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Living on the Margin in Early New England
Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2001
In eighteenth-century America, no centralized system of welfare existed to assist people who found themselves without food, medical care, or shelter. Any poor relief available was provided through local taxes, and these funds were quickly exhausted. By the end of the century, state and national taxes levied to help pay for the Revolutionary War further strained municipal budgets. In order to control homelessness, vagrancy, and poverty, New England towns relied heavily on the "warning out" system inherited from English law. This was a process in which community leaders determined the legitimate hometown of unwanted persons or families in order to force them to leave, ostensibly to return to where they could receive care. The warning-out system alleviated the expense and responsibility for the general welfare of the poor in any community, and placed the burden on each town to look after its own.
But homelessness and poverty were problems as onerous in early America as they are today, and the system of warning out did little to address the fundamental causes of social disorder. Ultimately the warning-out system gave way to the establishment of general poorhouses and other charities. But the documents that recorded details about the lives of those who were warned out provide an extraordinary—and until now forgotten—history of people on the margin.
Unwelcome Americans puts a human face on poverty in early America by recovering the stories of forty New Englanders who were forced to leave various communities in Rhode Island. Rhode Island towns kept better and more complete warning-out records than other areas in New England, and because the official records include those who had migrated to Rhode Island from other places, these documents can be relied upon to describe the experiences of poor people across the region.
The stories are organized from birth to death, beginning with the lives of poor children and young adults, followed by families and single adults, and ending with the testimonies of the elderly and dying. Through meticulous research of historical records, Herndon has managed to recover voices that have not been heard for more than two hundred years, in the process painting a dramatically different picture of family and community life in early New England. These life stories tell us that those who were warned out were predominantly unmarried women with or without children, Native Americans, African Americans, and destitute families. Through this remarkable reconstruction, Herndon provides a corrective to the narratives of the privileged that have dominated the conversation in this crucial period of American history, and the lives she chronicles give greater depth and a richer dimension to our understanding of the growth of American social responsibility.
This book originated in the summer of 2006, in the burial ground of the First Church of Christ, Congregational, of East Haddam, Connecticut, where a team of forensic scientists began excavating the graves of two emancipated slaves, Venture Smith (d. 1805) and his wife, Marget (d. 1809). Those requesting this remarkable investigation were the Smiths’ direct descendants, members of the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh generations, who were determined to honor the bicentennial of their founding ancestor’s death by discovering everything possible about his life. Opening burial plots in the hope of recovering DNA for genealogical tracing proved a compelling first step. But what began as a scientific inquiry into African origins rapidly evolved into an unparalleled interdisciplinary collaboration between historians, literary analysts, geographers, genealogists, anthropologists, political philosophers, genomic biologists, and, perhaps most revealingly, a poet. Their common goal has been to reconstruct the life of an extraordinary African American and to assay its implications for the sprawling, troubled eighteenth-century world of racial exploitation over which he triumphed. This volume displays the rich results of that collaboration. A highly intelligent, deeply self-motivated and immensely energetic slave transported from Africa, Venture Smith transformed himself through unstinting labor into a respectable Connecticut citizen, a successful entrepreneur, and the liberator of other enslaved African Americans. As James O. Horton emphasizes in his foreword to this volume, “Venture Smith’s saga is a gift to all who seek to understand the complex racial beginnings of America. It helps to connect the broad American story with the stories of many Americans whose lives illustrate the national struggle to live out the national ideals.” In addition to Horton and volume editor James Brewer Stewart, contributors include Cameron Blevins, Vincent Carretta, Anna Mae Duane, Robert P. Forbes, Anne L. Hiskes, Paul Lovejoy, Marilyn Nelson, David Richardson, Chandler B. Saint, Linda Strausbaugh, Kevin Tulimieri, and John Wood Sweet.
Narrating Gabriel's Conspiracy
An ambitious if ultimately unrealized plan to revolt that ended in the conviction and hanging of over two dozen men, Gabriel’s Conspiracy of 1800 sought nothing less than to capture the capital city of Richmond and end slavery in Virginia. Whispers of Rebellion draws on recent scholarship and extensive archival material to provide the clearest view yet of this fascinating chapter in the history of slavery--and to question much about the case that has been accepted as fact.
In his examination of the slave Gabriel and his group of insurgents, Michael Nicholls focuses on the neighborhood of the Brook, north of Richmond, as the plot’s locus, revealing the area’s economic and familial ties, the geographic proximity of the key conspirators, and how their contacts allowed their plan to spread across three counties and into the cities of Richmond and Petersburg.
Nicholls explores underdocumented aspects of the conspiracy, such as the participants’ recruitment and motives, showing them to be less ideologically driven than previously supposed. The author also looks at the state’s swift and brutal response, and argues persuasively that, rather than the coalition between blacks and whites that has been described in other accounts, the participants were all slaves or free blacks, suffering under an oppressive white population and willing to die for their freedom.
A Forum on the Future of the Field
Penned by leading historians, the specially-commissioned essays of Whither the Early Republic represent the most stimulating and innovative work being done on imperialism, environmental history, slavery, economic history, politics, and culture in the early Republic.
The past fifteen years have seen a dramatic expansion in the scope of scholarship on the history of the early American republic. Whither the Early Republic consists of innovative essays on all aspects of the culture and society of this period, including Indians and empire, the economy and the environment, slavery and culture, and gender and urban life. Penned by leading historians, the essays are arranged thematically to reflect areas of change and growth in the field.
Throughout the book, preeminent scholars act as guides for students to their areas of expertise. Contributors include Pulitzer Prize-winner Alan Taylor, Bancroft Prize-winner James Brooks, Christopher Clark, Ted Steinberg, Walter Johnson, Patricia Cline Cohen, David Waldstreicher, and more. These essays, all originally commissioned to appear in a special issue of the Journal of the Early Republic, explore a diverse array of subjects: the struggles for control of North America; the economic culture of the early Republic; the interactions of humans with plants, climate, animals, and germs; the commodification of people; and the complex intersections of politics and culture.
Whither the Early Republic offers a wealth of tools for introducing a new generation of historians to the nature of the field and also to the wide array of possibilities that lie in the future for scholars of this fascinating period.
The Impact of African Labor on the Anglo-American World, 1650-1850