Interview with Donald F. Johnson, 2016 Manuscript Prize Winner

Dr. Don JohnsonAt the 2016 SHEAR conference, Donald F. Johnson, assistant professor of history at North Dakota State University, received the SHEAR Manuscript Prize for his Northwestern University dissertation, “Occupied America: Everyday Experience and the Failure of Imperial Authority in Revolutionary Cities under British Rule, 1775-1783.”

The Republic (TR): How would you summarize the argument of your dissertation?
Donald F. Johnson (DJ): “Occupied America” argues that everyday experiences of military occupation fundamentally changed Americans’ attitudes towards the British Empire in port cities. Occupations began with high hopes on both sides: city residents who remained expected a return to the prosperity of the pre-Revolutionary British Empire, while soldiers and officials expected a pliant population base eager to their allegiance to the king. Although occupation provided opportunities for many civilians to better themselves socially and financially, however, military rule utterly failed to bring about a restoration of imperial authority. Despite its promise, the lived experience of occupation – material hardships brought on by the army, insults to colonists’ perceived position in the Empire, and mismanagement of civil government ultimately alienated many who had once been among the Empire’s most vehement supporters. Thus, when the British army finally evacuated its posts in American port towns, the majority of civilians were happy to see them go.

TR: What led you to choose this topic to research?
DJ:  I was drawn to the topic by watching the failed US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan in the 200s and early 2010s. Touted as nation-building projects and the use of the military as protectors of civil society, these occupations actually sparked or worsened civil wars as they continued. As a student of Revolutionary America, I wondered whether British military occupation in America may have had the same effect, and, after doing a small exploratory study on occupied Charleston, South Carolina, found a much more interesting story.

TR: Which historians and/or writers most influenced your research?

DJ: My first influence has been my doctoral advisor, Tim Breen, who taught me how to ask hard questions of my sources, how to “read between the lines” of primary documents to find previously unheard voices, and how to think like a historian while remaining relatable to a more general audience. Over the course of my research, my biggest influences have been Franklin Jameson’s conception of the Revolution as a social movement, John Shy’s perceptive insights into the social and political dynamics American Revolutionary War, Gary Nash and Benjamin Carp’s studies of the popular politics of Revolutionary cities, David Waldstreicher and Benjamin Irvin’s work on the connection between social ritual and politics, and Ethan Shagan’s insightful study of popular politics during the English Reformation, although countless other works and minds have also informed my own thinking.

TR: Once your dissertation is published, what do you think your next project will be?

DJ:  I’ve got a few projects in mind, but the one that interests me most is an investigation of the Revolutionary War as a transformative event in its own right, rather than simply a War for Independence that followed an already-effected political Revolution. As many scholars have demonstrated recently, the war fundamentally changed the way people in North America thought about their relationship to authority, and these changes did not fall simply along the lines of that elite politicians expected, or their descendants deigned to recollect in their early histories. I’d like to explore how the war itself pushed and twisted the course of the Revolution in different ways, and how taking it seriously as a Revolutionary War, rather than simply a War for Independence, changes our conceptions of that event.

Interview with April R. Haynes, 2016 James H. Broussard Book Prize Winner

April R. Haynes is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her book, Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America, was co-winner of the James H. Broussard Best First Book Prize.

The Republic (TR): For those who haven’t read your book, would you provide a synopsis?

April R. Haynes (AH): Riotous Flesh tells a new story about how proscriptions against the “solitary vice” of masturbation became a dominant sexual discourse in the northern United States between 1830 and 1860. Prior historians have analyzed antimasturbation discourse as a means of instilling white men with the restraint required of republican citizens and middle-class economic actors. I argue instead that white female moral reformers and black abolitionist women led the campaign against the solitary vice as part of their larger quests to dismantle the sexual double standard and racialized ideals of femininity.

Women became interested in the solitary vice because crowds of men and boys rioted outside of lecture halls wherever they gathered to listen to Sylvester Graham speak about sexual physiology. Graham gave women the same advice he offered to men, and some of the women’s lectures were racially integrated. The crowds who tried to shut them down overlapped in significant ways with those who participated in both brothel riots and proslavery riots during the 1830s.

In 1837, moral reformers and abolitionists created the Ladies’ Physiology Society of Boston and began to sponsor lectures on sexual physiology by and for women. Members traveled to small-town female moral reform societies, where they persuaded thousands of women that all bodies—male and female, black and white—were subject to a universal set of God-given laws of life and health. The dominant sexual discourse revolved around binary concepts of race and gender, despite the very real presence of people living beyond those binaries in the antebellum North. Reformers strove to erase the sexual line that purportedly separated these poles. They insisted that each individual possessed both the physiological capacity for desire and the moral imperative to restrain it.

The sexual universalism of evangelical physiology contradicted the twin stereotypes of passionless white “ladies” and licentious black “Jezebels” that rationalized so many aspects of white patriarchy. It sparked an interracial moment in moral reform between 1835 and 1840. Black activists such as Sarah Mapps Douglass, Lavinia Hilton, and Nancy Prince urged white women to stop conflating passivity with innocence and act as politically, morally, and sexually accountable beings—particularly by joining the abolitionist movement. Some white reformers, notably the Grimké sisters, Sarah Townsend Smith, and Paulina Wright Davis, embraced active virtue and spurned passive purity. This distinction became fundamental to the nascent women’s rights movement and blossomed into a call for “sovereignty of self.” But other white moral reformers clung to the doctrine of passionless, with its promise of moral superiority. The female moral reform movement fractured over race and sex in the early 1840s.

When moral reform women were the main popularizers of antimasturbation discourse, few Americans took heed. But as the movement splintered, more and more white women turned inward and focused on their own sexual redemption. The word spread from a small, interracial corps of “ultra” reformers to the predominantly white mass culture. In the process, warnings against the solitary vice became a kind of screen behind which white, middle-class women could discuss a broad range of sexual issues without risking their protections and privileges.

Urban entrepreneurs sold tickets to secular anatomy and physiology lectures by appealing to married women’s longing for reproductive control and sexual satisfaction. It became possible to justify graphic public depictions of “amativeness” (heterosexual desire) by warning against the solitary vice. The amative orgasm in women was increasingly considered natural and healthy—yet all agreed that the masturbatory “paroxysm” caused debility, insanity, and death. The solitary vice made heterosexual desire into a social virtue.

The popular physiology lectures of the 1840s also incorporated scientific racism in the form of comparative anatomy. Lecturers and writers represented white women’s amativeness as essentially moderate, black women’s bodies as tending naturally toward “excess.” The sexual universalism promoted by earlier activists faded from memory. Black women and men responded by creating separate institutions that could empower younger people in their communities to develop their own politics of embodiment. The last chapter of the book details Sarah Mapps Douglass’ education of young black girls for anatomical literacy and sexual health. She counseled them toward amativeness, reproductive autonomy, and self-love—but away from the solitary vice.

The marketing of solitary vice discourse dovetailed with its institutionalization in medical practice, asylum administration, and public schools during the 1850s. As medical feminists and educational reformers, women once again led the charge. But over the next two decades, the focus of antimasturbation discourse shifted away from adults of all genders and toward male youth. The “spermatorrhea” diagnosed by mid-nineteenth century American physicians echoed the masculine “onanism” scare of mid-eighteenth century England. Because of women’s agency, Americans paid more widespread attention to such warnings than they had prior to 1830. But the counterdiscursive possibilities that had inspired women to crusade against the gender-neutral solitary vice had disappeared.

TR: What led you to choose this topic for your book?

AH: While doing dissertation research, I stumbled across evidence of the riots at Graham’s “Lecture to Mothers.” I had heard of his Lecture to Young Men on Chastity, but not of the lecture to women only. At the time, I had no interest in writing about moral reformers. I was interested in sex radicals, and I thought female moral reformers represented the most boring aspects of nineteenth-century sexual culture. But the riots really surprised me. Why would men riot to prevent women from hearing a lecture that counseled chastity? What was so threatening about the possibility that women were learning not to masturbate?

When I began following newspaper coverage of the physiology riots between 1833 and 1837, it became clear that women in multiple cities persisted in organizing those lectures and physically resisted the rioters because they recognized that it wasn’t Graham who was being targeted but themselves. Anti-Graham editors argued that the lectures exposed innocent wives and daughters to indecent words and images, but the women in each city invariably denied that the men in the crowd were their husbands and fathers. Rather, they said that the ringleaders were editors of racy papers, actors at scandalous theaters, and brothel proprietors. To test these claims, I began tracking down some of those editors and the men named by reformers as having “gotten up” a particularly violent 1834 riot. I discovered that the female moral reformers were basically right about the composition of the crowds and the motivations of their enemies. The editors who defended the riots overtly stated that white men deserved sexual privileges over and above white women and people of color. They claimed that the lectures promoted “amalgamation” (interracial intimacy), deprived white women of their “freedom from debasing passion,” and threatened to make men into genderless “monsters.”

So the reform women had a point. This was the last thing I expected to find, so profoundly opposed to the whole moral reform project was I. That tension created a puzzle that I wanted to pursue. How could these smart, activist women have been so right about their enemies and also (in my view) so very wrong in the sexual discourse they ultimately produced?

TR: Americans typically think of this period as prudish and private when it came to sexuality. Is that a misconception?

AH: Yes and no. It is a misconception that sexuality has ever been a strictly private matter in the United States. However, there have definitely been moments of extreme pressure to conform to a specific sexual standard, usually one correlated with purity and righteousness—pressure to perform prudery, as it were. What I tried to do in Riotous Flesh was to trace the process by which one such norm came to be accepted by so many people, at least superficially. Writers across the entire spectrum of political, intellectual, and religious beliefs pronounced that masturbation killed tens of thousands of people each year. These were people who could agree about absolutely nothing else! Even the editors who had sparked the riots against women’s physiology lectures eventually declared their opposition to the solitary vice (they told male readers that it would be better to pay for sex with any woman than to masturbate). In order to manufacture consent on such a scale, publicity was absolutely necessary.

That said, one of the great ironies in the construction of modern heterosexuality has been a consistent refrain that “prudery” must be overcome in order to purge society of its “perversions.” Marriage manuals of the early twentieth century educated readers about how to have “wholesome” sex while denouncing prudish women as frigid. Similarly, moral reformers of the early nineteenth century railed against “false delicacy,” which killed women silently by keeping them addicted to the solitary vice. Women masturbated because they simply had not been taught the dangers of masturbation, reformers said, which was why popular science lectures and medical institutions must teach them.

TR: Did white women and African American women differ in their views on masturbation?

AH: In the 1830s, both groups saw antimasturbation physiology as having the potential to challenge strictures of passionlessness. White moral reformers saw how their opponents manipulated passionlessness to claim that white women need to be protected from sexual information, by violence if necessary. Black abolitionist women in New York City saw an opportunity in the moral reformers’ declaration of war against “licentiousness in all its forms” to urge white women to come out against the “licentiousness of slavery.” They also wanted white women to face the sexual aspects of northern white supremacy, such as the sexual harassment of black domestic workers in white homes. While forging this delicate and temporary alliance, they attended physiology lectures and moral reform meetings and learned to deploy the language of solitary vice to their own ends. If white women who appeared “pure” could secretly be sexually vicious, then the whole racialized virgin/whore dichotomy could be turned on its head. In order to demolish the Jezebel stereotype, the assumption that white women were naturally passionless had to be obliterated—the two ideologies must stand or fall together.

But as growing numbers of white moral reform women became obsessed ridding themselves and their families of the solitary vice, many stopped hearing the deeper call for accountability and activism. They reverted back to a claim of moral superiority, now based on cultivated virtue rather than essential purity. Black abolitionist women, in turn, moved on to other projects. That isn’t to say that they stopped believing that masturbation was physically harmful—Sarah Mapps Douglass told her students that it was—but as a counterdiscourse, the solitary vice lost its utility earlier for them than for white women. It had always been only one of many layers of African American sexual counterdiscourse, anyway. I can only imagine how distressing it must have been for black abolitionist women to watch that particular strand of sexual thought gain such traction while racist ideas about gender and sexuality remained deeply entrenched.

TR: What is your current/next project?

AH: While working on this project, I became very interested in the dynamics between moral reformers, abolitionists and the women they purported to rescue. They used the sexualized word “traffic” to describe both prostitution and slavery. The solution, according to diverse reformers, was to channel formerly trafficked women into waged domestic labor. Doing so often meant geographic displacement, family separation, and public inspection of workers’ bodies—in a way, an authorized form of trafficking. So I have another puzzle regarding intentions and outcomes to work out. I’m currently researching the ways in which some women began marketing the feminized labor of others during a pivotal era in the history of American capitalism, 1789 to 1860.

Interview with Shane White, 2016 SHEAR Book Prize Winner

Shane White is the Challis Professor of History and an Australian Professorial Fellow in the History Department at the University of Sydney specializing in African-American history. His book, Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire, was this year’s SHEAR Book Prize winner.

The Republic (TR): For those who haven’t read your book, would you provide a synopsis?

Shane White (SW): In Prince of Darkness, I recount the story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton’s life. Hamilton, born in 1808, first turns up in New York in 1828 running counterfeit coin to Haiti for a consortium of merchants. He moves permanently to the city in the early 1830s, struggles for a while, and then begins to establish himself as a guy who can make money for you on Wall Street. He always sailed rather close to the wind. Initially he had a reputation, deserved, for over-insuring boats and then arranging to have them scuttled. He invested his first fortune in real estate, in 1836 buying houses, a 400 foot-long wharf, and land in Poughkeepsie. The 1837 “panic” ruined him and he went bankrupt. But Hamilton bounced back and made another fortune on Wall Street, dispensing advice on what stocks to buy to white investors. Although Hamilton was hardly pure as the driven snow (but then who was on antebellum Wall Street), he also faced considerable discrimination. The second stock exchange in NY passed a resolution in the mid-1840s that anyone who dealt with Hamilton would be expelled. In 1863, during the Draft Riots, a mob invaded his house—the intention of its members had been to hang him from the lamppost out the front of his house on East 29th Street, but he, sensibly had hightailed it over the back fence. When he died in 1875, he was reportedly worth some two million dollars.

TR: What led you to choose this topic for your book?

SW: I have been reading New York nineteenth-century newspapers and court cases for decades and I kept on coming across references to him. It took a while for me to realize that the person I had found running counterfeit coin in 1828 was the same person suing Cornelius Vanderbilt in the 1850s. But once I did, I started to pursue him actively not quite knowing what I was going to do with the material. In the end the challenge of writing a book about someone about whom absolutely nothing was known drew me in and took a couple of years out of my life.

TR: By the time you were finished writing, were you satisfied that you knew the real Jeremiah G. Hamilton?

SW: Absolutely not!! Prince of Darkness is an unusual book. By dint of a lot of hard work, I found surprising amounts of material on some parts of his life. But I haven’t a clue what he was doing for years at a time. And he did not leave a diary or letters somewhere convenient for biographers. I almost never have any indication of what JGH was thinking. This means that there is a lot of “context” in the book. By my lights, and by using JGH’s life, I think the book ends up developing a new version of what it meant to be African American and walking the streets of NYC in the 1830s and 1840s. Some readers like this—others, several “Amazon” commentators come to mind (does anyone but the author of the book in question ever read Amazon readers’ comments?) have been bored to tears by it. On this count I was particularly gratified that the SHEAR prize committee awarded it the best book prize and not the biography award.

TR: Which historians and/or writers most influenced your research for this book?

SW: In my view, there are two major influences on the way I write history. The first is the “Melbourne School” of ethnographic historians, notably Rhys Isaac, Greg Dening, Inga Clendinnen and Donna Merwick. The other important influence is the work of my friend Larry Levine. From these scholars I learned how to approach and exploit sources in such a way that I could write stories about African Americans who had been left out of other historians’ accounts. More specifically, in terms of writing about JGH, I always had in mind such classic books as Natalie Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (1983), Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh (2007), and particularly the wonderful Al Young’s brilliant The Shoemaker and the Tea Party (1999). As well, some of the recent archive-rich work on slavery was helpful: most obviously, James Sweet, Domingo Alvares (2011) and Rebecca Scott and Jean Hébrard Freedom Papers (2012).

TR: What is your current/next project?

SW: At the moment I am half way through writing a book about black confidence men and women. This is another subject where the African American “contribution” has been erased from American history. For most people, confidence men, the “aristocrats” of the criminal world, were white and male. Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting are, for many people, the only con men. My argument is that there were two golden ages of the black con in New York history, one in the 1830s and first half of the 1840s and the other in the 1920s and 1930s. Not coincidentally, both periods were particularly important and exciting in African American history. My conceit is that I can use the patter of con artists, how they fooled their marks, to write African American economic history not from the top down but from the bottom up. My intention, then, is to utilize black confidence men and women as a point of entry into Black Manhattan’s underground economy.