historian, author, film producer

Category: slavery (page 2 of 4)

Eric Foner on Lincoln and American Slavery: 16th Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities

On Wednesday evening, October 5th, over 400 patrons of the humanities gathered at the Joslyn Museum of Art in Omaha, Nebraska, for the 16th Annual Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities fundraiser. Eric Foner, author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, gave this year’s lecture. The lecture was fantastic. Foner is one of the leading historians of 19th century America, and his book won the Pulitzer, Bancroft, and Lincoln prizes. His other works (Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War and Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution) stand as some of the most influential and widely-cited books in American history.

The evening was a smash hit for the humanities. As a fundraiser for the Nebraska Humanities Council, the event exceeded its ambitious dollar goals and broke previous fundraising records. President of the University of Nebraska J. B. Milliken warmly welcomed guests and opened the evening’s program. Governor Dave Heineman introduced the speaker.

Eric Foner opened his lecture with a recent inquiry he received from a film producer asking if it were plausible to include a scene with Lincoln–pause for effect–playing the harmonica. Then there is always Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. This set the tone for the evening: humor was allowed, sharp and interesting discussion would be celebrated, and serious questions about our past and the human condition would be undertaken. I had the opportunity to moderate the question and answer period after the lecture.

Several highlights from the lecture stand out to me days later. One was Eric Foner’s insistence on addressing the problem of “American” slavery. He drove home the point that much of the North was deeply complicit in the institution of slavery, that cotton’s wealth permeated, indeed underpinned, the Northern economy, and that New York City, in particular, benefitted so directly from slavery that it could hardly conceive of interfering with the institution. The breadth and reach of slavery is often missed or forgotten. Foner’s point, that slavery cannot be understood as geographically restricted to the South, has broad implications for how the American public today understands the coming of the Civil War.

At a student event earlier in the day, Eric indicated why the war was not caused by tariffs or economic policy (a common perception still) but instead caused by the problem of American slavery. The idea behind the tariff argument suggests that Lincoln was a representative of the bourgeoisie class in a battle with the South’s agrarian class, but this makes little sense. “600,000 Americans, I assure you, did not kill each other over the tariff,” Foner quipped. Both the North and the South were largely agrarian societies and both political parties and regions had bourgeois elements. The idea persists, but Foner directs our gaze to “American” slavery broadly construed, and the causes of the Civil War come into clearer focus.

A second highlight was Foner’s insistence on tracing Lincoln’s views on race and slavery to reliable sources. After Lincoln’s death, Foner points out, a whole host of recollections came forward claiming that Lincoln said this or that–that he was always against slavery, that he was born with a pen in hand to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. The historian needs to evaluate each of these with great care. Direct quotes attributed to Lincoln twenty, thirty, or fifty years after the fact are common. Piecing together Lincoln’s earliest views on slavery requires detailed assessment of the source–who reported it, when, and for what audiences. History depends on evidence and on assessing the evidence rigorously and carefully; we cannot just say what we want about the past. So, the art of history, Foner tells us, is to write from the evidence and, at the same time, to interpret it faithfully and reasonably.

A final question of the evening asked Eric Foner to explain what we can learn from Lincoln’s political development, from his capacity to grow. Here, Foner’s study of Lincoln holds up the importance of understanding as clearly as we can how politics, the human experience, and history broadly are intertwined. Lincoln, he said, had principles and convictions–most prominently against the institution of slavery–but he negotiated these in everyday encounters as he met with people, listened to them carefully, and reconsidered his positions. Intellectually curious and attuned to the subtle changes in public opinion, Lincoln’s capacity to grow came, Foner tells us, from his willingness to take seriously the views of his opponents, to adjust to and shape public opinion, and yet to hold fast to principles. Foner shows us in detail how politics operates in a democratic society, how an especially astute political leader changes over time and in relation to events and people around him or her. It is an inspiring and humbling lesson.

The Nebraska Humanities Council lecture turned into a major celebration this year, affirming just how many people value and support the humanities. And showing how much history and the humanities have to teach us today.

Google Labs Ngram Viewer and the Coming of the Civil War

Google Lab’s Ngram viewer allows anyone to comb through over 5 million books for patterns and word trends in history. When Jean Baptiste Michel, et al., published their findings in “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” they used as an example the trend for the word “slavery” with its peak in the 1850s and again in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement. Last week, Robert K. Nelson in the New York Times Opinionator on “Of Monsters, Men — and Topic Modeling,” used the Richmond Daily Dispatch corpus from the Civil War to suggest the power of words to influence human ideas and events.

According to Nelson, “No historian has yet to display the patience and attention to detail to read through the more than 100,000 articles and nearly 24 million words of the wartime Dispatch, let alone conduct the sophisticated statistical analysis necessary to draw conclusions from the data.” Nelson proposes “an innovative text-mining technique called ‘topic modeling’ allows us to understand in far greater detail the arguments and appeals that were used throughout the war.”

Nelson is right, of course, that the scale of the problem for historians is significant and growing more so it seems with each passing day. Just taking the Richmond Daily Dispatch, my colleagues and I have discovered over 8,300 unique place names in the 4 years of the Civil War newspaper. These places names were mentioned over 292,000 times in that four-year span. Analyzing the geography of the war through even a single newspaper becomes impossible without computational tools. (We will release our geocoded Daily Dispatch next week at the National Endowment for the Humanities Digging into Data conference.)

Now, Google Labs Ngram viewer allows us to crawl through millions of printed books, journals, and materials. A simple search in Google on the following terms turned up some surprising results:

slavery, bank, battle, railroad, cotton, secession, and Nebraska.

“Secession” appeared like a comet, flaming out in the course of the Confederate States of America. “Battle,” surprisingly, became more prevalent but only marginally. “Bank,” the subject of intense controversy in American politics from the 1830s, appears to have been remarkably steady in its frequency. “Nebraska,” a proxy for western expansion into the territories, spiked in the 1850s, unsurprisingly.

“Railroad” as a concept in American culture, society, economy, and politics, however, clearly spiked in period between 1850 and 1865. Despite researching and writing about the relationship between railroads and the coming and fighting of the Civil War, I was surprised (and pleased) at the sharpness, the apparent clarity of this result. Another aspect of NGram Viewer, it should be pointed out, is the anticipation we experience in waiting for the graph, and how the precision of its interface affects researchers. When a scholar has worked in the archives for years and then types in “railroad” or “cotton” into the box, he or she naturally experiences a sort of “uber-search” rush of adrenaline.

It is difficult to be sure exactly what these terms mean in the larger corpus of works in Google Books, but “slavery” and “railroad” and the Civil War were perhaps more deeply interconnected than historians have previously considered.

NGram Views:







At the Library of Virginia: Looking for Mima Queen

After a coffee with Edward L. Ayers this morning (much excitement in Richmond with two teams in the NCAA final 16), I am at the Library of Virginia finishing the citations and edits for The Iron Way: Railroads, The Civil War, and the Making of Modern America.

But I can’t help looking ahead to my next project. I’m calling it “The Petition.” I’ve pulled the correspondence of John Randolph and Francis Scott Key in 1813. Key tried the Mima Queen case before the U. S. Supreme Court that year. There are nine letters in this file from him to Randolph. Will any of them mention the Queen case? Does her petition for freedom come up in their discussions? How can I reconstruct the case and its remarkable history? I’m looking forward to writing this early history of Washington, DC, slavery and freedom.

On a completely different subject, Ed Ayers and I agreed that we need to have a Valley Project team reunion and a session at the #AHA2011 in Chicago on the Valley of the Shadow and its progeny. Looking forward to that already.

French Railroads, The Holocaust, and American Slavery Reparations

In 2010 France’s state-run railroad, SNCF (Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais), apologized for its role in the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews during World War II. Expressing “sorrow and regret,” the company’s apology came only after it emerged as a leading bidder in a $2.6 billion high speed rail project in Florida. Jewish citizens in Florida, no doubt, might see the company’s apology as nothing more than self-serving, and too little too late. SNCF America is also a potential bidder in a similarly large project in California. At first, the company issued its apology only on its English-language web site.

Then, last week (late January 2011), SNCF announced that it would create a Holocaust memorial outside Paris at its long-abandoned Bobigny depot, from which over 76,000 Jews were transported to the concentration camps. The company has long maintained that it merely cooperated with the Nazis, that it did so under duress, and that many of its trainmen found in the French Resistance and were themselves deported and killed for their actions. The case brings up complicated histories of occupation, resistance, war, and the “banality of evil.” It raises questions about how one can assess the crime of deportation and the responsibility of a corporation for such violence.

Nevertheless, as Sarah Wildman’s Politics Daily report on “The Railroad to Hell” makes clear, numerous scholars have found reason to challenge the company’s view of its role in the Holocaust. Both Harriet Tamen, an American lawyer representing 600 survivors who filed suit against the company in 2006, and Jean-Marc Dreyfus, a historian at the University of Manchester, have compiled detailed evidence that the company’s officials were complicit in the deportation. Tamen has led the effort to claim reparations for the survivors.

The question that the French and SNCF are wrestling with is now focused, at least in part, on whether reparations should be paid to the survivors, and this is one that American historians of slavery should pay attention to. Ironically, Florida’s railroads were nearly all initially constructed with slave labor before 1865 when the Civil War ended slavery. Indeed, the major railroad companies in the U.S. today, including C.S.X., Norfolk Southern, and B.N.S.F., among many others, are the successors to the slave-built railroads of the Old South. Over 10,000 miles of southern railroad track was built with slave labor. Politics certainly has shaped the French case–as Florida’s representative Ron Klein sought to require potential high-speed rail contractors to disclose any participation in deportation (see New York Times, January 25, 2011). But in the U.S. the same questions could be raised about descendant companies which bought and sold slave labor to such a degree that they were some of the most heavily committed to the institution. In fact, they were the most exploitative in many ways as well.

Finding the Blue Ridge Tunnel Ruins

I asked Jean Bauer at the University of Virginia to search out the ruins of the Blue Ridge Tunnel near Crozet, Virginia, and to photograph the tunnel if she could locate it. I plan to include one image in my forthcoming book and hope to include more images in the Railroads site. At the time of its construction in 1850-54 the tunnel was the longest in the U.S. at 4,273 feet, and one of the longest in the world (see below for questions about the length). It was built with slave and Irish labor, a story not well known.

She has posted her adventure and some of the photographs on her blog — see “A Walk in the Woods” and her photographs of the Blue Ridge Tunnel.

The Wikipedia lat/long is incorrect. And Jean’s great images will give us some other views than the spooky image from the Library of Congress’s Historic American Engineering collection–where is that fog coming from!

Many of the records concerning this construction can be found at: Railroads and the Making of Modern America in the collection of Claudius Crozet’s correspondence and the payrolls of the Blue Ridge Railroad.