Revolutions and Reconstructions gathers historians of the early republic, the Civil War era, and African American and political history to consider not whether African Americans participated in the politics of the long nineteenth century but how, when, and with what lasting effects.
2020 | 384 pages | Cloth $55.00
African-American Studies/African Studies
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Table of Contents
Introduction. Black Politics and U.S. Politics in the Age of Revolutions, Reconstructions, and Emancipations
Van Gosse and David Waldstreicher
Chapter 1. Women's Politics, Antislavery Politics, and Phillis Wheatley's American RevolutionDavid Waldstreicher
Chapter 2. Rethinking White Supremacy: Black Resistance and the Problem of Slaveholder Authority
Chapter 3. In the Woodpile: Negro Electors in the First Reconstruction
Chapter 4. Freedom and the Politics of Migration After the American Revolution
Chapter 5. Black Migration, Black Villages, and Black Emancipation in Antebellum Illinois
M. Scott Heerman
Chapter 6. Practicing Formal Politics Without the Vote: Black New Yorkers in the Aftermath of 1821
Sarah L. H. Gronningsater
Chapter 7. "Agitation, Tumult, Violence Will Not Cease": Black Politics and the Compromise of 1850
Chapter 8. Black Politics and the "Foul and Infamous Lie" of Dred Scott
Christopher James Bonner
Chapter 9. The "Free Cuba" Campaign, Republican Politics, and Post-Civil War Black Internationalism
James M. Shinn Jr.
Chapter 10. The Southern Division: Freedpeople, Pensions, and Federal State Building in the Post-Confederate South
Epilogue. Telling and Retelling: The Diversity of Black Political Practices
Kellie Carter Jackson
Laura F. Edwards
Black Politics and U.S. Politics in the Age of Revolutions, Reconstructions, and Emancipations
Van Gosse and David Waldstreicher
This volume gathers historians of the early republic, the Civil War era, and African American life to consider not whether African Americans participated in the politics of the early, ante-, and postbellum republic, but how, when, and with what lasting effects. Together, the essays advance several important revisions with the potential to transform our understandings of black and U.S. political history in the period between the Revolutionary and Reconstruction eras. These revisions should also lead historians to consider anew the classic questions regarding how revolutionary the Revolution was; whether and how Reconstruction failed; and how conflicts shaped by African Americans and their allies might be considered the rule in American politics, not occasional and cataclysmic exceptions. They also suggest that black politics needs to be analyzed simultaneously as a politics of racial resistance intruding upon the political-electoral system and as the politics of biracial coalitions inside that system, rather than as one or the other. Emancipation, Reconstruction, and Revolution, in other words, are not solely events or even periods in U.S. history, but rather also interrelated processes that began at the beginning and continued through the nineteenth century.
Our project had its origins in the editors' separate and then shared realization that their own research kept pushing the narrative of an effective, cosmopolitan black politics further back in time than our colleagues who specialize in the twentieth century wanted to go. At the same time, we recognized numerous fellow travelers working in the history of the Revolutionary era and the long nineteenth century. We began to think that the "long reconstruction" traced in recent decades by southern historians interested in black struggles for and beyond the ballot box had decided parallels in the historiography of the early republic. Increasingly, we saw that formal black politics did not begin in 1865 with the end of the Civil War, nor in the 1840s with agitation by abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, but rather in the Revolutionary era's antislavery and citizenship activism.
The gradual, state-by-state emergence of free territories, in turn, shaped the terrain of black political action and imagination from the birth of the republic. The stress on rising racism in recent work continues to deepen our sense of what black politics was up against, but as Padraig Riley argues here, it can risk underestimating why racist politics—the reactionary political and cultural coalition-building that Alexander Saxton memorably called "the rise of the White Republic"—was pursued in the first place. Black politics—not just the politics of pro- and antislavery pursued by various factions of white partisans—was much more than a thorn in the side of democratic U.S. political culture in its mid-nineteenth century heyday. It did not prove only accidentally disruptive; its expressly motivated and consequential patterns began considerably earlier.
The practical strategies and ideological Americanism of black protest confronted and inspired racializing proslavery politics; it infuriated those who sought to establish and maintain cross-sectional partisan alliances. Black politics in and around the state (not just "resistance" or rebellion) produced racist backlashes that in turn shaped later protest strategies, as suggested in histories that trace the origins of modern left and liberal politics to antislavery and especially the black abolitionists. Every story we can tell about the making and remaking of the state, and the parties, needs to be examined as a matter of reciprocal influences, a dialectic of black and U.S. politics that can be surprising only when we forget something U.S. historians should no longer forget: that we are talking about four and a half million people by 1860. This is a number far too large to be an exception and too many not to shape the nature of the polity.
A Historiographical Ellipsis
Before turning to the individual and collective interventions made by the essays in this volume, we need to address the peculiar status of the historiography on black people's politics prior to the Civil War, without which the voluminous history of black politics during and after Reconstruction cannot be fully comprehended. There is a double problem here, two intertwined issues to be unpacked, so as to clarify why a book like this is needed—and why it comes so late, more than sixty years after historians like Kenneth Stampp broke the barrier against "Negro History" inside the then almost entirely white mainstream of the historians' guild.
On the one hand, African Americans continue to be excluded from the enormous corpus of antebellum political history, with few exceptions. This is among the most formidable bodies of scholarship in American historical writing, tracing with the weight of tragedy the declension into an extremely bloody civil war. So, the first problem is simply a silence, an ellipsis: insisting that political history is still white men's history should not be seen as a natural or organic fact.
The second problem is not an absence, but a profusion of scholarship all in one direction, which ends in the same ellipsis. In the past generation, dozens of historians have written books and articles analyzing what they considered to be the "politics" of black people in this period, and yet only a handful of those books and articles even acknowledge the participation of free people of color in the U.S. political system. By inference, they agree with the normative whiteness presumed by the political historians. Upon reflection, then, one problem, one absence, and one purpose of this book is to challenge that surely unconscious agreement.
To do so we will begin by examining what scholarship actually exists on black politics, in the traditional sense of political history—voting, elections, and parties (although, as discussed below, a new focus on legal and constitutional history is generating major insights into how free people of color engaged with the state). From there we will look at the three larger bodies of scholarship that claim to trace the politics of antebellum African Americans: first, and most obvious, the "slave politics" available to the unfree, those barred from any access to voting, elections, and parties; second, the "movement politics" of the free people of color, also outside of the electoral arena; and third, the "cultural politics" highlighted by scholars who focus on expression in various genres of literary and popular culture.
Assembling a historiography of black politics prior to Reconstruction is difficult, because the subfield itself is not even recognized as such, and there is no recognized body of work; rather, scholarship on black politics as part of antebellum American politics is spread among subfields that do not engage with each other, like tributaries leading in different directions. Until the 1960s, almost the only historical investigation of the topic came from some of the founders of black history, notably Charles Wesley, who wrote a series of well-sourced articles, and John Hope Franklin, who included North Carolina's pre-1835 black electorate in his classic study of that state's free people of color. White historians presumed that black politics were defined by Reconstruction, as either a pathetic tragedy or evidence of racial incapacity. When they did mention antebellum voting, as in James Truslow Adams's brief historiographical comment in 1925, they got it wrong. The signal exception was Dixon Ryan Fox's 1917 "The Negro Vote in Old New York," long cited as authoritative, although the author's mix of unattributed claims and analysis based in solid archival research remains bewildering. The best proof of historians' inattention to black politics is that, well over a century later, the only authoritative guide to where and when black men voted in the antebellum era is a master's thesis completed in 1906 at the University of Wisconsin, published posthumously a few years later.
Antebellum black politics began to be studied in greater depth as an adjunct to the rediscovery of antislavery radicalism in the 1960s. The title of Benjamin Quarles's seminal Black Abolitionists (1969) indicates the scope of this revision, unremarkable now but an oxymoron for many white scholars since black people had long been omitted from a historiography focused entirely on William Lloyd Garrison and his opponents. In those accounts, Frederick Douglass (and almost no other person of color) recurred as a celebrity-orator but never as an actor; certainly, the Communist historians Herbert Aptheker and Philip Foner never left African Americans out of their histories, but Marxist historical scholarship did not receive the respect that W. E. B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction initially garnered at the height of the popular front in 1935, only to be forgotten by the historical profession for several decades. Until the 1960s, abolitionists were presumed by white historians to be white. Quarles took the work of Wesley a step further. He documented how black men's antislavery work was at least as consequential as that carried out by whites, and further, that the constant meetings, polemics, and attempts to influence policy by both black and white were deeply related. Since much of what black abolitionists actually did was agitate for their suffrage and other civic rights, such as the ability to use public transport and send their children to public schools, Quarles effectively sketched the whole terrain of political action by the North's free people of color. In his wake came many more studies of Douglass, fleshing out his political engagements (although there is still a tendency to downplay his ardent partisanship), and of other once-forgotten leaders, including Henry Highland Garnet, Samuel Ringgold Ward, James McCune Smith, all members of what we might call "the New York intellectuals," beginning with Sterling Stuckey's anthology The Ideological Origins of Black Nationalism. Equally key to this emerging scholarship was Leon Litwack's North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States (1961), the first monographic study of its subject, still remarkably comprehensive. Litwack did not seek to write a political history, but he did not leave politics out, and his close attention to legislation and how free people of color interacted with their states' political establishments remains invaluable. He was the first scholar to attempt to count the possible black electorate in the antebellum North, a key innovation, even if later interrogations indicate a considerably larger electorate than he estimated.
In the wake of Quarles's and Litwack's groundbreaking books came a series of case studies that have, over time, constituted the short but impressive historiography of black electoral politics, although they have been largely ignored by political historians. In 1982, Phyllis Field and Robert Cottrol effectively initiated in-depth investigation of northern black electoralism. Field captured the century-long suffrage campaign in New York, from its first constitution-making in 1777 through passage of the Fifteenth Amendment (later effectively complemented by David Gellman and David Quigley's 2003 documentary history of the same subject). Cottrol studied the whole history of antebellum black Providence, including thorough coverage of its black Whig submachine during the 1840s and '50s. In 1989 William and Aimee Lee Cheek brought out their definitive study of antebellum Ohio's black politics, focused on John Mercer Langston. In 2001, Kathryn Grover published her rich investigation of New Bedford as the "Fugitive's Gibraltar," and in 2012, Stephen Kantrowitz examined the full range of black and white antislavery politics in Boston during the mid- to late nineteenth century. The most complete accounting of black electoral politics was not a scholarly monograph, however, but the extraordinary Black Abolitionist Papers documentary series, including five printed volumes published from 1985 to 1991, plus the even more comprehensive microfilm collection.
Each of the above works documents northern black electoral partisanship in a particular state or city; together, they establish that there was an ongoing, visible, and sometimes consequential role for black men in the mainstream of U.S. electoral struggles. But their effect on political history remains negligible; that vast field has remained monochromatic, with the exceptions of Lee Benson and Daniel Walker Howe. As Robert Cottrol observed, "historians who have taken note of black voting . . . have usually dismissed it as an insignificant curiosity or have looked at the struggle to attain the right to vote as the main story. . . . Few have seen the political activities of blacks in the antebellum North as significantly affecting the social relations of the times or as leaving an enduring legacy to northern race relations." The difficulty of perceiving black political history, even among those with a consuming interest in African American history, can be seen in the two main trends in that scholarship from the 1970s until the recent past: the first documenting the "slave politics" of the southern plantation complex, and the second tracing the "movement politics" of the North's free people of color. Both of these historiographies are canonical, requiring no full accounting here, but they need acknowledgment to clarify the argument for a specifically new political history.
Slave Politics: All or Nothing at All?
Although the term itself was not widely used until Steven Hahn's definitive A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2004), the concept of a "slave politics" underlies a vast historiography with an explicitly political purpose: to challenge the narrative of the "Dunning School," in particular Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, which dominated U.S. historical writing into at least the 1950s. In this telling, the four million docile, even satisfied slaves were uninterested (and uninvolved) in their own liberation as of 1860, and the half-million free people of color did not exist. Beginning with Kenneth Stampp's work in the 1950s and then Eugene Genovese's studies in the 1960s and '70s, historians examined how African American "chattels," deprived of all standing in juridical terms, asserted their agency through work, kinship, small-scale production, and religious or secular celebration, as well as more overtly political acts like escaping, spreading rumors, poisoning, subterfuge, theft, and sabotage. The scholarship in this tradition, surely too large to summarize here, rested on the argument that under slavery, everything personal was political: all activity by people with no rights to their own possessions, bodies, or time was at once prepolitical and yet potentially politicized.
The most nuanced version of this argument, based a broad reading of farm and plantation establishments across the entire late antebellum South, is in Hahn's work, stressing how slaves used kinship networks to protect each other by guaranteeing a reliable level of production, and thus mitigate individualized discipline. He also traced how slaves participated in local cash economies based on the customary right to "provision grounds." Hahn argues that, under some circumstances, slaves carved out a meaningful degree of autonomy as workers, and he is careful to distinguish autonomy from actual resistance. His version of the master-slave dialectic looks very different from the near-total domination practiced in the Deep South's "slave labor camps," as explored in Edward Baptist's influential The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014), which may reflect the difference between the Upper South and seaboard states versus the Cotton Kingdom. Neither subscribes to Genovese's picture of a neo-feudal regime in which "paternal" relationships defined the politics of the plantation household.
Whether one is more convinced by Hahn, Genovese, Blassingame, Baptist, Oakes, Gutman, or some combination of all of them, it would be foolish in the extreme to deny there was a "slave politics." Decades on, however, the depiction of political agency in this scholarship has led to considerable confusion, perhaps even romanticism, which may be a problem of reception rather than authorial intentions. How would the slaves themselves have viewed the claim for a "slave politics" with the implication of constant resistance to oppression? If everything they did (or avoided doing) was political, implying some degree of free will and the ability to resist, why do all the first-person accounts, from the slave narratives published before 1860 to the WPA oral histories collected in the 1930s, emphasize the impotent rage felt by most slaves, their cynicism regarding their owners' conscience-less rapacity, and a profound sadness at how little life they had apart from grinding labor from sun-up to sun-down? All households and workplaces have struggles over control. As in those other spaces, should not "slave politics" include the conflicts between slaves, the betrayals and currying of favor, seeking personal rather than group advantage, in accommodation rather than resistance to the master class? Equivalent conditions of extreme powerlessness, in prisons and the military, produce histories documenting internecine conflict and collaboration. If all human activity is seen as equally political, we risk sentimentalizing the barest survival as somehow redemptive, losing the capacity to distinguish actual insubordination from simply going along to get along. The spectrum from deliberate resistance (as in running away, committing violence, destroying valuable property, or theft for a social purpose) through more ordinary work-to-rules and petty negotiations over rewards to, finally, resignation and mute submission needs to be recalibrated, with a cold-eyed appreciation of the class hierarchy within slavery—on farm or plantation, in city and country, between "house" and "field." We can take seriously the millenarian power of Afro-Christianity, as memorably captured by Genovese, the vision of the "bottom rail on top" on the day of Jubilee, but should also acknowledge Baptist's argument that spiritual withdrawal or out-of-body exaltation were the politics of desperate survival, not to be confused with physical resistance.
It seems like due time to grapple, as well, with how black politics-qua-resistance or "agency" was shaped by post-1960s theories of revolution, to the detriment of a more comprehensive and relational understanding of the varieties of black politics. Even the most ambitious work on black resistance and rebellion, such as that of Genovese, tended to measure everything in relation to an idealized notion of transformation in consciousness and condition. The endless debates about ideology and strategy, hegemony and liberation, that characterized the late 1960s and 1970s gave incremental, electoral, and even coalition politics a bad name in many pro-black circles, much as it had among many leftists during the 1930s and 1940s; it is only later that we recognize that precisely because of the push—or threat—from radicals, progressive legislative politics actually achieved more than ever before during these very periods. In retrospect, the stark antinomies of mere running away versus real rebellion, or mere rebellion versus organized insurrection, were merely the flip side of a slave politics analyzed under the presumption that slaves were always primarily part of an autochthonous slave community; their politics could only be, and could be only, slave politics.
The question of actual slave revolts should not be pushed off the agenda: indeed, in recent years, the emphasis seems to have gone from their absence among North American blacks to their ubiquity in the white imagination, and consequently even in mainstream politics, including the path to 1776 and 1861. Where there were no slave rebellions, whites invented them, so much so that it is hard to tell where the resistance ended and the witch hunts began. A political world in which wars occurred in every generation, and in which resistance to tyranny came to be seen as a human norm, could hardly host a black politics without rebellions, repressions, and recalibrations that involved theatrical performances of disinterest. The seemingly outlying phenomena of actual revolt proves the point that even slave politics could not develop outside a host of local, national, and international political contexts, a point made clear in recent studies of rebellions from New York in 1741 to Richmond in 1800 to Louisiana in 1811 to Southampton in 1832. Haiti, as an example of not only armed liberation and state power, but also the fullest extension of the Atlantic Revolutionary tradition founded in Enlightenment principles, loomed extremely large in slaveholders' consciousness
Movement Politics: Shadow and Act
"Slave politics" fit into the larger frame of social history, for example the struggles of everyday life—work, family, neighborhood—outside of the state and the political structures that undergird it. Social history is rooted in the belief that the history of human self-activity is deeper and wider than the history of states, nations, empires, and wars—and usually separable from those event-driven narratives. It has dominated the historical profession since the 1960s and still exerts a powerful hold, which helps explain the near-total effacement of traditional political history in relation to African American history.
In the antebellum North, where the black population was either free or rapidly moving in that direction, this historiography has taken two overlapping forms. The first is the well-developed social history of free people of color, as traced by Ira Berlin, Gary B. Nash, Julie Winch, James and Lois Horton, Shane White, Rhoda Freeman, Graham Hodges, Nikki Taylor, Leslie Harris, Erica Dunbar, Leslie Alexander, and many more. Building upon Litwack, these histories document the full range of organizational activity that shaped black life above the Mason-Dixon: the patterns of work and niches in the labor market, churches and churchmen (and women) and their array of benevolence, physical locations and family organization, and legal constraints. These historians either omit the "political" or focus on the politics of the biracial abolitionist movement. The leitmotif of this second approach is "protest," whether pamphleteering, indirect lobbying, newspaper publishing, or public agitation via lecture tours and meetings.
Manifestly, social protest movements are political, and Quarles and those who came after him fleshed out the abolitionist movement as intrinsic to black community life. But social histories focused on the abolitionist movement suffer from emphasizing activism for its own sake minus the larger electoral and partisan context, as if people of color and their white allies operated entirely inside their own (usually local) "movement" world, in but not of the American body politic. Certainly, the study of social movements is vital to political history, and the tendency of political historians and political scientists to treat movement activism as an externality to the rhythm of electoral and state action remains a deep-seated problem. Nonetheless, a history of black abolitionism can hardly be the same as a history of black politics. Much of black men's electoral activity took place outside that movement in the various white-led parties that wanted their votes (or wanted to deprive another party of those votes), a fact constantly bewailed by abolitionists of both colors.
There is a larger point to be made, regarding the writing of American history. Politics and movements are distinct phenomena, and yet closely related—but one would never know that from how "movement" histories are written. As already noted, political histories focus on how power is exercised through institutions, in particular the state, as well as political parties, legal and juridical structures, and civic bodies, and largely ignore social movements. In contrast, movement histories combine social, cultural, and political narratives "from the bottom up," focusing on the trajectories of individuals and groups, their organizing practices and confrontations with power, and internal struggles over ideology and direction. As Patrick Rael has pointed out, movement histories are dominated by a "community studies/culturalist paradigm," which emphasize the social and cultural over the political, as if movements are their own justification, whether or not they succeed. Too often, "larger, potent, and malevolent contexts of power relations have all but disappeared." Similarly, James Brewer Stewart has critiqued what he calls "abolitionist studies," which "explain abolitionist agency without reference to a demonstrable capacity to shape formal politics" and ignore "how abolitionists are totally expunged from political history, any real agency denied."
A third approach to the free people of color, which might encompass both North and South, is the concept of "shadow politics" as developed by Richard S. Newman. Building on a thesis originally suggested by Elijah Anderson's ethnographies and Gary Nash's description of the internal politics of early black Philadelphia as "a kind of subcommunity civic existence that operated outside the formal political life of the city," Newman argues that, rather than actual politics, free black men and women pursued a "shadow politics," meaning the apparatus of political action carried out entirely inside their separate and autonomous institutional spaces (mainly the black Protestant churches and the benevolent groups associated with those, but sometimes extending further into a miniature civil society). In his rich description, this world included formal and sometimes competitive elections, holding and appointing to office, control of resources, and partisan factionalism. It is a powerful argument, precisely because it resonates with later forms of shadow politics under Jim Crow and through the present, and Newman himself acknowledges its mimetic and thus potentially solipsistic character. The validity of this thesis for antebellum black politics is sharply limited, however, by the mistaken insistence that actual politics were summarily barred, making shadow politics the only alternative for a "powerless people [to] act in place of and in conscious opposition to prevailing political practices and norms," given the overwhelming weight of "antebellum disfranchisement in virtually every northern state."
There are two basic limitations to the argument for shadow politics as the main expression of northern black politics. First, it ignores the careful scholarship of Cheeks, Fields, Cottrol, and others noted above, all documenting intensive black attempts, sometimes quite successful, to engage with "prevailing political practices" in Rhode Island, New York, and Ohio, as well as the extent to which disfranchisement was far from total. Second, it is almost entirely based on Philadelphia; Julie Winch's deeply researched examination of "Philadelphia's Black Elite" outlines a more complex story of anti-politics, based in the conscious avoidance of protest in any form, and a deliberate abstention from electoralism.
Cultural Politics: Ideologies and Identities as Resistance
Cultural politics as an approach to black history has been at least as ubiquitous as the slave politics and the social or movement politics approaches during the past three decades, perhaps because it owes much to those developments. Drawing on sophisticated understandings of black culture in the work by folklorists and anthropologists, historians like Lawrence Levine and Robin D. G. Kelley found resistance in everyday practices and popular culture. Over a series of books both synthetic and focused on New York City, Shane White has brought to life the everyday and expressive dimensions of emancipation as well as slavery. White reads the white press against the grain for evidence of black practices he has variously described as embodied and public-facing, including festivity, dress, sound, and kinesis (notably broader and more embodied categories than music and dance). His evidence leads him regularly back to the courts as sites of negotiation. In his hands, culture does much more than reflect or embody values: it is action and has consequences.
Scholars of antislavery like John Stauffer have renewed the attentions of earlier historians of abolitionism to black-white interactions and to the struggle against racism as a set of intimate relationships as well as a problem of movement strategies. Patrick Rael directed attention to questions of nationalism and racial identity while stressing the passionate and personal investment that northern black activists had in fighting simultaneously against slavery and for their civil rights. Pathbreaking biographies by Nell Irvin Painter and Margaret Washington depicted Sojourner Truth as a traveler between multiple subcultures (they stress different ones) and all the more effective for it. These historians built on community studies while attending carefully to the imbrication of gender and sexual politics with antislavery and antiracist initiatives. Craig Steven Wilder, Walter Rucker, and others have extended and deepened the inquiries of Sterling Stuckey and William Piersen into how African cultural continuities as well as ruptures shaped resistance and rebellion, North as well as South. Despite major differences in emphasis and interpretation, these historians embraced the complexities of identity and culture as a set of intellectual as well as political challenges with lasting effects for Africans and their descendants, then as much as in the twentieth century.
If measured by volume of scholarly production, to be sure, the most important development has been a renaissance of interest in published black writing and its genres, a reconsideration aided by a disruption of former categories by which literary and intellectual merit or importance had been determined by literary scholars, intellectual historians, and even political theorists. Instead of stressing intellectual influence on great thinkers or the mainstream, the new work has measured black thought by its ability to meaningfully critique discrimination and to inspire later activists directly or indirectly. By 2010 Richard S. Newman was ready to call print a "liberation technology" for African Americans, and literary scholars were making bolder and bolder claims about the historical importance of black fighting through writing. First arguing for the canonization of neglected slave narratives and novels, then moving onto the rhetorical strategies and identity work in the full range of print and visual culture while rewriting African American literary history, literature specialists are doing the close, and increasingly archival, work with famous and obscure texts, print and manuscript, that intellectual and cultural historians have always done. They have also written pathbreaking and definitive biographies of major activists who were also writers. Increasingly, they argue for the political effect and significance of black writing and new media of the era, including photography. Not having to measure short- or long-term political effects as consistently as historians or as precisely as social scientists are called to do has surely encouraged these practitioners; so have debates about identity politics and culture during the past several decades. The tendency of literary and cultural studies scholars to assert the political implications of discourses and cultural forms, without much attention to institutions, events, or results, continues to reflect a disciplinary divide, though attempts to bridge it proceed.
At their best, the emphasis on actual (and sometimes revolutionary or emancipatory) political efficacy in the recent work on cultural politics points to greater interpretive ambition and possibly a reengagement with formal political events and epochs. There remains, however, the striking distance from mainstream or party politics, a distance that the authors in this volume consistently question. The remainder of this introduction will introduce four related new directions for inquiry that the essays seek to offer.
Messing with Borders: The Politics of Migration
Historians, including Samantha Seeley and Scott Heerman in this volume, are increasingly attracted to a spatial understanding of politics in the early republic. This trend is informed by traditional, even Turnerian, understandings of sections and frontiers and a "continental" response to the Atlantic turn in early American studies. But it is also inspired by a renewed appreciation of the confederative, loosely structured, multiply bordered union and by an understanding of the United States as fundamentally postcolonial, ringed by British and other imperial powers. Seeley suggests that we have considered "colonization" too narrowly: it was one aspect of the larger effort to control the movement of blacks into and out of various states. Indeed, a focus on migration may help to synthesize African American history as much as it has U.S. history for later periods. Seeley's analysis brings out the interplay of on-the-ground decisions by African Americans with local and state legislative actions. If Seeley establishes the "push" factors and the geopolitics of these migrations, Heerman's case study of Illinois makes clear the stakes for both migrants and other inhabitants of slavery's borderlands.
Where earlier work tended to depict black activists as members of one community, or in a transition from slave to free locations, they are now as often depicted as moving between communities, connecting them not only ideologically but practically, in acts of travel and translation. Such boundary crossing was especially politicized. As Padraig Riley observes, "in the context of the fugitive slave problem"—now seen as emergent with the republic, not the Civil War era—"any defense of black rights in the North had national implications." Matthew Salafia, Richard Newman, Stanley Harrold, and Andrew Diemer have all applied the concept of a borderland to the Mason-Dixon line, stressing the dynamism and the multiplicity of actors that characterized such places. "Fugitivity" has emerged as a term of art among legal and literary scholars who seek to address not just the successes or failures of fugitive slaves to liberate themselves individually but the many political effects of their movement. Richard J. M. Blackett's definitive monograph on fugitive slave controversies during the 1850s stresses the persistent creativity of African American communities who worked with white allies to resist rendition.
All of this, of course, fits quite well with the stress on the slave trade and expansion in the recent literature on "the second slavery": in light of the work of Steven Deyle, Edward Baptist, and Walter Johnson, the liberation of slaves who were to be moved across borders appears to have been the most practical as well as ideologically resonant way to contest slavery's capitalization and expansion—its catastrophic worsening, as a nation ostensibly half slave and half free saw Africans facing more, not less, immiseration each decade, even as the numbers of free African Americans also increased. The test of a matured "politics of migration" approach to both slavery's borderland and the political nation itself will likely be its ability to develop analyses that incorporate the legal and ideological as well as partisan and local aspects of the crossings that simultaneously troubled and inspired de facto and de jure segregation.
Seeley also reminds us that Reconstruction took initial form from the movement of massive numbers of southerners within the South during the Revolution as well as the Civil War; the movement of troops and northerners to the South; and the movement of freed people and efforts to keep them in place. Recent work deepens while pushing further back in time the fundamental insight that Leon Litwack, William B. Cohen, and others brought to emancipation and Reconstruction: for freed people, mobility was freedom, and the struggles to preserve, extend, and limit it allows us to see the politics of mobility as an essential theme connecting the first and second American revolutions. "The consistency of a backlash to black freedom and mobility across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries" is striking, Seeley concludes, in arguing explicitly for seeing the more familiar dynamics of postbellum southern Reconstruction in the post-Revolutionary Upper South and Lower North. This backlash was far from irrational, for as Heerman argues, free black rural settlements, as well as the free black urban communities, were "incubators of emancipation." Migration patterns and laws changed in many states in reaction to events and lawmaking in the pivotal state of Virginia.
The pattern of progress and backlash after the Revolution that is described by Riley and Van Gosse—a period that can be seen as both the rise of effective black politics and as a Great Reaction—seems strikingly similar to the Reconstruction of 1863-77 as described by Du Bois and Eric Foner. In the scholarship on both periods, we see an increasing willingness to question what is the beginning and the end of the story and an increasing willingness to see emancipation itself as a struggle shaped by movement and efforts to contain it. At the very least, elaborating the politics of mobility for African Americans seems to bridge local and bottom-up with legal and institutional approaches in ways that augment what we have learned by focusing on labor, community, or "power."
Cultural Politics Revised: Formal and Informal Practices
In his history of "organizing African American communities between the Revolution and the Civil War," literary historian John Ernest observes that "community required a common sense of history, shared goals for the future, and lives interconnected by religious, educational, economic, and political forums for mutual assistance and debate." The dilemma of this period so characterized by migration lay in the need not only to create local black institutions and community but also to organize those communities extralocally, which meant to connect them communicatively as well. The colored conventions that "gathered to organize their resistance to an oppressive state," and which themselves performed central republican rituals (including debate, celebration, voting, and the production of newspaper accounts), then emerge as central and substantive beyond their intellectual or ideological heft. While earlier scholarship sometimes criticized these efforts for failing to bring the revolution—debates were divisive and the results less than immediate—conventions and periodicals were as important for blacks as recent scholarship has shown they were for the contemporary women's rights movement, for abolitionists, and indeed for any and every antebellum political party. Much as party politics would have been inconceivable without the medium of print and the mediations of the printer-editors who increasingly by the 1830s themselves often became leading politicians, black leaders organized as well as broadcast using the most exciting media of the day.
These actions and strategies need to be addressed in detail, as practices and as events, and some literary scholars, like Ernest and Foreman, seem willing to do that work. Gene Andrew Jarrett acknowledges that "a deeper issue of methodology must be addressed" if we are to understand "African American literature's role in political imagination, political action's role in African American literary imagination, and, conversely, African American literature's role in political action," which, he argues, has been substantial from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama. Jarrett stresses how, since the time of Wheatley and Jefferson but with increased intensity by the second half of the nineteenth century, the ability to consume as well as produce literature remained a specific qualification for voting and a key locus of racial discrimination. Waldstreicher has argued that blackface minstrelsy, the long-acknowledged locus classicus of pop culture racism, had its origins, as a print as well as performance genre, in a backlash against black participation in the War of 1812 and in the voting and politicized festivity of black New Yorkers. Elaine Frantz Parsons has made a similar argument about the origins of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee during the late 1860s and early 1870s: The Klan's response to black organizing was given extralocal life by white newspapers, including northern ones, which inspired copycat performances and mythologizing in print. While certain spectacular cases of black literacy like that of Wheatley, David Walker, and Frederick Douglass have long been understood as politicized flashpoints, we are only beginning to understand the dynamics of publicity and suppression that characterized local and extralocal black politics.
By writing as well as invoking history, Jarrett and Ernest meet historians more than halfway and signal the opportunities and needs. But perhaps historians are already there, providing ample proof of Jarrett's argument that in the particular case of African Americans, culture and politics have never been in less than a reciprocal relationship that has been deeply consequential for citizenship and suffrage. At its best the growing literature on black cultural politics North and South has raised productive questions regarding how we conceptualize the political field, and especially the contests over the boundaries and nature of politics at a time when those boundaries themselves defined the prize.
The Politics of Citizenship: Law, the State, and the States
There is an alternative to approaching politics either via social movements' agitation outside the electoral arena or through the regular functioning of voting, parties, and patronage inside it. Politics can also be seen in how individuals and groups engage with the state through the operations of law. Outside of the academy, this seems obvious—of course, it is a political act to go to court or claim a right via the law. Asserting that the ability to negotiate within the state apparatus was not "political" is odd on its face, but historians of African Americans in antebellum America have nonetheless largely ignored this kind of politics for two reasons.
The first was, yet again, disciplinary: the dominance of social and cultural history combined with the self-isolating tendencies of traditional legal history to wall off this kind of inquiry. Of course, court cases and legal judgments often featured in "movement histories," but the law itself, its quotidian functioning and structure, remained opaque. The second was more fundamental—the mistaken assumption that only those with full citizenship rights, for example white men, could access the law, and therefore this variety of historical inquiry was irrelevant to free people of color and women, let alone slave men and women. "Law was about governance," as Laura Edwards puts it, "and it overlapped with the kind of dynamics that we usually locate in political history."
The perception of the irrelevance of legal history now falls by the wayside. Over the past two decades, a body of new scholarship has demonstrated that women, free people of color, and even slaves (if indirectly) did engage in politics via the operations of law. Sarah Gronningsater's interpretation of "formal politics without the vote" such as petitioning and lobbying provides another way of conceptualizing both what was at stake and how the battles were fought by the second generation of free African Americans in the North. Her analysis of school politics also provides another angle on the politics of literacy, and further suggestions of the continuities from the first civil rights movement to the so-called Long Civil Rights Movement after World War II. Similarly, Scott Heerman's essay follows recent work that has investigated the "legalities" on the local level as key battlegrounds. Citizenship politics in the states and battles in county courts belie the usual distinctions between official politics and cultural politics; Riley makes clear why, by the 1820s, in the wake of both fugitive slave controversies and battles for the vote, arguments about race and belonging had become a critical terrain of struggle for black politics formal and informal.
Christopher Bonner's essay illustrates that while Roger Taney's theory of black noncitizenship may have been execrably bad history, contesting such arguments made on the national scene publicly remained essential. The turn toward events and responses to them in the work of Bonner and Andrew Diemer in his essay on black responses to the Compromise of 1850 demonstrates how fresh and illuminating it can be to employ the tools of traditional political history to study African Americans. This seems especially important for the 1850s. A decade that has been seen as a low point and a moment of despair was also characterized by heightened organization and effectiveness.
The essays by Diemer, Bonner, Gronningsater, and Dale Kretz also suggest a renewed interest in how African Americans and their allies understood the nation-state, the states, and the rapidly changing constitutional order. If Americans of this period reinvented race in a distinct idiom and set of practices, the new history of African American political culture should trace how African Americans pursued forms of antiracism in multiple arenas, often with concrete results locally and extralocally. Legal history has become an exciting and fruitful location of such work, allowing clear lines to be drawn to other realms of politics and to the questions of jurisdiction that so shaped the Revolution, the federal consensus, and the Civil War. So has work on what the states and federal government actually did for and at the behest of African Americans, who came to hold, as Kretz puts it, "a vision of freedom bonded with, rather than without, the federal state." The essays here by Diemer and Bonner also display the fruits of such understandings, as African Americans appear, in the key controversies of the 1850s, as political actors who spurred events that, as every white politician knew well, could not be controlled by compromises or even Supreme Court decisions. Citizenship politics raised basic questions of sovereignty at and between levels of government (or loci of politics). At its best, the new histories of citizenship politics support, and are supported by, the new histories of movement as politics and the new work on the transnational dimensions of African American politics.
Transnational Politics After American Nationalism: War, Empire, and Diasporas
The example of Phillis Wheatley confirms arguments made by Gosse and Gerald Horne that black American politics emerged along Atlantic and imperial as well as domestic and sectional axes. Already in the 1790s, the international mobility of Africans had become controversial.
Earlier debates about black nationalism versus Americanism among African Americans posed stark choices of strategy and identity—race or civic belonging?—which scholars in the 1970s and '80s often felt it necessary to parse, as if everyone in African American history saw a fork in the road marked by caricatures of Martin R. Delany, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. Ultimately historians have found these to be false choices that do not do justice to the flexibility or the vicissitudes of black identities, African diasporic politics, or American political culture. Black liberation has always had universalistic implications just as doctrines of equality inspired periodic nationalist ventures. In these realms, ideological consistency could not compete with changing opportunities for alliances, from the local to the national to the international. The essay by James Shinn Jr. on the Free Cuba movement finds that "thoroughgoing nationalism," as in American nationalism, characterized "African American international engagement in the years immediately following the Civil War." Both the international engagement and the nationalism were always simultaneously strategic and immediately political; after all, the earliest articulation of American nationalism, whether of the Hamiltonian or Jeffersonian variety, pivoted on international allegiances and enmities.
Debates over nationalism, whether black or American, have too often obscured the essentially colonial or imperial contexts for black politics inside the United States. This volume is shaped by those recent scholars who see a long history, and manifold varieties, of black internationalism in the age of revolutions and emancipations. The rapid remaking of empires and republics in pro- and antislavery directions meant that African Americans could not just look abroad for inspiration. They had to also position themselves as actors in international struggles with obvious implications for a half-slave, half-free republic that regularly went to war in order to protect its trade, its borders, and its prospects for expansion.
Stepping back to see the hemispheric context is sobering, even beyond the current interest in the Haitian Revolution. Jeremy Adelman, for instance, argues that, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, social revolutions (which sometimes but not always led to emancipations) resulted from imperial breakdowns, while conversely the latter were in important ways the effects of the increased autonomy that resulted from ramping up the slave trade. Throughout these decades, wars tended to free slaves and codify emancipations, and the differences between civil wars, foreign wars, and wars of independence tended to blur in the African diasporic context. We might as easily have added "Civil Wars" to the title of this volume, insofar as the American Revolution is now appreciated as a civil war, in the South at least. As historians like Edward Rugemer, Matthew Karp, Christopher Leslie Brown, and others stress, between 1790 and 1860, strife in Haiti, Mexico, and the rest of Latin America had real effects on the shape of slavery and emancipation, and the possibility of black politics, in the United States.
One of the signal opportunities of the "global turn" in American history is that it makes black diasporic politics seem like the norm rather than a desperate exception. In that sense, as Shinn's narrative suggests, it can complement rather than replace a renewed stress on domestic politics. Choosing between the global and the local is ultimately as false a choice for history now as it would have been for black politics then.
A Conclusion and a Provocation
Historians increasingly see the Civil War and Reconstruction as an epoch of revolution and counter-revolution that turned on the status and the actions of African Americans. We might adapt W. E. B. Du Bois's famous paradigm from the turn of the twentieth century: the color line was the unresolved question of the nineteenth century as well as the twentieth. After all, Du Bois also later insisted that because of emancipation, the Civil War was the only truly revolutionary thing that had ever happened in the United States. In doing so he put a new spin on Charles and Mary Beard's notion of the Civil War as the nation-making "Second American Revolution." Whatever the story of democracy and freedom in America had been and might become, black people would be central actors in it. Moreover, their story of oppression and liberation, progress and backlash, could not be understood without taking the full measure of their own actions and the political contexts in which those actions had many and often surprising consequences.
The twenty-first century has seen new interpretations of the late eighteenth century that place the politics of slavery and the actions of Africans nearer to the center of the Founding. The Revolution itself now appears as a violent civil war with contours shaped by the "forgotten fifth" of enslaved Americans. The long U.S. Revolutionary settlement, which defined the nation as half slave and half free, constituted not only a First Emancipation but also a First Reconstruction. In this emerging synthesis, there were not two separate, discrete processes of emancipation followed by the contested incorporation of black people as citizens, but a single long process beginning during the Revolution in the North, playing out slowly state by state, and culminating in the South with the passage of the Reconstruction amendments. The United States was not a singular republic whose rising democracy was limited by race and slavery, but only the first among various American republics in which slave-produced wealth made independence thinkable and a settler revolt precipitated emancipation.
This literature is fulfilling the agenda David Brion Davis set out decades ago to place the problem of slavery at the center of U.S. history, with the overlapping "Age of Revolutions" and the "Age of Emancipations" constituting its foundational events. Davis paved the way for current directions by seeing slavery and antislavery as dynamically entwined with "the perishability of revolutionary time." He realized that history did not simply progress in some Whiggish fashion from the politics of a revolutionary elite circa 1789 to the popular politics of the demos circa 1828 before reaching the inevitably delayed politics of antislavery circa 1856. Throughout, we remain on the territory of politics—international, national, and sectional—however we choose to periodize or wherever we focus. Davis' choice of the term "problem" for slavery, echoing as it did Du Bois's "problem of the color line," put the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries squarely into modernity's realm of contested ideas, in which Africans and their descendants become makers as well as subjects of history.
In short, as more and more historians look transnationally to define an "age of emancipations," fewer assume that emancipation was a social and sectional question as opposed to a political and national one, or that either revolutions or civil wars in the United States have been fundamentally political and only accidentally, or afterward, emancipatory. Reconstruction, in all its political complexity and ambiguous beginnings and endings, might be how the United States has done revolution settlements. The traditional, hard-won federalism of U.S. politics, itself a product of the Revolution and at issue in the Civil War, rested upon strict distinctions between the levels, locales, and modalities of politics. The development of voting as the epitome of democracy during this period reinforces the scholarly division of labor between types and scales of politics, be they executive, legislative, or judicial; local, state, national, or diplomatic; electoral, social movement, or cultural politics. Yet if there is any conclusion to be drawn from the recent literature on black struggles, it is that African Americans confounded these categories or distinctions for pragmatic reasons. The categories themselves were developed in part to exclude, domesticate, or depoliticize them: to render them what used to be called prepolitical beings.
A broader perspective suggests that the relationship between U.S. politics and African American political traditions was reciprocal and consequential in shaping two revolutions that were also civil wars, and two reconstructions that were also emancipations. The revolutionary, warring, and emancipatory dimensions of these struggles could not but have international roots and reverberations.
The implications of such a revision surely challenge the standard narrative of U.S. history, but it may offer an equally bracing challenge to how we conceptualize African American history and politics. To emphasize the blackness or singularity of African American political traditions may underestimate some of the sources of its transformative strengths, as well as some of the reasons that racial backlashes recur. To see emancipations and reconstructions as a cycle that has repeated means grappling with the reactionary nadirs, the Thermidors, that have provided the segregated ground from which new struggles must arise. To conceive of black politics as only or mainly a social movement or a culture of resistance is just as limiting as seeing only formal politics: it misses the reasons why it has been and continues to be all of these things. Like the civil rights revolution, the first revolutions, emancipations, and reconstructions required coalition politics, black institutions, and a cultural front. Much as a focus on national political history risks marginalizing African Americans, the very act of recovering a lost history of black political activity risks divorcing black politics from the American politics it meant to transform. Emphasizing integration risks missing the counterrevolutions that so often followed, and which testify all too clearly to what had been revolutionary, and sometimes emancipatory, in aspiration and in fact, in black and U.S. politics.
Ultimately, this volume advances the perhaps novel argument that black "politics" in all its forms and at all levels is not merely important or integral, but actually central to the early history of the United States. Abetted by powerful allies in both Reconstructions (post-1790 and post-1865), it challenged in fundamental ways the evolving narrative of a white-settler state, opening a breach that has not yet closed. What is America to us, to you? That is the question that black men and women began asking during the Revolution, and with ever-increasing force across the long nineteenth century until the historic period of defeat, retreat, and regrouping Rayford Logan accurately named the "nadir." They ask it still.