Tag Archives: slave trade

The best of the best from my seminar reading lists

Well, my coursework is done, so from here on out it’s just comps and the dissertation.  I’ve still got quite a lot of reading to do between now and the end of the road, of course, but the end of classes means one chapter in my career as a graduate student is over.

As one of my professors remarked this past semester, grad school gives you the opportunity to be exposed to more books than you’ll ever be able to read again in such a short period of time.  With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to look back over the books I’ve been assigned to read and select one exceptionally good title from each course.  Think of this post as…




A few preliminary remarks are in order before we get rolling.  I’m only including reading seminars in American history.  That means no books from research seminars, foundational courses in theory and methodology, more practical-driven courses (such as classes on teaching the world history survey or professionalization), and courses in world or European history.  I read many fine works in these classes, but since American history is my thing, I’m going to stick with the stuff I know best.

I should also add that I’m only including required texts from these courses, so books I read for purposes of presenting an individual report or for a historiographic paper aren’t eligible for inclusion.  Maybe I’ll do another round someday and pick up all those loose ends.

Now, without further ado, here are my picks.  We’ll start with the courses I took way back when as an M.A. student.

Topics in Early American History.  This was the first graduate course I ever took.  Competition in this category was especially stiff, since my professor had us read many of the classics in the field.  But if I had to pick the one book from the required reading that was most exceptional, I’d probably go with Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  Morgan addresses the great paradox of American history: How did a slave society come to enshrine freedom and equality as its most important ideals?  It turns out not to be such a paradox after all.

Topics in American Military History.  It’s hard for me to be impartial when it comes to Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783.  It’s long been one of my all-time favorite works of historical scholarship, so it was probably bound to be my top pick among all the books I read for my military history class.  Royster asks and answers many of the most important questions the Continental Army’s existence implies about the Revolution.

Topics in Modern American History.  William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is one of the most well researched and elegantly presented history books I’ve ever read.  You wouldn’t expect an examination of the relationship between geography, the commodification of resources, and urbanization would be this engrossing.

Civil War and Reconstruction.  I got quite a bit out of The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience, by Emory M. Thomas.  Thomas argues that the Civil War didn’t just separate the North and the South, but also wrought an internal revolution within the South itself.  Ironically, a war fought to preserve a particular way of life proved to be a powerful agent of change.

Jeffersonian America.  Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution was a very close runner-up to beat Edmund Morgan’s book in my first category.  Fortunately, it popped up again on the required reading list for this course, so I can give it the props it deserves.  Wood explains what was so revolutionary about the Revolution, an event that turned the hierarchical, organic world of colonial America into a society we might recognize as much closer to our own.

History of American Religion.  Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt is a model of historical argumentation.  She demonstrates how radical evangelism posed a formidable challenge to the early South’s familial, masculine, and racial ideals.  In order to win over southern planters, evangelical preachers had to adapt.  Those adaptations created the evangelicalism that many people associate with the region today.

That covers my M.A. courses.  Moving on to my doctoral coursework…

U.S. and the World.  I think I can speak for everybody who took this class when I say that Kate Brown’s Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters is both enlightening and hard to put down.  With vivid, elegant prose, Brown tells the parallel stories of two Cold War communities—one in the U.S., the other in the Soviet Union.  Both communities were built for one purpose: the production of plutonium.  In each case, the inhabitants enjoyed a level of prosperity much greater than that of their neighbors.  But both the people in these communities and those who lived downwind and downstream from them paid a fearsome price for this high standard of living.

Native American History.  William Cronon makes the list again for his now-classic Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.  It’s one of the foundational works of environmental history, and also one of the very best.  The European conquest of the New World marked a transformation in the ways America’s inhabitants interacted with the physical environment.  I think every aspiring historian should read this book as an example of how to present and sustain a clear, forceful, and persuasive argument.

Early America and the Atlantic.  Another modern classic: Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.  This book has the distinction of appearing on the required reading lists of more courses than any other title I’ve been assigned in grad school; it’s been assigned in three of my classes.  That ought to tell you something about what a worthwhile investment it is for anybody interested in early America, slavery, and the history of race.

Independent Study on the American Revolution.  Lots of good books to choose from here, too, but I think my favorite is Michael McDonnell’s The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia.  The Revolution wasn’t a unifying experience for the Old Dominion.  Far from it.  In fact, mobilization exposed the rifts between gentry, middling farmers, and the lower sort.  The need for manpower forced Virginia’s elites to make concessions to middling whites, and bred resentment among those poorer men who bore the burden of filling the ranks.  I love this book for McDonnell’s thorough research and the care with which he reconstructs the relationship between waging war and the political order.

Gender as a Category of Analysis in American History.  So before the 1960s, homosexuals were so far back in the closet they were essentially invisible, right?  Wrong.  In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, George Chauncey uncovers an American gay culture that was both active and visible decades before Stonewall.  What I found most remarkable about this book, however, was not so much the fact that Chauncey has discovered a lost world, but the detail with which he reconstructs it.  Even if you’re not interested in LGBT history, you should read this book to admire the array of sources Chauncey employs to resurrect a slice of the past many Americans have forgotten.

Classic and Contemporary Readings in African American History.  The standout title from this class, at least for me, is Steven Deyle’s Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life.  When we hear the phrase “slave trade,” most of us think of the traffic in human bodies between Africa and the Americas.  It’s easy to forget how ubiquitous the internal trade was before the Civil War, and how profoundly it shaped the course of American history.  Deyle puts the domestic slave trade back at the center of the story where it belongs with research that is downright awe-inspiring in breadth.

By selecting only one book from each class, I’ve left out a lot of fantastic stuff, but I think these titles are the cream of the crop.  If you’re a fellow grad student, maybe you’ll see something here that will help you out.  And if you’re neither a student nor a historian, I encourage you to dive in anyway, so you can enjoy some of the best the discipline has to offer.

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Selling humans in the Capitol’s shadow

This week I’ve been reading Steven Deyle’s Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life for one of my classes.  It’s one of the most engrossing books I’ve come across in grad school, and if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to put it on your list.

One of the topics Deyle addresses is the slave trade in Washington, D.C.  I knew slave traders were active in the District of Columbia until 1850, but I didn’t know (or I’d forgotten) that trading in human beings went on just a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol building.

One of the illustrations in Deyle’s book is a map from an anti-slavery broadside showing three of the largest pens where D.C. traders kept their merchandise.  The map places the slave house of Joseph Neal & Co. on Seventh Street near the southern edge of the National Mall.  That’s less than two-thirds of a mile from the Capitol.  Here’s a modern map of the Mall with a dropped pin near the site of Neal’s slave house.  The Capitol is on the right side of the image, the Washington Monument on the left:

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 9.53.33 PM

There were a couple of other large slave pens just a few blocks north, one of which belonged to a trader named William Williams.  Solomon Northup of 12 Years a Slave fame spent about two weeks imprisoned there after his kidnapping.  Here’s how he remembered Williams’s slave prison and the savage beating he endured there:

The light admitted through the open door enabled me to observe the room in which I was confined. It was about twelve feet square—the walls of solid masonry. The floor was of heavy plank. There was one small window, crossed with great iron bars, with an outside shutter, securely fastened.

An iron-bound door led into an adjoining cell, or vault, wholly destitute of windows, or any means of admitting light. The furniture of the room in which I was, consisted of the wooden bench on which I sat, an old-fashioned, dirty box stove, and besides these, in either cell, there was neither bed, nor blanket, nor any other thing whatever. The door, through which Burch [James H. Birch, the D.C. slave trader who purchased Northup from his kidnappers] and Radburn entered, led through a small passage, up a flight of steps into a yard, surrounded by a brick wall ten or twelve feet high, immediately in rear of a building of the same width as itself. The yard extended rearward from the house about thirty feet. In one part of the wall there was a strongly ironed door, opening into a narrow, covered passage, leading along one side of the house into the street. The doom of the colored man, upon whom the door leading out of that narrow passage closed, was sealed. The top of the wall supported one end of a roof, which ascended inwards, forming a kind of open shed. Underneath the roof there was a crazy loft all round, where slaves, if so disposed, might sleep at night, or in inclement weather seek shelter from the storm. It was like a farmer’s barnyard in most respects, save it was so constructed that the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there.

The building to which the yard was attached, was two stories high, fronting on one of the public streets of Washington. Its outside presented only the appearance of a quiet private residence. A stranger looking at it, would never have dreamed of its execrable uses. Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol!

Such is a correct description as it was in 1841, of Williams’ slave pen in Washington, in one of the cellars of which I found myself so unaccountably confined.

“Well, my boy, how do you feel now?” said Burch, as he entered through the open door. I replied that I was sick, and inquired the cause of my imprisonment. He answered that I was his slave— that he had bought me, and that he was about to send me to New-Orleans. I asserted, aloud and boldly, that I was a freeman—a resident of Saratoga, where I had a wife and children, who were also free, and that my name was Northup. I complained bitterly of the strange treatment I had received, and threatened, upon my liberation, to have satisfaction for the wrong. He denied that I was free, and with an emphatic oath, declared that I came from Georgia. Again and again I asserted I was no man’s slave, and insisted upon his taking off my chains at once. He endeavored to hush me, as if he feared my voice would be overheard. But I would not be silent, and denounced the authors of my imprisonment, whoever they might be, as unmitigated villains. Finding he could not quiet me, he flew into a towering passion. With blasphemous oaths, he called me a black liar, a runaway from Georgia, and every other profane and vulgar epithet that the most indecent fancy could conceive.

During this time Radburn was standing silently by. His business was, to oversee this human, or rather inhuman stable, receiving slaves, feeding, and whipping them, at the rate of two shillings a head per day. Turning to him, Burch ordered the paddle and cat-o’-ninetails to be brought in. He disappeared, and in a few moments returned with these instruments of torture. The paddle, as it is termed in slave-beating parlance, or at least the one with which I first became acquainted, and of which I now speak, was a piece of hard-wood board, eighteen or twenty inches long, moulded to the shape of an old-fashioned pudding stick, or ordinary oar The flattened portion, which was about the size in circumference of two open hands, was bored with a small auger in numerous places. The cat was a large rope of many strands— the strands unraveled, and a knot tied at the extremity of each.

As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor. Drawing me over the bench, face downwards, Radburn placed his heavy foot upon the fetters, between my wrists, holding them painfully to the floor. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted upon my naked body. When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before. When again tired, he would repeat the same question, and receiving the same answer, continue his cruel labor. All this time, the incarnate devil was uttering most fiendish oaths. At length the paddle broke, leaving the useless handle in his hand. Still I would not yield. All his brutal blows could not force from my lips the foul lie that I was a slave. Casting madly on the floor the handle of the broken paddle, he seized the rope. This was far more painful than the other. I struggled with all my power, but it was in vain. I prayed for mercy, but my prayer was only answered with imprecations and with stripes. I thought I must die beneath the lashes of the accursed brute. Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!

At last I became silent to his repeated questions. I would make no reply. In fact, I was becoming almost unable to speak. Still he plied the lash without stint upon my poor body, until it seemed that the lacerated flesh was stripped from my bones at every stroke. A man with a particle of mercy in his soul would not have beaten even a dog so cruelly. At length Radburn said that it was useless to whip me any more—that I would be sore enough. Thereupon Burch desisted, saying, with an admonitory shake of his fist in my face, and hissing the words through his firm-set teeth, that if ever I dared to utter again that I was entitled to my freedom, that I had been kidnapped, or any thing whatever of the kind, the castigation I had just received was nothing in comparison with what would follow. He swore that he would either conquer or kill me. With these consolatory words, the fetters were taken from my wrists, my feet still remaining fastened to the ring; the shutter of the little barred window, which had been opened, was again closed, and going out, locking the great door behind them, I was left in darkness as before.

For more info on the slave trade in Washington, D.C., check out Mary Beth Corrigan’s article in Washington History and this piece from the National Archives.

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The Atlantic slave trade

Ruining everybody’s fun for five hundred years.

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Filed under History and Memory