Recent weeks have seen the release of several books on slavery and Reconstruction. The culmination of the landmark trilogy written by David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, has already sparked considerable discussion on the fields of slavery studies, transatlantic history, and the intellectual history of Anglo-American abolition. The field of scholarship on slavery has also received another work on the evils of the slave trade through Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. Douglas Egerton’s The Wars of Reconstruction is another important history of the Reconstruction era in American history. While this post is not intended as a review of this book, or of the others I’m going to discuss, I do want to express a few thoughts about what these books mean in terms of both scholarship and public history.
Davis’ book is an excellent ending to his trilogy on slavery and Anglo-American ideology in the 18th and 19th centuries. In short, his series of books (also including The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823) examine both how Western societies came to justify slavery and, eventually, overturn the Peculiar Institution. One of the reasons I’ve decided to write about Davis’ series is that it’s a very important work for U.S. intellectual historians. Conceptualizing the entire Anglo-American intellectual world from the middle of the 18th century until after the American Civil War around the ideas of race and slavery is one of Davis’ most significant contributions from his slavery series. He certainly doesn’t disappoint in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, focusing particular attention on what he calls the “animalization” of slaves, as well as the battle against the Colonization movement by free African Americans in the United States.
While I’ve not had the pleasure of reading Grandin’s latest work, I do think it’s telling that a work such as this would be released right as Davis’ concluding book in his trilogy is also just being released. In a way it shows the impact of historians such as Davis, Eugene Genovese, Laurent Dubois, Winthrop Jordan, Walter Johnson, and so many others on the field of slavery studies in the last thirty years. Reviewing the work of Davis and Grandin side by side, it’s apparent that Grandin’s work is an example of some of the prevalent trends in slavery studies. The Empire of Necessity reflects upon a revolt on a slave ship in 1805 which became the inspiration for the Herman Melville story Benito Cereno.
Thinking back to what Tim Lacy has said elsewhere about our blog, that we can always use more intellectual history from before the late 20th century, it’s important to look to these two books, and the many others they cite from, as examples of how to do intellectual, social, and cultural history before the 20th century. At this point I know I’m largely preaching to the choir when I think about the era of slavery and emancipation in as an intellectual historian. Nonetheless it’s important to take a look at these works, to consider the long view in conceptualizing how we came to our present debates about race in American (and Western) society.
Douglas Egerton’s book, The Wars of Reconstruction, takes a fresh lens at the Reconstruction era. As with the work of slavery studies, the last two decades have seen new works on the Reconstruction period, and the idea of Black political agency during and after this time period (I’m thinking of Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, but also of Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet, Gender and Jim Crow by Glenda Gilmore, and the very recent work by Omar Ali, In The Lion’s Mouth: Black Populism in the New South, 1886-1900 among others). All of these books show that, among both academics and the reading public, there’s still some demand for books on slavery, race, and the foundations of American democracy.
All of this is to bring me to my last point, and that’s the intersection of popular culture and intellectual culture. In this case I’m thinking about films such as 12 Years A Slave and Django Unchained, which both tell stories of slavery (albeit the former based on a true story, and the latter as much a Western as it is about slavery). These new and exciting works about slavery by Davis and Egerton (not to mention so many other works that have come out in recent years from both academic and popular presses) show that there’s much still to be written about slavery in the United States, Great Britain, Brazil, and elsewhere. Thinking about Egerton’s work, however, it appears to me that mainstream culture has relatively little to say about the Reconstruction era. It seems to me there isn’t a 12 Years A Slave equivalent to the Reconstruction period, as far as I can tell. There’s no epic film about, say, the first African American congressmen (a story told by Foner and also in Capitol Men by Philip Dray), or the Exodusters, or the tragic 1898 Wilmington “Race Riot” which was, for all intents and purposes, a coup of a legally elected city government.
What I’m thinking about, in other words, is what the public consumes in theaters and documentaries as history versus what we, as historians, discuss amongst one another. I don’t want to get into the lazy “academics don’t talk to regular people!!!” discussion, although that’s an important one that needs serious contemplation and nuance. Instead, I want to ask the question, what types and eras of history appeal to Americans, and what do they talk about as historical moments? Considering that we’re currently going through the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and don’t forget the 24th amendment as well!) as well as the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War’s pivotal year of 1864, I find it interesting that we’re having public discussions about the institution of slavery that led to the Civil War, as well as the legacy of that conflict a century later, yet very little about that all important era in between. The literature is there, and it’s being read. Perhaps, beyond the rare miniseries such as Roots: The Next Generations or movies such as Rosewood we can, sooner rather than later, begin to catch up to the Reconstruction, Gilded Age, and Progressive Era stories of race, racism, and political debates over both.