Antebellum America

10 reviews on slavery, politics, and resistance during the antebellum period

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Andrews, William L. Slavery and class in the American South: a generation of slave narrative testimony, 1840–1865. Oxford, 2019. 389p index ISBN 9780190908386, $35.00; ISBN 9780190908393 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE October 2019

In Slavery and Class in the American South, William L. Anderson (University of North Carolina) uses 61 African American slave narratives published from 1840 to 1865 to investigate concepts of class among antebellum African American slaves. Examining slaves’ social and economic similarities and differences, Anderson traces the development of class awareness in 19th-century African American autobiographies. Especially significant to this study is the role of “privilege” and how it shaped slaves’ experiences, their interactions with whites and fellow slaves, and—in direct opposition to most slaveholders’ intentions—contributed to the achievement of freedom. Anderson’s study is significant, as it not only examines well-known slave narratives of authors such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, but also brings out of the background lesser-known works, such as those of Lewis Clarke and William Brown, among others. In addition, though most slave narratives reflect the experiences of skilled ex-slaves, Anderson’s work highlights field slaves’ narratives and their experiences to give a more complete picture of the enslaved antebellum experience. An in-depth study of former slaves’ concepts of class, this work is a valuable resource to scholars of American history and literature. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —T. K. Byron, Dalton State College

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Bennett, Michael. Democratic discourses: the radical abolition movement and antebellum American literature. Rutgers, 2005. 223p ISBN 0813535727, $62.00; ISBN 0813535735 pbk, $24.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE January 2006

Bennett (Long Island Univ.) pairs writings of 19th-century African and European Americans for a fresh analysis of the “logic and moral power” of antebellum discourse. He offers a complex yet lively reading of the interconnections between the works of Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Walt Whitman, and Margaret Fuller and Sojourner Truth and between their treatment of such subjects as race, body, gender, economics, and aesthetics. Bennett provides creative insights into how these authors dug around at the roots of slave-holding society and unearthed the realities needed to expose their democratic country’s deficiencies and possibilities. A pioneering addition to the analysis of abolitionist literature, this study elucidates both the very nature of democracy and the richness of the debate from slave and non-slave perspectives. It creates a dialogical space between discourses–a rhetorical strategy useful for analysis of current discourses, but not available to even the best books focusing on abolition rhetoric of single authors such as Stephen Howard Browne’s Angelina Grimké: Rhetoric, Identity, and the Radical Imagination (CH, Jul’00, 37-6094). Summing Up: Essential. All readers; all collections. —T. B. Dykeman, Fairfield University

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Blackett, R. J. M. The captive’s quest for freedom: fugitive slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the politics of slavery. Cambridge, 2018. 511p bibl index ISBN 9781108418713, $120.00; ISBN 9781108407779 pbk, $32.99; ISBN 9781108314107 ebook, $26.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE December 2018

Blackett (history, Vanderbilt Univ.) has written what is now the essential work on the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the myriad ways this law reshaped both US politics and the lives of enslaved black Americans. Blackett’s narrative begins with the notorious 1850 law, situating it within the larger debates over slavery and its relationship to federal power that coursed through antebellum politics. Most important, the enslaved themselves play a crucial role. Blackett reveals just how significant the sum total of individual decisions to attempt escape was: no fugitive slaves, no fugitive slave crisis. The book moves easily between high politics and local, even individual, examples of the debates over fugitives and the underground networks that aided and abetted them. Blackett’s research is exhaustive, and the granular detail for each region examined in part 2 reveals a wealth of information about how the Underground Railroad functioned locally and the efforts of slaveholders and their allies to stem what they saw as an increasingly urgent crisis. This book is a major contribution to the literature on enslaved peoples and the coming of the Civil War. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates and above. —K. M. Gannon, Grand View University

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Campney, Brent M. S. Hostile heartland: racism, repression, and resistance in the Midwest. Illinois, 2019. 240p index ISBN 9780252042492, $99.00; ISBN 9780252084300 pbk, $27.95; ISBN 9780252051333 ebook, $14.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE September 2020

Hostile Heartland challenges assumptions about the 19th-century Midwest as “a land of pastoral virtue—a ‘Garden of Eden’—where racist violence was anomalous” (p. 8). On the contrary, Campney (Univ. of Texas Rio Grande Valley) argues that in the antebellum era “white mobs in the Midwest most certainly lynched free blacks and fugitive slaves” (p. 9). One of the author’s most significant contributions is the nuance he adds to operative key terms in the historiography. For instance, he demonstrates that prior to the Civil War the word lynching was less about killing victims and more about a sense of punishment imparted by the lynch mob. Moreover, he relies on historiography that takes an expansive view of racist violence beyond lynchings and rioting, drawing most heavily on newspapers as primary sources, which is entirely appropriate for the subject matter. Campney helpfully structures the book by region and state, with chapters on the “Old Northwest,” Illinois, Indiana, and Kansas, and two chapters on Missouri. This structure lends itself to a chapter-by-chapter use in undergraduate courses. The entire text would be useful in upper-division undergraduate courses and is essential for graduate-level study on racist violence and Midwestern history. Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty. —M. Skaggs, Brandeis University

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Dwyer, Erin Austin. Mastering emotions: feelings, power, and slavery in the United States. Pennsylvania, 2021. 320p bibl index ISBN 9780812253399, $39.95; ISBN 9780812299984 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2023

In recent years, scholars have turned their attention to the history of sounds, smells, and even feelings. In Mastering Emotions, Dwyer (Oakland Univ.) analyzes racialized emotional differences between slaveholders and the enslaved, mostly in the lower South during the antebellum period. Not surprisingly, Dwyer’s thoroughly documented study demonstrates that white southerners often dismissed the emotional capacity of Black people, especially when it came to separating enslaved families by sale. Enslaved parents pushed back against this constant dehumanization, but they had to be very cautious in their approach, as learning how to master their passions from childhood was a basic survival skill. Some parents chose to shield their children from emotional terror by keeping hard truths from them. As Frederick Douglass remembered, his impending separation from his grandmother was kept hidden from him until the last moment. One of the many virtues of this volume is that Dwyer carries her story beyond emancipation into the Jim Crow era. No longer compelled to pretend subservience, freedpeople dropped the mask of obedience. However, given white determination to maintain old racial hierarchies, the legacy of emotional bondage continued well after Appomattox. Summing Up: Essential. Advanced undergraduates through faculty. —D. R. Egerton, Le Moyne College

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Helg, Aline. Slave no more: self-liberation before abolitionism in the Americas, tr. by Lara Vergnaud. North Carolina, 2019. 352p bibl index ISBN 9781469649627, $90.00; ISBN 9781469649634 pbk, $29.95; ISBN 9781469649641 ebook, $22.99.
Reviewed in CHOICE August 2019

Helg (history, Univ. of Geneva, Switzerland) delivers a thorough examination of the history of slavery in the Americas. Beginning in the 16th century and ending in the 19th century, Helg unravels the evidence to provide new insight into how slaves over those three centuries pursued freedom. She demonstrates that slaves were often strategic in exploiting holes in the system that worked to their advantage over time. This contrasts with the commonly held belief that slaves only acted to free themselves in revolts or revolutions. Freed slaves often found contentment as landowners or in gradually congregating and making their own small communities in specific regions. This comprehensive study distinguishes itself as unique in terms of the investigation of slavery. Helg does an excellent job of incorporating historiography for the three centuries she covers. This is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of slavery, emancipation, and abolition, or in the economic history of the Americas as it relates to slavery. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty. —J. T. Pekarek, SUNY At Cortland

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Inniss, Lolita Buckner. The Princeton fugitive slave: the trials of James Collins Johnson. Empire State Editions, 2019. 238p bibl index ISBN 9780823285341, $29.95; ISBN 9780823285358 ebook, $28.99.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2020

In 1839, James Collins Johnson ran away from his master in Maryland and escaped to Princeton, NJ, where he found work as a merchant for the university and established a new, free life. Several years later, a southern student recognized him. He was arrested and would have been returned to slavery if a Princeton woman had not purchased his freedom at the last minute. Although that seems like a fairy-tale ending, Inniss (Southern Methodist Univ.) offers a provocative, insightful reframing of Johnson’s story, one that offers a contrasting commentary on the role of slavery, race relations, and the concept of freedom during the antebellum period. Johnson avoided returning to bondage, but the author argues that he continued to live in a slave-like dynamic even after his freedom was secured. Though Inniss relies on a scant number of primary sources, she presents a compelling narrative, using a small, anecdotal, feel-good story to masterfully analyze the broader racial and socioeconomic issues of the era. This is a must read for any student of 19th-century American history. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty. —B. A. Wineman, Marine Corps University

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Paulus, Carl Lawrence. The slaveholding crisis: fear of insurrection and the coming of the Civil War. Louisiana State, 2017. 311p bibl index ISBN 9780807164358, $49.95; ISBN 9780807164372 ebook, $49.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2017

Paulus tells a familiar story, but with a few revisionist twists. Like William H. Freehling in Prelude to Civil War (CH, Jan’67) and Steven A. Channing in Crisis of Fear (CH, May’71), he focuses on influential white southerners’ persistent fears of slave revolt. Genuine slave uprisings, e.g., the Saint-Domingue revolt (1791), Gabriel’s Rebellion (1800), the Denmark Vesey plot (1822), and John Brown’s 1859 raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal, as well as imagined ones, exacerbated the planter elite’s insurrection anxieties. Paulus contends that white southerners’ belief that the federal government would protect them from slave violence helped keep the Union intact despite ongoing sectional tensions. This safeguard, according to the master class, rendered the antebellum US (and its slave society) “exceptional.” The situation changed dramatically, however, with the advent of the abolitionist crusade of the 1830s and afterwards. By the late 1850s, white northerners defined the US as “exceptional” as the world’s exemplar of universal freedom. In contrast, white southerners promoted their own brand of proslavery, US exceptionalism. As each side in the sectional divide declared the other “un-American,” and with Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans opposed to slavery’s expansion, southerners rebelled. Emancipation, they feared, would result in societal upheaval. An excellent book. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All college and university collections. —J. D. Smith, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

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Pryor, Elizabeth Stordeur. Colored travelers: mobility and the fight for citizenship before the Civil War. North Carolina, 2016. 218p bibl index ISBN 9781469628578, $34.95; ISBN 9781469628585 ebook, $33.99.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 2017

In this book based on her 2008 Univ. of California, Santa Barbara, dissertation, historian Pryor (Smith College) focuses on how stagecoaches, railroads, and steamships constituted major antebellum sites for white hostility and black resistance. Specifically, these public spaces of “criminalized black mobility” were challenged by black travelers’ “protest strategies,” including letters, newspaper articles, official complaints, provocation, slave narratives, and so forth. The book consists of an introduction, an epilogue, and five chapters. The first chapter examines racial violence in public spaces through the epithet nigger. The next two explain the emergence of public segregation because of northern emancipation and the transportation revolution, especially the “Jim Crow car” in Massachusetts and black travelers’ protests. Chapters 4 and 5 illustrate the difficulties of international travel because of the US state department’s intransigence and black travelers’ protestations during the Atlantic crossing. The book covers 1830s–60s antebellum northern urban areas, the English-speaking Atlantic, and Great Britain (mostly England). The book’s strength is its comprehension of the civic component of these prolonged public travails. Reduced funding for public transportation that disproportionately impacts travelers of color is today’s struggle. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. —J. R. Kerr-Ritchie, Howard University

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Shields, Johanna Nicol. Freedom in a slave society: stories from the antebellum South. Cambridge, 2012. 318p ISBN 9781107013377, $99.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE January 2013

The writers of what was known during the antebellum period as the “old southwest” (southeastern US) leaned more to realism than to the symbolic romances created by writers in the Northeast. Many of the stories, tall tales, satires, poems, and anecdotes written from 1830 to 1860 appeared in newspapers and periodicals. Shields (history, Univ. of Alabama) focuses her “braided narrative” (stories/analyses) on eight less-known writers from Alabama: Caroline Hentz, Johnson Hooper, Augusta Evans, Joseph Baldwin, Albert Pickett, Alexander Meek, William Russell Smith, and Jeremiah Clemens. She examines how these writers incorporated, almost paradoxically, slavery into the concept of freedom (“self-determination”) to reach readers beyond the South. Shields addresses contributing social issues, especially the rising middle class in the towns through contexts of family and friendships. She treats considerations of slaves as people and as property. Furthermore, she makes a strong argument that in addition to being representative of a wider South, these Alabama writers had much in common with the general US population in terms of thinking about slavery. Her observations on the role of print in this region and the inherent modernist impulses in writings near the Civil War display considerable insight. The writing is clear and accessible. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. —T. Bonner Jr., Xavier University of Louisiana