An American Family Story in Ten Parts

1. In 1621, Thomas Prence arrived in Plymouth Colony and claimed “one akre” of land in the new settlement. Thirteen years later, a combination of ambition and a reputation for being one of the most ardent Separatist Puritans in a colony full of Separatist Puritans led to his election as governor, and he would remain a member of Plymouth’s political elite from that point forward. After the 1657 death of William Bradford-Plymouth’s original governor and more than any other man the motor that drove the colony-Prence once again became governor. Continue reading “An American Family Story in Ten Parts”

Constitutional Liberties and Race: Terms and Conditions Apply

A couple of weeks before the holiday, a robust debate emerged on the AAIHS blog about the Thirteenth Amendment, in particular the effects of its notorious “loophole” as described in the recent documentary 13th. Patrick Rael’s “Demystifying the Thirteenth Amendment and its Impact on Mass Incarceration” got the conversation started, and Dennis Childs’s “Slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment, and Mass Incarceration” was a scathing rejoinder to Rael’s post. For those who haven’t seen 13th, or are unfamiliar with the loophole, the Thirteenth Amendment, which “ended” slavery, reads as follows:

SECTION 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. SECTION 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Continue reading “Constitutional Liberties and Race: Terms and Conditions Apply”

Some Thoughts on the Electoral College

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The American Revolution embodied, despite the misgivings of many of its leaders, some profoundly radical ideas. Rebelling against the world’s most powerful monarchy and replacing its authority with a clutch of homegrown republican governments (of varying effectiveness) was as fundamental a political change as one could imagine in the 1770s and early 1780s. It’s hard to see that from our contemporary vantage point, however; looking backwards through the French and–especially–the Haitian Revolutions, the revolution that created the United States looks tentative, even skittish, by comparison. Yet it’s also evident that the American Revolution and its early republican aftermath fell far short of fulfilling the truly radical potential inherent within the process of declaring independence from Britain and establishing a republic in place of an imperial sovereignty. Most glaringly, the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and equality was notable more for who it excluded in practice–women, indigenous Americans, people of color both enslaved and free–than anything else.

And yet. Continue reading “Some Thoughts on the Electoral College”

In the Shadow of the Civil War’s Beginning

As a scholar engaged in a study of the Civil War Era in the United States, It’s been my job lately to think about the way we remember and interpret this period. And the more I think about it, the more I believe we’ve been doing it wrong. Our national obsession with primarily Eastern, predominately politico-military events from April, 1861 to June, 1865, creates a refuge for bad history–teleology, really–that has had nothing short of a disastrous effect on the way we reckon with things like class, race, and freedom.  Continue reading “In the Shadow of the Civil War’s Beginning”

I Will Not Argue About the Confederate Flag.

The murder of nine Americans by a terrorist in Charleston Wednesday night, besides being a monumental tragedy, also gave us the absurd spectacle of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (a woman of color) telling us “that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another” as pictures emerged of the killer wearing flags of apartheid regimes on his jacket, sitting on his car with a Confederate States faux license plate, all in a state where the only flag not lowered to half-mast was the Confederate Battle Flag that sits astride the front approach to South Carolina’s capitol. The mental gymnastics it took for Haley to blithely claim we’ll never know the motives of a killer who actually told victims what his motives were as well as literally wearing those motives on his sleeve defy imagination. She has since added more nuance to her public statements on the tragedy (for which the bar was set remarkably low), but still ignores one area in which much of the state–and nation–has focused on: the continuing official presence of the Confederate flag on the State House grounds in Columbia. How can one try to explain away the racist motives of Dylann Roof in a state where the flag of an actual racist regime occupies such pride of place? The short answer is that one cannot do so without extraordinary exertions of willful ignorance. But we also know that this hasn’t stopped racists before. Continue reading “I Will Not Argue About the Confederate Flag.”

They Shackled Children.

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They’re on display in the “1863” half of the 1863/1963 exhibit in the African American History Gallery on the second floor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In a display case, next to the ads for a slave auction and text describing the ways in which humans were bought and sold as chattel in the American South, they sit: a petite-sized set of cast-iron leg shackles, the spare, stark description reading “shackles used for slave children.” Continue reading “They Shackled Children.”