- Examine the motives and actions of historical actors by thinking critically about their experiences and the context in which they lived
- Lessen the use of presentism in historical research and writing
Opposing Views on Slavery
Let’s look at two people who took opposite sides on the slavery issue and consider how their experiences shaped their worldviews. First, we’ll consider this passage from Solomon Northup. After being born free in New York, Northrup was captured while in Washington D.C. and forced into slavery for 12 years. He wrote about his experiences in a book, Twelve Years a Slave, and said this about slavery:
“There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones – there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved and miserable; nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one. Men may write fictions portraying lowly life as it is, or as it is not – may expatiate with owlish gravity upon the bliss of ignorance – discourse flippantly from arm chairs of the pleasures of slave life; but let them toil with him in the field – sleep with him in the cabin – feed with him on husks; let them behold him scourged, hunted, trampled on, and they will come back with another story in their mouths. Let them know the heart of the poor slave – learn his secret thoughts – thoughts he dare not utter in the hearing of the White man; let them sit by him in the silent watches of the night – converse with him in trustful confidence, of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and they will find that ninety-nine out of every hundred are intelligent enough to understand their situation, and to cherish in their bosoms the love of freedom, as passionately as themselves.”
Contrast Northrup’s commentary with that of John C. Calhoun, former Vice President under Jackson and Van Buren and later Senator from South Carolina.
..The labor of the African race is, among us, commanded by the European. I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age.
Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse. . .
― John C. Calhoun, 1837 speech “Slavery as a Positive Good”
Let’s do a little bit of contextual research to better understand these two opposing views. First, we’ll use the four dimensions—social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional—to understand more about the life of Solomon Northup. Your task will then be to do the same for John C. Calhoun.
First, skim the Wikipedia page about Solomon Northup to answer the following questions.
Having learned a little bit more about Solomon Northup, it’s easy to see how his life experiences clearly put him in a unique position to speak out against the ills of slavery.
Look at the Wikipedia entry for John C. Calhoun.
Looking at the four dimensions discussed above (social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional), answer the following questions. This is an open-ended exercise, but you can use the spaces below to jot down your ideas.
1. Social: Who did the figure associate with? Were they extroverted and gregarious, or introverted and reserved? Were they born into money, or did they struggle financially?
2. Cultural: What kind of culture did they live in? Was it one open to new ideas, or was it very strictly controlled? What kinds of opportunities did they have because of their identity?
3. Intellectual: How much education did they have? What kind of education was it? Did they do well?
4. Emotional: What hardships did the figure experience? How would this have helped shape who they became?
What in Calhoun’s life pointed him towards being such an ardent supporter of slavery? Draw out the things that you think would have been most influential in his life.
If you were an actual historian, you would research many different sources in order to understand a historical actor. You would spend months or even years combing through everything they had written or that had been written about them. Hopefully, as you did this, you would begin to see that some of their more controversial positions made a little more sense in the context of their own time. And while some things cannot be excused (slavery, for instance), you might begin to see why they would think their stance was acceptable, and why they acted as they did.