Pennsylvania Hall is available for pre-order!


July 4th

July 4th

NYU Press asked me to write a post about July 4th for their blog. 

The book that led me to start this blog is on the way to the shelves. It is currently in production at Oxford University Press and should be available for pre-order soon!

Temple University is hosting a conference to commemorate the 175th anniversary of Pennsylvania Hall’s destruction.  I will share some of my research on the dramatic story and its greater significance there on April 23.  If you’re in Philadelphia and are interested, please join us.

Also, Pennsylvania Hall: A “Legal Lynching” in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell is now in production at Oxford University Press and will be released later this year. 

Moral Boycotts

One important tool used by abolitionists in their moral fight against slavery was the Free Produce movement.  The Free Produce movement began in the eighteenth century.  It was primarily a Quaker movement, led by John Woolman and Elias Hicks.  Abolitionists who participated in Free Produce refused to use any goods made by slave labor.  This was much harder to do than we might realize today.

To truly remain faithful to Free Produce ideals, a person would have had to avoid all products that had any component produced by slave labor.  Obviously this meant refusing to use cloth made of slave-grown cotton or sugar grown by slaves.  One solution was to find cotton and sugar grown by non slave holders.  Another was to wear wool clothing instead of cotton clothing.  To be completely true to principle, however, an adherent to Free Produce would have had to make sure that the ink in the tag on the clothing was not produced by slave labor since indigo, an important component of ink, was often grown by slaves.

Benjamin Lundy traveled extensively for the cause of Free Produce.

Benjamin Lundy was an abolitionist who devoted a great deal of time to finding alternative sources of cotton, traveling to Haiti and Texas in search of possible locations for Free Produce colonies.  James Mott, once a cotton merchant, decided to deal only in wool in order to avoid the moral taint of slave produce.  Perhaps most famously of all, Quaker abolitionist Elias Hicks is said to have refused to be covered by a cotton blanket, even as he was on his deathbed, because he did not want his soul to be tainted by the immorality of slavery.

This story, true or not, illustrates quite well the point of Free Produce.  The difference between Free Produce and a modern boycott is that a boycott uses economic pressure to change the behavior of the producer of the goods, whereas Free Produce adherents’ goal was to keep their own conscience free of taint by not benefitting from the forced labor of others.  They would have loved it if their refusal to use slave-grown products could put enough economic pressure on the system to force its end, but most realized that that could never happen.  W.P. Garrison, son of famed immediate abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, once argued that though people have called Garrisonians impractical or radical, it was actually the Free Produce group that fit this description.  Addressing the notion that Garrisonians were fanatics for refusing to participate in politics, he maintained that free produce Quakers were actually the radical, impractical dreamers.  Of course, those who adhered to Free Produce would have argued that practicality was not the issue, morality was.

Some people today still use moral boycotts to maintain their distance from products and companies that violate their principles of social justice.

For more information on Free Produce, read the story of Blood Stained Goods.

Today is British West Indian Emancipation Day. Here is an interesting piece that meditates on how abolitionists have been overlooked even by those who have made 19th century history an obsession.

August 1st- Emancipation in the Steampunk Atlantic.

ImageIn June 2011, I participated in a symposium that commemorated the bicentennial of Wendell Phillips’s birth. Phillips is best known as an abolitionist orator, but the conference highlighted the expansiveness of Phillips’s commitments and his legacy. Speakers discussed his oratorical prowess, his ideals about the American republic, his religious views, his place in transnational reform circles, his mindset during the Civil War, and his efforts to provide social justice to various American groups. My contribution:  a talk entitled “Wendell Phillips & the American Indian.”

Wendell Phillips’s contributions to American Indian reform were many, and I am currently working on a piece for publication that deals with the topic in detail. Here I’d like to briefly discuss one episode that I addressed in that talk – Phillips’s condemnation of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

After the Civil War, Phillips immersed himself in a number of causes, and Indian Reform was one with which he became especially involved.  Although he showed concern for the plight of the western tribes before the Civil War, it was not until the end of the war that Phillips was able to devote any real energy to their cause. When he did become involved, he immediately generated controversy — no surprise to anyone familiar with his abolitionist oratory.

One of his first big public statements concerning Native Americans condemned the building of the transcontinental railway because of the impact it would have on the Plains Indians.  He wrote an editorial on the subject in the National Anti-Slavery Standard that appeared on June 12, 1869.

Here are a few choice excerpts from Phillips’s editorial:

All hail and farewell to the Pacific Railroad. The telegraph tells us that the Indians have begun to tear up the rails, to shoot passengers and conductors on this road. We see great good in this. At last the poor victim has found the vulnerable spot in his tyrant. . . . For seventy years and more the Indian has begged this great nation to attend to his wrongs. His cries have been unheard. Ruthless and unheeding we have trampled him down. To-day the worm turns and stings us. . .  .

To-day 15,000 warriors on the war path, –a thousand miles of exposed road; this railway the pet plaything of the American people! Would our words could reach every Indian chief. We would tell him, lay down your gun, but allow no rail to lie between Omaha and the mountains. . . .Every blow struck on those rails is heard round the globe. Haunt that road with such dangers that none will dare use it.

Phillips realized his language would provoke a strong reaction among Americans, and he responded to those who might condemn his promotion of Native American attacks on the railway:

Some men may think us needlessly aggressive.” No, citizenship,” they may say, “would be a better remedy.” Yes, by-and-by. At present citizenship means little. Heaven forbid that we should betray the Indian to such protection as “citizenship” gives to the Georgia negro and Loyalist. No, we are thankful the Indian has one defense that the negro never had. He is no citizen and has the right to make war. Well may he use that last right, and never yield it till “citizenship” means more than it does now.

The editorial is remarkable. In it, Phillips treats American Indians as separate peoples with tribal sovereignty and the right to wage war against the United States. This is an approach very few American reformers – no matter how committed they were to social justice – would endorse at the time.  For most, Americanization and preparation for citizenship was the goal. Indeed, this would eventually become Phillips’s approach as well.  Citizenship for the American Indian was one of the centerpieces of Phillips’s Indian reform efforts during the 1870s and 1880s, but he would only make this shift after citizenship came with the right of suffrage, regardless of race. This editorial, written after the Fifteenth Amendment had passed Congress but had yet to be ratified by most states, was the product of a very specific time.  In it, Phillips goes for a “twofer” – pointing out the incomplete promise of equal rights to the freedmen as long as they did not have the vote while arguing against American intrusions on Indian lands.

After the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, Phillips joined other reformers in his advocacy of the Americanization of Native Americans by promoting key programs that had been on their agenda for the freedmen – citizenship and the vote, land reform, and educational opportunities. Sadly, he and others failed to appreciate that the American Indian population did not approach these issues in the same way as African Americans. They did not want the same things – and the eventual achievement of the goals of Indian reformers with the Dawes Act of 1887, passed just a few years after Phillips’s death, was not the triumph that they hoped for. This turn makes the rhetoric of Phillips’s 1869 editorial even more interesting. It shows how key the right of suffrage was in his formula for social justice and how much his agenda for African American uplift affected his approach to Indian Reform.

As expected, Phillips’s words on the railroad generated a great deal of controversy in the American press. They were reprinted in prominent newspapers where Phillips was condemned for encouraging Indian warfare. The above illustration from an issue of Harper’s Weekly, “All Hail and Farewell to the Pacific Railway,” published on July 10, 1869, illustrates the attention given to Phillips’s first editorial on Indian affairs.

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