Ira Berlin's "Many Thousands Gone" is a synthetic history, which seeks to examine the regional differences between the North, Chesapeake, Lower Missis...moreIra Berlin's "Many Thousands Gone" is a synthetic history, which seeks to examine the regional differences between the North, Chesapeake, Lower Mississippi Valley, and Upper South (primarily South Carolina) during the first two-hundred years of slavery. Berlin's most significant contribution to the history of American slavery is the distinction between societies with slaves and slave societies. Societies with slaves count slaves among their population,but they are not the primary means of production whereas slave societies are dependent on slaves as the primary means of production (8). Using a generational approach to slavery, examining how different generations of slaves had different rights and sought different aims, Berlin deftly illustrates how different regions in the United States shifted between slave societies and societies with slaves. In the Chesapeake, for example, the first generation of cosmopolitan Africans had many more rights and liberties than subsequent generations of imported Africans after the explosion of tobacco as cash crop and resultant deepening dependence on slave labor.
Ultimately, what makes "Many Thousands Gone" a disappointment is that it reads like a textbook. There is no narrative uniting the different regions or generations of slaves, so the book seems fragmented. Also, since he reexamines each region three times during the course of the book, "Many Thousands Gone" is very repetitive. As a result of these writing and structural flaws, "Many Thousands Gone" is a drag to get through and reads much longer than its three hundred and fifty pages. I would recommend reading the introduction and conclusion, but skipping a lot of the books central chapters.
Berlin's distinction between societies with slaves and slave societies is a significant contribution to the study of American slavery. Unfortunately, the book is too dry to be an enjoyable read. Probably a must read for those interested in early American slavery or the history of early America more broadly, but one that should be skimmed. (less)
Examinations of the early abolitionist movement have been split by the question of agency and the role of white, predominantly devout Christian, aboli...moreExaminations of the early abolitionist movement have been split by the question of agency and the role of white, predominantly devout Christian, abolitionists. Traditionally, as Christopher L. Brown points out in both the introduction and conclusion to "Moral Capital", histories of British abolitionism have either focused their attention on the role of anti-slavery leaders like Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson in making anti-slavery into the abolitionist movement or they have entirely neglected their importance claiming that it was social or economic factors that necessitated the creation of the abolitionist movement. What has transpired then is an entirely fragmented understanding of the early abolitionists and their time as one dominated by a few outstanding individuals or one during which individuals became submerged by the rising tide of capitalism and globalization. Fortunately, Brown's "Moral Capitalism" is successful at breaking from outmoded, Manichean examinations of fledgling abolitionism by examining the generation before anti-slavery became abolition and the role the American Revolution had in reshaping the anti-slavery debate from one cast in economic and religious terms to one of humanist ethics. Brown examines both abolitionist luminaries like Wilberforce and the Clarksons, but also equivocal figures like Lord Dartmouth, who opposed slavery on moral grounds but did not believe it was politically expedient to attempt to legislate against it, and failed adventurer Henry Smeathman, who sought to obviate the slave trade by expanding plantation agriculture in Africa. For Brown, figures like Smeathman and early Quaker abolitionists (like American John Woolman) failed to find an audience among English political power-brokers before the American Revolution because of the united political power of American and Caribbean planters and the belief that the English global economy was dependent on African slave labor. However, after the American Revolution, the debate over abolition took a new turn: contrasting English subject-hood to American citizenship. Abolitionists like Clarkson presented the contradictions of American freedom and slavery, while espousing the possibility of a consistent English subject-hood with universal rights granted to all subjects under the purveyance of the King. This new argument found favor in an English Parliament shaken by the loss of the American colonies and attempting to recast the English Empire as benevolent trustees. "Moral Capital" is a brilliantly argued and well-written examination of the English transformation from anti-slavery to abolitionism. Though the writing is analytical, it is well executed and supported by copious amounts of evidence. The finest book on this topic I have read and one that will hopefully recast a tired debate about the role of abolitionists like Wilberforce in the history of British anti-slavery. (less)
American Loyalism has become one of the hottest trends in Early American historical scholarship. Numerous monographs have sought to understand why cer...moreAmerican Loyalism has become one of the hottest trends in Early American historical scholarship. Numerous monographs have sought to understand why certain Americans stayed loyal to the British and how that loyalty became the new foundation of the British Empire after the loss of the United States. One of the most fascinating examination of American Loyalists is Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles, which traces the Loyalist diaspora after the American Revolution and examines how they influenced and represented the reformed British Empire that would rebound from 1776 to become the world's super power. Jasanoff contrasts the stability of British subject-hood to the chaos of American citizenship as the most significant unifying factor across the spectrum of Loyalists which ranged from escaped slaves and Creek Indians to wealthy colonial officials and powerful Southern plantation owners. The strengths of this book are numerous and profound. Jasanoff does a fantastic job probing the contradictions of the new British Empire, which pushed for slavery's abolition and accommodated Loyalist former slaves who fought against the Americans while integrating Loyalist slave owners and their slaves into Caribbean colonies like Jamaica. Another strength of the book is how Jasanoff situates the Loyalists within the fabric of a changing British Empire. Loyalists come to represent the "spirit of 1783" whereby British subject-hood was expanded to include new racial groups and white British colonial subjects were granted rights to representation and self-rule unseen before 1776. Finally, Jasanoff contributes new research while effectively synthesizing a global corpus of secondary sources into a cogent, and at times thrilling, narrative of dislocation and diaspora. Her work across four continents including archives in far-flung Sierra Leone and India give historians a more complete glimpse into the interactions between colonists, natives, and the apparatus of empire as the British expanded into Africa and Asia. Also, her work on Loyalist attempts to secure reparations for property lost during the American Revolution is original and presents historians with a new set of documents through which to understand the primary concerns of the Loyalists. My one minor complaint about Liberty's Exiles is Jasanoff's tendency to overdramatize events by lapsing into flowery language. Her descriptions of the forests of Jamaica and barrenness of the Bahamas are simply too much and distract the reader from the characters that populate those locales. I would have liked a more tight, scholarly use of language where description was used to give the reader a sense of the terrain and not a tool to heighten the drama as Loyalists struggled to find a place in the British Empire. Overall, a tremendous read that successfully attaches itself to current trends in scholarship, while building upon it and adding new perspectives to what it meant to be a Loyalist and how Loyalists came to represent the newly constituted British Empire after 1776. (less)
Fred Anderson's massive synthesis of the Seven Years' War and ensuing imperial crisis is an impressive achievement borne from nearly two decades of hi...moreFred Anderson's massive synthesis of the Seven Years' War and ensuing imperial crisis is an impressive achievement borne from nearly two decades of historical research. Ranging from the beginning of English colonial settlements in North America and ending with the Stamp Act crisis, Anderson successfully navigates an incredible time span weaving the intertwined stories of English imperial dominance with French and Spanish decline and American Indian politics. Combining the British, French, American Indian, and American colonial perspectives into a single compelling narrative is "Crucible of War"'s greatest strength. Anderson is careful to allow each party its own voice, told through its most compelling characters: Lord Jeffery Amherst, George Washington, Teedyuschung, and William Pitt. For such a lengthy book (tipping the scales at nearly 750 pages excluding notes), "Crucible" maintains a compelling narrative throughout and gives the reader a holistic understanding of the transnational dimensions of the Seven Years' War and its aftermath.
Of course "Crucible"'s greatest strength is also its most glaring weakness. Anderson's argument about the creation and consolidation of the British Empire is frequently lost in the frequent descriptions of battles and British political debates that populate "Crucible"'s pages. A considerable amount of fat could have been trimmed from this book - perhaps at the expense of some of its narrative drama - to make it more argumentative and illustrate some of the transformations of certain groups (notably the American Indians and colonists) more clearly. Furthermore, as a synthesis "Crucible" contributes almost no new historical data regarding the Seven Years' War or the Imperial Crisis. Anderson primarily relies on previously published scholarly monographs and a published letters, instead of archival material. For such a lengthy book it would have been nice to see more archival evidence and/or novel documentary evidence.
Overall, a fascinating and well-written examination of an understudied period of early American history. A must read for history graduate students taking their exams in early American history as well as an enjoyable read for anyone interested in military history or American Indian history. An ambitious, epic book of the sort rarely seen in American historical scholarship nowadays and one that should inspire new interest in the Seven Years' War and the Imperial Crisis. (less)