These posts are written from notes that may be incomplete or that may not contain the nuances that the presenters and commenters conveyed. I’m also trying to finish this post before I dash off to lunch, so caveat emptor, readers.

At one of the 10:30 sessions, moderated by Michael A. Morrison, Jonathan Daniels Wells (Temple University) and John L. Brooke (The Ohio State University) presented two interesting papers on the influence of the 1850 fugitive slave law (FSL) on antebellum politics.

Wells argued that the FSL fundamentally changed political ideology, making the Civil War more likely. For northern whites, it sharpened the mistrust of politicians; for African Americans, it led to fleeing the U.S. to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, as well as a recommitment to abolitionism. Overall, the violence that accompanied enforcement of the FSL made compromise and moderation less possible and forced white northerners to acknowledge that slavery could not be ignored because it didn’t directly affect them.

Brooke argued that Harriet Beecher Stowe and Stephen Foster provided the cultural soundtrack for the discussion of the FSL. By the end of 1851, the quieting public discourse on the FSL was undermined by Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Foster’s music. (Interestingly, while Foster’s songs have been interpreted as racist in modern times, Brooke noted that abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, praised them for providing a sympathetic view of slaves.) Instead of the traditional interpretation of 1852-53 being a calm period leading up to the surprising political explosion of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, Brooke argued that Stowe and Foster’s performative soundtrack bolstered northern nationalism, making the Kansas-Nebraska Act not so surprising an event.

After comments by Elizabeth R Varon (University of Virginia), the audience chimed in. Two comments caught my attention. Marc Egnal saw no reason to change the traditional interpretation focusing on the Kansas-Nebraska Act as the political turning point of the 1850s. (Brooke disagreed.) Frank Towers cautioned against “essentializing” the FSL, by which I think he meant giving it more importance than it deserved in the sequence of events leading to the Civil War.

2 thoughts on “SHEAR 2011: Fugitive Slaves

  1. This looks really interesting! I did some research on the FSL for my master’s thesis. I wish I could’ve attended SHEAR.

    1. Kristen,

      SHEAR is a great conference. If you get the chance, you should attend. It’s small enough that you won’t feel lost, yet you get to meet some of the best historians in the field.

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