Abolitionism/Anti-abolitionism

Cover of Graham Hodge's new biography of David Ruggles (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2010)

I’m revising my earlier statement about the SHEAR program this year. I thought that there wouldn’t be much of interest to me, but all of the panels that I attended were exceptionally well done and provoked much thought. Never underestimate those Early Republic historians! 

Two panels that I attended dealt with different aspects of abolitionism. The Friday panel had papers by Joseph Yannielli (Yale University) and Albrecht Koschnik (independent scholar). Yannielli’s paper addressed anti-abolitionism in New England, a topic that seems almost antithetical with what most people think of the antebellum North. Yet, as Yannielli argued convincingly, many white northerners were no more in favor of emancipation than most white southerners. Koschnik’s paper argued that white southerners appealed to international law in their arguments against abolitionism. James Brewer Stewart (Macalester College) and Robert P. Forbes (University of Connecticut, Torrington) commented on the papers. Stewart observed that anti-abolitionism deserved a place in the discussion with other “anti-” movements of the period: anti-Sabbatarianism, anti-Masonry, etc. He also suggested that there needs to be more analysis of Connecticut’s pro-slavery, anti-abolition sentiments. Both Stewart and Forbes, as well as audience member Sean Wilentz (Princeton University), noted the modern parallels between the “anti-” movements of the Early Republic period and today’s hot-button political issues, namely, gay marriage, immigration, and the nullification and secession rhetoric used by some Republican politicians. 

The Saturday roundtable on Graham Hodges’ new biography of David Ruggles was very interesting. I didn’t know much about Ruggles (1810-1849), a black abolitionist who was very outspoken in his advocacy of racial equality at a time when such activism could be dangerous. Although the audience discussion went mostly in other directions, I found the comments of Leigh Fought (Montgomery College) about the role of gender and sexuality in Ruggles’ life fascinating. She wondered if Ruggles, who had no apparent romantic or sexual relationships in his lifetime, made a monastic choice to pursue abolitionism. Richard S. Newman (Rochester Institute of Technology) described Ruggles as a “secular prophet” who had no compunction about mixing religion and politics to achieve racial equality. Panel chair Doug Egerton (Le Moyne College) made an important observation that is worth repeating. Too many times, the story of abolitionism has been popularized as a dramatic, heroic struggle. Certainly, there was drama and heroism involved. But, as Egerton noted, abolitionism was ultimately successful because of men and women such as Ruggles, who worked in the trenches to bring about success. In Ruggles’ case, his support of abolitionism cost him his health, his sight, and, finally, his life.

The Digital Republic

I attended a SHEAR session this morning dedicated to the “Digital Republic.” The panelists discussed a number of different pedagogical tools to engage students in studying the Early Republic using new media technology. There was also quite a bit of conversation about the technological divide between what students are supposed to know and what they actually do know about modern computer technology.

I carried away two things from the session:

1. In response to my reference to the lack of Early Republic bloggers, someone mentioned Jeff Pasley’s blog. Pasley is a well-respected Early Republic historian who possesses a witty sense of humor. His blog doesn’t focus solely on Early Republic or history topics, but it’s worth a read. Unfortunately, he hasn’t posted since March.

2. There is a tool called “History Engine” that I had never heard of. I haven’t had a chance to look at the site extensively, but it has given me ideas for helping my students engage in the historical research process.

Preview of the 2010 SHEAR conference

I’ll be attending the annual SHEAR (Society for Historians of the Early American Republic) conference this weekend. This will be my sixth meeting to attend since I first presented as a graduate student in 2000 (2000, 2005, 2007-present). The program this year looks less appealing to me than in years past. That’s not a knock against Christopher Clark and the other members of the program committee. I think that writing on the Andrew Jackson biography this summer has made it hard for me to appreciate much that is not somehow directly related to Jackson and the South.

SHEAR is a great historical organization to belong to if one studies the Early Republic. It’s a small enough community that one doesn’t feel lost at the conference. My scholarship has been helped immensely over the years by SHEAR members such as Dan Feller and John Belohlavek. SHEAR’s publication, Journal of the Early Republic, is also THE venue for Early Republic scholars. If you are a graduate student whose interests lie in the 1776-1861 period, I highly recommend subscribing to the JER and attending the annual conference in July.

Why I’m Blogging

Calling me a Luddite would be kind. I was late to computers, late to cellphones, late to Facebook. MySpace passed me by completely, and I texted for the first time this past April. Venturing into the blogosphere, as I’m told it’s called, is probably a choice I shouldn’t even consider.

Yet, I’m making a leap into the virtual unknown because I see a need. To my knowledge, no other Jacksonian (or Early Republic) historian has a professional blog devoted to the period. (If there is someone out there, let me know so I can retreat to my mountain hovel while the modern world passes me by.) This absence is disappointing, especially given the efforts made by Civil War historians, such as Kevin Levin, Vikki Bynum, and others to engage not only scholars interested in their era of research but also the general public.

The Early Republic, defined by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) as encompassing the years 1776-1861, allows us to make sense of the Civil War, but it deserves study for its own reasons. It was the era during which the United States was founded and many of its political and legal principles established. It was the era during which groups such as women, African Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants found themselves marginalized and forced to fight for rights and privileges within the constraints of a republic of privileged white men. It was the childhood and adolescent years of the United States, and the growing pains showed in a multitude of ways.

I took the name of this blog from Edward Pessen’s 1969 book of the same title. As an undergraduate, one of my history professors assigned Pessen’s book, as well as Robert V. Remini’s one-volume edition of his magisterial biography of Jackson, in the university’s Jacksonian Democracy course. The choice was deliberate; as students, we would have gotten a skewed view of Jackson and the period without the counterbalancing of Pessen’s pessimism and Remini’s optimism. While I almost certainly will cover topics under the broader definition of the Early Republic, Pessen’s title has a certain brevity, flair, and familiarity to the public that made its choice easy.

I can assure you that changes will be forthcoming, so please be patient with me as I struggle with the technology. The look of the blog may appear different; almost certainly, more bells and whistles will be added. Hopefully, however, the content will be engaging and informative, whether one is an historian of the period, a casual and selective reader of blogs, as I was for several years, or simply someone who stumbles over a post that sounds interesting.

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