SHEAR 2017: Reflections on Creating the Past

This year’s SHEAR conference was my first, and as I reflect upon it I cannot help but note my appreciation for its intellectually invigorating atmosphere. As a junior scholar, it was exhilarating to see this community of historians jump off the pages of print and into the flesh, where they shared their work with candor and zeal. I consider myself fortunate to have attended SHEAR 2017, from which I departed with fresh ideas and lenses for future projects, not to mention the energy and inspiration necessary to reignite projects of the present. For those that were unable to attend this year’s conference, I and a few others provided live-tweet coverage of multiple panels under the #SHEAR2017 hashtag on Twitter.

At the conference I covered three panels, and although they spanned across a vast array of topics — from the complexities of marriage to embroiled frontier legal trials — one panel in particular prompted me to reconsider what these varied presentations all shared in common. It was panel 16, Creating the Past in the Early Republic: Critical Perspectives on the Cultural Production of History and Memory, that inspired me to look at this variety of presentations not as connected through their examination of the same American past, but through the shared present moment in which they were produced. By the time Creating the Past concluded, I found that the panel had shifted my framework for examining the presentations I had and would see at SHEAR; for me, the panel accomplished this in two specific ways.

First, Creating the Past’s discussion of historical methods in the Early Republic asks us to interrogate how we produce history in the present. The presentations of Michael Hattem (Yale University) and Karin Wulf (College of William & Mary) examined histories of antiquarians and genealogists, agents of the past who we still see in our present. The critical eye that both scholars lent to their subjects and to their subjects’ own interpretation of the past provided a crucial take-away for modern scholars of history — specifically one that asks us to take a similarly critical eye to the structures within which we “do” history. This point was perhaps most evident in Hattem’s presentation, which dissected intricate networks of exchange between historians, antiquarians, and their sponsors in the Early Republic. The network was a system of storing and sharing sources that imparted distinct challenges and biases upon historians of this period. As I listened to his paper, I wondered about how future historians will examine and critique our present methods of “doing” history, a question that only tugged at me further during Wulf’s paper on early New England genealogists. I found myself asking how we’ve come to define the parameters of real history in our present moment — a definition that often omits genealogy — and how valid these parameters actually are. How will historians 200 years from now sit in panels and turn a critical eye to our methods? Perhaps the more productive question to ask is whether or not historians of the present can take their ability to scrutinize the past and apply it to the current state of the field.

Second, the panel redefined the way we should consider the connections between the past and the contemporary moment. To this point, I found Whitney Martinko’s (Villanova University) presentation particularly thought-provoking. Focused on rethinking the production of historic space, Martinko’s paper demonstrated that the current of change flows in more directions than one, a departure from the notion of a set past and an influenced present. Through her discussion of how historic spaces can take on near-sacred dimensions, Martinko shows an alternate way of conceiving of understanding the past/present dichotomy. It is an alternative that blurs the distinctions we typically assume of both. Instead of belonging to a static past, Martinko’s historic spaces only become a part of “history” by way of later periods when businessmen, preservationists, and the visiting public bestow value upon them — and it is a type of value that is defined less by the historical past itself, and more by the contemporary moments in which it is interpreted.

This was a notion that held true to me when I thought beyond Martinko’s topic, and it began to bleed into my impressions of the other panels I attended at SHEAR. Even as I departed from the conference, I found myself mulling over fewer questions that were directly about the past itself. Struck by the wonderful complexities introduced by Creating the Past, I instead considered the tensions between different types of history, the growth to be achieved by greater self-reflection within the field, and the weighty influence of the present upon the past. Taken together, these considerations form the base for the newest critical lens I plan to carry with me as I approach fresh scholarship. As for my fellow scholars who are all focused on the past yet stuck living in the present, perhaps you will consider adopting it too.

Makiki Reuvers is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the spaces of interaction between indigenous peoples and settlers on the southern Appalachian frontier in the late 18th century.

Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion

Dawn Peterson is an assistant professor of early North American and U.S. history at Emory University. She is the author of the new book Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion (Harvard Univ. Press, 2017).

In 1813, Andrew Jackson invaded the Upper Creek Nation (in what is now the state of Alabama), ordered his troops to “destroy” an entire village of approximately 300 people, and then, in the aftermath, sent a surviving Creek infant home to his plantation household. He told his wife that he felt an “unusual sympathy” for the orphaned child and ordered his son to “adopt” the boy into the family. The child came to be called Lyncoya and lived in Jackson’s plantation household in Nashville for nearly 15 years before dying of tuberculosis around the age of 16. While Andrew Jackson characterized his feelings for Lyncoya as “unusual,” his behavior reveals an understudied post-Revolutionary phenomenon. Between the U.S. Revolution and the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a number of prominent U.S. whites, many of whom were slaveholders, incorporated American Indian children into their homes.

For white adopters, incorporating Native youths in their homes coincided with federal initiatives aimed at assimilating Indian people—and their lands—into the United States’ expanding national borders. In the face of highly organized pan-Indian resistance movements and longstanding transatlantic Native commercial and military alliances, Jeffersonian “civilization” policies emphasized the utility of using non-military strategies to incorporate Indian nations into the United States’ free white populace. Influenced by such popular initiatives, prominent white men—and in a few cases, women—saw their own familial homes as schools in which to educate Native boys and girls in the patriarchal property values, nuclear family structures, and male-headed agricultural practices that underpinned white male citizenship in a pro-slavery settler democracy.

Yet, this is only one part of the story. Many of the children living in white homes were actually sent there by influential Native guardians, who had their own aims in mind. As the United States tried to claim Indian lands for “white” settlement between the 1790s and 1830, this select group of American Indian women and men utilized whites’ adoptive desires to expose children to the language and literacy skills and economic cultures that would potentially support Native sovereignty struggles. By the early 1800s, a small group of Southeast Indians saw white slaveholders’ interests in incorporating Native boys into their plantation homes as especially useful. As U.S. planters rapidly invaded Southeast Indian homelands, these Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek women and men sent sons to live in slaveholding households to learn the plantation educations that supported political and economic power in an expanding slaveholding South. In so doing, they hoped to use racial slavery as a means to empower themselves, their sons, and their tribal nations against the white slaveholders who coveted their homelands.

The complex array of commitments exhibited by white adopters, Native guardians, and adopted children reveals the ways that U.S. whites and American Indian people engaged ideas about kinship in the service of both empire and resistance. Even further, it demonstrates how a set of racialized and kin-based ideologies prioritizing white settlement and racial slavery both inspired adoptive impulses on the part of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century elites and set the stage for the territorial contests that would come to a head in the War of 1812 and finally culminate in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. At first, prominent U.S. whites believed that adopting Indians into white families—and, indeed, into a free white “national family”—seemed the most humane and efficient means to open Indian lands for white settlement and plantation slavery. Yet this plan began to deteriorate during the War of 1812. The war by and large ended Indian people’s trans-Atlantic affiliations and effectively crushed pan-Indian military alliances. Even still, Indian people continued to resist incorporation into the United States. Indeed, even adopted and putatively assimilated Indian men and women did not act as U.S. whites hoped they would. These youth frequently returned to their tribal nations, where they supported autonomous indigenous economies and state formations, which, in the Southeast, became increasingly based on the slave-driven production of export agriculture. Scrambling to foreclose upon these pro-slavery sovereignties in the 1820s, leading whites began to eschew Jeffersonian assimilation initiatives, calling for Indians’ expulsion to lands west of the Mississippi. Andrew Jackson himself famously led this charge. According to the logics of his 1830 Removal Act, if Indians refused to join the United States as adopted and assimilated subjects, then they had to leave their eastern homelands.

As our current president seeks to recover the supposedly humanitarian propensities of men like Andrew Jackson, the stories of white adoptions of Native American youths importantly highlight the violence that underpinned everyday interactions between Jackson and other prominent antebellum whites and the people of American Indian and African descent they sought to dominate and control. Indeed, rather than white adopters of Native children acting benevolently, U.S. whites proceeded in ways that they believed would secure their racial authority. In their scramble to maintain white supremacy both within and outside of their homes, however, white adopters unintentionally enabled new Native resistance strategies, ones that would subsequently reshape antebellum federal Indian policy, giving it some of the very contours that persist it to this day.

Other People’s Money: How Banking Worked in the Early Republic

Sharon Ann Murphy,  a professor of history at Providence College, examines the complex interactions between financial institutions and their clientele during the nineteenth century. She is the author of Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America (2010), winner of the 2012 Hagley Prize for the best book in business history. Her newest book is Other People’s Money: How Banking Worked in the Early American Republic.

As I have worked these past few years on my new book Other People’s Money: How Banking Worked in the Early American Republic, I’ve been fascinated by the response from my fellow SHEARites. Almost every person I have talked to about the topic has responded with some version of: “Oh, we so need a book that explains bills of exchange!” This always makes me both chuckle and cringe. While I do indeed explain bills of exchange on pages 47-48, I never anticipated that this would be the main purpose or single highlight of the book. And if that’s the only thing it’s good for, then this is not going to be a very successful book.

Of course, in keeping with the series theme of How Things Worked, a main purpose of this book is to explain how money worked, how banking worked, how the fractional reserve system worked, how banknotes worked, how war finance worked, how Alexander Hamilton became a Broadway star (okay, maybe I don’t quite get there), how discounting worked, how the money multiplier worked, how inflation and deflation work, how panics worked, how incorporation worked, how branch banking worked, how the First and Second Banks of the United States worked, how the Bank War worked, how bimetallism and the gold standard worked, how the game “Robin’s alive” worked, how counterfeiting worked, how savings banks, investment banks, commercial banks, plantation banks, and building & loan associations worked, how free banks and wildcat banks worked (or didn’t work), how public and private banks worked, how note brokers and clearinghouses worked, how the independent treasury worked, how Confederate finance didn’t work, and how the National Banking Acts worked.

Wow. It sounds like I just wrote the encyclopedia of early American finance. But that is certainly not what I set out to write and, I hope, not what this book actually is. Rather, I sought to put finance back into the Early Republic, or – more specifically – to empower the average historian or history student to put finance back in. Most historians have no problem weaving together cultural experiences with political events. We readily examine how race, ethnicity, gender or class impact (or are impacted by) legal or social institutions. We can evaluate foreign policy decisions in terms of domestics concerns without breaking a sweat. The subfield boundaries of the historical profession have become much more fluid, with the best historians interweaving the sources, methods, and conclusions of multiple subfields as appropriate for their topic. And yet, for the average historian, economics and finance are rarely incorporated into these conversations. It is just too opaque, too foreign, too scary to be engaged as part of the analysis. While there is definitely a strong and ever-growing contingent of historians already comfortable embracing financial topics, they are still a very small subset of the overall profession. For the remainder, economic topics are either treated as something separate – somehow outside the bounds of the lived experience of the regular American. Or, when these topics can’t easily be ignored or relegated to the specialists, they are repackaged as something less scary.

Take, for example, the Bank War. For most students of American history, the Bank War is the main—if not the only—encounter with the history of money and banking from the Revolution through the Civil War. At its core, the Bank War was at the center of an extended debate over the acceptable role of banks and banknotes in the American economy. Most people agreed that the existence of banks provided many benefits to their local communities: facilitating exchange, encouraging commerce, enabling the completion of internal improvements projects, and generally creating more opportunities for local inhabitants to increase their wealth. Yet these benefits came at a cost, and Americans were divided over whether the benefits outweighed the costs. Although banks were supposed to promote economic stability, many believed that they were responsible for introducing even more instability into the system through their use of fractional reserve banking. Others questioned the republican implications of granting special privileges to the incorporators of banking corporations and of concentrating wealth in the hands of a few individuals. Yet historians most often tell the story of the Bank War almost exclusively from the perspective of politics. (In their defense, the Bank War did start and end as a political battle of wills between Andrew Jackson and Nicholas Biddle, along with a host of secondary characters.) This political fight, however, had economic causes and consequences that are often lost in the normal telling of that tale. It is difficult to understand the true extent of the passions behind the Bank War without first understanding how the financial system worked during the first century of the nation’s existence.

And beyond the Bank War, money and banking played a critical role in the lives of everyday Americans in the nineteenth century, shaping the society in which they lived and worked. Finance was not outside of their daily lived experiences but rather an integral part of it. Most Americans understood the promises and perils of banknotes as they navigated the monetary system with their regular transactions. They debated the pros and cons of the various banking proposals brought before their state legislatures. They dealt in promissory notes, tobacco warehouse certificates, double-name paper, and (yes) bills of exchange. Sure, some Americans employed these tools more often and understood the elements of the financial system better than others did, but not even the most isolated subsistence farmer was completely outside of the system. Thus an understanding of the financial history of this period is essential if we want to broaden and deepen our overall knowledge of the Early American Republic. My ultimate goal for Other People’s Money is to give historians both adequate background in financial topics as well as the confidence to apply this knowledge in their own work. I want to make finance just another tool in the methodological toolbox, to be taken out and employed competently – if not expertly – where and when the tool is appropriate.

Does this book accomplish all of that? You, my fellow SHEARites, will be the ultimate test. If you find this book useful and informative, that will be good. But if this book makes you rethink how you approach your own research, if it makes you rethink how you structure your syllabi, if it makes you rethink how you advise your undergraduate and graduate students in their projects, then maybe I’ll stop cringing when someone thanks me for (finally) explaining bills of exchange. Heck, if Alexander Hamilton can become a musical icon, then perhaps financial history has a place in the Early Republic after all.

The Press and Slavery in America

Brian Gabrial is an associate professor of journalism at Concordia University. A former journalist and television producer, he is the author of The Press and Slavery in America, 1791-1859: The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2016).

Between 1751 and 1859, a shifting 70-year conversation about free and slave black Americans, the press, and the nation took place in the pages of American newspapers, with these conversations erupting during significant slave troubles. Media coverage of five such events—Haiti’s 1791 slave revolt, Gabriel Prosser’s 1800 slave conspiracy, Louisiana’s 1811 slave revolt, Denmark Vesey’s 1822 slave conspiracy, Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt, and John Brown’s 1859 Harper’s Ferry raid—shows how the nation’s once unifying “Spirit of ’76” crumbled as white America was increasingly pressed to confront slavery’s injustice.

In June 1822, the Charleston Courier published a headline, “The Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement.” The account, written by an upper- crust, white Charlestonian, is an ironic, allegorical tale of a slave, hanged after being falsely accused of plotting mayhem. It was a (unheeded) warning not to let panic supplant reason. These were cautionary but inflammatory words as, that summer, authorities arrested slaves and free blacks, accusing them of plotting rebellion. (Their supposed leader Denmark Vesey, a free black man, would be executed.)

Slavery was America’s Faustian contract. While slave owners like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison thought it morally evil, they failed to reconcile their racist ideologies with America’s own ideals of liberty and equality. So, the constitutional compromise that bound the new states together went forward, and racist ideologies more firmly justified the peculiar institution’s continued existence. Its maintenance became code for states’ rights and limits on federal power.

From America’s first days, two types of Americanism took root with both trying to choke each other to death. A conservative view (rightly) held that slavery was constitutionally protected, while more a progressive America wanted to change that.

So why choose these events? First, black Americans were not part of any public conversation over slavery; yet, for good or evil, these events, pushed onto the pages of America’s newspapers, made them so.

Why study newspapers? While today slavery is considered America’s defining social and moral failure before the Civil War, in its time, a great silence arose over it in major newspapers. (That is not to say that a vocal abolitionist press and other venues did not try.) Slave troubles broke that silence. These newspaper accounts reflected mainstream public opinion, providing important ideas about what white America thought about black Americans. Ideas that still, unfortunately, persist.

When slave troubles erupted, white America read about slavery and, therefore, black America. The press was not sympathetic. At the time of the 1822 Vesey Conspiracy, the editor of the Charleston Times wrote, “Let it never be forgotten, that ‘our Negroes, are truely the Jacobins of the country; that they are the anarchists and the domestic enemy; the common enemy of civilized society, and the barbarians who would, if they could, become the destroyers of our race.” Thirty-seven years later, the powerful New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett echoed similar sentiments after John Brown’s raid, “The whole history of negro insurrection proves that there is no race of men so brutal and bloody-minded as the negro. The negro [sic], once roused to bloodshed, and in possession of arms, is as uncontrollable and irrational as a wild beast . . .” There was no talk about a fight for liberty from these white men.

In the early days of the Republic, slave society had tacit support from those in non-slave holding areas. In the 1822 essay “North and South,” a writer suggested, that Americans should “view the different states as forming but different parts of one great and happy nation, that will ever rejoice in the suppression of internal commotion [slave revolts], and repel hostile invasion.” Eleven years later, at the time of the Turner revolt, a Charleston Courier item reminded readers of the American Revolution, “[W]hatever may arise in our country, the old laven of ’76 will prevail whenever it is called for . . . .” White society would not tolerate slave rebellion, something that threatened the social and racial order. Newspaper coverage of these slave troubles illustrated this.

In 1800, the editor of the Philadelphia Gazette wrote after Gabriel Prosser conspired to unite fellow slaves to rebel: “We have a pleasure in stating, that should our sister states require military aid to quell the black insurgents, the federal corps . . . will be re-organized for that duty.” Likewise a Boston editor said after Nat Turner’s revolt, “If necessary, a million of men could be marched, on short notice, from the non-slave holding states, to defend their brethren in the South! For, much as we abhor slavery; much as it is abhorred throughout the northern and eastern states; there is not a man of us who would not run to the relief of our friends in the south, when surrounded by the horrors of a servile insurrection.”

Southern apologies for slavery also disappeared after Nat Turner, and slave states entered into an era of denial and repression, justified by the positive good theory of slavery. It reached its zenith of articulation in a November 1859 Richmond Enquirer headline, “Slavery – the bond of union throughout the world.” “The southern slave is the happiest of human laborers,” the writer argued, “the best treated, the best cared for, the least inclined to be rebellious, and the least willing to exchange his comfortable condition as a servant for that of a desperate and starving so-called freeman . . . ”

Newspaper accounts illustrated, too, that, as South moved into the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s, the growing abolitionist and anti-slavery movement replaced the rebelling slave as the real enemy.

By 1859, a deep chasm appeared in the façade of American unanimity, showing a dangerous division over slavery and slave states making clear they would tolerate nothing less than slavery’s unqualified support. That year, John Brown, a white man, jolted the country by leading his band into Virginia. Now, fire-eating editors like the Charleston Mercury‘s Robert Barnwell Rhett would exclaim, “The great source of the evil is, that we are under one government with these people [abolitionists and Republicans] . . . there is no peace for the South in the Union . . . the South must control her own destinies or perish.”

Up North, editors like the New York Herald‘s Horace Greeley countered: “Our Southern neighbors are a very hard people to get on with. They provoked the struggle now going on between the friends of Freedom on one side, and the advocates of Slavery on the other . . . . They make no bones of declaring, that sooner than meet the approaching defeat [of the Democratic Party] they will break up the government . . . They exhibit in this not only an arrogant but a very childish temper.”

Newspaper accounts, over time, reflected slavery’s fatal effects on the nation that pushed America to the brink and eventually over it. As the press recorded this sad trajectory when slave troubles occurred, antebellum white readers, because of deeply held racist beliefs about black people, would remain blind to the impending and bloody crisis over slavery. While its social, economic, and political complexities affected both black and white Americans, black Americans, of course, most bore slavery’s heavy weight of suffering. Eventually, the nation would, too.

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.”