Black Reconstructions: Rethinking the State, the Body, and the Body Politic in Late 19th-Century America

AHA Session 200
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 5
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Salon B (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
Carole T. Emberton, University at Buffalo (State University of New York)
Carole T. Emberton, University at Buffalo (State University of New York)

Session Abstract

Historians often conceptualize the period of the late nineteenth century after the Civil War as an era in which laissez faire characterized state-society relations and in which the federal government was often ineffectual and corrupt.  In this view, the primary impetus for innovation and industrialization came from the private sector, which in turn changed the face of the reconstructed liberal nation-state; capital colonized the state to its own ends.  The papers in this session challenge that idea by showing in a variety of ways how a robust and even invasive federal government actively engaged projects of remaking the relationship between the state and society, the state and the body, and the state and the body politic.  By centralizing the voices and experiences of African Americans in the tumultuous years of emancipation and its aftermath, they show how the mythologized Invisible Hand of capitalism belied the conscious deployment of state power in the lives of American citizens. 

This session explores several theaters of central state activity following the Civil War, including the military, the modern bureaucracy, and medical science.  It addresses crucial questions that are often underappreciated in their historical significance.  What would be the relationship between an individual citizen—father, mother, husband, wife, laborer, soldier, veteran, veteran-laborer, disabled veteran—to the liberal state?  How would the liberal creed change, if at all, to incorporate four million formerly enslaved men and women?  How would social welfare have a place in the modern nation-state?  Indeed, what would be role of the liberal state in response to bodily suffering?  How did pain function in the new market economy?  What would experiences of suffering do to individual and collective forms of identity and political action?

Answering these questions from the vantage point of lived experiences offers critical insight into a reconceptualization of the American state and the state-society relationship in the late nineteenth century.  The central state’s role in the industrializing economy went beyond simply laissez faire or corporate welfare: the state was an active and intimate player in the lives that made up the new social order in ways that need to be examined and conceptualized.

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