Finding slaves’ place in early American politics

The title of Steven Hahn’s recent Provost’s Lecture—“Can Slaves Practice Politics?”—sounds like a bit of a riddle. For Hahn, though, Penn’s Roy F. and Jeanette P. Nichols Professor of History, it’s been the central question of his career.

“It’s a deceptively simple question,” he told the crowd assembled in the Amado Recital Hall at Irvine Auditorium Oct. 7.

“But it was a question for which I didn’t have adequate answers.”

Finding those answers led Hahn on a quest that bore fruit last year in the publication of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, “Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration.” During his talk, Hahn spoke of the lack of attention the subject had previously received, and how historians had ‘accepted slaveholders’ idea that slaves had no place in body politics.”

Hahn’s first inkling that this might not be the whole story came when he was a graduate student and read the story of a black slave who walked 25 miles to a political meeting—against the wishes of his owner.

“I was stunned at the courage,” he said. “At that moment I realized that blacks were not just victims or political pawns.”

Hahn went on to explain while slave politics had no standing in official arenas, since “neither slaves nor masters could acknowledge the political nature of their skirmishes,” slaves did in fact organize themselves around issues that affected their lives.

Far from being isolated from the larger world, slaves relied on “circuits of communication”—or rumor—to involve themselves in current events. “Rumor has much to recommend itself to oppressed groups,” said Hahn. “It’s cloaked in anonymity and it flows through the channels of everyday life. It thrives when matters of great importance are taking place.”

Rumor, said Hahn, can be seen as both a form of popular political discourse and as a field of political struggle in its own right. A strong link exists, he said, between rumors and slave insurrection.

By the time of emancipation, said Hahn, former slaves had become remarkably well politicized through alliances of kinship, labor and religion. “If we explore the discourse of experiences of slaves and how they organized each other in regard to the battles of the day … we may stop talking about how they reacted to the Civil War and start talking about how they launched a slave rebellion.”

Finally, he concluded, the really interesting question may not be, “what Lincoln thought about the slaves, but what the slaves thought of Lincoln.”

On Nov. 11 Professor of Medicine and Genetics Director of the Abramson Cancer Center’s breast cancer program, Barbara Weber will present the next in the Provost’s Lecture Series. For more information, go to www.upenn.edu/provost/provost_lecture.html.

Originally published on October 21, 2004