Next year the Tennessee State Museum is mounting an exhibit on slavery at the Wessyngton plantation, which at one point was the largest farm in the entire state and the biggest tobacco-producing plantation in the country. Archaeologists from UT have been studying the plantation’s slave cemetery, site of some 200 burials, as part of the preparation for the exhibit. USA Today has the details. Looks like it’ll be an interesting display.
Tag Archives: slavery
I saw 12 Years a Slave the other day, and it’s a darn good movie—certainly the most visceral onscreen depiction of the peculiar institution I’ve ever seen, rivaling the harrowing slave ship scenes from Amistad.
One reason the film is so powerful is because Solomon Northup makes for an especially relatable protagonist. Anyone who’s thought about the history of American slavery has probably sympathized with the people who were victims of it, but sympathy for someone is not the same as identification with them. Identification requires you to be able to see yourself in a character, and living your whole life as someone else’s property is so foreign to the experience of most modern Americans that it’s difficult to put yourself in that place.
Northup wasn’t born into slavery; he had his freedom, a home, and a family before losing it all when he was abducted. You can see yourself in him. And in the movie, he’s thrown into this brutal new reality at the same time you are. You’re on his journey alongside him, and that lends the experience a special kind of impact.
Of course, if Northup’s exceptionalness makes him a useful surrogate in approaching the subject of slavery, it also means that we have to remind ourselves of how atypical his story is. Most slaves were born into bondage, lived their entire lives in that condition, and died without publishing their stories. Peter Malamud Smith explains the dilemma:
It’s just so hard for us to identify with “the regular slaves,” in whatever form they may take. 12 Years a Slave is constructed as a story of a man trying to return to his family, offering every viewer a way into empathizing with its protagonist. Maybe we need a story framed on that individual scale in order to understand it. But it has a distorting effect all the same. We’re more invested in one hero than in millions of victims; if we’re forced to imagine ourselves enslaved, we want to imagine ourselves as Northup, a special person who miraculously escaped the system that attempted to crush him.
In other words, this individual’s story can’t take the place of millions of other slaves’ untold stories. But it more than compensates by reminding us, as few other slave narratives can, that behind each of those untold stories was an individual.
- I can’t believe I forgot to mention this until now, but it’s time for John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, TN. The action starts tomorrow and continues through Sunday—reenacting, demonstrations, food, and presentations on the Lost State of Franklin and King’s Mountain. It’ll be a blast, so stop by if you get the chance.
- While we’re talking about Marble Springs, let me also recommend a great way to support the site and get some nifty benefits for yourself. Join the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association and you’ll get free admission when you visit, discounts on gift shop items, access to special events, and more. Memberships start at just $25.
- Late September-early October is King’s Mountain season. If you can’t make it to Knoxville for the Marble Springs event, there’s another option for those of you in southwestern Virginia. On Sunday, Abingdon Muster Grounds is hosting Sharyn McCrumb, who will read from her new novel about the battle. They’ll also have living history demonstrations and the unveiling of a new painting of William Campbell, whose unit marched from Abingdon to Sycamore Shoals to meet the other Overmountain Men.
- Some Connecticut parents are quite understandably upset over a school function where students got a taste of slavery…including the racial slurs. What. Were. They. Thinking?
- Here’s a Rev War infographic from 1871.
- Some folks are working to preserve the area around Kettle Creek battlefield in Georgia.
- A supplementary AP history text is drawing criticism for the way it refers to the Second Amendment.
- Next time you’re driving through Shepherdsville, KY keep an eye out for the new John Hunt Morgan mural on an underpass along Old Preston Highway.
There’s a plan in the works to build a National Slave Ship Museum in New Orleans, and it’s getting some support from the city council.
Speaking of slavery museums, the folks behind the National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, VA are trying to figure out how to keep their site from being sold to make way for a stadium. The facility still hasn’t been built, and they’re so deep in the red they might have to file for bankruptcy again.
I wonder if the Fredericksburg fiasco will make it harder to find donors for the slave ship project. I hope not. There’s been a trend toward more experiential exhibits in some of the big history museums lately, and I think the Atlantic slave trade is a subject where that could really be effective.
We’re in the home stretch of posts about my trip to the Northeast, with two more cities to go. It’s taken me as long to write all this stuff up as it did to see it.
I must’ve picked up a nasty cold somewhere in New York, because by the time we got to Philadelphia the symptoms were on me in full force. We hit the trail anyway. I’m a first-rate wuss, but it takes more than a runny nose and a sore throat to keep me from historical sightseeing.
Something like the sequester, for example.
To explain how the folks in Washington put a real damper on this leg of the trip, I need to back up and give you a brief history of my previous visits to the City of Brotherly Love. I was still in high school the first time I went there, accompanying my mom on a research trip. We were only in town for one day, so there wasn’t much time for sightseeing. I got to pick one destination to visit, and it came down to either Independence Hall or the Academy of Natural Sciences.
You’d think this would be a no-brainer for a Rev War buff, but at that time my history buffdom was still in its embryonic stage. Like our tiny mammalian ancestors, it scurried around in the underbrush, unable to compete for resources with the ginormous reptiles who took up all the good habitat space. In this case, the ginormous reptile was a hadrosaur, the first major dinosaur find ever made in the U.S. and one of the star attractions of the Academy of Natural Science’s collections. So I picked the ANS and vowed that if I ever made it back to Philly I’d see Independence National Historical Park.
Many years later, I had to fly up to Philadelphia on a trip for the Lincoln museum. With a couple of hours to myself, I managed to hit Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the buildings where Congress and the Supreme Court sat. I’d really wanted to see the house where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the New Hall Military Museum, and the gallery of Charles Wilson Peale’s portraits, but there just wasn’t enough time. Once again I left Philadelphia with unfinished business, promising myself that someday I’d be back to fill in the blanks.
So here I was again in 2013, ready to take another crack at seeing everything INHP had to offer. You can imagine my reaction when when we found the Declaration House, the military museum, and the Peale gallery closed. If you’re familiar with that scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation where the Griswolds finally make it to Walley World, and they run giddily up to the entrance only to encounter a statue of Marty Moose with a recorded message announcing that the park is shut down for renovation, well…
…it was sort of like that.
Missing the Peale gallery was just plain bad luck; it’s only open on certain days of the week, and we happened to be there on one of the other ones. But I couldn’t figure out why the Declaration House and the military museum were off limits. The park’s website gave no information. I wondered if the sequester might have had something to do with it, and apparently that was the case.
On the off chance you ever read this, members of Congress and President Obama—thanks for nothing.
Still, an incomplete visit to INHP is better than a full visit to most places. It’s an awesome park. We did manage to see the reconstructed Declaration House from the outside. The original was demolished in 1883.
And Independence Hall makes any trip to INHP well worth it, even if some of the other buildings are closed.
People have been paying their respects here for a long time.
The line to see the Liberty Bell was much longer than on my last visit, wrapping all the way around the outside of the building. I wondered if this was due to the fact that so many of the other buildings were closed. There’s a great exhibit in the building that houses the bell, covering everything from its manufacture to its evolution as a symbol of freedom and protest down to the present day. It’s a fascinating look at the development of historical memory.
I didn’t get to visit Carpenters Hall on my last trip, so I was glad to see it this time. The interior is much smaller than I’d expected.
We also walked through Christ Church Burial Ground. Five signers of the Declaration of Independence are at rest here, including Benjamin Franklin.
One other feature at INHP was new to me, because when I first visited the park it hadn’t been built yet. It’s an outdoor exhibition called “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” which opened in 2010 on the site of the house occupied by the President of the United States from 1790 to 1800. A sort of semi-reconstruction of the home’s facade marks the spot.
It’s an interesting case study in the intersection of memory, politics, and public history, and for that reason it’s worth examining in some detail.
Excavations at the site, which revealed remnants of the presidential residence’s work areas, generated public calls for recognition of the slaves who lived and worked there. As of the time of my visit, the exhibit tells both the story of George Washington’s slaves and the story of the presidency’s beginnings…sort of.
There are some panels with information about important events in the history of the presidency (the Jay Treaty, the Alien and Sedition Acts, etc.), but it seemed to me that slavery was the main story here. Video screens run short films on Washington’s servants, and toward the rear of the structure you can look through a transparent floor at some of the house’s original foundations.
Washington’s time in Philadelphia definitely exposed the uglier side of his career as a planter. By a 1780 state law, non-residents could only keep their slaves in Pennsylvania for up to six months; after that, slaves of nonresidents living in the state were free. The law provided an exemption for members of Congress, but not for the president or federal judges. Washington managed to get around the prohibition by moving slaves in and out of Pennsylvania so that none of them were in the state for more than six months at a stretch, even though a 1788 amendment to the original law closed this loophole by prohibiting that very practice.
Washington never came under legal scrutiny for these shenanigans, but his slaves still proved harder to hold onto in the capital city than he anticipated. As he prepared to leave Philadelphia and return to Virginia, a young woman named Oney Judge (one of Martha Washington’s dower slaves) fled the household. Knowing that escape would be extremely difficult back in the Old Dominion, she used her connections among Philadelphia’s black community to make a bid for freedom and made it to New Hampshire, where she married a sailor and had three children. Washington’s efforts to recover her ended in failure, and she died a free woman—in practice if not by law—in 1848.
It’s one heck of a story, and I’m glad the exhibit is telling it. At the same time, I couldn’t shake the impression that we were juggling two different topics, and not entirely successfully. The origins of the presidency and the role of slavery in the Washington household are both immensely important and very complicated subjects, requiring as much space and ingenuity as possible. The President’s House exhibit conveys the slaves’ story much more effectively than the story of the executive branch’s early development. This is a problem, because there aren’t many historical topics more consequential than the presidencies of Washington and Adams. Every decision, every measure, every bit of protocol established precedents that would shape American government for more than two centuries, and in some cases determined whether the U.S. would maintain its precarious existence or be caught up in the torrent of European war.
I would’ve preferred the exhibit take its time and tell either one of these stories fully, either the bottom-up story of Washington’s slaves or the top-down story of the first two men to take the oath of office. To me, the limited space devoted to the top-down story only called attention to the fact that the coverage was so basic and limited, like an afterthought tacked on because there happened to be room for a few more exhibit panels. It was as if the interpreters were trying to cram in enough to please everybody, with the result that nothing got covered as thoroughly as it should have.
I realize that I’ve devoted more verbiage to my critique of the President’s House exhibit than any other aspect of INHP. I hope this doesn’t give you the impression that my overall assessment of the park is negative. Far from it; the only reason I haven’t discussed the park as a whole in the same detail is because the President’s House exhibit was new to me, and it raises all sorts of interesting questions about how we interpret historic sites. I consider the park as whole to be one of the crown jewels of the entire national park system. I’ve had two guided tours of Independence Hall and the buildings alongside it over the years, and both were among the best historic building tours I’ve ever taken. The rangers here are extraordinarily knowledgeable and engaging, the buildings are beautifully restored and maintained, and in terms of historical significance it might just outrank every other historic site in the country. If you’re making a list of historic places to see in the U.S., this one should be at the very top.
I’ve taken as one of my creeds novelist L.P. Hartley’s oft-quoted statement: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” As I’ve said before, I love it when historical films manage to convey this “otherness” of the past. The tricky part is that audiences are supposed to identify with a movie’s protagonists, and it seems like underscoring the differences between historical characters and moderns would only make that more difficult. So how do you depict the “otherness” of a historical film’s protagonists without undermining an audience’s sympathy for them, especially when that otherness consists of attitudes and practices that are morally repugnant here in the twenty-first century?
The easiest approach is to cheat and eliminate the otherness altogether. If your hero is a prominent landowner in eighteenth-century South Carolina, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that men of his stature, place, and time tended to be slaveholders. The makers of The Patriot sliced through this Gordian knot by making Benjamin Martin a remarkably forward-thinking guy.
It’s a simple solution, but it also leaves a lot to be desired. Whereas the movie shows the British dragoons tearing free blacks away from their homes, the reality was in many cases the reverse, with many slaves escaping their Patriot masters to make a bid for freedom behind British lines. Ironically, Benjamin Martin’s fictional military exploits are similar to those of a real South Carolina officer named Thomas Sumter, who paid his recruits with slaves confiscated from Tories.
The makers of 300, by contrast, didn’t try to gloss over the unsavory aspects of their historical protagonists. The Spartans leave weak infants to die of exposure, they savagely discipline their own children to turn them into hardened soldiers, they cherish the idea of death on the battlefield, and they slaughter their wounded enemies and desecrate their bodies. And the audience is expected to accept the characters for what they are—even to celebrate them for it.
The movie not only gives us the Spartans in all their ruthlessness, but makes us empathize with them. You probably wouldn’t want to live among them, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be a wounded Persian falling into their hands, but it’s fun to root for them for a couple of hours. This solution seems more historically honest than the approach taken in The Patriot, and it works pretty well when you’re telling a story in which there are obvious good guys and bad guys.
Of course, 300 tells the story entirely from the Spartans’ perspective. Can filmmakers tell the story of some historic event holistically—that is, from a variety of perspectives—while conveying the past’s “otherness” and still make audiences empathize with all the characters involved? Can they do on film what David Hackett Fischer did in his book Paul Revere’s Ride, approaching “both Paul Revere and Thomas Gage with sympathy and genuine respect” even though the main characters act in opposition to each other? I think one movie that handles this really well is John Lee Hancock’s 2004 film The Alamo.
As this scene demonstrates, the movie presents the Alamo’s defenders as heroic. Indeed, for some critics, they come across as too heroic. A number of reviewers accused the filmmakers of whitewashing the story. What struck me about the movie when I saw it, however, was its remarkable frankness about the protagonists’ shortcomings. Early scenes establish that David Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis have all experienced some sort of disappointment or disgrace, and Texas represents a second chance for them. A short but sympathetic side plot involves a very young solider marching in Santa Anna’s army. Most notable, though, is how upfront the film is about the relationship between its heroes and their slaves—fittingly so, since the peculiar institution was one of the points of debate between the Texians and the Mexican government.
In one scene, Travis assigns two slaves named Sam and Joe the task of digging a well within the fort’s walls. “Ain’t bad enough we got to fetch ’em the water,” Sam complains, “now we got to find it for ’em too.” Later, Sam tells Joe that when the Mexicans storm the mission, he should worry about saving his own life and let his master to fend for himself. (Travis did indeed own a young slave named Joe, who was wounded when the Alamo fell and escaped to freedom one year after San Jacinto.) These scenes establish that the enslaved members of the garrison have their own interests at stake, interests at odds with those of the protagonists with whom we’re supposed to identify. Contrast this with earlier depictions of black characters in Alamo movies, which tend to employ the familiar “faithful slave” narrative.
At the same time, though, the film’s revisionism doesn’t extend to demonizing the Alamo’s white defenders. We sympathize with Sam and Joe’s predicament even as we admire the courageous last stand of the men holding them captive. As prejudiced slaveholders of another time, Bowie and Travis seem foreign to us, but we also become invested in their confrontation with their own impending death.
As I said, the movie’s approach didn’t go over well with everybody. The essay linked above, for example, notes that “the realistic portrayals of Joe and Sam may be to the credit of the filmmakers, but ultimately the film does little to question the ideological values inscribed onto the Alamo battle, which have gone largely unchallenged for the last 175 years, even if it does alter aspects of the story prevalent in its cinematic representations.” In other words, the 2004 version is more frank about its main characters’ slaveholding, but it somehow manages to leave their bravery and heroism intact. The movie leaves these contradictions unresolved. It’s messy, complicated, and ambiguous, as history often turns out to be. It didn’t work for many critics and historians, but from a purely historical standpoint, I was impressed. Your mileage may vary.
Anyway, The Patriot and 300 grossed $113 million and $456 million respectively, but The Alamo flopped. Maybe audiences prefer their historical heroes to be as straightforward as possible.
Although not as popular as some of his other works, Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Peoria, IL—delivered over the course of some three hours on October 16, 1854—is one of his more important public addresses. The speech combines history, reason, and moral appeal in an attack on the extension of slavery. Lincoln was no abolitionist—he did not call for the immediate eradication of slavery in states where it had always existed—but he considered its extension north of the Missouri Compromise line to be both a moral and a political wrong. The compromise had held for more than thirty years before Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned it in 1854 by permitting slavery in northern territories whose populations voted to permit the institution.
The Peoria speech contains one of my favorite passages from the entire Lincoln corpus:
Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.
It’s a surprisingly charitable statement for a speech devoted to a divisive political issue, especially since Lincoln believed the stakes in the debate over slavery in the territories to be incredibly high.
In fact, in the same speech he denounced slavery as a “monstrous injustice” and its spread as an existential threat to American principles which “forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising [sic] the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.” Since Lincoln saw the slave question in such stark and consequential terms, the natural thing to do would have been to demonize those who upheld the institution and its extension. He not only refrained from doing so, but asserted that only historical circumstances accounted for the difference of opinion.
Perhaps one of the reasons for his refusal to castigate the South over the slave issue was the fact that he believed it such a difficult problem to solve. Lincoln freely admitted that he couldn’t prescribe a remedy for slavery. He told the Peoria audience that his “first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land.” He dismissed the prospect of granting them social and political equality, stating that his “own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.” Lincoln did believe “that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the south.”
To modern ears, Lincoln’s desire to see the freedmen sent out of the country and his unwillingness make them his equals make him seem woefully backward. But his conviction that the slave question had no easy answers was one of the reasons he was reluctant to condemn those who disagreed with him about it. Faced with the most divisive, emotive political issue of his time, Lincoln did not assume that individuals on the other side of it were his moral inferiors. Even as he demonized the institution of slavery, he humanized those who disagreed with him about it. This willingness to distinguish between issues and their proponents would serve him well when he presided over a nation at war, a war that gave him the opportunity to enact the sweeping solution to the slavery problem from which he shrank in 1854.
For anyone trying to evaluate Lincoln as a moral role model, the Peoria speech shows him at both his worst and best. His remarks about political and social equality between whites and blacks revealed him to be a man of his time with all the attendant prejudices. On the other hand, the empathy he expressed toward the South seems remarkably enlightened by any standard of political rhetoric. Most modern Americans have long since outpaced Lincoln in terms of our beliefs about race, but in terms of knowing how to handle emotive political issues it seems we haven’t caught up with him yet. He knew that you could attack people’s opinions without attacking the people themselves. That’s a lesson we could learn today, when political differences remain as heated as they were in Lincoln’s day.