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Archive for April, 2011

I wrote this review in a course on Nineteenth Century America, taught by my friend Richard Starnes – a fine historian himself. Soul By Soul is one of the best books I’ve ever read – and I’m including both fiction and nonfiction. I read many important and well-researched books in graduate school that I would not recommend to anybody who was not an academic. Johnson’s book is important, riveting, and accessible to anybody with a decent education. If you can find this book at your local bookstore or public library, I strongly urge you to read it. Note that this review had to be one, single-spaced page and (thankfully) I had to adjust my style accordingly to say a lot in a limited space.

Walter Johnson. Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

It has often been tempting for historians to divorce the economics of slavery from the crucial psychological element of human bondage because of disciplinary specialization. Some brand themselves economic historians, while others declare themselves political, gender, or religious historians. For example, whereas historians like Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman examined the numbers behind slavery, other scholars like Eugene Genovese and Michael Gomez looked at the social side of the equation. The problem here is obvious: disciplinary specialization does not allow for a holistic picture of slavery because academics from different backgrounds usually talk past each other. While Walter Johnson is clearly not building any bridges between cliometricians and social historians, his book Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market demolishes any notion that the economics of slavery can be somehow be divorced from the psychological side of the picture. Some might argue that economic and social aspects of slavery are two sides of the same coin, but Johnson insists that they are too powerfully intertwined to be extracted, deconstructed, and then reconstructed separately as historians have done for over a century.

Johnson argues that the slave trade represented “the commercial and social aspirations” of southern society (7). White southerners hoped to use slavery as a tool for social mobility. Moreover, the ultimate symbol of whiteness was slave ownership; the slave market, with is price fluctuations and economic shifts, embodied the dreams of an entire people. The dreams of the white society had a powerful effect on the black South, embodied in the “chattel principle,” which could cause “any slave’s identity…[to] be disrupted as easily as a price could be set and a piece of paper passed from one hand to another” (19). Johnson also persuasively argues that modern American racism can trace its hideous origins to slave pens, where buyers probed, examined, and humiliated their potential property.  These frequent examinations taught whites to “read black bodies” and to “imagine blackness into meaning” (149). The story might end there if slaves had no agency, but African Americans could shape their own sales by representing themselves a certain way, running away, or feigning illness. Therefore the slaves themselves had enormous influence within the southern economy and society. But if slaves did not live up to the expectations of their owners, the system became intensely brutal. Whites who were fooled, either by slaves or by dealers, often felt intense rage. Their dreams had been shattered, their aspirations at perfect whiteness stymied, and the very heart of what it meant to be a white southerner passed them over.

While superb in narrative and elegantly written, Johnson’s book shines brightest in its analysis of the multilayered meanings of the slave market. By looking at slave markets through the lens of its three main participants – slaves, dealers, and buyers – Johnson unpacks the tangled web of interconnectedness between economics, dreams of social mobility, race and racism, the structures of both white and black families, and the law in the antebellum South. The greatest strength of Johnson’s book lies in its explanatory power. While Johnson does not argue that the slave market is the monocausal agent that shaped antebellum society, he shows the broad importance of an economic institution on southern society as a whole without coming across as heavy-handed. The influence of Soul By Soul on the historiography of American slavery will be hard to measure as it will refocus the debate and set an agenda for future studies. At a more fundamental level, however, Johnson offers a startling vision for a more inclusive and holistic historiography. In order to truly understand history, one must integrate economics, politics, family life, gender, and even environment into a more cohesive narrative. After all, people do not lead their lives in separation from the factors that historians often study in isolation.

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While I am finishing John Wigger’s excellent biography of early American Methodist leader Francis Asbury, I thought I would indulge my readers with another of my so-called classic reviews. This is one is mostly summative review of James Cobb’s classic on southern industrialization. Although the language of my review is a bit formal, I remember reading this book and laughing out loud several times. Cobb, a southerner to the core, knows how to strike the right chords with his audience to both educated and entertain. Furthermore, Cobb’s interpretation still resonates with historians and his writings on industrialization are among the most important to understanding the period in question. When I look back at this review, I didn’t do the author justice in describing his arguments, but I do give a good summary of his narrative, for what it’s worth.

James C. Cobb. Industrialization and Southern Society, 1877-1984. Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

Why does the south continue to lag behind the rest of the nation in wages and standards of living, even after the rise of the Sunbelt? James C. Cobb contends causes for such lack of equality between north and south is rooted in continuity from the plantation economy of the antebellum era to the present. Cobb further contends that the unique course of southern industrialization did not foster an equalitarian society as many observers hoped and believed it would; rather it strengthened the existing status quo. Still, in other ways, southern society experienced change.

Cobb begins by discussing early industrialization in the south. He maintains that industry was quite viable in the antebellum south, although it certainly was not simple. Weak capital investment remained a chief factor in slow industrial growth in the south. The few antebellum industries in the south remained tied to the cotton industry, its chief resource. Thus, industry and cotton reinforced each others weaknesses. For instance, lack of agricultural diversification severely limited early industrial growth. Cobb contends that the post-Reconstruction New South movement was led by wealthy planters unwilling to loosen their hold on southern society. The rising middle-class of professionals and merchants maintained close economic ties to the plantation elite because of benefits from the cotton trade. These conditions laid the groundwork for continuity from the Old South to the New.

In the 1920s, Business Progressivism asserted that southern problems could be solved by economic development through educational spending, improving city facilities, and maintaining low taxes to lure industry south. This became the south’s credo after World War I. The double whammy of boll weevil devastation and mass unemployment brought on by the Great Depression left the south with a huge unskilled labor force hungry for any kind of work. Most agreed that the South must gain more manufacturing firms in order to survive. Government and business leaders (such as governors and local chambers of commerce) began a vigorous campaign to lure business south by promising huge subsidies, low taxes, cheap labor and sparse unionization. Industrialists flooded the south. Since most southern states offered practically the same benefits, former Confederate states competed intensely for new manufacturing firms. This transformed southern statesmanship, making governors salesmen for their state. It also allowed businesses to dictate outrageous demands in this climate of furious competition. Furthermore, the abundance of unskilled cheap labor lent itself to industries that offered little economic growth, such as textiles and timber.

Nevertheless, the South did experience tremendous economic growth and change after World War II, becoming known as the Sunbelt. In-migration to Florida from the north created a huge market in the south, and other states experienced similar population growth. Foreign investment, more technologically advanced industry and the emergence of banking and real estate sectors also contribute to the growing southern economy. Moreover, the image of the south as backward allowed for tremendous amounts of federal money to flow below the Mason-Dixon Line. Finally, the lack of unionization made the south very attractive to industrialists. Several factors contributed to lack of unionization: business hostility toward strikers, right-to-work laws, anticommunist media propaganda, and social factors such individualism typical of the rural south.

Southern leaders learned that to grow industry, they must clean up their image. New hospitals, parks, and public facilities became common throughout the post-war south. Reforms led to the modernization of politics in the hope to draw more investment capital. Education received a face life, especially through vocational programs and new research facilities such as the ones in the Raleigh – Chapel Hill – Durham corridor.  Race relations benefited from the drive to attract new business. States with bad race relations, such as Mississippi, suffered terrible public relations and many companies were hesitant to relocate in such an unstable environment. To remedy this, southern whites began making token concessions to blacks to quiet the unrest in the drive for newer and better industries.

The southern ecology suffered at the hands of industrialists. In the marketing drive for factories, southern leaders allowed industrialists to do as they pleased with the local environment and its natural resources. In the 1970s, as environmental awareness spurred federal action, southern states took the lead to enact laws to protect the ecology to head-off Washington intervention. Nevertheless, corporate abuses are still rampant. A paradoxical situation emerged: the south’s physical appeal is damaged by industry, one of the very things that led to capital investment in the region.

Cobb analyzes the reasons why the New South never became like the north. He finds that the perpetuation of the conservative plantation system through industrialization kept wages low for whites and blacks subordinate. The process of southern industrialization was far too slow and cheap white labor far too abundant for any coalition building between blacks and blue collar whites for a more liberal society to develop. Furthermore, the tendency of industrialists to build in small towns filled with cheap white labor kept the flavor of the region decidedly rural and unfavorable to unions and urbanization, which would mean higher wages and standards of living. Because of the depressed state of the region, many workers felt that they are simply lucky to have jobs, further crushing hopes of unionists. The fear of blacks taking white jobs and driving down wages keeps them out of manufacturing and in menial service-type positions. The desire of many elites and industrialists to maintain stability and the status quo further hurt the economic position of African Americans in the south. Although industrialism challenged the southern way of life, and eroded some the south’s most endearing features, other elements of the Old South remain firmly entrenched. In the end, the paternalist plantation system still reverberates throughout the south, leaving the region with inferior wages and standards of living than the rest of the nation.

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Gordon S. Wood. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

History, that is written history, is subject  to the whims of fashion. While historians always seem to wear tweed and have hideous haircuts no matter what year it is, they are indeed subject to major changes in fashions relating to history writing and historiographic inquiry. Several generations ago, historians wrote top-down political, economic, or social history. Certainly, not all books were alike, but the confines of history as it was practiced limited scholars to the stories of mostly elite white males. After all, they were the ones who left behind all the primary source materials – the bread and butter of historians. Things started to change dramatically in the 1960s and ’70s when many historians began practicing “new social history.” This approach often included huge banks of numerical data and adherence to the scientific method. These methods proved very useful to understanding poor and illiterate elements in society who had never before had a voice. In addition, certain theories came into use, such as Marxism or feminism, to help historians ask certain questions of  sources that had never been asked before and also to think about their conclusions in new and exciting ways. By 1990, history looked much different that it had 30 or 40 years prior. Women, African Americans, illiterates, immigrants, the impoverished, and other subaltern groups had entered the historiographic picture and historians discovered that these groups, long passed over by scholars, were very important to understanding the past. The history of so-called “dead white men” was dead. There was nothing more that needed to be said about the founding fathers, the American Revolution, or the politics of the formative years of the Early National period because these topics had been exhausted decades before.  The days of long, dense, fact-filled monographs, useful as they were for a time, were over. It was now time for new stories by young and ambitious historians. Today in 2011, major university historians still eschew dead white guys. A few notable scholars, such as Joseph J. Ellis, whose book Founding Brothers I recently reviewed, still write this kind of history, but in the main cultural history (as it has come to be known) rules the day.

It might come as a surprise, then, that one of the best and most influential history books of the past 20 years is Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Long, detailed, and dense, Wood’s primary sources were almost entirely the writings and musings of dead white men. There is nothing – and I mean nothing – methodologically exciting about this book. This is classic history as it was practiced by historians in the 1950s. While I admire and revere the historians of that era, I generally think that those types of books have a certain heirloom quality. They are very important, but you have to read them with the era they were written in mind. These types of books are about as out of fashion as powdered wigs, but somehow Gordon Wood pulled it off with unparalleled brilliance. The book should remind historians that top-down political history is indeed very important and still worth reading and writing. This is a truly great book.

Wood is successful in part because he shatters a common misconception. He posits that traditionally, Americans viewed their revolution as a conservative affair. There were no guillotines, reigns of terror, outrageous violence, or other indicators of a radical rupture in human history. “We can think of Robespierre, Lenin, and Mao Zedong as revolutionaries, but not George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. They seem too stuffy, too solemn, too cautious, too much like gentlemen. We cannot quite conceive of revolutionaries in powdered hair and knee breeches.” Wood argues that the constant comparisons, then and now, between republican revolutions in America and France led to the characterization of the American Revolution as conservative. But Wood lets us know that bloodshed is a poor barometer of radicalism. To explain what he means, Wood devised a very simple, yet effective structure. There are three parts in this book: Monarchy, Republicanism, and Democracy. These three distinct stages that the young nation experienced within the time span of about 80 years shows just how radical the changes the revolution unleashed actually were.

The sheer difference of life under monarchy and then under democracy is absolutely breath-taking to a modern reader. Under the king, all things flowed from patronage and the social hierarchy was not challenged – it was merely a fact of life. The way that people interacted with each other was simply different – everything was based on interpersonal connections rooted in the hierarchy. “All had some sense of where they stood and how they ought to behave toward others in this social hierarchy.” People were bred for their position and all authority in society flowed from the king downward. Nevertheless, in English culture there was a latent and powerful republican strain based on classical republicanism and the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. By the mid-18th century, America was becoming republican. There was a natural aristocracy based on merit, not birth. This is how men like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton rose to prominence. To be a republican was to be a liberal (watch out now, I’m not using the 21st century definition of that word!), which meant liberally educated, cosmopolitan, disinterested (that is to say not personally ambitious), and virtuous. These were utopian men and the years of the American Revolution were a utopian experiment to see if these liberal republicans could level society, destroy the bonds of monarchy, and rid the world of superstition.  America would be a land of educated natural aristocrats who ruled based on their talents, intelligence, and expertise. There would be a certain level of paternalism and only land owners could vote, but the respect commanded by disinterested republicans would be unassailable. They would steer the ship of state with virtue and honor.

This dream ended quickly. The American Revolution, according to Wood, unleashed the power of equality. Nothing was ever the same again. Soon, universal white male suffrage became the rule. Provincialism and political interests entered the public realm and the rough-and-tumble world of American politics that we know today was born (of course, it had a lot of maturing to do). The founding fathers were still alive (except Franklin), and all were practically aghast at the political landscape in the new nation just a few years after 1776. Furthermore, as commerce expanded and the population pushed westward, the way people interacted became more economic than ever before. While being in business for the sole purpose of making money was once viewed as positively scandalous (I know that sounds crazy), it quickly became celebrated as the American way. While colonial society was once based on monarchial social ties and patronage, scarcely 100 years later this had been replaced by a democratic and emerging capitalist society. And that is a very radical change in a very short time frame.

There are many points that Wood makes that should be furiously debated. All too often, he deployed the phrases “except in the South” or “at least in the North” and thus lets the reader know that the country Wood talks about broadly was by no means homogenous. This is the great trap of writing about “America” as a whole. The whole country, even then, was too big to describe fully because it contained (and still contains) too many contradictions. In addition, Wood is excellent at describing major changes in American history, but sometimes comes up pretty short in demonstrating why certain things happened. Causality should be not be downplayed. Slavery is hardly discussed and women are, at the very best, in the background of the narrative. But the United States still was a nation, albeit a very young one, and generalizations have to be made if we are to understand anything at all about the big picture. There are a number of excellent local studies that can help historians understand much of American history, but at a certain point you have to describe things broadly. Wood was generally successful in getting at the big picture, even if he couldn’t paint in as broad a stroke as he might have liked. Moreover, while Wood ignored subaltern groups, his argument leaves the door wide open for other historians to test his thesis as it pertains to, say, women or African Americans. If the revolution was radical and it touched all elements of society, as this convincing book argues, other scholars can use this idea as a jumping off point to shape the research agenda for decades to come. The possibilities opened by this book are legion.

The best thing about the book is that Wood is a historian who understands the context of the American Revolution and Early National period better than probably anybody else. Because of his immersion in primary sources, Wood understands the period so well that he is able to put aside the biases of an individual living in the late 20th and early 21st century. No historian can completely draw the shades on his or her own era, but clearly Wood understands these historical actors on their own terms. Whereas some historians would read the same sources he did and come to different conclusions, Wood’s own expertise that is so evident every page and every footnote  gives him great credibility. Just a few years ago, Wood published a collection of his own book reviews of his colleagues, entitled The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (2008). In the interest of full disclosure, I reviewed this book for the 2009 edition of the Tuckasegee Valley Historical Review. I gave the book a largely negative review because I thought it was a wasted opportunity by a true titan in the field, but Wood did make it clear that he was uncomfortable with modern historical theories and methodologies because they did not take historical actors on their own terms. I felt that this was the best point of this otherwise work of recycled polemic. After reading Radicalism of the American Revolution, he made the point even clearer to me that this was no joke – being a historian takes years and years of expertise just to learn, piece by piece, the entire context of just the area of your specialty.

If you can do this, the payoff is huge. Wood won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for this book in 1992 and the book has even sold well for a historical monograph this dense. But to me the biggest accomplishment of this book was to show that the old style of historical research and writing is still a very worthy if underutilized historiographic method. It is perhaps one of the great historiographic ironies that such a radical history was uncovered with such a traditional methodology. If you can do something like that, you deserve to be able to wear tweed and an awful haircut.

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During my first semester in graduate school, I was still learning how to write a proper academic book review. I had some rough starts, but eventually I got the hang of it. This particular paper came from Dr. Elizabeth McRae’s course, a primer in historiography and historical theory required for first semester grad students. This is probably not the best review I wrote even in my first semester, but the book I reviewed was one of the better ones I read in two years of course work. Claudio Saunt, a professor McRae studied under at the University of Georgia, used genealogy and history to show that racial lines in the United States are so intertwined and tangled that the notion of “race” as we think of it today is pure fiction. The idea of race being socially constructed might be foolish or even shocking to some, but if you have any doubts, you should read Saunt’s book for yourself. It is absolutely riveting reading and the human drama in the book is absolutely heart-breaking.

Claudio Saunt. Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of an American Family. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

When George Washington Grayson’s autobiography was published in 1988, editors made certain “adjustments” at the request of his descendants to conceal a racially diverse genealogy.  Claudio Saunt’s attempt to fill in these ellipses not only uncovers unsettling information about the Grayson family, but also the troubling history of racism in the Creek nation. The racial diversity of this family allows Saunt to show that “…with race, inequality, and conflict at the core of their story, the Graysons are truly American, and in one way or another, we all belong to their family.” In other words, the Graysons embody the racial problems in American history.  Although certain aspects are very controversial, Saunt provides a very convincing, relevant, and, at times, disturbing portrait of race through the story of an American family.

Saunt begins in the late eighteenth century with Robert Grierson (later changed to Grayson), a Scottish trader who married Sinnugee (a Creek maiden). The real story of the book is the consequences of the choices made by two of their children: Katy and William. As a young man, William began a lifelong love affair with his father’s slave Judah. Likewise, Katy also became involved with a person of African descent (although little is known about his life). William and Katy both had biracial children; eventually Katy left her lover and their children to marry a Creek (Tulwa Tustanagee).  William, however, stayed with Judah for the rest of his life. These choices sent their families down completely opposite paths. Katy had children with Tulwa who eventually became affluent Creek citizens. Their son Wash (the aforementioned George Washington Grayson) received an excellent education and eventually became chief.  The descendants of William and Judah became victims of racism from within and outside of the Creek nation and mired in poverty for generations.  Saunt follows these different paths into the twentieth century.

Saunt asserts that mixed-blood Indians emulated the racial hierarchy of the plantation south in hopes of improving their low social status. Laws were commonly enacted for these racist purposes.  For instance, in 1859, Creek laws effectively ended black citizenship and made kinship partially based on race; this is contrary to the traditional matrilineal Creek society which often “adopted” outsiders (including African-American slaves). After the Civil War, pro-Confederate Creeks felt that the survival of their nation depended on racial supremacy. Following the cues of their southern comrades, Creeks began passing laws to disenfranchise newly-freed slaves. Again, people like Wash made conscious decisions to emulate whites rather than looking to their Native-American heritage and embittered their cousins in the process. The tragedy of the situation is that European-Americans truly had no use for Indians, mixed blood or not. For instance, around the turn of the twentieth century, many Americans felt that progress was inevitable and the literature of the day certainly reflects this idea.  Many authors asserted that Indians would simply die out as a testament to their racial inferiority (exemplified in Mary Holland Kinkade’s The Man of Yesterday: A Romance of a Vanishing Race). In the end, the Creeks did not unite to fight against the white onslaught (who often exploited Indians to obtain their land). Rather, white Creeks chose to become more committed to racial subjugation and again followed the southern model and entrenched Jim Crow culture into their society. 

The impact of Creek racism is clearly evident today. By using profiles at the beginning of each Chapter, Saunt is able to give his book a sparkling relevance often missing in some historical studies. These profiles make the reader face the thinly veiled racism still widespread across the nation. For example, in one profile, Saunt relates the story of Rudy Hutton (a Grayson descendant) and his family’s troubles obtaining Creek citizenship because of their African heritage. Hutton stated, “The SOBs at Okmulgee, they won’t give you nothing unless you’re a white guy.” By including such statements, Saunt does not take the route of many historians who keep their reader constantly anchored in the past, with little mention of future events until the last few pages of text. Rather, he reminds the reader that the Grayson story is unfolding even today.  

 To construct the text, Saunt used an array of terrific primary materials. Wash Grayson was the only family member who left behind a detailed personal record. Unfortunately, the family denied Saunt access to the original manuscript of Grayson’s autobiography. Still, he was able to get full access to Wash’s articulate diary. This gives the reader a vivid first-hand account of the life of a prominent white Creek. At first glance, it appears that Saunt is at a distinct disadvantage because none of William and Judah’s descendants left behind personal records of their lives to counterpoint Wash’s account (in fact, most of them were illiterate). Nevertheless, Saunt used census records, war department materials, WPA interviews, missionary correspondence, and exhaustive archival research to recreate the lives of black Grayson family members. Through this research, Saunt overcame this disadvantage and painted a vivid picture of the lives of William and Judah’s descendants.  

For all its merits, the whole premise of this book is highly controversial. Although many Grayson descendants cooperated with Saunt, he met firm opposition from others. Time after time, family members hung up on Saunt when he telephoned them to inquire about their relatives. Some might argue that a historian has no business conducing research that opens old wounds individuals would just as soon forget.  Perhaps Saunt should be faulted for not respecting the privacy of certain Grayson descendants. Moreover, it is wrong to assume that these individuals are racist; but their silence speaks volumes. They obviously wanted to keep their African descent a secret. This silence actually helps Saunt’s argument by showing greater relevance. For these members of the Grayson family, the ghosts of the past are very much alive and guiding their current actions. Furthermore, it is this condition which gives meaning to Saunt’s closing statement, “…until we fill in the ellipses present…metaphorically in our national narrative of America’s origins, the missing text will continue to haunt our history books and our lives.”

Saunt is successful on many levels. He is able to show how individual agency affected the lives of many Creek Indians. By denying their own racially diverse past and emulating Europeans, Katy’s descendants excluded their relatives of African descent of the lifestyle they freely enjoyed. Through the profiles preceding each chapter, Saunt is able to show the lingering animosities related to the choices of individuals over one hundred years ago. By showing this relevance, Saunt demonstrates that history does not exist in a vacuum. Therein lies the strength to this book. Not only does it give a convincing portrayal of the racist accommodations many Creeks made for survival, it reminds the reader that long-term impacts of denied citizenship and “selective genealogy” are a clearly visible problem for the nation.

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