Slavery and the American Experience: Family, Politics, and Society in the Nineteenth Century

AHA Session 201
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 305 (Hynes Convention Center)
Joel H. Silbey, Cornell University
The Problem of the Southern Yeomanry: Kinship in Nat Turner's Virginia
Anthony E. Kaye, Pennsylvania State University
Deceptive Democracy: Northern Democrats and the Illusion of Principle
Michael Todd Landis, George Washington University
Harry L. Watson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Session Abstract

This panel seeks to go beyond traditional discussions of slavery and American history to explore the more subtle, indirect influences the “peculiar institution” had on American life.  From visions of the African-American household, to Northern pro-slavery ideology, to the experience of militiamen who fought to put down a slave rebellion, “Slavery and the American Experience” will present innovative projects designed to demonstrate the incredible reach of slavery into almost every aspect of American society, and how slavery shaped the American experience in ways that we have yet to fully understand.

The panel will begin with the latest work by Anthony Kaye (Pennsylvania State University) on Virginia militiamen in the wake of the Nat Turner revolt.  Kaye will draw political connections between different institutions not usually considered in political terms.  Taking a large group of Southern yeomen, both slaveowners and non-slaveowners, who put down the infamous insurrection, Kaye will document and quantify their links in terms of kinship, relations of credit, debt, and trade, church membership, and party votes, all the while coming to new conclusions about race, class, and kinship in the American South. 

Next, Michael Landis (George Washington University) will explore a remarkable strain of anti-democratic, minority-rule theory espoused by many Northern Democrats on the eve of the Civil War.  Using Congressional oratory and debates, personal correspondence, and public actions, Landis will show how an anti-democratic ideology was developed to rationalize Northern Democratic support for pro-slavery legislation and policies, despite their free-state constituents.  Motivated by deep-seeded racism, personal vendettas, and insatiable ambition, these politicos actively defended the expansion of slavery, and permitted Southern dominance of the Democratic Party and the federal government, with disastrous implications for both.  Their public and private reasoning for such behavior, hitherto unexamined, will change the way we understand the causes of sectionalism and disunion, as well as how slavery shaped state and national politics. 

The session will conclude with a new project by Judith Giesberg (Villanova University) on African-American families in the aftermath of slavery.  By examining the texts of ads in the “Information Wanted” section (1864-1870) of the Christian Recorder, Giesberg will come to conclusions about the effects of slavery and emancipation on family life, and how black newspapers and churches were employed to reconstruct divided families.  Moreover, the words used by family members to describe their missing relatives can reveal a great deal about familial expectations and challenges.  Giesberg’s work will bring to life an emotional chapter in American history, directing our attention to the actual words, hopes, and fears of African-American men and women in an era of turmoil and change.

The panel will be chaired by Joel H. Silbey (Cornell University), and comments will be provided by Harry L. Watson (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).

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