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July 9, 2010
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Common-place considers Symbols of Freedom Amidst the Reality of Slavery

Worcester, MA—The current issue of Common-place, the online history journal, takes a fresh look at the U.S. Capitol to learn how a nineteenth-century argument over the symbols of freedom played out amidst the reality of slavery. Common-place also introduces a new column, "Poetic Research," with a poem by Robert Strong.

Vivien Green Fryd's article, "Lifting the Veil of Race at the U.S. Capitol," considers Thomas Crawford's Statue of Freedom that tops the U.S. Capitol dome. The statue "…begun in 1855 after the highly controversial passage of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) and the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851) and finished in 1863 during the Civil War, has as much to teach us about the intricacies of race and racism as it can about the politics of public art and slavery," Fryd writes.

In Crawford's original drawings, the figure wore a liberty cap, a symbol of freedom that Americans had appropriated from the ancient Romans, who gave the hats to newly freed slaves. But Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War and charged with the Capitol's construction, vetoed the design.

"Davis refused to allow any work in the U.S. Capitol Building to allude to slavery either overtly or covertly, via the cap or any other signification," Fryd writes. "Such maneuvers aimed to elide the tensions between the North and the South over this volatile issue during a period of escalating regional and political conflict." Fryd's essay unveils the statue's roots in the battle over slavery and race, exposing the political machinations that determined its final design. "This hidden meaning, this veiling, became even more poignant during (President Barack) Obama's inauguration as he stood below the Statue of Freedom, taking his oath and speaking about 'the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free.'"

The politics of slavery also surface in Natalie Joy's article, "Cherokee Slaveholders and Radical Abolitionists," which illuminates one of the most surprising alliances of the antebellum era, the one between William Garrison, a radical abolitionist and Elias Boudinot, a representative of the slaveholding Cherokee Indian nation.

To win the abolitionists support for the Cherokees' fight against the removal policies of the Andrew Jackson administration, Boudinot spun an elaborate story about slavery among the Cherokees that both men knew to be almost entirely untrue. Abolitionists joined the Indian cause because they saw in removal the influence of the slaveholding South.

"Abolitionists believed, as did most Americans, in the myth of the 'noble savage,' whose innocence of civilization was the source of his virtuous purity, but also his greatest weakness, for it left him vulnerable to the introduction of unwanted vices, including, in this instance, slavery," Joy writes. "Partially civilized Indians might be slave owners; fully civilized Indians would become emancipators."

Andrew Lawson takes aim at another nineteenth-century myth—the self-made man. His "Men of Small Property," analyzes a popular morality tale written in 1839 about the perils of the financial world and a collection of lectures by the apostle of the self-made man, Henry Ward Beecher.

The book, The Adventures of Harry Franco, chronicles the mishaps and eventual redemption of its main character, a lowly clerk in the financial market during the period leading up to the Panic of 1837 and its aftermath.

Beecher used the Panic as backdrop for his lectures that promoted traditional virtues of "veracity, frugality, and modesty," "…that serve "a young man in a modern economy."

Henry Franco's tale addresses the precariousness of the financial market by offering "a fantasy resolution to its hero's predicament," Lawson writes. Beecher preaches the "lower-middle-class ethics of scarcity: the self's resources must be guarded, husbanded, nurtured, and preserved in a society in which all is deceitful appearance, and constantly slipping away."

Beecher's appeal, Lawson concludes, was to "men of small property."

"Faced with life on the roller coaster ride of the market, the antebellum lower middle class developed a preference for sentiment and sympathy," he writes, "for inspiring sermons and uplifting lectures, rather than socio-economic analysis."

The volatile economy of the nineteenth century looms large in this issue's Ask the Author, which features a round table discussion by historians whose research helps put twenty-first century financial crises in perspective.

Seth Rockman, author of Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore, notes that it would be hard to read his book without noticing the many gestures toward contemporary labor arrangements, social welfare practices, and barriers to upward mobility.

The "illegal workers" in early republic Baltimore were runaway slaves, "who presented themselves as free to employers disinclined to ask many questions," Rockman writes.

"The causes of poverty and the role of the state in alleviating it elicited an early republic debate that was more robust than the one that dominated American politics in the 1990s," he also noted.

Brian P. Luskey, author of On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America, explains that "the debates about clerks and clerkships in nineteenth-century America are indeed relevant to our own times: they show the ways in which capitalism's opportunities and inequalities became the unquestioned organizing principles of American society and culture."

Luskey's book notes that in debating dishonest clerks, capitalists muted their employees' complaints, sustained their own power, and made the economy that benefited them appear to be legitimate. Twenty-first-century capitalists rely upon culture just as readily to justify their own wealth and shape Americans' expectations about character, morality, and mobility. As a result, those who are "too big to fail" will continue to succeed.

Wendy A. Woloson, author of In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression pointed out that pawners of today "engage in a practice that is centuries old, has changed little over time, and continues to play an essential role in people's lives, whether rich or poor."

She notes that "no statistic better reflects how essential pawnbrokers were to the rise of capitalism than this: In 1828, New York City pawnbrokers handled over 181,000 transactions for the year, equaling nearly one item pawned for every man, woman, and child living in the city at the time.

Our present moment of economic crisis has had a surprisingly unifying effect, according to Woloson. "Hard times have trickled up, forcing the formerly rich and the downwardly mobile alike to hock their personal possessions with the pawnbroker."

Writing in Tales from The Vault, Barbara Austen recounts how she applied the "More Product, Less Process" (MPLP) concept to eighteenth and nineteenth-century manuscript collections of the Connecticut Historical Society. The Society's collections include over a million items, accumulated since the institution was founded in 1825.

Austen discovered through an inventory that over a third of the manuscript collections had no records in the online catalog, nine percent had no record at all, and ten percent had never been organized (processed) for researchers to use.

Though the MPLP concept was developed for establishing control/creating access to modern, twentieth-century collections that already had some type of order, Austen successfully applied it to 900 of the Society's collections including those from the Colonial era, documents from the Revolutionary War, and letters from soldiers in the Civil War. Some of these collections had no inherent organization since they were passed down from generation to generation and were rarely put into folders and had no labels.

Austen notes "MPLP is not embraced by the archival community. The primary concern is that using such a cursory approach will leave many important items 'undiscovered,' to the detriment of researchers," she writes.

However, "If these collections were processed and cataloged in the usual fashion-unfolding each item, making sure everything has a date… carefully reading each item… it would have taken at least six years, working full-time to achieve even minimal control over the collections," Austen writes.

"I think we have done an immense service to researchers by letting them know what we have, even if we've only offered them a teaser," she concludes. "And as more researchers use these collections, we will rely on their growing expertise to let us know more about the materials."

In Common Reading, Elisa Tamarkin's article, "Reading for Relevance," considers the question, 'Is newsworthiness the same as importance?'

"Insisting on relevance may be, of course, a sign of resignation about the fate of 'serious' or 'deep' reading in an accelerated culture of information on-demand," Tamarkin notes.

Relevance, as an expression of recency, crowds out almost every other factor that we could use to sort through information for what matters and what doesn't, according to Tamarkin.

"Whenever we make a claim for a text's relevance, we are not just signaling our belief in the significance of our reading, but also registering a faith in its utility and timeliness within an economy of knowledge that demands constant novelty and shifting sites of interest," she writes. "Now even newspapers are finding it hard to match the pace at which all news becomes old news today."

In Object Lessons, David Jaffee's article, "Anthony's Broadway on A Rainy Day," traces the development and popularity of stereographs that offered a three-dimensional vision when held in a special viewer. Introduced in the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century, stereographs quickly became a craze. An article in The American Journal of Photography in 1858 noted, "What better interlude during an evening party than to fill up a pause with a glance at a fine stereoscopic view?"

Jaffee, who traced the development of the E. & H. T. Anthony & Co, a leading producer of stereographs, writes that after he found "boxes of Anthony and other stereographs at American Antiquarian Society (AAS) along with advertisement and periodical articles, I could better understand how these objects became part of a common imagery that took its place in the home, where they could also serve as a focus in the parlor for visiting and other social activities."

The current issue of Common-place also contains the following book reviews: Charles R. Foy's review of In the Eye of All Trade: Bermuda, Bermudians, and the Maritime Atlantic World, 1680-1783 by Michael J. Jarvis; Nichole George's review of As If an Enemy's Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution by Richard Archer; and James J. Gigantino II's review of Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North by C.S. Manegold.

About Common-place

Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks—and listens—to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place readers can join in the discussion of any of the journal's features by visiting the "Common-place Coffeeshop," a message board on the website. Common-place is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Oklahoma Department of History.

About the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society and independent research library, specializing in all aspects of American history and culture through 1876. Founded in 1812 by the patriot printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, AAS is the third oldest historical organization in the United States and the first to take the whole nation as its scope. The AAS library is the preeminent repository of pre-twentieth-century American printed materials and related manuscript and graphic arts materials in the world. The Society also sponsors an array of programs to encourage the use of its collections and to foster a greater understanding of American history. The main office for Common-place is at AAS, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609-1634; telephone (508) 755-5221.

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