslett, along with the aforementioned Sir E. A. Wrigley, co-founded the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure – an incredibly well-funded organization dedicated to historical demography. In The World We Have Lost, Laslett studied things like the price of bread in 1619, probed church parish records in unique ways to find out average life expectancy and family structures for English peasants before the Industrial Revolution, and filled his book with dozens of charts and graphs. He then compared his findings of preindustrial England to postindustrial England – which, according to Laslett, might have well been on different planets for all they had in common. Richard Dunn used many of the same methods, although on a much smaller scale and applied them on very different historical actors – English sugar planters.

Dunn’s book is pioneering because no other historical demographer had seriously looked at the English sugar islands, but I put it down feeling unsatisfied. And perhaps that was inevitable – Dunn had very limited source material. It turns out that the planters left very few sources of their own, and, even when they wrote things down, these sources could typically not survive centuries of hot and humid island conditions (paper will rot, after all). Undeterred, Dunn was basically left with a few parish registers, a few firsthand accounts printed in London, one set of plantation records, some scattered probate records, passenger and shipping inventories, whatever he could find in the public records office in London, and maps. While most historians deal with incomplete sources, Dunn’s records were so spotty he was clearly hesitant (with good reason) to draw too many important conclusions from them. So, some of his arguments and generalizations were tentative. Unfortunately, tentative conclusions usually don’t make for a great history book. They usually just leave you feeling unsatisfied. It’s really a shame that Sugar and Slaves leaves you feeling this way, because Dunn’s efforts to bring us an economic and social history of the English islands of Barbados, Jamaica, Antigua, Montserrat, Nevis, and St. Christopher (which is today called St. Kitts) were downright heroic. Normally, if you had to fit all the sources it takes to write a 340-page monograph into one place, you would need to rent a storage unit. Dunn could have probably fit the most of his primary sources on a kitchen table. The feat of creating of something good and useful (if necessarily incomplete) out of almost nothing is astonishing.

There are some books, like Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll, that transcend the era in which they were written. Dunn’s book does not fall into this category – it feels very much like a piece of 1960s or 70s historical research. Nevertheless, just as comparative history was in fashion in the 70s, Sugar and Slaves does an excellent job of comparing the establishment of the English Caribbean colonies and those on mainland North America, such as Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, or Massachusetts. Moreover, the influence of social science is omnipresent. Rather than stressing context and contingency of a specific time and place, Dunn’s research looks for historical patterns that can be observed on, say Barbados, and extrapolated and applied to another place, such Jamaica or Nevis. While I am sometimes hesitant to really buy into this approach, Dunn’s available sources and economic history methods are particularly well-suited for such generalizations. The general pattern, with some exceptions, was that a few settlers went to the various islands and started planting provision crops and tobacco and found themselves mired in poverty. Once sugar caught on, Englishmen quickly cultivated the best land. It is unclear if some people made fortunes with the best land or if English aristocrats used their muscle to acquire the best acres. At any rate, individuals made vast fortunes. Englishmen who chose to actually live there were extreme examples of aristocracy and spent money even more lavishly than their counterparts in England. They imported vast numbers of slaves and drove them hard. There was no middle class – only the very rich (planters) and the very poor (slaves and a few Englishmen). Eventually, the number of English began to decline, thanks to disease and war with the French while the slave population grew rapidly to fill the planter’s demands. This pattern, more or less, repeated itself all over the English Caribbean islands.

The book is structured topically. There is an introductory chapter that describes each island (size, geography, location, etc.), then chapters specifically on Barbados, the Leeward Islands, and Jamaica that explore politics, demographics, and economics.  We learn similarities, differences, and find a few historical generalizations. From there, Dunn provides chapters on slavery, sugar (and sugar production), “Life in the Tropics,” and “Death in the Tropics.” Given his available source material and methodological underpinnings, it would have been practically impossible for Dunn to synthesize these chapters into a seamless narrative. It’s always important to remember to criticize an author on their own terms. Put another way, criticize the book they wrote – not the book you wished they had written. And I understand that Dunn was writing about six different islands, each with its own geography and political milieu. But this episodic approach doesn’t really work too well for me. I understand doing separate chapters on the various islands, but other historical research from the 1970s has demonstrated that death rates had a tremendous effect on agriculture, politics, and the development of slavery in other English colonies (the most notable of these remains Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, which I reviewed for this blog last summer and you can read for yourself). By separating themes like death rate, the process of sugar production, politics, and the emergence of chattel slavery, Dunn does a great disservice to the reader because these topics are, I feel, closely related to each other. While Morgan and Dunn were writing about the same time, I find it hard to believe that Dunn did not know about Morgan’s research or his conclusions. They would have probably been at academic conferences together and, if they did not know each other personally, they had many mutual colleagues. Because of the subject matter, the comparison between Morgan and Dunn is inevitable – and I will freely admit that Morgan’s book is much more satisfying. How did the weighty presence of death in Jamaica or Barbados affect sugar cultivation, slave importation, and colonial politics at a time when England was constantly at war with the French? And how did the experience in the islands differ with the history of early Virginia? By separating the themes of politics, slavery, and death, these interconnected ideas lose much of their potency.

But let me be clear that there is a lot of value in Sugar and Slaves, if not in overall argument, in specifics that Dunn gives the audience. First of all, Dunn asks three questions that allow for creative comparisons between the islands and the 13 mainland colonies, “how did the early English planters in the West Indies respond to the novelty of life in the tropics? to the novelty of large-scale sugar production? and to the novelty of slave labor?” The answers are important because many of people who settled these islands later immigrated to the colonies and brought with them certain English sensibilities, tempered in the conditions of the West Indies. Dunn finds that, outside of England’s rigid social conventions, the men who inhabited the West Indies to cultivate sugar developed larger-than-life personalities. They displayed their wealth lavishly and sought out adventure as a matter of course. Dunn is not the first to notice that Europeans in the Americas acted very differently than they did at home. “[W]hen the Englishmen began to colonize in the Antilles in the 1620s, they were no babes in the woods. They were self-conscious heirs to Hawkins, Drake, and Raleigh, and as Sir Henry Colt put it, they could not rest until they too had ‘doone some thinges worthy of ourselves, or dye in the attempt.’” Dunn’s explanation for the this penchant for outrageousness in the New World is particularly elegant and, for me, convincing. Dunn argues that the Americas were “beyond the line.” To be beyond the line meant to be “outside the territorial limits of European treaties. In America, might made right and international law was suspended…It [also] meant a general flouting of European social conventions.” Thus, Europeans shed their laws and also found themselves outside of the reach of custom, mores, and, ultimately, any sense of shame. Behavior unimaginable in Europe was fair game in the New World. This concept of being outside of the reach of European law and conventions, for me, goes a long way to explain how behavior that might have been totally acceptable in Europe became perfectly normal in the so-called New World.

Dunn also provides pertinent historical information not often found in one place. Dunn gives the reader a useful overview of the political history of each of the six islands. Caribbean history is not my strong suit, and so the information was educational at a pretty elemental level. We learn the basic narrative of the settlement and political development in the Caribbean, and we find out that landed elites came to dominate each place with a totality that was unknown in England. We find cataclysmic natural disasters, governors who were corrupt, elites who were ready to fight any meddlesome policies from England, clergymen more interested in their next sugar crop than any church business, hostile Frenchmen ready to launch a raid at any minute, and slaves ready to rebel. We learn about the lavish lifestyle of the elites, constantly seeking money, power, and pleasure. There are other parts of life completely foreign to modern readers that Dunn illuminates. I have never really experienced agricultural work, much less large-scale sugar cultivation. Dunn provides us with a detailed account of sugar production: labor intensive, time sensitive,  dangerous, and, if done correctly, enormously profitable. And, as alluded to above, the experience with sugar is important to American history because many of these planters later moved onto the 13 colonies to seek new opportunities. One of the chief landing places turned out to be South Carolina – one of the most wealthy colonies and a politically important state before the Civil War. The numbers of Barbadians who came are not overwhelming, but the wealth of these immigrants was indeed impressive. Land proved more abundant in Carolina and younger sons of Barbadian planters dreamed (and frequently realized) dramatic fortunes on the mainland. “People like the Middletons and Colletons were drawn to Carolina because of its semitropical setting, which seemed to combine the advantages of Caribbean agriculture with the wholesome environment of the North American mainland… [T]hey carried much of the Caribbean milieu with them. Most basically the Barbadians introduced Negro slavery  to South Carolina.” While Dunn recognizes that slavery was inevitable in South Carolina, the Barbadians were experts on chattel slavery and plantation agriculture and, as such, the colony took a very different route than Virginia, which more or less backed into slavery. In the past few decades, South Carolina historians have come to realize the importance of the Barbados connection and Dunn’s discussion of the conditions of Barbados is of ongoing importance to historians of lowcountry South Carolina – and, I feel, this connection with the Caribbean is of great importance to antebellum American history. If not for those Barbadian planters, the South would be quite different today.

Ultimately, Sugar and Slaves is excellent in its rendering of historical information but organized in a way that leaves me underwhelmed. Still, his methodology is firmly rooted in economic history and so Dunn’s book reminds me that that historians we studied in Laura’s class, like Wrigley and Laslett, have indeed had an influence on southern historians like me, if sometimes in a roundabout way. And it’s good for aspiring scholars like myself to be aware of the historiographic genealogy that we are taking heir of. As a southern religious historian, I might want to focus only on the work of historians like John Boles, Eugene Genovese, Donald Mathews, Glenda Gilmore, and Samuel Hill. But Dunn reminds us that there are deep roots to other scholars and it behooves us to tease out those connections to see what we have learned from each other. When I learn about southern history from Dunn, I’m also learning from Laslett. And I’m also reminded of how much I learned from Laura.

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

Writing a book review like this is usually a pretty easy exercise for me - it’s normally just a matter of organizing my thoughts, writing them down, and some proofreading (although I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always do this last step as carefully as I should). Many of the books on my reading list are very important historiographic achievements – Gordon Wood, Glenda Gilmore, Edmund Morgan, Bernard Bailyn, Jon Butler, and Edward Ayers are big names in the world of history. Despite their formidable reputations, I feel very comfortable reading their books and sharing my sometimes critical thoughts with you on the Internet. With the possible exception of The Structures of Everyday Life by the great Ferdinand Braudel, no other book on my reading list has left quite the impression on historians, the Academy at large, and the educated public as Eugene D. Genovese’s masterful Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. This is one of the most transcendent history books ever written - it is now 37 years old and in 50 more, people will still be reading, talking about, and finding intellectual and emotional inspiration in the pages of Roll, Jordan, Roll. And so you might understand why the idea of reviewing this book and putting said review on the Internet, to be frank, scares the hell out of me. What can I possibly add to the discussion of this great book that hasn’t already been said more profoundly and more eloquently by somebody with more talent that me? Not to mention that, like many of my colleagues, I have very conflicted views about Genovese because of the ideological turns he has taken during the latter stages of his career. But I can take comfort in the fact that I’ve tried and failed at things that matter more than a simple book review (i. e., marriage), so the stakes aren’t exactly high. With these reservations in mind, here goes nothing…

Roll, Jordan, Roll is the most important Marxist interpretation of American slavery. At the time he wrote this book, Genovese was a committed communist, and if this bothers you, I strongly urge you not to let this put you off if you are considering reading it. Marxists view the world in terms of class conflict and historical models first put forth by Karl Marx. While many individuals, particularly Americans, find socialists and socialism extremely distasteful, the rich history of the poor and oppressed is unimaginable if not for the influence of Marxist historians. Furthermore, much like English labor historian E. P. Thompson, Genovese adds a humanist element to his studies of American slaves and slaveholders. Rather than forcing his subjects to become soulless statistics, Genovese portrays slaves and masters with a sensitive humanity. That is my favorite feature of this book. Through reading Roll, Jordan, Roll, it is possible see both slaves and owners as good-hearted humans. It is a self-evident truth that life is inevitably about interpersonal relationships. Any particular slave and any particular owner were on opposite ends of the social hierarchy and it is tempting for modern observers to simply assume that they naturally hated each other. But human nature dictates that if you put two people together, despite whatever vast differences they have, they might end up liking each other and developing warm feelings. So it was many times with masters and slaves in the antebellum South. No historian is going to deny that the system of American slavery was degrading, brutal, and exploitative. But humans, both and good and bad, white and black, operated in the system of American slavery. And it’s the human element that Genovese understands better than any other scholar I’ve ever read and he illuminates human behavior within a particular historical paradigm.

For Genovese, paternalism and the master-slave relationship, with their imbedded reciprocal duties, defined antebellum southern society. Paternalism did not emerge out of white altruism toward blacks, but rather “out of the necessity to discipline and morally justify a system of exploitation.” Paternalism meant vastly different things to the owners and the slaves, but it humanized slavery. “For the slaveholders paternalism represented an attempt to overcome the fundamental contradiction in slavery: the impossibility of the slaves’ ever becoming the things they were supposed to be. Paternalism defined the involuntary labor of the slaves as a legitimate return to their masters for protection and direction. But, the masters’ need to see their slaves as acquiescent human beings constituted a moral victory for the slaves themselves. Paternalism’s insistence upon mutual obligations  – duties, responsibilities, and ultimately even rights – implicitly recognized the slaves’ humanity.” Ultimately, paternalism allowed the slaves to have a critically important role in shaping southern society and southern culture. It also had serious consequences in regards to black solidarity, “Paternalism created a tendency for the slaves to identify with a particular community through identification with its master; it reduced the possibilities for the identification with each other as a class. Racism undermined the slaves’ sense of worth as black people and reinforced their dependence on white masters. But these were tendencies, not absolute laws, and the slaves forged weapons of defense, the most important of which was a religion that taught them to love and value each other, to take a critical view of their masters, and to reject ideological rationales for their own enslavement.”  Thus, by accepting paternalism, blacks legitimized the social order but also found cultural strength to resist the cruel mix of racial and class oppression. Genovese’s book is about how the social order operated and how the slaves thus used their human nature to shape a system that made life livable, even if it had grave consequences. Roll, Jordan, Roll is atypical in the sense that it does not unfold like most historical monographs with an introduction that lays out a carefully worded argument and then crafts a narrative to support said argument. In the fashion of social historians of the 1970s, Genovese starts with the theory outlined above and then uses it as a lens to understand practically all aspects of slave life – thus the book’s magisterial sweep and sometimes encyclopedic feel. There is a lot of information interpreted through this Marxist framework and Genovese set much of the historiographic agenda on slavery for decades to follow. It still holds tremendous weight today.

Beyond the well-known history of Marxism in the 20th century, some additional background might be instructive in order to fully understand the historiographic importance of Roll, Jordan, Roll. Genovese found that religion, above all else, allowed the slaves to develop a strong sense of personal worth in that “it proclaimed the freedom and inviolability of the human soul.” The slaves’ own unique version of Christianity “drove deeper into his soul an awareness of the moral limits of submission, for it placed the master above his own master and thereby dissolved the moral and ideological ground on which the very principle of absolute human lordship must rest.” In the Christianity that emerged in the slave quarters, the personas of Jesus and Moses merged. Genovese writes that “Moses had become Jesus, and Jesus, Moses; and with their union the two aspects of the slaves’ religious quest – collective deliverance as a people and redemption from their terrible personal sufferings – had become one through the mediation of that imaginative power so beautifully manifested in the spirituals.” While this merging muted any politically revolutionary implications found in scripture, slave religion “fired them with a sense of their own worth before God and man. It enabled them to prove to themselves, and to a world that never ceased to need reminding, that no man’s will can become that of another unless he himself wills it – that the ideal of slavery cannot be realized, no matter how badly the body is broken and the spirit tormented.” Genovese also asked how African cultural survivals in North America manifested themselves in the slaves’ religious experience. Among the most interesting was the rejection of the doctrine of original sin “because black theology largely ignored the one doctrine that might have reconciled the slaves to their bondage on a spiritual plane.” African religion does not have any equivalent to original sin – with its inherent guilt, self-hatred, and pessimism - and so black religion in America, like its African antecedent, embodied joy and rejected guilt.

The delicious irony of a committed Marxist saying anything so moving about religion notwithstanding, Genovese’s lengthy discourse on religion was a watershed in American religious historiography. Few historians of any ideological bent had even studied southern religion at all, but things were changing. The 1970s was a dramatic decade in the field of southern religious history. Prior to this decade, studies of southern religion were usually self-indulgent and celebratory studies produced by religious denominations for their own glory and to give parishioners a warm feeling in their hearts. There was very little in these histories to encourage critical thinking or reflection beyond religious platitudes. Scholars like John Boles, Donald Mathews, Samuel Hill, and Genovese brought forth a profusion of research that set a very high standard for all subsequent scholarship. While Genovese’s book is one of the most important books every written on American slavery, it’s chapters on religion remain some of the most important ever written on black religion. There has been an impressive amount of scholarship on southern religion over the past 40 years and all of it is influenced in some way or another by Roll, Jordan, Roll. It is easy for graduate students or professors who are not specialists in religion to fail to give Genovese the proper credit he deserves in pushing forward a research agenda in the study of antebellum southern religion because this book is simply so massive and encompassing. I would further suggest that other subfields of southern history owe a similar debt to Genovese. There are early indications of in the pages of this book of the field that eventually matured into gender history, twenty years before the blossoming of a historiographic juggernaut. There are other historical books that cast such a large shadow, but I know of few that anticipate major historiographic shifts in quite the manner of Roll, Jordan, Roll.

Beyond the obvious fact that Genovese’s book was influential and thus inspired a later generation of historians, I feel that one reason that it anticipates changes like the development of gender history or material culture analysis is Genovese’s tendency for interdisciplinary study. The 1970s was a golden age for what was then termed the “new social history.” Rather than producing books with theses designed to be more or less definitive (for lack of a better description), the new social historians used quantitative methods, applied theories from other disciplines, and rigorously followed the scientific method. Like their counterparts in science, new social historians presented their findings of research on a specific topic. The idea was that other historians would present findings that might corroborate or even contradict other findings. Eventually, however, a picture of the past would gradually emerge. Genovese’s book emerged in this milieu and while Roll, Jordan, Roll never distinguished (or subsequently dated) itself as “new social history” in the way that other studies did, Genovese’s free use of theory from other academic disciplines such as philosophy, anthropology and sociology was a noticeable trend in the 1970s. Young historians of the 1960s and 1970s  who were looking for something new and exciting found much to be enthralled by in Genovese’s work. For example, following the example of sociologists who sought to understand the nature of society on global scale, Genovese made arguments about paternalism, laboring people, and power in a global context. We learn that the material condition of the slaves was usually not worse and sometimes better than English or northern factory workers. And they often fared much better than, say, Russian serfs or the Chinese who worked in the rice fields. While I am often skeptical that we can draw too many parallels across oceans, these sorts of comparisons are illuminating and are useful to understand the white slaveholders’ defense of their own regime and also to understand what the life of the laboring classes was like in a global context. Moreover, the text is peppered with quotations by the likes of Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche, Antonio Gramsci, and, for the coup dê grace, T. S. Eliot. Although things were changing, for a field that had traditionally been confined to the history of economic institutions, politics, and dead white men, the idea of drawing off thinkers like Nietzsche and Eliot in order to understand the poor and the oppressed in history was quite liberating. Genovese was highly influential but he did not inaugurate a new interdisciplinary paradigm. He was, however, hot on the scene during a time of dramatic historiographic ruptures and this highly influential book is a big indicator of much of the cutting-edge research, based on theory from other fields, that fully blossomed in the 1980s and 1990s and ushered in such quandaries as the postmodern challenge – but that’s another topic for another day.

For all of my praise, let me be clear that Roll, Jordan, Roll is far from perfect. The book is based on voluminous research and sometimes it is unclear exactly where Genovese is pulling his information from. The author thoroughly examined every plantation record he could get his hands on and through this research he become an unquestioned expert on slavery. All historians should hope to gain such expertise, but something about Genovese’s tone seems coercive – the author expects us to revere his knowledge of history and this is a wonderful way to deflect criticism. While overall, I buy most of what Genovese is selling, when I was reading the section on racial mixing I wanted to jump out of my skin. It has often been assumed by that many African Americans today have a great deal of European blood and, moreover, most historians believed that much of this racial mixing occurred before the Civil War because various laws instituted in the decades after Appomattox hindered interracial sexual intercourse. Genovese, however, pointedly argued that, at least on plantations, miscegenation was rare. He claims that “[p]robably, little more than 10 percent of the slave population had white ancestry.” Aside from the thorny word probably, this assertion raised my eyebrows because Genovese’s evidence is unreliable. Although today historians and other scholars have turned to DNA evidence to answer questions concerning African American genealogy, in the 1970s, Genovese was forced to rely on census records. Although the census is an extremely valuable historical resource, drawing these kinds of conclusions from the census is, at best, dangerous. And Genovese even concedes that other scholars have been right to be suspicious of census records because “mulattoes were so designated by the crudest observation” and moreover “that a tendency to underreport was manifest.” Determining racial origins of slaves (who might have had different skin tones based on their various African heritages) by either a cursory observation by a census taker or by the testimony of a master who usually had better things to do than answer questions from a nosey government agent is a dubious practice. While he acknowledges this problem, Genovese does not try to defend himself in a meaningful way (because he had no choice but to rely on the census figures – no other sources he had access to would even begin reveal a picture of the totality of interracial sex). He later goes onto to insist that one reason masters did not have more sex with their female slaves is that Victorian mores began to permeate the South, the assumption being that people started taking morality more seriously, an argument that I found to be completely unsubstantiated by any evidence presented by the author. Other scholars have cited common sexual liaisons between whites and blacks, and some recent DNA testing supports such claims. While his mastery of plantation records is dazzling, the chapter on miscegenation – the one chapter in the book that used evidence that I am personally very familiar with – left me wondering if there could have been other places where Genovese’s expert tone conveyed as much, if not more, than the evidence itself.

One of my former professors, Laura Cruz, once warned me that exceptional writing is a good way to hide your faults as a historian. If this is true, then Roll, Jordan, Roll would seem to be beyond criticism. This book is a historical and a literary achievement. Quite often, academic history is dense and boring. This book is dense yet engrossing and emotionally riveting. Genovese presents stories that are fascinating and educating in their details. For example, many people are natural leaders based simply on their personalities. While we often tend to think of leaders ending up as senators or CEOs, in the slave world such persons usually became a mammy or a driver. Rather than hiring a white overseer, some masters placed a great amount of trust in drivers – that is male slaves who supervised work in the fields or life in the quarters. “Capable drivers – and there were many such – readily became the most important slaves on the place and often knew more about management than did whites.” Not only did many masters respect such men, they often placed a great amount of trust in them – astonishing considering what we know about slavery. Consider the case of William S. Pettigrew, “an Episcopal priest who had to be away from his North Carolina plantation for months at a time, [who] despised white overseers and relied on two drivers, each of whom had charge of one of two adjoining plantations.” While these two slaves were illiterate, Pettigrew wrote letters to his drivers and sent them to a literate white neighbor who would periodically check in with the drivers and read them letters from their master. In effect, a man who had a great stake in the regime was placing almost total trust and thus his vast fortune in the hands of two men of a supposedly inferior race, a group that really couldn’t be trusted because they were considered to be naturally inclined to lie, cheat, and steal. The letters between the drivers and Pettigrew contained “lengthy discussions of crop conditions and plantation affairs that amply demonstrate the extent of the drivers’ knowledge and sense of responsibility.” While some drivers were indeed “sadistic monsters,” many were good and effective leaders. It might be tempting for some to think that these two slaves (named Henry and Moses) were sell-outs who did the white man’s bidding and forgot the needs of their people. But Genovese time and again reminds us that most people are not revolutionaries – that honor has been reserved for very few throughout history. These slaves were people who were just living their lives as best as they could and cream inevitably rose to the top and so slaves sometimes gained the trust of their masters. While the example of Pettigrew’s plantation might not be entirely typical, sometimes masters felt comfortable enough with their drivers and their ability to control the labor force to simply leave a plantation under black supervisor with practically no white oversight. If you ask me, that’s an amazing accomplishment, considering the class and racial assumptions of the day.

And if you wanted to know a slave with real power, you should have sought out a mammy. Genovese writes that,

Primarily, the Mammy raised the white children and ran the Big House either as the mistress’s executive officer or her de facto superior. Her power extended over black and white so long as she exercised restraint, and she was not to be crossed. She carried herself like a surrogate mistress - neatly attired, barking orders, conscious of her dignity, full of self-respect. She played the diplomat and settled the interminable disputes that arose among the house servants; when diplomacy failed, she resorted to her whip and restored order. She served a confidante to the children, the mistress, and even the master. She expected to be consulted on the love affairs and marriages of the white children and might even be consulted on the business affairs of the plantations. She presided over the dignity of the whole plantation and taught courtesies to the white children as well as to those black children destined to work in the Big House…In general, she gave the whites the perfect slave – a loyal, faithful, contented, efficient, conscientious member of the family who always knew her place; and she save the slaves a white-approved standard of black behavior. She also had to be a tough, worldly-wise, enormously resourceful woman; that is she had to develop all the strength of character not usually attributed to an Aunt Jane.

This is hardly a description of degraded women. In fact, this description sounds more like somebody with the savvy of an Oprah Winfrey rather than some stereotypical dutiful but dumb Aunt Jemima. But – and here is one of Genovese’s key points – the main reason slaves were not degraded as human beings was because the slaves who lived in this paternalistic paradigm did not allow themselves to be degraded. There is something in the human soul that demands respect from other people. And while the master could whip slaves into submission, this fire could not be extinguished by slavery.

Genovese reminds us that the evil of slavery cast a very long shadow on southern society. Genovese argued that slaves often did, in fact, have childhoods – that is a more or less lighthearted period of life before the reality of adulthood robbed individuals of their innocence. It made sense for masters to ease the young slaves into field work as a way to protect their investments. Usually, a child could expect to be sent to the fields between the ages of 12 and 14. By the time they reached 18, they would be working full days. As such, slave children away from the fields played games like all children will. But even for a young child who wasn’t being forced to work in the fields under the threat of the whip, the institution of slavery was omnipresent. Genovese wrote that “there was the game of playing auction. One child would play the auctioneer and pretend to sell the others to prospective buyers. They learned early in life that they had a price tag, and as children are wont to do, took pride in their prospective value.” When I read history books, I carry around a pencil with me and I underline important parts and make notes in the margins. When I saw read those two sentences, I wrote the only thing I could think of that emotionally summed up what I just read: “This is fucked up.”

Excuse my profanity, but sometimes nasty language conveys the painful rawness of reality better than more polite words. I read a lot of things in Roll, Jordan, Roll that infuriated me to think of the pitiful levels of self-deception humans will go through to justify what is clearly evil. But, as a person living in the 21st century, I was also continually astonished at how human the relationships that defined master and slave actually were because we tend to think of slavery as inherently inhuman. I was also surprised at how much agency the slaves exercised in creating southern society – Genovese’s subtitle suggest that the slaves, in effect, made the plantation world, even if they did not have cultural hegemony over whites. But Genovese captured something I’m not sure he realized. Everybody knows that children have a brutally honest quality that adults lack – simply put, they call ‘em like they see ‘em. Art Linkletter made a fortune on this premise. By mentioning that black children played auction, Genovese allowed the children, modeling the grown-up behavior they saw all around them, to tell modern readers the unbiased and raw truth often covered up by the fancy drapery of paternalism. You can humanize slavery with paternalism and warm master-slave relations all you want to, but once all the seductive paternalistic lies were stripped away and filtered through the eyes of honest children, slavery was like the game of playing auction. It was, simply and honestly, fucked up.

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