H105, American History I

Reading Guide for Week 12

Last week we encountered the extraordinary energy of social reform movements in the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States, including the gradual rise of abolitionism and the emergence of a nascent women’s rights movement.  The first sought the immediate and unconditional end to slavery; the second sought women’s right especially to vote.  Both emerged in the United States as well as in Britain, part of a shared transatlantic cultural shift.  On both sides of the Atlantic, the women’s rights movement remained tiny and marginal until later in the 19th century, whereas the abolitionist movement would expand considerably between the 1830s and 1850s.

As we shall see this week, abolitionism inspired a backlash in the form of an aggressive southern argument in defense of slavery (as distinct from racism, which was relatively common among white people in both North and South), and an equally aggressive southern indictment of the industrializing way of life in the North.  Just as with the War of American Independence, which featured two competing versions of freedom, the debate over slavery featured two competing versions of American “patriotism” and Christian “morality,” both of which were convinced of their own rightness and righteousness.  In the present day it is easier to see that slavery was evil, but we must appreciate the terms of the debate in the 19th century — especially as there are now many aspects of modern American culture which are wrapped in the mantle of “patriotism” and “Christianity,” which may be seen as quite evil in the future.  Meanwhile, an important new voice was added to the equation, and that was the increasingly prominent voice of black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became a popular writer and lecturer.  How, in practical terms, does one fight so monstrous and overwhelming an institution as the slavery system?  You can see the odds against the black abolitionist movement in the Supreme Court’s endorsement of slavery in the Dred Scott decision, and in the governmental and legal power behind that endorsement.  You can also see those odds in James Roberts’s description of systematic sexual violence against black women.  How does one fight the Constitution and rapists at the same time, in order to accomplish justice?....


Fitzhugh, Cannibals All! (1857):  George Fitzhugh was one of many Southern pro-slavery writers who defended the supposed virtues of slavery against abolitionist criticism.  Yet Fitzhugh was not only unapologetic about slavery — he went on the offensive against the Northern “way of life.”  How did he defend slavery as, supposedly, a positive good?  What did he think was the true source of cruelty and evil in the United States?  Why?

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857):  Roger Taney wrote the majority decision in this landmark Supreme Court case, albeit in gnarled legal language.  Even if, Taney reasoned, one state might declare a black person to be free, that person would not necessarily be free in other states, or in the eyes of the federal government.  Citizenship — and the rights and protections accruing to a citizen — were conferred by the federal government, which is why Taney outlined his version of the history of the U.S. Constitution.  Did Taney conceive an enslaved black person to be a citizen?  If not a citizen, if not even a person, then what instead?


Garnet, speech (1843):  Henry Highland Garnet was a black abolitionist who in this speech chose to address not the free blacks who were in attendance but, instead, enslaved blacks who were at a great distance from where he was in Buffalo, New York.  Garnet acknowledged both a social gulf between free and enslaved blacks, as well as a cultural bond between them, and he proceeded to criticize the religious and political hypocrisy of those whites who upheld slavery.  How, though, did he try to inspire enslaved blacks?  What did he invoke to motivate enslaved blacks to take action?

Douglass, speech (1852):  Frederick Douglass was a very prominent black abolitionist who in this speech discussed the meaning (NOT a single story) of the Fourth of July, and the course of American history between 1776 and 1852.  What meaning did the Fourth of July have for his white audience, according to Douglass?  What meaning did it have for Douglass himself?  How did he explain the difference of meaning?

Narrative of James Roberts (1858):  James Roberts served as a soldier in the War of American Independence, and again in the War of 1812.  However, his military service was not rewarded with freedom, as twice promised.  Instead, he remained enslaved.  Why did Roberts’s white owner take away his military clothes?  How did Roberts describe the social boundaries between white and black?  How did sexual behavior and definitions of “family” fit into these boundaries?