Early Republic

Representing and Resisting Violence: African Americans, North African "Pirates," & Violence in the Early Republic, SHEAR 2014

SHEARWelcome to part 1 of my recap of the 2014 Society for Historians of the Early American Republic conference. The conference took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania between July 17 and July 20.


“Representing and Resisting Violence: African Americans, North African “Pirates,” and Violence in the Early Republic”

Chair: James Brewer Stewart (Macalaster College)


Kathleen Kennedy (Missouri State University), “Trauma and Narratives of Slavery”

Kelly A. Ryan (Indiana University Southeast), “Seeking Justice: African American Resistance to Violence in the Northeast, 1780-1830”

Jason Zeledon (University of California-Santa Barbara), “American Manhood and the Barbary Pirates: Gender, Sodomy, and Women’s Rights during the Algerian Captivity Crisis”

Comment: Nikki Taylor (Texas Southern University, Houston)


Panel Summary

"Trauma and Narratives of Slavery"

Kathleen Kennedy explored how historians can use the narratives of slave men to explore the psychological trauma of slavery.

Kennedy began her paper with the story of Henry Bibb, a former slave who discussed being the father of slaves. Bibb fathered a daughter and swears that it will be the only child he ever fathers into slavery.

For Bibb the word “father” was “obnoxious.” Early American men defined their masculinity by their ability to provide for and protect their wives and children. Slave husbands and fathers could not protect their families because they had no rights over them; they had to watch while overseers and masters abused their wives and children.

Family of Slaves in Georgia 1850Kennedy contends that historians can use statements of grief by slave fathers to better understand slave grief and the violence of slavery. However, Kennedy warns that African-American writers did not always bear all in their narratives.

Former slaves like Henry “Box” Brown understood that their readers had expectations for what a slave narrative should read like. Readers expected to read about some of the blood and torture of slavery, but they did not want to read about the mental traumas that slavery inflicted. Therefore, writers like Brown could not represent the pain that they suffered as fathers—the pain of having to watch their wives and children beaten, raped, or sold.

Historians must also read slave narratives with an eye to what they do not say. Grief is the act of remembering while trauma is the act of forgetting. Trauma represents an inability to articulate true feelings, which is an endemic problem in all slave narratives.

Gender also played a role in how slaves experienced slavery and its traumas. Kennedy illustrated this point by examining the narratives of Harriet Jacobs and her brother James. Harriet discussed how she was not allowed to attend the funeral of her father Elijah. She remembered him as a man who taught her dignity. On the other hand, James describes Elijah as a man, but not a man. Elijah Jacobs had no authority. James Jacobs’ narrative also shows how enslaved men struggled with their conceptions of manhood.

Kennedy opted to skip over how enslaved people thought of their white fathers in order to use her last few minutes to discuss how enslaved men saw their role as fathers. Kennedy has found that slave men often talked about their decision not to become fathers or how they lived as fathers without authority; fatherhood brought slave men great joy, but this joy was tempered with great anxiety.

Former slave writers spoke about their children because they wanted their audience to know that they loved them. Today, the notion of parental love seems obvious, but in the 1840s and 1850s, these former slaves needed to make that point clear: To love is to be human.

Kennedy concluded her paper with a problem: Historians need to figure out whether slave men were really men. She suggested that we need to look for something other then progressive narratives because the trauma of slavery continued into the former slaves’ freedom. Freedom was not a happy ending, there was no happy ending to slavery. She suggests accounting as a way that historians might be able to better account for the trauma and grief.


"Seeking Justice: African American Resistance to Violence in the Northeast, 1780-1830"

LadyJusticeImageKelly A. Ryan: African Americans used the judiciary to advocate for their safety and security and to lay claim to, promote, and defend their rights as citizens.

Ryan contends that her investigation reveals another aspect of the burgeoning civil rights movement that emerged after the Civil War.

Ryan acknowledged the difficulties of investigating African American use of the judicial system. Many crimes went unreported and it can be hard for historians to identify race in legal records. With that said, Ryan has found many cases where African Americans brought suit against white defendants or cases where white plaintiffs brought suits against other whites for the injustices they perpetrated against African Americans.

African Americans wanted to bear witness in court. The act of testifying gave blacks a sense of their citizenship rights and as such they wanted to appear as respectable witnesses, especially against whites. Ryan reminded the audience that African-American witnesses faced ramifications for their testimony. White defendants or their friends might retaliate against black witnesses and their families.

Ryan found that whites played an important role in African-American court cases, especially in lawsuits brought to the court by African-American defendants. In many cases, the indictment records kept only white testimony. In some places blacks could not bring suits in their own names, so whites had to bring them to court on their behalf. This made it important for African Americans to identify white allies; African Americans were fully aware of the world they lived in and the reality of its discriminations.


"American Manhood and the Barbary Pirates: Gender, Sodomy, and Women's Rights during the Algerian Captivity Crisis"

Barbary PirateJason Zeledon contends that the legacy of the Barbary Conflict extends well beyond the various military skirmishes. The conflict shaped the way Americans saw themselves and North Africa.

Zeledon’s paper focused on 2 key ways that the Barbary Conflicts shaped American identity:

First, the conflict shaped and hindered the women’s rights movement in the United States.

Second, literature about the Barbary states shaped the United States’ diplomatic response to the conflict.

American literature about the Barbary states and captivity narratives portrayed Algerian men as sexually adventurous, men who preferred having sex with other men. This meant that American sailors not only faced hard, manual labor, but sexual abuse and exploitation if captured by the pirates.

The American view of Algerian men as “sexually adventurous” also led Americans to believe that the pirates could be defeated easily because Algerian men were lazy and inferior to American men.

American literature about the Barbary Conflict also hindered the American women’s rights movement.

American narratives about Algerians described Algerian men as cruel and abusive toward Algerian women. Algerian men never allowed their women to eat with them because they felt them inferior. They also believed that women lacked souls.

When American men read these narratives they praised their treatment of their American wives and daughters. Therefore, American men saw no need to help women promote their rights; compared to Algerian women, American women had a lot of rights and freedom.


Panel Comment

Nikki Taylor offered the official comment for the papers. She stated that the 3 papers raised many points that historians need to consider.

Kathleen Kennedy’s work shows us that we often try to define black manhood in terms of white manhood. White manhood does not adequately define or explain black manhood during the period of slavery. Taylor would like to see historians expand their definitions of manhood so we can more accurately describe the masculinity of African American slave men .

Kelly A. Ryan’s work illuminates the new study of African-American criminality. Taylor would like Ryan and other historians who work in this new field to answer several questions: 1. What triggered anti-black collisions where whites attacked blacks? 2. To what extent did African Americans experience success in their use of the justice system? 3. Who were the white witnesses? Why did they stand up for their black neighbors? Were they really black allies? And did they lose some of their whiteness by standing up for blacks?

Jason Zeledon raises excellent points about how early Americans perceived Algerian men and women. However, Taylor wants Zeledon to think more about the gendered natures of Barbary Warfare rhetoric. Specifically, Taylor asked Zeledon to consider how stereotypes are constructed and to do more to illustrate his thesis about women’s rights.


ThinkWhat Do You Think?

What do you think are the most interesting points raised by these papers?


How Long Until You Belong?: A Scholar Rethinks Historical Sources

Recently I had two of those conversations that stick with you. The first occurred when a friend showed me a portion of her postcard and photo collection. Her pictures chart the history of Albany through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and this portion of her collection captured various parades in Albany during the 1930s. As she showed me the photos, she mentioned that she had brought them to show another friend, an elderly gentleman. I quipped that our friend might point out that he had watched those parades in person. She replied, "Oh no, he was probably just a baby at the time. Besides, [our friend] has lived here [in Albany] for only about fifty years; he is not a native Albanyan." A week later, I found myself involved in another discussion about what it means to be a "native Albanyan," a community insider. This person said she had lived in Albany for nearly thirty years and remarked something to the effect of "Albanyans are an exclusive bunch. Even after many years of living here [in Albany] I still feel like an outsider."

I know that the issue of community "insiders vs. outsiders" is not unique to Albany. I grew up in a New England town where it is common to refer to your neighbors' houses by the names of the people who departed from them over twenty years ago. Moreover, I have studied how immigrant and migrant groups have, and do, experience the same feelings of "insiders vs. outsiders" when they come to reside in a new country and community. Yet, for whatever reason, it resonated with me that people still believe that if you are not born in a community then you can never truly belong, even after you have lived in a place for more than thirty years.

James Eights Pearl StreetI am grateful that I had these conversations because they led me to think more deeply about my historical sources. I have only one source that directly discusses how unwelcome the writer's new, Albany neighbors made him feel when he arrived in 1798. Yet I have many more sources that describe Albany as a "foreign" and "Dutch" city (these sources span 1750-1810). Eager to make my point that Albany did not, in fact, constitute  a true "Dutch" city, my dissertation refutes the authors' claims and concentrates on how the Albanyans worked to welcome newcomers. These conversations helped me to realize that my analysis unwittingly shows bias for the Albanyans' point of view. Now I understand that my dissertation does not fully consider how the authors' descriptions reflect that they felt like outsiders, even without their interacting with the people of Albany. The colonial Albanyans' Dutch-inspired architecture, Dutch-dialect, and hybrid customs seemed strange enough to passersby and new migrants that those characteristics alone made newcomers feel like they would never belong.

Newcomers felt more welcome after their initial shock over the appearance and sound of Albany wore off. Moreover, by the 1820s newcomers no longer commented on the seeming foreignness of Albany. Even Rev. Timothy Dwight remarked how Albany resembled an American city that other developing communities in upstate and western New York should emulate in both appearance and manners. Still, these recent conversations now have me thinking about whether the newcomers I studied ever felt like insiders. Even after the Albanyans adopted more ubiquitous architectural styles and the dialect of their American peers, and the newcomers had lived in Albany for twenty, thirty, or more years, did these non-Albany-born residents ever feel like, or identify, as "native" Albanyans or Albany insiders?  After all, if there are people today who do not feel like natives or insiders after fifty years of residence, did the people of the past ever feel like they belonged to a community that they were not born into? I will continue to think about this as I revise my dissertation into a book.


How Merchants Did Business: Mercantile Trading Patterns in the 1780s

Leonard Gansevoort On Thursdays I volunteer in the Library at the Albany Institute of History and Art. My long-term project involves creating a finding aid for a collection that connects merchants in Albany, New York with traders in St. Croix. I am a quarter of the way through the collection and thus far I have found a lot of useful information for my book revision and material for a conference paper. Many of the documents deal with the firm Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co.--a partnership between Jacob Cuyler and Leonard Gansevoort. Within months of Great Britain and the United States ratifying the Treaty of Paris, Cuyler & Gansevoort set to work solidifying their old trade relationships and using those connections to create new ones.

Through Nicholas Hoffman of New York City, Cuyler & Gansevoort made acquaintance with "Jan Bronkhorst Merchant at Croisie in Brittany." The Albany firm sought French goods from Bronkhorst and an introduction to his partners in Amsterdam "[we] Being destitute of a Connection in Holland." Through John Murray of New York City and James Ellice of Schenectady, Cuyler & Gansevoort sought introductions to those merchants' London-based trading houses; they had met with an "unexpected disappointment" with the house of Henry Cruger & Co. at Bristol. Cuyler & Gansevoort also reached beyond New York City and formed business relationships with merchants from Boston and Philadelphia.

A contract with Captain Thomas Hook illuminates the amount of cooperation between mercantile firms based in Albany. On November 16, 1785, Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co. contracted with Hook to sail the sloop Sally to the West Indies and trade its cargo. Cuyler & Gansevoort owned one half of the cargo and one half of the Sally. The other half of the Sally and its cargo belonged to the Albany firm Stevenson, Douw & Ten Eyck. Ownership of a sailing vessel allowed merchants the freedom to send cargoes to destinations of their choice as well as limit the amount of profit they had to share with middlemen. However, sea trade could be dangerous. Bad weather could damage ships and cargoes, pirates or foreign navies could impress ships, crews, and cargoes, and spoiled cargoes or an unanticipated decline in market prices could greatly decrease the merchants' profit. Partial ownership allowed merchants to trade for maximum profit and spread out the risk. Moreover, dividing the risk made sense because it allowed merchants to put their "eggs" in more than one basket. By owning a share in a vessel and cargo, small firms like Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co. could afford to trade in multiple markets at the same time.

Although the documents within the St. Croix Collection specifically discuss people and events in early Republic Albany, they really describe people and events throughout the Early Republic United States. From this collection I have gleaned valuable information about early American trade patterns, women's involvement in trade, the shipbuilding business, the ways in which merchants used trade to reaffirm and promote their self-understandings as United States citizens, and (unrelated to trade) about Federalist electioneering practices. I plan to address these topics in more detail as I continue to work with this collection.