A rascal of the lowest order

When Prudence Crandall announced her plan to open a school for black girls in Canterbury, Connecticut, in March 1833, few of her neighbors approved of her plans. Two years earlier, abolitionists had decided to establish a manual labor school for black boys in New Haven, and this had also met with vigorous opposition. While many white Protestant New Englanders supported black education in theory, especially if those educated in local schools were to be sent to Liberia as evangels of Christianity and civilization, the schools proposed by radical abolitionists at New Haven and Cornwall were different. What would these radicals be teaching their students? Would they learn to hate whites? A sabbath school book on the Colonization Society had (perhaps unintentionally) raised this question in the early 1830s: “if it be true that knowledge is power,” one character realized, “the moment they are enlightened they would be likely to exert it” (Sarah Tuttle, Claims of the Africans). Or would the abolitionists teach blacks that they were equal to whites and deserving of full citizenship? As an article in the Norwich Republican on April 24, 1833, put it: “if they have their seminaries of instruction, why shall they be barred from the ballot-box? The next step in the progress of fanaticism will be, that we shall be a parti-colored race, ranging from the purest white down to utter darkness.”

Andrew Judson led the opposition to Prudence Crandall’s Canterbury school, and, to the radical abolitionists’ delight, he was also the local representative to Windham County’s chapter of the American Colonization Society. For radical abolitionists on the lookout for chances to point out the hypocrisy of the Colonization Society, Judson’s refusal to accept a school meant to “elevate” young women of color was a gift. William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator and other sympathetic newspapers had a field day with the Colonization Society’s discomfort: as benevolent Christians, they supported educational efforts for black Americans, but they rallied against this school and this benevolent lady, Prudence Crandall. The abolitionists’ cries only grew louder in June when Crandall was arrested after being found in violation of a new law prohibiting the education of black people from out of state.

As abolitionists gleefully pointed out the “savagery” and “barbarity” of the white republican (?) Christians (?) of this New England village (abolitionists used question marks or sarcastic italics), the churchgoers who supported African colonization and missionary work squirmed. They scrambled to find a way to justify their disapproval of the school without also hurting their own claims to be benevolent men with an interest in the education and improvement of blacks.

In the course of examining how colonizationists responded to the abolitionist onslaught, I came across the following delightfully colorful letter that was published in multiple New England newspapers. This particular one is cut from the New Hampshire Patriot and Gazette, July 10, 1833.


Was the letter-writer (G.T.) a person of color? Unknown. I suspect that this wasn’t really the point. The letter provided concrete evidence in support of the colonizationists’ case against radical abolitionism. The letter showed how the well-heeled radicals in Boston and Providence stirred up ignorant vigilantes, and it didn’t hurt that this particular one was from the wilds of Pittsburgh. It also worked to deflect the abolitionists’ charges that the white men in Canterbury who had put Crandall in prison were “savages.” Here, Judson and Adams appeared as defenders of civilization and social order against the rowdy mob and men who somehow could muster together the enormous sum of $500 to pay an Irishman to beat up the “dastardly puppies” who were Canterbury’s selectmen.

In the course of conducting research on this for a conference paper, I’ve run across a couple of other interesting letters related to the Crandall affair that are reprinted in numerous papers, and each time, I wonder if they were real or hoaxes. My newfound skepticism comes in part from my recent experiences researching the miscegenation hoax in 1864: it absolutely would have benefited the radical abolitionists if a “friend of the Colonization cause” penned a series of letters opposing the school (as did happen), and, similarly, the school’s opponents benefited from having this kind of evidence that the abolitionists’ fanaticism did indeed lead to threats of violence.

I would like to be able to find out if these letters were real, but I also think that they can be useful even if their provenance remains unknown. For one, they generate reactions that are real. A number of different papers ran editorials and printed responses (including Crandall’s own response) to the series of letters from “a friend of the Colonization cause.” I could be wrong, but the fact that the pseudonymous writer continued to write letters suggests to me that this was a real person, not a dreamed up character. Moreover, the arguments that “a friend” made against the school and for African colonization did not stray far from the ACS’s party line, even if it did give the abolitionists’ plenty of ammunition. The Pittsburgh letter, though, seems more suspect; yet it is also quite revealing. It was (allegedly) addressed to the postmaster of Canterbury, and it would have remained private except for the fact that Judson and his colleagues chose to release it in order to defend their cause. Real or fake, the Pittsburgh letter shows the hand of the Canterbury selectmen as they tried to maintain the uneasy balance of being benevolent Christian gentlemen while also adamantly opposing the benevolent efforts of a young woman toward free people of color.

Walker and Cone: A Conversation

Kara Walker, ...and modern black identity (2010)This is not a post about archives, but it is about an event with artist Kara Walker and theologian James Cone at Union Theological Seminary’s Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice on May 2, 2012. I didn’t take notes, so I don’t have actual quotes. If video or audio for the event is posted in the future, I will add the link here.

When theologian James Cone first saw Kara Walker’s arresting silhouettes, he was repulsed. Walker is most well known for her first major pieces, recently collected in the exhibit “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love,” in which she depicted grotesque scenes of rape and violence in the Old South with the genteel, feminine and Victorian forms of paper cutouts. The scenes are sweeping, and they progress like disjointed visual stories. They often take up entire walls, and one (“Slavery! Slavery!) is exhibited in the round as a sinister version of the popular nineteenth-century panoramas. Walker’s titles usually parrot the literary titles of nineteenth-century domestic fiction, and her jaunty figures look like the illustrations found in these books, but their actions – the scenarios enacted by the figures – force the viewer to confront the sordid and the vile, brutality and vengeance, the powerful and the powerless.

As he told this story, Cone said that he had not been familiar with Walker’s work until he was invited to have this public conversation with her by Union Seminary’s Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice. Upset with the stark images before him, he began to read about Walker, and he encountered some of her critics: many of whom were older black women artists who criticized Walker’s art for being hurtful and harmful for black women. Cone’s initial negative reaction to her pairing of raw violence with flippant silhouettes began to transform into something else when he realized that Kara Walker was being rejected. He remembered how his own work of black liberation theology had once been rejected. He said that he thought about how he could not not write what was inside of him when he wrote about a black Jesus, a black God, and black Christianity, and he realized that whatever Kara Walker’s art was, it was something that she also could not not create. Listening to Cone’s passionate voice rise when he made this point, I thought: this is theology in practice.

It was a moving moment and an important theme in a remarkable event at Union Seminary on Wednesday night. The evening began with Cone speaking about his own work, and the necessity of imagination to theology. He traced his personal and intellectual struggles between despair and hope. He told of his childhood in Arkansas and wondered why he wasn’t afraid when lynchings lurked just outside his door. Love, from his parents and family and from God, he answered, made him always feel safe even though the larger world was hardly a safe and welcoming place for a black boy. When he returned to this point later in the evening, he observed that when the world refuses to recognize a people as human beings, those people turn to another world to affirm their value, their humanity. They turn to religion, they turn to music. When education was withheld from black people, black people learned to sing, to write poetry, to play music as a way to express their humanity. At this point, Cone recited the lyrics of “Strange Fruit.” As Cone’s childhood shaped his faith and drove his theological project in this one way, it also formed another question in his mind: how could white Christians remain silent in the face of lynching? He remembered asking his mother when he was a child why they couldn’t go to the white church when the sign outside said “welcome.” As an adult, he looked in vain for white theologians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who condemned lynching. Not even Reinhold Niebuhr condemned lynching when racial violence was on his doorstep in Detroit. Cone spoke about this in the context of his most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and he ended his address with a Easter message of hope: Christ rises, we all rise up again on the other side of the cross.

Kara Walker followed with a presentation of her older and more recent art. She went to the Rhode Island School of Design in the early nineties, and she spoke about how the heightened identity politics of the period pushed her away from the abstract paintings she wanted to make and into the more specific, if not political, work she ended up creating. When she, as a black woman, stood next to her abstract paintings, teacher after teacher asked: why aren’t you doing something about blackness? About being a black woman? So she embraced it, and took the stereotyped identity of black womanhood to its flattened extreme in her silhouettes, almost as if to ask: is this what you want? Are you satisfied now? One of the exhibitions that followed the silhouettes built on what it means to be a black woman artist in America, and it includes textual pieces quoting from Wikipedia articles about the tragic lives of black women performers and artists. Her first film, “Bureau of Refugees,” made with shadow puppets, recounts stories from testimony to the Freedman’s Bureau. She has also created work reflecting on the present role of violence and race in the images from Abu Ghraib and from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars more generally. She also has made a film about origins: “8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, A Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker.” Later in the evening, an audience member asked her about how she dealt with the brutal images that she created once they were out in the world? In effect, could she look at her own art? Walker responded with an interesting point: it had always been painful art, art that disturbed her and that made her feel uneasy, that moved her. As one of her influences, she cited the gruesome art of interwar German Expressionists as they dealt with the horrors of the First World War, defeat, and the economic crisis that followed. Having recently seen an exhibition of this at the Moma, I immediately saw the connection: Otto Dix’s wall-covering drawings of “The War,” Käthe Kolwitz’s series of mourners, including “Mourning parents,” and Max Beckman’s “The Morgue,” with its crucifixion imagery.

The conversation between Cone and Walker began haltingly. There is something inherently strange about having a conversation in front of an audience. There was also an immediate recognition that they came from different generations, different experiences. Walker had found out that her father, Larry Walker, an artist and professor, had met Cone decades earlier. Unlike Cone’s past in the 1940s South, Walker was born in California, and she had attended a diverse elementary school named for Martin Luther King. Only when her family moved to Atlanta as a young teenager did she begin to experience the complex southern dynamics of race. Yet as they went back and forth about their pasts, their influences, and their drives to create, however different the output, a remarkable thing happened: they listened to each other. Walker seemed hesitant to use theological language to speak about her art as a “calling” or to think about her repeated images as a form of liturgy, of personal religious devotion. But neither did she spurn the religion questions posed by the audience and Cone. When Cone asked Walker about hope – was her art only about despair? – she answered that it was in the making of the art – in her passion, excitement, and exuberance in creating and displaying her works – that she felt hope. The fact that she could make it and display it at all mattered. These images were inside her, however horrific they were, and while she wasn’t always comfortable with that, it was the truth. He nodded and spoke about how he speaks aloud when he writes because he hears his words rather than sees his words. They both talked about the magic and electricity that lights up the creative process.

One of the last questions from the audience (asked by a black woman) remarked on how affirming it was to see two African Americans of different generations and a man and a woman have such a rapport. I will admit that this had not even occurred to me, so easily had their conversation flowed. But when the audience member raised this point, I stopped to think. How often are academics picking each other apart, and I can only imagine that the contemporary art world is the same, if not worse. Everyone condemns our political discourse for being filled with vicious sound bites, petty attacks. Yet here – at a talk that began with one person’s visceral dislike of another person’s work, and in a setup that could have fixated on artistic, gender, and generational differences – there was listening and hearing, affection and sympathy, and the two carved out common ground. Differences were not ignored, but nor did they halt the conversation or lead to hard lines being drawn around meaning and authenticity. As I walked home, I wondered about why this was the case. Was it their personalities? The setting: a chapel in a seminary? The subject matter of art, creativity, faith, and social justice?

Blood in the Archives

Today’s post is an example of how a healthy dose of scholarly wandering can lead to interesting finds and new questions. In a homage to Believer articles, I’ll just say this:


James Madison
America’s Historical Newspapers
Gothic Novels

In my research, I’ve been thinking about a small but important question that is difficult to answer: did Americans (and specifically – abolitionists) use “blood” to speak about “race” more often during the Civil War than in the antebellum period? Of course, “blood” and “race” had been used interchangeably for centuries, but I had this completely unfounded gut feeling that abolitionists used “color” more often than “blood” before the Civil War. Blood was particularly relevant during the war, and its rich religious and patriotic meaning lent significance to discussions of race and nationalism in a way that “color” did not. Yet before the CIvil War, I suspected (gut feeling!) that abolitionists’ would avoid associating “race” with “blood” except when they quoted the famous “of one blood” verse from Acts. Why? Many abolitionists subscribed to a kind of early (and inconsistent) critical race theory that would have made them loathe to connect race to something biological and permanent.

In thinking about this question of race and blood, I read an article in the experimental online religious studies project, Frequencies: “a collaborative genealogy of spirituality.” In “Blood,” Columbia Religion professor Gil Anidjar quotes from James Madison’s Federalist 14:

James Madison, for his part, reminded his listeners of “the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies.”

I’d read and taught this particular Federalist Paper before, of course, but since Madison lives a few decades before my usual nineteenth-century haunts, and I haven’t taught the US Survey in a couple of years, it was a fresh insight. It made perfect sense that Madison would have used “mingled blood” and “kindred blood” in his call for national unity. I looked it up, read the complete document, and filed this away in my brain and laptop.

Even though the question of blood/race to be tangentially related to my actual article, I couldn’t resist thinking about how to go about finding evidence to support my hypothesis. I thought about some of the recent scholarship on searching databases, and how other historians have used the results from several sets of keyword searches of digital archives to establish quantitative results. Patrick O’Neil’s “Bosses and Broomsticks” does this with jumping-the-broom ceremonies, as I wrote about here, and Caleb McDaniel has a more extensive list of articles using digitized databases as well as an analysis of the complexities and lack of uniformity in this still newish research technique.

I decided to do a few exploratory searches and see what turned up. Warning: this search was by no means scientific – I didn’t count the results or try the results on multiple databases. At this point, I’m not planning on using this particular search as evidence in my current project, I was just curious to see if anything striking would turn up. If I do proceed, I will obviously have to come up with some kind of methodology: a spreadsheet documenting each hit, perhaps even some kind of political or geographical mapping. (Perhaps a future post?)

Using Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers (Series 1-7), I checked off three historical eras: the Jacksonian Era, the Antebellum Period, and U.S. Civil War. I searched for “mingled blood” (just like that – in quotations, no Boolean terms) in the “Full Text.” There were 97 results. As I scanned through them, I discovered multiple articles citing Madison’s words (which I recognized because I had just read Gil’s “Blood” article the day before). Huh. I hadn’t expected that, but it made sense. They appeared in newspapers in the 1830s:

1. Northern and southern newspapers reprinted Madison’s call for national unity, kindred blood, and mingled blood during the Nullification Crisis in 1832.

2. They also appeared (quoted) in a speech/statement delivered at the 1835 Democratic Convention in Baltimore in support of the pro-Union Martin Van Buren’s candidacy.

This generated new thoughts and questions:

  • The phrase (and the Madison excerpt) do not appear in 1850, another moment of intense sectionalism, nor did Madison’s quote appear during the Civil War. Was this a reference that only appealed to an earlier generation of Americans? Did northerners reject the southerner Madison as sectional tensions grew?
  • I had been expecting to see “mingled blood” associated with “amalgamation” and interracial sex, perhaps used in newspaper articles warning against the abolitionist fanatics in Boston. Instead, “mingled blood” and specifically the quote from Madison were being used to draw together white northerners and southerners who the abolitionist fanatics and South Carolina nullifiers threatened to divide. This was interesting and unexpected. “Mingled blood” spoke to white nationalism, while in the Civil War, it was used to disparage abolitionists as supporters of interracial marriage.
  • Did “mingled blood” continue to have this positive and patriotic connotation during and after the Civil War, and have I just missed it? At what point did “mingled blood” come to be associated with interracial sex, or am I wrong in assuming that this became its primary meaning?

The term also popped up in other contexts as well: in poetry, in articles rejecting the Know-Nothings’ anti-immigration policies, in regard to the blood ties binding the British and German monarchies, and, interestingly, (something for cultural historians to consider?) the term “mingled blood” can also be found in a gloomy excerpt from Charles Whitehead’s gothic novel, The Autobiography of Jack Ketch. (Ketch was apparently an executioner employed by King Charles II).

As I go forward, I will expand the search terms (mingled blood, kindred blood, blood AND amalgamation, blood AND negro, etc.), and I’m also tentatively planning to start some kind of spreadsheet file keeping track of the hits I get for various search terms in different newspaper databases. There are challenges: it’s difficult to track subtle shifts in cultural history and language through newspapers alone, and I find myself very hesitant to make any definitive claims about how or why language changed over time. Yet I am also really intrigued in both the historical findings and the methodological challenges of doing this kind of cultural history work!

A sample of my findings: the excerpts from Jack Ketch and the speech to the Democrats:

The Historical Uses of Comment Threads

I’m nearing the final stage of an article about the political implications of “amalgamation” and “miscegenation” in the North during the Civil War. Race baiting and elections apparently never grows old, as Sidney Kaplan’s article on the 1864 flare up argued in 1949, months after the Dixiecrats deployed a similar campaign against Truman. My sources include a series of political cartoons from 1864 that essentially illustrated the Democratic pamphlets meant to parody abolitionists. The pictures essentially illustrated the words in some of the “miscegenation” pamphlets produced by Democrats during the election. They used caricatures of interracial couples as evidence of a world turned upside down — the world that would exist if Abraham Lincoln won the 1864 election and continued to execute the war until the South was defeated and all slaves were freed.

The images, created by G.W. Bromley & Co., are available at the Library of Congress.

A fair amount of scholarship exists on these sorts of racist caricatures. For instance, there are clear connections between these from the 1860s and the earlier “bobalition” broadsides from the days of northern emancipation. Writing about this earlier period in American history, historian Patrick Rael argues that by making black people try and fail to appear respectable (because of their clothing or the dialect in the dialogue bubbles), the creators of these images mocked “blacks’ new claims to participate legitimately in public sphere discourse” (Rael, Black Identity and Black Protest, 73).

These particular images from 1864 also contained a message about gender and sexuality (that could be found in some of the earlier images as well): emancipation would lead to sex between whites and blacks.

Political Caricature No. 2: Miscegenation or the Millennium of Abolitionism

Significantly, the pictures do not depict the Jim Crow-era “miscegenation” discourse of sexually aggressive (and economically and politically enfranchised) black men who threaten white womanhood. These cartoons do mock African Americans for putting on airs and presuming to be whites’ social equals, but they also pillory white abolitionists – for their radical ideas and sexual deviancy (the white Republican men at the “Miscegenation Ball,” the white female abolitionists sitting in the laps of black men in the “Millennium of Abolitionism” image.) They use social (and sexual) race mixing as a way to symbolize the impending social and racial disorder that will come with the end of the war.

Much more can and has been said about this (including in my almost-finished article), but what I want to emphasize about these images and the entire “miscegenation” discussion of 1864 is that it was deeply contingent on the fact that emancipation was in play for the upcoming presidential election. While they were, of course, racist, these images (and the various Copperhead Democrat articles about “miscegenation”) were also produced to tie the Republican Party to radical abolitionists and their extremist demands for black equality on top of emancipation.

So, here’s where the title of this post comes into play. When I did a quick Google search to find the “Miscegenation Ball” image this morning (instead of going directly to the Library of Congress website), one of the top hits was from a June 2010 post on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog on the Atlantic website. [Unrelated: are people now writing “weblog” instead of “blog”? I’ve encountered this three or four times in the past week. Is it just historians trying to sound antiquated?]

Using these images to reflect on the persistence of race baiting in politics, Coates gives a fairly clear and short analysis – including a useful transcript of the text in the images (since it’s hard to read, even on the LOC site). My only quibble with his brief commentary is that he focuses more on how white southerners would have responded to these images, when they were meant for a northern audience. Many white Union men hated the Confederates only slightly more than they hated the radical abolitionists, and Democrats seeking to elect McClellan liked to attack the slaveholding elite as well as abolitionists. Calling out both white slaveholders and radical abolitionists as “amalgamationists” killed two birds with one stone.

What is most interesting to me, as a historian and a history teacher, are the comments. Some of the comments clearly demonstrate the readers’ scholarly knowledge (shout-outs to Edmund Morgan and Kathleen Brown, a mention of Bacon’s Rebellion, Sally Hemmings, etc.). Another thread addressed the depiction of black women in these images and links to an “anti-Michelle Obama’s clothes” discussion that took place on Ravelry, a knitters’ and crocheters’ social media site. Another thread mentions the use of dialect in The Help, and awkward book club discussions on the novel, well before the film version mainstreamed that conversation about race. There are also a  number of comments from people who are “interracially” married. Some just explain their circumstances, others point out the ongoing difficulties, while some wish that they could be at the “miscegenation ball” because it looks like a rocking good time. Many of the comments add biographical details about where people have lived, and how views towards interracial marriage have changed over time.

The comments totally derailed my morning writing.

First, they provide the answer to a future historical question: What kind of reaction do these “miscegenation” images provoke in the 2010s? They lead to mini-histories, a small (and self-selecting) sociological sample of American attitudes toward race and interracial marriage. The comments also reveal thoughtful analysis of the images and how these images relate to other depictions of black Americans.

Yet at the same time, with a few exceptions, I was struck by the absence of historical awareness. Yes, the origins of slavery and the complex racial and gendered politics of colonial Virginia and the class dynamics of Bacon’s Rebellion are undoubtedly important to the history of race in the United States. But they are probably not the best way to approach the racial dynamics in the Union North in 1864. Nor did many commentators note the Civil War, the fact that emancipation happened during a war, and the understudied dynamics of race in the North.

While I would love to parse these 108 comments more (and find other times when historical evidence and widely read blogs coincide), other business calls me to other matters. I’m left with a few questions and conclusions:

On a meta level, I wonder if and how historians will deal with these kinds of sources in the future. They offer a window onto a kind of conversation (Will usernames be like pseudonymous handles of yore? Will future historians comb through blog comments looking for “marcelproust” or “socioprof” as historians now might seek “Africanus” or “Cicero” in nineteenth-century newspapers?)

On a more practical and immediate level, these comments offer insight into my students and, possibly, reading audiences. Often the reaction people have to artifacts of cultural history (especially images like these) are deeply personal. People who see them think about them in terms of how they relate to their own lives and personal histories. Yet it is vital also to understand historical artifacts as embedded in a particular time and space. Racism is not universal and unchanging; it was used differently at different times for different ends. The Democrats behind these caricatures were less concerned with white abolitionists marrying freed people than they were with smearing white Black Republicans. This isn’t to say that the commentators’ reactions about their own marriages are wrong or misplaced, but it is problematic for the takeaway message to be: “Wow. People used to be racist. I’m glad we can marry whomever we want (in New York State, at least) now.”

Finally, since I am immersed in the early 1860s at the moment, this one comment did provoke an exasperated sigh:

“Miscegenation” appears to have originated in the U.S., and coincidentally, the first entry in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1864 New York article, reprinted in England. It is defined as the “mixture of races; esp. the sexual union of whites with negroes.”

Weeelllll . . . not exactly. It was a pamphlet from David Goodman Croly and George Wakefield published in December 1863 in New York City. The (pro-South) London Times picked up the story, as well as some other British publications, but it was a very American debate! But rather than be frustrated, I should just get back to work on my article on it, right? Right.

“We have different languages for what the truth means.” – Mike Daisey

In January, I started to write a post about objectivity, “bias,” fact-checking, and the differences between journalism and history. (Phew).  I was inspired in part by the now-infamous “This American Life” episode featuring Mike Daisey’s visit to electronics factories in China – particularly the last 15 minutes when Ira Glass fact-checked the story with other journalists. While this final segment of the original episode hinted at some exaggerations on the part of Daisey, it struck me as an illustrative example for students. When I heard that Glass retracted the story this past Friday, I decided to revisit my post. While comparisons to other recent-ish fact/fiction debacles (Michael Bellesiles, James Frey, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, etc.) may be apt, I’m not getting into those here.

Then: What I Wrote in January

My high school journalism teacher showed us All the President’s Men in order to teach us how dogged and determined journalists like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman had to get two sources to confirm every piece of information they printed. We learned that they weren’t biased, and they didn’t report unsubstantiated information. They reported the facts.

[Fact Check! (All the President’s Men)]

More recently, I listened to the “This American Life” episode adapting Mike Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” about Apple’s Chinese factories and suppliers. I found Daisey’s performance to be somewhere between effectively moving and over-the-top. But, of particular interest was the last portion of the show — a fact-checking exercise in which Ira Glass interviewed several other journalists and writers who had also covered the story. Was Daisey’s story sound? Was he a biased observer? He didn’t pretend to be a real journalist, after all. It turns out that his story did hold up, although his claims about the amount of child labor at Foxconn appear to be somewhat exaggerated.

I’ve been thinking about assigning this episode to my classes to spark a conversation about sources. As I’ve taught research seminars, I’ve thought more about the differences between journalistic research and historical research, and my sense is that students don’t always understand the distinction. If one of the Chinese workers whom Daisey interviewed lied to him, and he reported it as truth, what does this mean? What kinds of evidence do we trust, and which do we question, and why?

I find that students often have this backwards. When they read scholarly articles and books, they will accuse the authors of being “biased” because they are pursuing an argument instead of “just presenting the evidence.” Well, yes. She is “biased” because her article has an argument. While quick to find “bias” in scholarly articles and books, students sometimes have a very hard time identifying “biases” when they read primary sources. If the source said it, and the source lived in 1745, then it must be true!

My pedagogical strategy at the moment is to point out examples of evidence and analysis in every reading we do in class. I also use lots of primary sources, and I have students write short analyses throughout the semester so they become used to the language of introducing and analyzing quotations. Even with these exercises in place, I still find that learning how to gauge evidence is often the hardest skill to teach and to learn. It requires a breadth of knowledge that students’ frankly don’t have. How do they know that the New York Herald was a Democratic newspaper during the Civil War when it just pops up as another article in a keyword search? They don’t. The best I can do is teach them that they should always inquire and always ask: is this source “biased?”

Rethinking all of this after the Retraction . . .

Continue reading

Finding Patterns in the Wilderness

While recently re-reading Chandra Manning’s terrific book, What This Cruel War Was Over (Vintage Civil War Library, 2007), I was delighted to find the detailed discussion of her research methods in the book’s introduction. Manning’s ambitious book seeks to examine what Confederate and Union soldiers thought about slavery, and she concludes that the slavery question was indeed at the “center of soldiers’ views of the struggle” (11). She uses the letters and diaries of over 1,000 soldiers — that’s 1,000 distinct characters, and many, many more documents.

Rather than delving into Manning’s nuanced argument about what Confederates and black and white Union soldiers thought and how their thoughts changed over time, I wanted to highlight two of the passages where she writes about her methods.

First, how did she keep track of those 1000+ soldiers?

p. 8: “For every soldier whose writings I read, and for whom I could obtain sufficient biographical detail, I created a data sheet that recorded such information as birth date, home, occupation, marital status, regiment, rank, battle participation, and experiences, such as capture, wounding, or death. These 477 Confederate data sheets and 657 Union soldier data sheets helped place soldiers’ words in appropriate social and demographic context, and also helped ensure that my cross section of soldiers resembled the actual makeup of the enlisted ranks as closely as possible.”

Second, and this is most interesting to me at the moment, how did she organize the topics discussed in the letters and diaries? If you’ve ever read or written a letter, you’ll know that people’s thoughts jump around quite a bit. When you excerpt a quotation, you need to think about a) the content of the quote, b) the context of the quotation within the document, and c) the relation of that quotation to other larger events in the person’s life and in the world. As any professor who has graded research papers can tell you, an uninformed researcher can more or less find “evidence” for anything. Without keeping context and tone in the mix, a sarcastic comment in a letter can become genuine, a parody in a newspaper can become heartfelt.

Manning’s solution:

p. 10-11: “To determine the direction of prevailing winds, I built a series of gauges in the form of long complilations on each of the topics that soldiers themselves identified as important, including patriotism, politics, slavery, and race. Each compilation was organized chronologically. For instance, every time a soldier made a remark about politics, I made a new entry in the politics compilation. If the letter dated from May 5, 1863, I transcribed the relevant portion into the politics compilation between any remarks made by any other soldiers on May 4 and May 6, 1863.”

I’ve done something similar – enormous Word documents – but usually I don’t start these until I begin writing. I’ve never processed my sources this way during the first encounter, but this is something to think about.

She continues:

p. 11: “I used one font for Union soldiers and another font for Confederate troops, which permitted me to compare men from the two armies and still distinguish between them at a glance. The chronological organization of these gauges allowed me to chart change over time, while the topical nature of each compilation enabled me to measure the relative strength of each position taken on an issue.”

And to keep the context of the letters in the mix:

p. 11: “As I used quotations to write chapters, I reread each soldier’s excerpt in the context of the entire letter, diary entry, or camp paper article in which it appeared, which helped adjust for any unusual stimuli or circumstances. In order to conclude that any one position dominated among Union or Confederate soldiers at a particular time, I stipulated that expressions of the prevalent view had to outnumber expressions of the dissenting view by a ratio of at least three to one.”

I really appreciate how Manning incorporated her research methods into the text of her book instead of pushing it into an appendix or a long footnote. Reading her book reminded me of how different topics and sources require particular methods (notecards or Zotero do not fit all!), as well as how much methods shape the arguments of the final project. I know that this book is a frequently assigned text in undergraduate classes, and in addition to teaching students about the Civil War and social history, it would be an ideal way to enter into a discussion about creativity and functionality in research methods.

Needles and Geese

In the process of revising an article on the “miscegenation controversy” of 1864, I found myself on an archival goose chase. In November 1863, the anti-abolitionist New York Herald printed an article accusing its rival paper, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, of publishing ads in which black volunteers in Arkansas sought white abolitionist women as correspondents who would become their wives. Unfortunately, the Herald couldn’t be more specific than saying that these appeared “the other day” (“The Tribune Philosophers Promoting the Amalgamation of the Races,” New York Herald, 27 Nov. 1863).

My instinct was that this was a fake story about made-up advertisements. Throughout 1863 and 1864, the Herald published rumors about race mixing with a particular focus on black soldiers, and this seems like another iteration. But unlike the usually unsubstantiated rumors, this article included quotations from the supposed ads published in the Tribune.

Using the America’s Historical Newspapers database, and focusing my search on October and November 1863, I did some searches for those quoted phrases that seemed most likely to have appeared in the Tribune: “matrimony,” “Arkansas,” “correspondence,” etc. After about an hour of this, I had yet to find the original ads in the Tribune or any other paper included in the database except for the original Herald article. I feel confident enough to include this incident in my article as a rumor rather than a reality, at least with the proper qualifying words in a footnote.

A page from the New York Herald, 1/28/1863

But — and here’s where the delight of the research goose chase comes in — in the process of seeking out those specific phases, I stumbled upon the fascinating world of the want-ads from the 1860s. So many “Strangers to the city,” “respectable gentleman,” and soldiers looking for potential wives! Like personal ads today, nineteenth-century folk also tended to be very specific when it came to age, as the last ad above (“not over 19 years old”). I wonder what the story behind this southerner in search of a Yankee wife might have been.

I knew that nineteenth-century newspapers had tons of these short ads, but I’d never looked at them closely before except for using runaway slave ads in teaching. Now, I’m filing this away as a source for some future project. Lost items, personal ads, cryptic communications, and even the nineteenth-century version of missed connections. It reminds a bit of Found Magazine: mysterious and intriguing, fleeting, and very human. Some other intriguing samples:

“The sister of Phillip Tynan is Troubled by his silence. Direct to 117 Houston Street, NY.” [NY Herald, 1 Oct. 1863]

“Will the young lady who was last Tuesday in a Twenty-Third Street stage from 11 to 12 o’clock send her address to the gentleman she recognized in another stage? Address E.P. Station D.” [NY Herald, 1 Oct. 1863]

“MATRIMONIAL: Two young ladies wish to make the acquaintance of two Spanish or French gentlemen of wealth with a view to matrimony. Address, enclosing carte des visite, Lorini and Evangeline, Box 123, Herald office.” [NY Herald, 9 January 1863]

“Florence, — Will you give me the opportunity to explain my conduct Monday evening? Yes? When and where? –J. New York Post Office.” [NY Herald, 28 January 1863].