The Bible in the Political Culture of the American Founding

Daniel L. Dreisbach is a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. He has authored or edited 10 books, including Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2017), from which this article is adapted. You can follow him on Twitter.

The American founders read the Bible. Their many quotations from and allusions to both familiar and obscure scriptural texts confirm that they knew the Bible from cover to cover.  Biblical language and themes liberally seasoned their rhetoric. The phrases and cadences of the King James Bible, especially, informed their written and spoken words. Its ideas shaped their habits of mind and informed their political pursuits.

The Bible was an accessible and authoritative text for most eighteenth-century Americans; and effective communicators, especially politicians and polemicists, adeptly used it to reach their audiences. The mere fact that a founder quoted the Bible does not indicate whether that individual was a Christian or a skeptic. Both, including some who doubted the Bible’s divine origins, appealed to Scripture in their political discourse.

The founding generation, in the last third or so of the eighteenth century, drew on diverse intellectual traditions in forming their political thought. Among them were British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in manifold forms), and classical and civic republicanism. Deserving to be studied alongside these perspectives, I contend in my book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (2017), is a biblical tradition, both Hebraic and Christian.

In a now-famous study published in the American Political Science Review on the influence of European writers on the political literature of the founding, Donald S. Lutz reported that the Bible was cited more frequently than any European writer or even any European school of thought. The Bible, he found, accounted for approximately one-third of the citations in the literature he surveyed. The book of Deuteronomy alone was the most frequently cited work, followed by Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, the most cited secular source. In fact, Deuteronomy was referenced nearly twice as often as Locke’s writings, and the Apostle Paul was mentioned about as frequently as Montesquieu.

Are these many references to Christianity’s sacred text merely rhetorical ornaments without substantive significance? Should students of the founding be attentive to the Bible’s influence on the political and legal developments of the period? Did the founders, in short, use the Bible in ways that mattered? One can acknowledge that the founding generation read and referenced the Bible and simultaneously doubt that the Bible exerted consequential influence on the founders’ political and legal projects.

Simply counting and documenting the founders’ many references to the Bible tells us little except that the Bible was a familiar and useful literary resource for this generation. In my book, I move beyond the observation that the founders frequently cited the Bible and examine how the founders used the Bible and how it may have influenced the founding project. Which biblical texts, I ask, appealed to these Americans, and why did they think these texts were pertinent to them in their time and situation?

A study of the founding generation’s uses of the sacred text must be attentive to the purposes for which these Americans invoked the Bible and not merely to the fact that they read and frequently referenced it. The founders used the Bible for diverse reasons, ranging from the primarily literary, rhetorical, or political to the profoundly theological. The Bible was used then, as it is sometimes used today, (1) to enrich a common language and cultural vocabulary through distinctively biblical allusions, phrases, figures of speech, proverbs, aphorisms, and the like; (2) to enhance the power and weight of rhetoric through its identification with a venerated, authoritative sacred text; (3) to identify and define normative standards and transcendent rules for ordering and judging public life; (4) to marshal biblical authority in support of specific political agendas and policy objectives; and (5) to gain insights on the character and designs of God, especially as they pertain to God’s providential oversight of the material world and, more specifically, His dealings with men and nations. Recognition of these distinct uses is important insofar as it is misleading to read spiritual meaning into literary, rhetorical, or political uses of the Bible or vice versa.

How did the Bible inform the founders’ political and legal pursuits? Although the founders held diverse theological views and some doubted Christianity’s transcendent claims and the Bible’s divine origins, I contend that many looked to this religious text for insights into human nature, civic virtue, social order, political authority, and other concepts essential to the establishment of a political society. In various conventions and representative assemblies of the age, as well as in pamphlets, political sermons, and private papers, founding figures appealed to the Bible for principles, precedents, models, normative standards, and cultural motifs to define their community and to order their political experiments. There were influential founders who thought Scripture provided political and legal models – such as republicanism, separation of powers, and due process of law – that they believed enjoyed divine favor and were worthy of emulation in their polities. The Bible, some thought, offered guidance on the selection of righteous political leaders and the rights and responsibilities of citizens, including the right to resist a tyrannical government.

In the Constitutional Convention of 1787, for one example, Benjamin Franklin referenced Jethro’s counsel to Moses, as recorded in the book of Exodus, regarding the selection of Israel’s civic leaders. During a debate on the qualifications for public office, he spoke in opposition to any proposal “that tended to debase the spirit of the common people. . . .  We should remember the character which the Scripture requires in Rulers,” Doctor Franklin said, invoking Jethro’s qualifications for prospective rulers, “that they should be men hating covetousness [Exodus 18:21].” Significantly, Franklin appealed to a biblical standard (“the character which the Scripture requires in Rulers”) in a substantive debate on a constitutional provision, he informed his audience in unambiguous language that his source was “Scripture,” and then he quoted a biblical text.

The political discourse of the founding, for another example, is replete with appeals to the Hebraic “republic” as a model for their own political experiment. In a 1775 Massachusetts election sermon, Samuel Langdon, the president of Harvard College and later a delegate to New Hampshire’s constitutional ratifying convention, opined:  “The Jewish government, according to the original constitution which was divinely established, . . . was a perfect Republic. . . .  The civil Polity of Israel is doubtless an excellent general model . . .; at least some principal laws and orders of it may be copied, to great advantage, in more modern establishments.”

Most of what the founders knew about the Hebrew commonwealth they learned from the Bible. They were well aware that ideas like republicanism found expression in traditions apart from the Hebrew experience, and, indeed, they studied these traditions both ancient and modern.  The republic described in the Hebrew Scriptures, however, reassured pious Americans that republicanism was a political system favored by God.

More generally, but no less significant to the founders’ political vision, many founders believed the Bible was an indispensable handbook for republican citizenship. In a republican government, the founders often asserted, the people must be sufficiently virtuous that their personal responsibility and discipline will facilitate the social order and stability necessary for a regime of self-government. A free, self-governing people, in other words, had to be a virtuous people who were controlled from within by an internal moral compass, which would replace external control by an authoritarian ruler’s whip and rod. The whip and rod were clearly unacceptable for a free, self-governing people.  The Bible played a noteworthy, if unofficial, role in a republican regime insofar as it was a powerful tool of social control and provided instruction on the essential virtues necessary for self-government to succeed.

Believing that “without national morality a republican government cannot be maintained” and that “[t]he Bible contains . . . the most perfect morality, and the most refined policy, that ever was conceived upon earth,” John Adams described the Bible as “the most republican book in the world.” Recognizing Christianity’s vital contributions to the civic virtues required for self-government, John Dickinson similarly remarked: “The Bible is the most republican Book that ever was written.” Such sentiments were ubiquitous in the political rhetoric of the founding.

Drawing attention to the Bible’s contributions to the founding is not meant to diminish, much less dismiss, other intellectual influences on the founders. Rather, acknowledging the Bible’s often ignored role in the founding enriches an understanding of the broad range of ideas that informed the founders’ political thoughts and shaped the political and legal systems they sought to establish. A study of how the founding generation read and used the Bible in politics offers insights into the ideas that shaped the American political experiment in the waning days of the eighteenth century.

Evangelical Religion, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South

The Sacred MirrorRobert Elder is an assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University. He is the author of The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860 (2016). Elder is currently working on a biography of John C. Calhoun.

Histories of southern evangelicalism between the Revolution and the Civil War usually hold to a modern historiographical version of the old Puritan declension narrative. In the modern version, early evangelicals initially challenged both slavery and a deeply ingrained honor culture among white southerners, but sometime around 1820 they sold their birthright as social radicals for a mess of hominy in order to win influence and souls, especially white male slaveholding souls. As one historian eloquently put it, “Southern whites came to speak the language of Canaan as evangelicals learned to speak with a southern accent.”[1]

The evangelical transition from opposition to accommodation in the South has some merit, and a compelling narrative arc, but it sets up a binary that obscures as much as it reveals when it comes to honor culture, which most historians of evangelicalism have equated with a sense of pride and a propensity to violence among southern white men. In my book I set out to move beyond the opposition/accommodation binary and this narrow definition of honor in order to describe the more complex ways that the language, practice, and structure of evangelicalism overlapped and intersected with honor culture in the South in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Nothing illustrates this complexity better than a story told by the Methodist minister William Capers, which I tell at the beginning of my second chapter. In his autobiography, Capers vividly describes an incident that occurred at one of the small, backcountry churches that lay along his circuit in the Chester district of South Carolina in the first decade of the nineteenth century. At one of his stops, a place called Carter’s meeting house, a large congregation had gathered, composed of members of the local Methodist society as well as the local community, all interested in the church trial of a woman accused of adultery, which Capers conducted according to the Methodist mode of government. As Capers remembered, “Her father-in-law, and the connections on that side generally believed her guilty,” while the woman’s husband loudly and pitifully proclaimed her innocence, being, as Capers thought, “partially deranged” by the shame of the situation. All the community, including the society members, were “intensely enlisted” on one side or the other of the matter, and when a group of society members chosen by Capers found the woman guilty, the crowd erupted into violence. In the midst of the fight, Capers saw several society members doing their part and the “poor crazy husband fighting his father.”

This story serves as a striking illustration of the way that the practice of church discipline in evangelical churches throughout the South intersected with the concerns of honor, shame, and reputation. And this was not an accidental or isolated occurrence. From the eighteenth century onward, evangelical churches worked their way into the fabric of communal life in the South as public spaces where community opinion coalesced in the form of church verdicts, and where rumors, insults, and reputations were openly probed in ways that don’t fit easily into the opposition/accommodation model. As I argue in the book, I think the best definition of an honor culture is one in which individual identity is largely defined by communal authority and opinion. In a society with few institutions that could plausibly claim to represent “the community,” the united verdict of a church court was an incredibly powerful thing, and churches were inescapably part of the manufacture and maintenance of honor, reputation, and standing in their communities. This process was not without friction, as the ideals of the evangelical community sometimes clashed with the trappings of male honor and the rowdy world of male recreation outside the church. But the areas of congruence were always at least as significant as the areas of conflict, and the assumptions that underlay both honor and evangelical life about the relationship between individual identity and communal authority allowed the church to speak in a way that southerners understood and embraced.

The story also illustrates my larger argument about the nature of evangelicalism during this period. I see my work as an of exploration in a specific historical and cultural location of the arguments that scholars like Charles Taylor have made about the emergence of the modern self, especially the emphasis on personal knowledge as the only true knowledge and the anchor of identity. I argue that southern evangelicalism nurtured both an individualistic sense of the self, as evidenced by its emphasis on conversion, AND a deeply rooted respect for communal authority that is clearly evident, for instance, in church disciplinary records and stories such as the one Capers told. The tension for early southern converts was not, or not only, individual identity vs. community and family (or religion vs. honor), but which community should serve as the community of authority in their lives. That’s very different from our usual notion of evangelicalism, southern and otherwise, as the religious mode of modern individualism. It points to the deep structural harmonies that existed between honor and evangelicalism during this period and suggests that instead of seeing evangelicalism as the harbinger of modern forms of identity, we should see it instead, as Bruce Hindmarsh has argued in the context of early modern England, as embodying a significant alternative to modern identity.

[1] Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 27.

Zara Anishanslin on Portrait of a Woman in Silk

Zara Anishanslin is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware. Her book Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World was recently published by Yale University Press.

At first glance, this portrait seems to send a straightforward message. It appears to be yet another example of a colonial American posing as a refined member of transatlantic British culture, signaling her gentility through the metropolitan luxury goods she wears. But the portrait visualizes more than just the likeness of a long-dead woman. And it tells more than a simple narrative of status and emulation. Rather, this thing fashioned of oil paint on a framed canvas is a revelatory object, a seemingly-typical portrait that narrates a much more complex story about global economy and individual lives and labor in an age of rising—and falling—empire.

The woman in the portrait is Anne Shippen Willing (1710-91). The Philadelphia-born granddaughter of Philadelphia’s first mayor, Quaker Edward Shippen and wife of merchant-mayor Charles Willing, she had given birth to six of her eleven children when she posed for this portrait in 1746. The dress she wears is made of silk designed by Londoner Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688-1763), one of early modern Britain’s few women silk designers. Garthwaite designed the bold botanical textile pattern for one of her frequent customers, master weaver Simon Julins (c. 1686/8-1778), in the summer of 1743. Within three years of the pattern’s creation, the woven silk had crossed the Atlantic to Philadelphia. There, Willing had it made into the dress she wore to sit for her portrait by Newport, Rhode Island itinerant painter Robert Feke (c. 1707-c. 1752). This 1746 portrait of a woman in silk brought these four geographically separate lives together in one object. Together, they form a transatlantic network unknown to them but no less evident to us looking back. From the mind of the designer to the hand of the weaver in London, across the Atlantic to the body of the sitter and the eye of the painter in the colonies, we can trace the creation, travel, and histories of this silk and this portrait as they were made, sold, bought, and used.

But this single portrait tells us much more than simply the biography of an object, and the microhistories of this network of four. It also contains macrohistories—of thousands more people, events, and ideas—all similarly connected by things around the British Atlantic. Portrait of a Woman in Silk argues that the production, consumption, and use of commodities in the eighteenth-century British Empire created object-based communities that tied its inhabitants together, while allowing for different views of the Empire. The many histories hidden in this object—created by two women and two men, two colonials and two Londoners—lay bare a mental and material world created by women’s labor as well as men’s, and a transatlantic economy driven as much by colonial Americans as metropolitan producers. Americans were not just avid consumers but also sophisticated producers, motivated to make and buy things by political, cultural, and personal concerns far more complex than emulative refinement alone.

Portrait of a Woman in Silk spans the collective lifespan of the designer, weaver, wearer, and painter who together created the single object at the heart of the book. The chronological accident of their birth and death dates means that this history of the long eighteenth century arcs from the Glorious Revolution to George Washington’s first presidency. Tracing the full life cycle of this network means that the hidden histories captured within this portrait tell tales of what wove the British Empire together, how it unraveled, and how new empires—on both sides of the Atlantic—came to be.

Given this chronology, SHEARites might well be tempted to flip to the end of the book. The last section of the book focuses on the American revolutionary era from 1763-78 and includes a Coda set in 1791. The final chapter discusses the economic and political ramifications of the 1763 Treaty of Paris for silk producers and consumers on both sides of the Atlantic. Focusing on women laborers as well as men, it investigates how protestors in Britain and America alike imbued the wearing and weaving of that most symbolically luxurious of fabrics—silk—with political meaning. This interconnected history is one that encompasses both weavers’ violent protest in London’s streets and scientifically driven efforts—often spearheaded by women—to build American silk manufacture. The chapter ends in 1778, with the American Revolution well underway but hardly settled. This untraditional chronological ending point might be somewhat unsettling to historians of the early republic. But the choice was deliberate—in part to avoid the book seeming like a teleological march toward American independence.

That said, one of the reasons SHEARites should find the book of interest in its entirety, rather than just its last part, is that it adds to our comprehension of how, as John Adams famously put it, “Thirteen clocks were made to strike together.” To understand this history, we must consider the clocks themselves. Chief among the arguments made in Portrait of a Woman in Silk is that not just the four people who together created this single object, but thousands more people, were connected through producing and consuming things like it. Whether they were textiles or clocks, people created both mental and material worlds—imagined communities—through making, buying, and using commodities. We are, for the most part, accustomed to thinking of early American history as regional history. We tend to emphasize differences among New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South; differences between systems of labor and slavery; or differences between religion and ethnicity. But from New England to the Lowcountry South, colonists shared the experience of making and buying objects like portraits and silk. Production and consumption of such things allow us to consider connections that cut across regional distinctions in early America. They also recast our traditional chronological notions about the so-called consumer revolution and the imperial marketplace, forcing us to find the roots of revolutionary era patterns of production and consumption not in the 1760s or 1740s, but as far back as the 1720s. Tracing the histories hidden within these objects illuminates the development of a shared colonial identity that might be called “American” (and indeed, at times was so labeled by colonists themselves) that predated the American Revolution by decades.

A last note on why SHEARites might read Portrait of a Woman in Silk is a methodological one. The four identifiable people connected to this silk and this portrait were all literate, all financially solvent, and yet essentially unexplored by historians. Most likely this was in part because each left a very sparse trail in archival documents like letters, diaries, and probate inventories. But each did leave behind was a trove of material and visual culture. Using the things they created and used as historical evidence brought their lives out of the historical shadows. Hidden histories are bound to emerge when, instead of using material culture to answer historical questions, we make the material culture itself the question.

Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America

Cover: Thundersticks in HARDCOVERDavid J. Silverman is an award-winning professor of history at George Washington University. He is the author of the new book, Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America.
Between the early seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries, indigenous people across North America revolutionized their lives with firearms. The implications of this intervention, however, are complex, resting on how Native people incorporated guns into a vast range of their military, political, social, cultural, and economic activities.

The revolutionary potential of firearms extended from their destructive power, something historians have routinely downplayed. It has become commonplace for scholars to contend that firearms were attractive to Indians mainly because of their so-called psychological effect, referring to the terror and amazement produced by their pyrotechnics. Supposedly, early modern firearms, particularly the smoothbore, flintlock muskets which predominated until the early nineteenth century, were too inaccurate, slow to load, unwieldy, and fragile to supersede the bow and arrow. Indigenous people judged otherwise. They made the musket their weapon of choice in close-range ambushes, sieges of fortified settlements, and even hunting. The emergence of rifle technology in the mid to late eighteenth century, and of breech loaders, repeating rifles, and six shooter pistols in the mid nineteenth century, only accelerated this trend. Natives eagerly sought firearms not because they were dazzled by the technology. Rather, they realized that differential access to guns had become a key determinant in the rise of some Native peoples, and the vulnerability of others to captivity, enslavement, dispossession, horse raiding, and death, specifically the Five Nations Iroquois, the slave-raiding tribes of the Southeast (Westos, Savannahs, Creeks, and Chickasaws), the Osages of the Missouri-Mississippi confluence, the Comanches of the southern Plains, the Blackfeet of the northern Plains and Rocky Mountain West, the Nootkas of Vancouver Island, and the Sitka Tlingits of the Alaskan panhandle.

Arms races erupted across Native America as indigenous people came to terms with the military potential of firearms, the implications of which are best understood through the lens of political economy. Indeed, a people’s stockpile of arms and access to economic resources became mutually reinforcing. Without guns and ammunition, it was difficult to defend and expand the group’s hunting grounds, trade routes, and targets of captive raids. Likewise, without these economic resources, a people could not acquire weapons to defend themselves and pursue their economic interests.

Consequently, Native polities cultivated arms trade with multiple sources to ensure dependable flows of munitions at low costs, even in the event of war with the societies of those suppliers. Sometimes the arms dealers hailed from different nations, such as England, France, the Netherlands, or Spain, or different colonies of the same nation, in the case of the English provinces of the Atlantic seaboard. In other times and places, munitions came from one or more Native groups playing the role of middleman between colonial markets and Indians of the interior, as in the cases of the Wichitas of the southern Plains and the Crees and Assinboines of Canadian subarctic and Plains. The point of cultivating so many trade partners was to prevent foreigners from turning the people’s dependence on firearms into political and economic weakness.

Indian polities used commercial and military leverage to shape these relationships to their advantage. They warned gun dealers that they would take their trade elsewhere unless they received gunsmithing, powder, and shot on acceptable terms. They threatened gunrunners who did business with them not to supply their rivals. Traders who bent to these demands often found themselves with customers so loyal that they could be trusted to repay large extensions of credit, even in the absence of formal legal mechanisms to enforce these agreements.  Gunrunners who ignored the Indians’ conditions suffered a loss of business, at best, and sometimes the loss of their lives. Such tactics were basic to the intertribal and Indian-colonial weapons economy throughout its lengthy history.

The widespread success of Indians at building and maintaining large arsenals of firearms reveals the high degree of interdependence between Indians and Euro-Americans. This interdependence stemmed from a number of factors.  For one, Indians were the main suppliers of the colonies’ beaver and otter pelts, deer skins, and buffalo robes.  The fur trade was big business in nearly every colony in its opening decades and, in some cases, throughout its existence.  Some fur trade enterprises had influence in the upper ranks of colonial and imperial government; thus, Indians sold valuable resources to weighty interests.  What they insisted on receiving in exchange, above all else, were munitions and gunsmithing. The Indians’ Euro-American trade partners could either meet this demand at reasonable cost or lose their Native customers and risk turning them into enemies. Colonial and imperial authorities, knowing all too well about the high cost of warring against Indians, responded by making gifts of munitions and gunsmithing a routine part of their diplomacy with them.  Oftentimes, presents of these goods and services were so common that powerful Indian groups no longer had to pay for them to any significant degree.

The Euro-American inability to control the Indian arms trade should serve as one of the prime examples of “rogue colonialism” (coined by Shannon Lee Dawdy) in which colonists of all ranks pursued their own gains, often illegally, in opposition to the directives of central authorities and against the security of their neighbors. Even during periods of Indian-colonial warfare, Euro-American states struggled to cut off their Indian enemies from munitions, as in King Philip’s War, the Tuscarora War, Pontiac’s War, and the Second Seminole War. There were always traders who refused to abide by such restrictions, despite the risk of capital punishment.  Most startling were examples of government officers and military men who turned to the black-market trade with Indians to line their own pockets. Government could seem fictional when it was incapable of preventing its own people from arming their enemies. To the limited extent that colonial states managed to reduce Indian military supplies during times of war, it was usually by enlisting the help of Indian allies, largely by plying them with arms.

Indigenous dependency on the technology of Europe and the United States never rendered them politically or economic dependent on colonial or imperial states. Most Indian nations remained well armed right up to the moment of their subjugation to Euro-American authority. In some instances, they wielded better guns and were better shots than the colonial forces that confronted them. To the extent that Indians held back the colonial tide, it was in part because of, not despite of, their adoption of firearms. Gun dependency was not a Trojan horse for colonialism.

The importance of firearms to indigenous fortunes meant that guns also became an essential part of Native cultures, including gender systems. Indigenous people incorporated firearms into ceremonies ranging from coming-of-age rituals to burial. They imbued firearms with supernatural associations, decorated the weapons to express these ideas, and fired celebratory volleys to honor their deities. They also used guns to express their notions of gender. Guns grew so essential to masculine achievement that, in many times and places, an Indian man was rarely if ever seen abroad without a musket and ammunition bag slung over his shoulder.  Among the Blackfeet, capturing an enemy warrior’s gun became the greatest honor a man could accomplish in battle. Learning to make basic gun repairs and mold lead shot, never mind shooting guns accurately, joined the list of things a Native man needed to know. By contrast, Native women rarely used firearms, even when their lives were in peril, based on the principle that women were meant to give and sustain life but not take it.  However, women did participate in the material culture of firearms, using their expertise in leather working, sewing, and beadwork to produce gun bags, ammunition pouches, and war shirts. These were new ways of expressing longstanding gender roles.

This history of guns in Indian country demonstrates how indigenous people used firearms to reshape their world during the age of colonialism. Some Natives, for greater or lesser periods of time, used guns to accumulate wealth, power, and honors, which is to say, to become ascendant.  Such stories offer an important counterpoint to the still widespread assumption that First Nations generally plunged into a downward trajectory of death, land loss, and impoverishment at contact with Euro-Americans. Thundersticks challenges the notion that a disadvantage in arms somehow accounts for indigenous people’s ultimate subjugation to Euro-American authority. Native economic power, business sense, and political savvy determined that was not the case. However, it is equally critical to acknowledge that gun-toting Indian groups nearly always arose at the expense of other Natives, sometimes many others.  Just as the story of the United States should not be told simply as the triumphant rise of a democratic nation of liberty loving people, neither should the advantages Indians wrested from colonialism overshadow the costs. Capturing the full range of Native experiences with firearms helps us to grasp the dynamism and darkness of colonial America viewed from Indian country.

Searching for the “Real” Toussaint Louverture

On August 24th of 1802, an elderly man reached the gate of the fort de Joux, in the Jura region of eastern France. Perched atop a mountain like an eagle in its aerie, the fort dated back to the Middle Ages and was now used as a political prison. The man was not just any prisoner: he had until recently been a general in the French army and the governor of France’s largest colony, Saint-Domingue (Haiti). He had also once been a slave. He was Toussaint Louverture.

Louverture’s was a household name by 1802. Born on a sugar plantation around 1743, he had helped organize in 1791 the Haitian Revolution, the world’s only successful slave revolt. He had then defeated armies sent by France, Spain, and Great Britain and made himself governor general for life of the island where he had once been enslaved. Slaves sang his praises throughout the Americas. The British Annual Register named him 1802’s most significant world figure. That year, William Wordsworth wrote a sonnet in his honor. “Every body has heard of Toussaint, the famous Negro general” noted one of his first biographers, the British abolitionist James Stephen, in 1803. The book went through four printings in a year. Other biographies also appeared in France, the United States, Germany, Italy, Denmark, and Sweden.

Though all his contemporaries agreed that Louverture was an extraordinary man, they disagreed on what his life actually meant. To his admirers, he was the Washington of his race, the new Spartacus, or even the Messiah. To his detractors, he was a murderer and a fraud. Some of his enemies faulted him for being too close to white planters; others accused him instead of being too friendly to them. He was the liberator of the black slaves; he was their oppressor. Napoléon Bonaparte, the first Consul of France, initially hoped to ally himself with Louverture and wage a common war against Britain and the United States; but he then concluded that Louverture was a traitor to France and sent a massive expeditionary force to unseat him. And so it was that in 1802 Louverture was captured and exiled from Haiti to the French port of Brest, and ultimately to the fort de Joux.

Louverture’s carriage passed through the first layer of fortifications, a tunnel dug directly into the rock. A moat and a drawbridge followed, after which the carriage halted in the medieval castle’s main courtyard. Louverture was led up a flight of stairs, through a gate, another courtyard, another gate, another courtyard, and yet more gates still until his journey ended deep in the fort’s innards. His cell was narrow, low, and dark. Because Louverture had many sympathizers in France and they might help him escape, the cell’s only window was obstructed by iron bars, bricks, and storm shutters. Not even as a slave had Louverture’s freedom been so restricted. “Isn’t it like burying a man alive?” he wondered. It was. He never left Joux alive.

Because Louverture’s record was so controversial, his first priority after reaching Joux was to defend his actions as governor. He set out to write a document often described today as his “memoirs.” He dictated early versions to a secretary and then penned a final version, 16,000 words long, entirely in his hand. This was a monumental effort for a man who had never been formally educated and who had only learned how to read and write proficiently in his fifties. Because nineteenth-century autobiographical accounts by slaves are rare, and because many of them were mediated by third parties, this text, written by history’s most important slave, was unique in many respects. But it raised more questions than it answered about the significance of Louverture’s life. Throughout, he described himself as a loyal servant of the French colonial empire, ignoring or distorting the many instances in which he had charted a quasi-independent course for Haiti. He generally avoided the salient issue of the Haitian Revolution, slave emancipation, and he wrote almost nothing about his pre-revolutionary life, though it had represented five sixths of his life. “I was a Slave, I dare to announce it:” this passing comment was the only reference to his time as a slave in the text. He never had a chance to clarify his views. In the weeks that followed, Bonaparte ordered his papers and writing materials confiscated in an effort to silence him. Louverture died of pneumonia in April 1803, taking his secrets with him.

Because of Louverture’s byzantine career and his willingness to obscure his record, his life has remained a matter of debate ever since. Scholars even disagree on basic facts like his birth date (no baptismal record has been found); the significance of his last name (which he adopted during the Revolution); his final resting place (his body has been lost); and his physical appearance (portraits of him vary widely). Mostly, they disagree about the meaning of his historical legacy.

In the nineteenth-century United States, Louverture was cited as a model by radical abolitionists like John Brown, who studied Haitian revolutionary tactics when preparing his raid at Harpers Ferry; but also by moderate abolitionists who viewed him as proof of the intellectual potential of black freedmen; and by pro-slavery apologists who appreciated his willingness to force black laborers back to the fields after their emancipation. Early Haitians were surprisingly critical of Louverture, whom they faulted for falling short of outright independence; many now idolize him as a founding father of the nation. The French initially denounced his autonomist agenda; they have now adopted him as a hero of their own revolution. In academic circles today, he tends to be regarded, often unquestioningly, as a one-sided herald of the abolitionist movement, an attitude that is seemingly respectful but also simplistic and even patronizing because it obscures the complexities of the Revolution he had to navigate and the skill he displayed in doing so. His multifaceted politics, which made him uniquely successful during the Revolution, have also contributed to his posthumous success: everyone can find a Louverture they like because there were so many Louvertures in the first place. He is a Rorschach test, on which people project their own beliefs.

Finding the “real” Louverture is trickier. Writing about slaves is usually difficult because history is written by the winners, so planters dominate the archival record. In Haiti, uniquely, it was the slaves who won, so documents by and about Louverture are accordingly plentiful, almost overwhelmingly so. Unfortunately, they are dispersed in dozens of archives, and until recently there were only two major biographies in English, one by C.L.R. James dating back to 1938, and a more recent one by Madison Smartt Bell that was based on limited original research. It took me ten years and trips to twenty-some archives in Europe, the Caribbean and the United States to explore Louverture’s papers.

We are only now beginning to rediscover the many facets of Louverture’s life. In recent years, I and other scholars have made many surprising discoveries. He was a devout Catholic and a family man, but he also had two wives, sixteen biological and adopted children, and many white mistresses (a habit that reflected his love-hate relationship with the white community). He obtained his freedom long before the Revolution and then purchased and rented some slaves, one of whom was the future emperor of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines; but he also helped manumit many friends and family members. He was the mastermind behind the world’s most successful slave revolt in 1791, but he also restricted the rights of field workers after their emancipation. He undermined a 1799 plot to export the Haitian slave revolt to Jamaica for fear of offending his British trading partners. He was at once committed to the principle that all men have an innate right to be free and intent on making abolition work, even if that meant quashing some of the hopes raised by his revolution in the name of expediency.

In the end, Toussaint Louverture was the consummate pragmatic idealist, whose life remains an inspiration to all those who try to reconcile the purity of their ideals with the messiness of the real world.

Philippe Girard is professor of history at McNeese State University and is the author of Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life (Basic Books, 2016).

Did 1828 Repeat Itself in 2016?

In today’s post, former SHEAR president Harry L. Watson, who is the Atlanta Alumni Distinguished Professor of Southern Culture at the University of North Carolina, reflects on the recent presidential election and its connection to the Early Republic.

In the aftermath of the recent presidential election, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani quickly scrambled for historical high ground. “This is like Andrew Jackson’s victory [in 1828],” he told Chris Matthews of MSNBC. “This is the people beating the establishment.” What’s more, according to Giuliani, Donald Trump had planned it that way all along. “The people are rising up against a government they find to be dysfunctional,” Giuliani boasted, just as Trump had intended.

Well, maybe. Certainly there are obvious parallels between the two events. Like Trump, Jackson had begun his presidential quest as an outsider, and supporters loved him for it. Jackson had been one of four major candidates in 1824, but the only one without long civilian experience in the national government. He had the poorest education of the others (Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of War William Crawford, and House Speaker Henry Clay) and came from the humblest background. What he did have was a brief but brilliant military record, a carefully-tended reputation for republican virtue, and deep suspicion of entrenched privilege. Admirers typically lauded Jackson’s support among the “multitude” but dismissed his opponents as “the antient and notorious wire workers…, the Office holders  and office hunters.” This kind of support was not enough in 1824. Jackson won a plurality of the popular and electoral votes but not a majority, and the House of Representatives chose second-place finisher John Quincy Adams in process that Jackson always condemned as “rigged”—or in his words, a “corrupt bargain.”

Returning to the fray in 1828, Jackson did not brand the Adams government as “dysfunctional,” despite Mayor Giuliani’s giddy pronouncement. Fairly or not, his followers complained instead that the Adams administration was too functional—it did too much, not too little, and mostly served its own friends. Swearing instead that “the world is governed too much,” they ignored policy proposals, and promised to save the republic by placing the “will of the people” ahead of elite connivance. Adams’ friends fought back by calling Jackson a barbarian, a bigamist, and even a mulatto, all to no avail. On taking office, Jackson burnished his outsider’s reputation by sweeping out experienced federal officers who had backed his opponent, arguing that government duties were simple enough for any “men of intelligence,” so the dangers of corruption outweighed the benefits of experience.

Trump-Jackson parallels don’t stop with anti-elitism. Jackson was a “white nationalist” par excellence, and Trump has courted the same label. Expelling Indians from eastern America was as much a part of Jackson’s appeal as deporting illegal immigrants has been to Donald Trump’s. Jackson was a large slaveholder who bought and sold human chattel without compunction, and Trump delights in attacking racial and religious minorities. Both men seem(ed) to relish anger and violence, but both are (or were) said to be calm and courtly in private. Exaggerated masculinity has been central to both men’s mystique, though Jackson boasted of protecting women rather than abusing them and never tried to prove himself by the size of his body parts.

Above all, Jackson, like Trump, was a man of great wealth who promised to defend the “common” white man. Contrary to a widespread belief, Jackson’s voters were not newly enfranchised by falling property requirements for the right to vote, for most adult white men had enjoyed voting rights since the 1790s. Voter turnout surpassed 50 percent in 1828 and 1832, but rose much higher—often past 80 percent—after Jackson left office and well-organized political parties mastered the art of mass campaigning. Nevertheless, Jackson based his 1828 victory on the “will of the people,” and sealed his populist reputation in office by attacking and destroying the Bank of the United States. Without knuckling under to John C. Calhoun, moreover, he opposed high tariffs as corrupt favors for business interests. Trump offers just the opposite, and promises that protectionism and high-end tax cuts will bring back jobs to America’s industrial heartland.

Aggrieved “common men” of Jackson’s day faced very different circumstances from those of our own. Few of them held or wanted wage-earning jobs; most were small farmers who tilled their own land (or hoped to), aided by their families. They grew small surpluses to sell but consumed most of their harvests themselves. More than job opportunities, they wanted cheap land—probably taken from Indians. Others were small craftsmen and shop owners who used their own hands, tools, and skills to produce for local customers. Farmers and craftsmen both longed for secure personal independence, especially from employers or landlords.

To an extent that is hard grasp today, many of these Americans feared that paper money was the biggest threat to their cherished independence. Private banks—not the government—created the nation’s ordinary currency by lending their own paper notes to borrowers who spent them and put them in circulation. Only the banks’ promises to redeem these bills in gold gave them value, but fluctuating business conditions could make this impossible. When that happened, the farmer’s or mechanic’s hard-earned gains turned into worthless rags and pauperized dependency replaced their precious liberty overnight. With mixed public and private ownership, the Bank of the United States either disciplined this informal system and kept it more reliable, or (depending on your perspective) made it even more reckless and discouraged a more dependable currency based on gold and silver alone.

Jackson clearly believed the latter. In his view, the Bank had often put its own interests ahead of the public’s and faced no democratic curbs on its enormous powers over the currency. Believing he acted on behalf of the Bank’s suffering victims, he vowed to crush it and finally did so. He could not preserve an economy based on small producers, however. A wage-based economy eventually swallowed them, leading to the situation of Trump’s voters, who demand good jobs instead of independent farms and workshops.

Economic historians continue to debate the significance of Jackson’s actions. Though the Bank might have managed the economy constructively like a modern central bank, it did not always do so. After it died, the nation managed to get by without such a thing until the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913. What can’t be disputed is that Jackson insisted on the supremacy of public interests and public power over the Bank’s private business, and made his priorities stick. Though critics still denounce the powers of today’s Federal Reserve System, presidential appointment of its directors and other democratic curbs clearly keep the Fed much more attentive to the public interest than the Bank of the United States in its prime. For all his faults and failures, in other words, Andrew Jackson still has a legitimate claim to his reputation for defending the principle that public institutions must put the interests of ordinary Americans first. Though the principle has often been violated, it is not clear how democratic modern America could be—including for minorities—if it did not exist at all.

And what of Donald Trump’s claims to defend the “common man?” The answer depends on future history, of course. It is hard to find well-informed experts today, however, who truly believe that protectionism and tax cuts will bring back jobs to Middle America. Most argue that more jobs have moved to microchips than to Mexico, and deny that previous tax cuts brought much job growth. If Trump and Jackson both claim to speak for the white “common man,” only one so far can plausibly claim to have acted for him. Nonwhites and women have not gotten much yet from either one.

All this may change. For now, only one thing about President Trump is virtually certain. As Senator Daniel Webster dryly noted of Andrew Jackson, “when he comes he will bring a breeze with him.”

Movement within Bounds on the Antislavery Political Spectrum: The Case of Edward Everett

Several years ago I was at work on what I thought would be a group biography of the doughfaces, Northern politicians favorable to compromise with the South over slavery.  I was prompted in large part by Leonard Richards’ book illustrating how instrumental doughfaces were in enabling Southern domination of the federal government.  But as I contemplated their significance beyond that point, an insight from David Potter (brought to my attention by a conference panel commentary from Michael Morrison) proved provocative.  Historians’ recognition that “slavery, in one aspect or another, pervaded all of the aspects of sectionalism,” Potter noted, has left them content to ask “a simple question: Did the people of the North really oppose slavery? rather than a complex one: What was the rank of antislavery in the hierarchy of northern values?”  The complex version should help us perceive how the antislavery sentiment of the vast majority of Northerners conflicted with their love of a Union and Constitution that manifestly protected slavery.  Thus the question became for them “not a choice of alternatives – antislavery or proslavery – but a ranking of values. . . . The difference between ‘antislavery men’ and ‘conciliationists’ in the North was not a question of what they thought about slavery alone, but of how they ranked these priorities.”  I found this conceptual framework a real leap forward in my thinking, and started applying it profitably to understanding doughfaces of various stripes.

Pursuing Potter’s formulation via the genre of biography helps us understand antebellum Northern politicians who at first glance seem wildly inconsistent on the issue of slavery.  If we can bring ourselves to take seriously their protestations both of love for the Union and distaste for slavery, we should not be surprised to see them move along a spectrum of antislavery belief and action.  While that peregrination rarely proceeded in one direction or predictable ways, it did transpire within limits for every antebellum Northern politician.  The relative strength of their antislavery principles dictated that there were bounds beyond which their conservatism could not go, but their nationalism and respect for law and order also set boundaries beyond which their antislavery could not go.

But a big part of why I jettisoned the group biography for a political biography of Edward Everett was that his career added a third axis beyond that of Union and antislavery.  For Everett was a National Republican and then a Whig, and his accompanying dedication to the ethic of reform and Improvement usually but not always amplified the antislavery priority in his thinking and actions.  His devotion to Whiggish reform certainly meant he would evince less bitterness towards abolitionists and antislavery politicians than did doughfaced Democrats.  All anti-abolitionists decried zealotry, but most Democratic doughfaces feared and loathed everyone who injected moral questions into the political arena.  Everett recoiled from fanaticism, but could better understand the antislavery reform impulse.

Everett’s resultant torturous meanderings on the slavery issue were too multiple to sketch fully here, but some highlights might be illustrative.  As a member of Congress representing a district in Massachusetts in the 1820s and 1830s, he largely stood as a Whig nationalist, pertinaciously opposed to Indian Removal and nullification while advocating internal improvements.  But Representative Everett traveled as far as he ever would down the proslavery side of the spectrum in two notorious speeches meant to defend the John Quincy Adams administration’s conservative credentials against Southern charges that the Adamsites represented a radical threat to slavery.  As governor of Massachusetts and U.S. minister to Britain from the late 1830s through the mid-1840s, Everett found his reform commitments and immediate political context pushing him far enough in the antislavery direction to sound alarm bells among proslavery Southerners.  As a private citizen and then a U.S. Senator, he found his attempts to stake out a stable conservative antislavery position frustrated by the debates leading up to the Compromise of 1850 and ultimately shattered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  But he ultimately rallied and creatively pursued potential solutions to the growing sectional crisis, including mobilizing masses of Unionists to help purchase Mount Vernon as a shrine for Union as well as running as the Constitutional Union Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1860.  Not until deep into the Civil War, however, was Everett able finally to achieve a full synthesis of his Unionist, antislavery, and reform commitments.

In a recent book review, Andrew Shankman argued perceptively that “we need to ask how meaningful most claims to oppose slavery were prior to the Civil War.”  I submit that it is not especially helpful for us, as too many historians working in this area are wont to do, to simply dismiss the claims of almost everyone to the right of William Lloyd Garrison.  My biographical exploration of this question as applied to Everett is thus my beginning of an answer to Shankman’s challenge.

Matthew Mason

Brigham Young University

 

Sources:

Howe, Daniel Walker.  The Political Culture of the American Whigs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

________.  What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Mason, Matthew.  “The Maine and Missouri Crisis: Competing Priorities and Northern Slavery Politics in the Early Republic.” Journal of the Early Republic 33 (Winter 2013): 675-700

Potter, David M.  The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Richards, Leonard L. The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

Shankman, Andrew. Review of Beverly C. Tomek, Colonization and its Discontents. Journal of the Civil War Era 2 (Dec. 2012): 602-05.

Indian Factories and the American Empire of Commerce

Today’s post was written by David A. Nichols, associate professor of history at Indiana State University. It is based on his new book, Engines of Diplomacy: Indian Factories and the Negotiation of American Empire (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

The American purchase of Louisiana had many consequences, but in the beginning it was mainly an affair of commerce. Thomas Jefferson and his partisans made their deal with Napoleon not to acquire land but to control the Mississippi River, conduit for one-third of the United States’ trade. Commerce also became the means whereby the Jeffersonians, leery of armies and large bureaucracies, planned to realign their new Trans-Mississippi domain’s Native American majority. The Corps of Discovery, one of several parties sent to reconnoiter the new territory, bore additional responsibility for opening peaceful trade with the northern Plains Indians. As Lewis and Clark approached the Continental Divide, another group of federal officers entered the eastern Louisiana Territory to turn vague promises of American trade into reality. These were the employees of the United States’ Indian factory system.

The factories already comprised a growing network of trading posts in the Trans-Appalachian West, selling manufactured goods at cost and buying Indians’ peltries and other wares at market prices. The public traders, or factors, who ran these posts sought to lure Native Americans away from foreign traders and make them economic clients of the United States. Economic clientage would then lead to political alliance. “Commercial connections,” as George Washington argued in 1784, “of all others are the most difficult to dissolve.” Washington would go on to champion a federal trading-house system, modeled on the “truck houses” operated by several British colonies, as a guarantor of peace after the Northwest Indian War (1790-94). His Jeffersonian successors built a dozen more factories, believing that trade and commercial debt would make Indians both friendly to the United States and pliant enough to cede their lands.

By 1802 federal officials, or at least some of them, had begun learning that Native Americans were not mere instruments of someone else’s policy. They were instead a diverse set of peoples with their own economic and social histories. The experiences of factors and their Native American counterparts in the Mississippi Valley drove this point home.

Many Indians living in the Louisiana Territory already had multiple private trading partners, like Bright & Morgan of Arkansas Post and Saint Louis’s Chouteau family. The Osages and Sauks and their neighbors used the federal factories as alternate business places, but still sold most of their peltry to their more familiar private partners. When Native Americans did come to the factories to trade, the exchange did not always go smoothly. Sometimes Indians wanted to sell things that factors refused to buy: in the late 1810s Comanches offered to sell horses (the economic base of their “empire”) to the trading house at Sulphur Fork, but the factor demurred, suspecting that his guests offered stolen property. More often, Indian hunters used the federal trading houses to dump wares that private traders wouldn’t buy, but the more conciliatory factors would. Deerskins were the most noteworthy example: in the early nineteenth century falling European demand for deer leather glutted the market with deerskins, but the Natchitoches factory at still bought 130,000 pounds of them between 1806 and 1811.

Native Americans also sold the factors goods for which there was only a local market: meat, wild rice, and baskets, for example. In this case they were not dumping a commodity but taking part in what James Carson calls a “hospitality economy,” offering food and housewares not only as exchange items but to maintain amicable relationships with the factors. The hospitality exchange was not unilateral: Indian visitors to the factories expected factors to offer them food, lodging, and gifts. One factor, George Sibley of Fort Osage, observed that he “frequently” prepared dinner for “an Osage chief or war captain” and his companions and daughters (“princesses”). Through such pleasantries Native Americans “naturalized” the federal trading houses and turned the factors into fictive kinsmen.

Indians did not hold a monopoly on agency. The factors and their superiors in the War Department made decisions that shaped the western factories’ relationship with their Native American trading partners. They closed trading houses at inconvenient locations, or which had too many private competitors, like Bellefontaine near Saint Louis. Bellefontaine’s two successor posts, Fort Osage in western Missouri and Fort Madison in modern Iowa, enjoyed a far higher volume of business: Sauks and Mesquakies annually sold the latter factory 35,000 pounds of lead, while Fort Osage’s factor George Sibley shipped about 60,000 deerskins and smaller furs over a five-year period. Factors turned both of these newer trading houses into diplomatic assets for their government. Sibley endeavored to connect the Osages, Kansas, and United States in what Andrew Isenberg described as a regional trading alliance, while Fort Madison became valuable enough to the Sauks and Mesquakies that during the War of 1812 federal officials encouraged a faction from these nations to move to central Missouri (away from British influence) by transferring their factory there. After 1815, the War Department continued to sustain advantageous alliances through its trading houses, using the new Spadre Bluffs factory to arm emigrant Cherokees whom the United States supported in their internecine war against the Osages.

In the aggregate, the Indian factories served as points of interethnic contact, reifying the borderland, the shadowy zone of contested influence, that the United States had projected across the Mississippi River. They also became places of dialogue between federal policies and Native American agendas, with the latter frequently superseding the former. Ultimately, though, the trading houses strengthened American influence and power by driving foreign competitors out of business and persuading Native Americans to become, if not clients of the United States, at least their allies. After the War of 1812 a growing white settler population would use that power to curtail Indians’ independence, offering Native Americans cash and goods not for their peltries but their lands, and threatening them with violent displacement if they refused. That those settlers no longer believed they needed to build their power through trade, that they felt the factories had served their purpose, became evident in 1822, when one of their political leaders, Thomas Benton of Missouri, led a successful campaign in Congress to shutter the trading houses. The Louisiana Purchase, or at least the eastern part of it, was changing from an empire of commerce into one of white settlement and Indian exclusion.

 

Sources:

James Taylor Carson, Searching for the Bright Path: The Mississippi Choctaws from Prehistory to Removal (Lincoln, 1999).

Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia, 2006).

Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven, 2008).

Eric Hinderaker, Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley (Baltimore, 1997).

Andrew Isenberg, “The Market Revolution in the Borderlands: George Champlin Sibley in Missouri and New Mexico, 1808-1826,” Journal of the Early Republic 21 (Fall 2001): 445-465.

Harriet Tubman and Andrew Jackson: A Match Made in the U.S. Treasury Department

Note: This essay, with its cross-border themes, is being jointly posted by The Republic and Borealia: A Group Blog on Early Canadian History. Our thanks to Denis McKim for coordinating this joint post.Tubman on 20

The net has been abuzz with news of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s announcement that Harriet Tubman will be placed on the front of the $20 bill and Andrew Jackson demoted to the back.  The first African American to ever appear on an American bill, Tubman was a slave-turned-Underground Railroad operative, then an agent for the Union Army during the Civil War.  Jackson was the first U.S. President to be born of common people, and he achieved legendary status as the Hero of New Orleans in the War of 1812.  He was also an unrepentant slave holder and the architect of Indian removal.

Surely, the change to the $20 bill reflects some sort of shift in America’s cultural outlook.  It has been sixty years since the Civil Rights Movement. Black Lives Matter is, perhaps, the next evolution of what African Americans fought for in the 1950s and ’60s.  Tubman was a remarkable woman who fought against and overcame a system of bondage that nearly tore the nation in two.  Yet she could not overcome the inherent racism that allowed that system to flourish and has remained to this very day.  Tubman left the United States and lived in British Canada from 1851 to 1858, disgusted with the racial failings of America.  Such contradictions raise the question of why Secretary Lew is placing her on the $20.

Jackson is equally puzzling.  He actually hated paper money and surely rolled over in his grave when the Treasury Department placed him on the bill in 1928.  Yet America at the time needed a guiding force that reflected democracy and the people.  Jackson certainly fit the bill (pun intended).  Few at the time were troubled about the rights of the enslaved or of Native Americans; Civil Rights was still decades away.

In twenty-first-century America, Tubman is a much more appealing figure than Jackson.  Both, however, have their pluses and minuses when it comes to being a symbol for America important enough to place on the iconic $20 bill.  This essay, collaborated on by a Tubman scholar and a Jackson scholar, seeks to explore some of these contradictions and the legacies of two Americans who were so different, yet are now joined and will soon be in the pockets of so many.

Tubman on the Front

The $20 bill is an unlikely place for Tubman, an American-Canadian transnational, militant direct-action abolitionist, who struggled with finances for the majority of her life. A devoted Christian, moreover, “money is the root of all evil” was quite frankly her perspective on cash. Chaining a liberator to a capitalist tool that oppresses and exploits a wealth of people is paradoxical. Deeming Tubman, as many assert, an “American Hero” is unbefitting as well and it is outright dismissive of British Canada. For some seven years, Tubman fled the United States, with others, for freedom. Settling in the borderland town of St. Catharines, Canada West, she was able to negotiate nations in the same manner as she navigated the American South and North. Tubman explained: “I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer…I brought ‘em clear off to Canada.”[1] To Tubman and other freedom seekers, Canada was “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” When Tubman decided to live in the “Sweet land of liberty” again, she settled in Auburn, New York, an ideal location on the edges of the “Burnt Over District.” While the American-Canadian border hardly played a daily role in Central New York, a hint of its presence always loomed and allowed reasonable access to Canada, in case of emergency. The mobile-minded Tubman utilized these means to reenter Canada on occasions, including in wake of the 1859 John Brown insurrection.[2]

This, of course, is not the story the federal government’s $20. They want to project a rigid nationalist message that Tubman was a Union Civil War spy and nurse, not that she was an unpaid veteran who had to petition repeatedly for compensation. In 1899, nearly eighty years old, she received $12 per month for her service as a nurse, and $8 as a widow’s pension for her deceased Union husband Nelson Davis, ironically totaling $20.[3] Neither is the new bill’s intent to divulge that Tubman was conned out of money by a fraud artist, worked as a domestic servant for the elite, borrowed funds from friends, and solicited donations or told Underground Railroad tales for her ever-present need for capital. Perhaps this is part of Tubman’s attraction; like America and the greater portion of its citizenry, she was a debtor. Tubman’s money issues were not all self-inflicted or because she was fiscally frivolous, but it is the systemic problem with capitalism. Harriet Tubman cared for the lowly, fed the sick, clothed the naked, and even built the Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn. She looked after others, though her assets were meager. Money, the very thing that taunted and pained Tubman throughout her life, is now going to be tied to her very existence by the U.S. Treasury. Should this be rejoiced, ridiculed, or utterly rejected? In addition, while a score of African Americans are cheerful about Tubman on the $20, how does her gender factor in as she stands alone among men on dollars?

Jackson on the Back

AJ on 20Andrew Jackson has always been controversial and perhaps this is the reason for his demotion to the back of the $20 bill. In one sense, it is absurd that Jackson is on paper money anyway. He hated a currency that he considered unstable, easily manipulated, and often worthless.  In the early nineteenth century there was no “American” currency.  That is, none printed by the government and recognized as the accepted medium of exchange. To be clear, Jackson did not hate all banks, as some today wrongly argue.  He hated the monopoly and power of the Bank of the United States and the unstable nature of paper money. Why Jackson was initially placed on the $20 bill is something of a mystery.  There was no discussion of the legislation when it was passed, but many historians surmise that coming at the tail end of the Progressive Era, when the government had been battling monopoly, trusts, and corruption, Jackson made a perfect candidate.  He was the original defender of the people against big business. He famously explained: “The bank…is trying to kill me, but I will kill it.” Jackson’s bank veto was presented as a monumental defense of the people and denunciation of monopoly.

The sea change for Jackson on the $20 bill has actually been waged for years, one of the main rationales being he was a genocidal maniac who destroyed Native American cultures. Look at virtually any website or commentary on the currency issue, and you will see that this is a core complaint. Jackson also was a slaveholder.  He was unrepentant, owned upwards of 150 human beings, and defended the South’s right to maintain an abhorrent institution. Certainly, there is no excuse in today’s time for the racial bigotry of Jackson. Yet to judge him with a 21st century moral absolutism is off the mark. And if Americans decide to deface Jackson for actions against Natives and Blacks, they might as well do the same for most of the Founding Fathers. Take down the Washington Monument, bulldoze Jefferson’s Monticello, remove Madison from all mention when it comes to creation of the Constitution.  Repositioning Jackson to the back of the bill is telling and is better than entire removal. It reflects the changing social mores of our society, but not a complete erasure of our past.  This is as it should be.  Americans should not erase the people and history that they do not like. They can and should judge history and learn from it, but not seek to totally erase it. Perhaps the biggest question is why Tubman is being placed on the front.  She represents the Civil War Era.  The image most fitting to pair with Jackson is a Native American, the people to which he did so much harm.[4]

Conclusion

Since they are destined to be together on the $20 bill, it is best that Tubman and Jackson are back-to-back.  They clearly did not see eye-to-eye on a number of issues, including their outlook on the British. While Jackson hated the British and fought the Redcoats in the American Revolution and during the War of 1812, at New Orleans, Tubman respected the British for abolishing slavery and fashioning Canada for fugitives. The sentiments each held for the British were lasting. Jackson’s elder brother Hugh died in battle during the American Revolution and when the teenage Andrew was held captive and refused to clean the boots of a British officer, the Redcoat swung his sword, cutting Jackson on the head and hand, leaving both physical and psychological scars. Jackson despised the English even in his presidency. Tubman also experienced a head wound as a youngster, but at the hands of an American slaveholder seeking to enlist her help in capturing human property. Tubman resisted, and the overseer threw a weight that struck her in the skull, precipitating epileptic seizures and a lifelong illness. However, she had a mind to employ Canada for safety and, later, after Queen Victoria read Tubman’s narrative and was “pleased with it,” she mailed her a silver medal, which memorialized Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.[5] At Harriet Tubman’s 1913 funeral, the medal from the Queen was placed in her coffin, and an American flag was draped on her casket, suggesting dual national identities.

Yet the transnationalism of Tubman is not a convenient characteristic and is usually avoided when attempting to tell a nationalist American story. That is certainly what the $20 bill is attempting to do. Jackson’s story is equally difficult in the twenty-first century.  His disposition towards Natives, Blacks, and even the British, captures an American spirit that most today do not want to acknowledge. Will keeping Jackson on the $20 and including Tubman force people to remember the past and learn from nineteenth-century injustices? To say the very least, the Tubman-Jackson mismatch is a strange coupling. It is certainly safe to say that it is not “a match made in heaven,” but rather in the U.S. Treasury.

Matthew Warshauer is professor of History at Central Connecticut State University and the author of two books on Jackson: Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law and Andrew Jackson in Context.

dann j. Broyld is professor of Public History at Central Connecticut State University who has worked as a consultant for the forthcoming Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Cambridge, Maryland, to be opened in March 2017. He is currently working on a manuscript with the University of Toronto Press.

[1] Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet Tubman, the Moses of Her People (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.), 22. Reprinted from 1886.

[2] See dann j. Broyld. “Harriet Tubman: Transnationalism and the Land of a Queen in the Late Antebellum,” The Meridians: Feminism, Race, and Transnationalism special issue: “Harriet Tubman: A Legacy of Resistance.” Vol. 12, No. 2, (November 2014) pg. 78-98.

[3] Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of An American Hero (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2004), 225-226, 252, 279.

[4] Matthew Warshauer, Andrew Jackson in Context (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2009).

[5] Beverly Lowry, Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2007), 373.