The Revolutionary Landscape: Creating the Conditions for Revolution in the American South and Constructing Citizenship in Its Aftermath

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:30 PM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton)
Erin Holmes, University of South Carolina
When considering the period prior to the American Revolution, much of the focus has been on its intellectual, economic, and political origins. Instead, I propose a focus on the material conditions that made revolution possible in the American South, which, because of the issue of slavery, resisted the call to Revolution even as things became more tense in the Northern colonies. These material conditions, largely the direct result of adaptations to owning enslaved African Americans, first produced a distinct colonial identity separate from that of Great Britain, making the idea of separation possible. Then, despite living in a climate tense with the constant fear of rebellion by the enslaved, that landscape facilitated the war itself and the Americans’ eventual victory in the Southern campaign.

Through a comparison with Barbados (a slave society that chose to remain a part of the British empire), I argue that without the opportunity created by those material conditions, the American Revolution would either not have happened or been quickly and effectively put down. After the American Revolution, the landscape came to play an important role in controlling the enslaved, who, despite hearing the rhetoric of liberty, found themselves excluded from its promise. That landscape gave physical form to the debates over the character of the new nation.

While Neoclassical architecture and design were common throughout the new republic, the Southern emphasis on Greek Revival design, especially in domestic architecture, allowed planters to better hide the work of the enslaved within the household while articulating their support for rhetoric that sought to merge the practice of slavery and the language of democracy. In the aftermath of Revolution, when the rhetoric of liberty raised questions of who belonged to that new citizenry, Southern planters used the built environment to restrict citizenship and to unite aesthetic with ideology.

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