This Thing Called History

I apologize for the lack of substantive posts of late. The school year is now in full swing and I have very little time to think about anything other than my classes. I did find time to read a bit in Erskine Clarke’s new book, By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey. Thanks to Basic Books for sending along a review copy. It’s a fascinating story, but rather than try to explain it, I recommend reading the website’s description. Clarke has a really nice description that beautifully sums up what it is that we do as historians and what many of us try to impress upon our students.

To be sure, any persuasive reconstruction of the past must demonstrate careful research and faithful attention to details.  But the historian’s task is not primarily to present a catalog of discovered “facts.” Rather, the historian attempts to enter as deeply as possible into the lives and into the social and cultural contexts of those lives in order to interpret and re-create for the present a past world. The study of history is, finally, an exploration of mysteries, the continuing exploration of–and arguments about–the lives of particular people, and about the dynamics and forces that influence the course of human life. The writing of history is plunging into other times and other places and into the story and stories of other people and then emerging with the historian’s account of what has been seen and heard even in the empty places and silences of the past.

I may have my students think about this description as they begin to synthesize a selection of primary and secondary sources related to the establishment and development of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

24 comments… add one
  • Al Mackey Oct 5, 2013 @ 7:04

    And Vermont entered the Union with a constitution that barred slavery.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 5, 2013 @ 7:05


  • Jefferson Moon Oct 5, 2013 @ 3:53

    Not all the “north” had slavery,Ohio never had slavery,I also believe one of the New England states formed without slavery as well.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 5, 2013 @ 3:55

      Ohio was part of the Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery from the beginning. Of course, many of these mid-western states did pass laws at different times barring African Americans from living within their borders. Maine entered the Union as a free state as part of the Missouri Compromise.

  • Patrick Young Oct 4, 2013 @ 12:32

    The other problem with Sara Lee’s and Miranda’s analysis is that of the 4 million blacks living in the United States in 1860, only 225,000, roughly 6%, lived in the North. Of the African Americans living in the North, 99% were free. Of African Americans in the South and Border States, three-out-of-four were slaves.

    There is a real case to be made of northern capitalists profiting from slavery, but they were making their money through the import-export trade, by lending money to planters and by using cotton and tobacco as raw materials, not by owning slaved in New Jersey or Illinois.

  • Sara Lee Oct 4, 2013 @ 12:29

    Sara Lee,

    Before I approve your comment, perhaps you can explain why you and Miranda utilize the very same IP Address.


    • Rob Baker Oct 4, 2013 @ 18:08

      Perhaps said person, who also posts on several white supremacist websites, could also explain why it uses the same IP addresses as Caldwell, Austin, Reed, Jennifer Cotton, and Clarissa.

      Glad you got to meet this sad individual Kevin.

  • Sara Lee Oct 4, 2013 @ 11:11

    Actually, I would say that a grossly superficial understanding of U.S. history is not evidence against obvious cultural bigotry. And “excluding the border states”?. When you say “border states”, you mean the Union slave states, right? And why, exactly, are you are “excluding” them? Were they not member states in the Union? And what happens when you “include” the Union slave states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri? Does the U.S. slave population then increase to the point where it exceeds the population of “many high schools” today?

    • Patrick Young Oct 4, 2013 @ 12:14

      Sara Lee, Miranda said “people are surprised and shocked to learn that existed slavery in the North.” Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri were not thought of as the North, but rather as the Border States, or to people like Jefferson Davis, Southern States. Evidence of this is contained in Lee’s proclamation when he entered Maryland in 1862. Here are the first two paragraphs:

      To the People of Maryland:
      Headquarters, Army N. Virginia
      Fredericktown, 8th September, 1862

      It is right that you should know the purpose that brought the Army under my command within the limits of your State, so far as that purpose concerns yourselves.

      The People of the Confederate States have long watched with the deepest sympathy the wrongs and outrages that have been inflicted upon the citizens of a Commonwealth, allied to the States of the South by the strongest social, political and commercial ties.

  • George Combs Oct 4, 2013 @ 10:35

    And may I respectfully decry the continued conflation of “Slavery” and “Abolition”? Saying that the war was caused by slavery is not the same thing as saying “Lincoln went to war to free the slaves.” As Mr. Hall points out in the foregoing, chattel bondage was an integral part of southern life; not so much so north of the Mason-Dixon. Wyatt-Brown is a great resource on southern society. I very much enjoyed my visit to the Lowell NPS site. The rangers were rather forthcoming about the role of northern mills and southern slavery. Very refreshing.

  • Andy Hall Oct 4, 2013 @ 6:58

    “. . . yet you constantly hear that people are surprised and shocked to learn that existed slavery in the North.”

    I don’t “constantly hear” that, but maybe we run in different circles. I’m sure there are people who are surprised to learn that slavery existed in the North, but then there are people who are surprised to learn that FDR used a wheelchair, or that George Washington probably didn’t cut down that cherry tree back in the day. A grossly superficial understanding of U.S. history is not necessarily a sign of “cultural bigotry.”

    At the same time, though, a simple statement that slavery existed in the north is a crude sort of false equivalence when it comes to the United States on the eve of the Civil War. Slaveholding was not exclusively a Southern practice, but it had become overwhelmingly so through the first half of the 19th century, as Northern states gradually banned the practice and enacted laws for the emancipation of slaves within their borders. You mention that there were slaves in New Jersey in 1860, and there were — eighteen. The total number of slaves recorded in the 1860 census, excluding what would become the Confederacy and the border states of Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland, was vanishingly small, a little over 1,800 — smaller than many high schools today. By 1860, chattel bondage was a distinctly and overwhelmingly Southern phenomenon, and indeed was how the seceding states defined their common interest and bond.

  • Craig L. Oct 4, 2013 @ 6:13

    How many people are aware that the Christian hymn, Amazing Grace, was originally penned by an 18th century British slave trader and was only gradually transmuted into a prototype for the gospel spiritual, and eventually an anthem for the Civil Rights movement?

    • London John Oct 5, 2013 @ 2:14

      Well, everyone who’s read Rough Crossings by Simon Schama, for a start. Actually by the time he wrote AG Newton had “seen the light” and become an abolitionist (and Church of England clergyman).

      • Craig L. Oct 5, 2013 @ 3:37

        If you wiki search the oxymoron ‘abolitionist Anglicanism’ John Newton’s name turns up at the top of the list. I guess that’s why his grace really is amazing.

  • Miranda Oct 4, 2013 @ 4:51

    I am pretty sure that the Lincoln administration explicitly and repeatedly said that the war was being waged to prevent the Confederate States from achieving political independence, and had nothing to do with slavery. And remember when Lincoln explained to Horace Greeley that if he could save the Union without freeing any slaves he would do it? Plus, slavery was legal in the Union. How can you fight a war to free slaves when you yourself keep slaves? Also, the entire North did not abolish slavery at the same time; in fact, as of 1860, there were still slaves in New Jersey. And I don’t think slavery expanded all that much after 1860. I would still say cultural bigotry is the reason why people are so often unaware that slavery was practiced in both the North and the South.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 4, 2013 @ 4:54

      It’s rarely a good idea to take a single (vague) reference and use it to make a much larger point about slavery during the Civil War Era. This is a discussion for another time and place. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  • Miranda Oct 3, 2013 @ 19:07

    It’s interesting, because no one is ever surprised or shocked that slavery existed in the South, yet you constantly hear that people are surprised and shocked to learn that existed slavery in the North. I wonder why that is. Cultural bigotry perhaps?

    • Kevin Levin Oct 4, 2013 @ 1:14

      No, it’s not cultural bigotry. It is, in part, the fact that slavery expanded significantly in the South after it was abolished in the North. And, of course, slavery was largely responsible for the Civil War.

      • Patrick Young Oct 4, 2013 @ 4:35

        I think that if slavery had ended peacefully in the South in the early years of the republic it would be much less remarked on today than it is. Since that might have sped up the civil rights revolution by half a century, a 1960 version of Barack Obama might have been our first black president and we might still be wondering “if America is ready for a Catholic president.”

    • Al Mackey Oct 4, 2013 @ 11:12

      I would say it’s a sign of poor history education among many secondary schools. Teachers are overwhelmed. Often they can’t fit everything into 180 school days and things get dropped out.

  • Miranda Oct 3, 2013 @ 14:31

    As slavery and the international slave-trade was central to the economic development and material prosperity of Massachusetts Bay, what emphasis will you place on primary and secondary sources which detail and describe that institution and that trade? Will your students be encouraged to thoroughly explore and fully understand the vital impact that slavery and the slave-trade had on the development of Massachusetts Bay?

    • Kevin Levin Oct 3, 2013 @ 15:49

      Absolutely, but we spend even more time exploring the connection between the Lowell Mills and the Deep South during the antebellum period. Students are always surprised by the extent to which slavery thrived in the North through much of the 18th century and the degree to which the mills depended on cotton.

      • Patrick Young Oct 3, 2013 @ 17:33

        The exhibit on Slavery in NYC at the New-York Historical Society a decade ago was a shock to a lot of my neighbors.

        In discussions of the Draft Riots, few New Yorkers realize that it was an explosion of the poor stoked by wealthy men with deep financial interests in slavery’s survival.

        • Kevin Levin Oct 3, 2013 @ 18:18

          That was an incredible exhibit.

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