In the 1820s and 30s, the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company (MHLIC), established by the Boston elite to administer family trusts, invested in mortgage loans to farmers from western Massachusetts. Those aspects of Company mortgages that marked them as modern debtor-creditor arrangements--formal procedures, written contracts, and above all, the necessity of punctual payments, enforced by the threat of lawsuits-- frightened and alienated many borrowers and fueled broader-based political protests against corporations. Rural discontent over the Company’s business practices occurred as farmers underwent the difficult transition from a household to a market economy, but the Company’s insistence on those practices represent the Boston elite’s own adjustment to a new era of corporate capitalism. Conducting business with novel sorts of economic actors, no longer fellow merchants but distant strangers and social inferiors, elite Bostonians positioned the Company as an impersonal mechanism, irrevocably fixed in its method of operation, against what it perceived as an unreliable and assertive yeomanry. Rule-bound regularity soon emerged as not only standard business procedure but a full-blown ideological vision of a clockwork universe of business. Implying both the impartial application of rules and predictability in the business world, this vision held political and cultural appeal in an age of novel social tensions and unprecedented economic instability. Exploring the vexed relations between Massachusetts farmers and the MHLIC thus illuminates the process whereby the practices and values associated with corporate capitalism took hold among yeomen farmers and elite Bostonians alike.
Scholars have been debunking the Jacksonian era’s reputation as the “Age of the Common Man” for decades now, but they have gone too far in dismissing changes about which many contemporary political observers and participants complained. This essay explores the turbulent political culture of Washington, D.C. in the 1830s and finds evidence of real political democratization, understood as social (and related cultural) change in the composition and operation of American political institutions.
The peace and job security enjoyed by members of the established “residential elite,” longtime officeholders and their families, was disturbed by the influx of new blood who followed Andrew Jackson to Washington, including a large number of newspaper editors and other men whose middling to working-class social backgrounds and rough manners mostly barred them from office before 1828. Jackson appointed more than 70 editors to his administration and many of them ended up in Congress by the time of Martin Van Buren’s presidency.
Congress had a difficult time adjusting to the presence of these “minnows,” and vice versa. In the bulk of the essay, the experiences of former newspaper editors’ in Washington are woven together to show some of the problems surrounding the entry of common men into high office. Three former editors figure most prominently in the narrative. Michigan senator John Norvell could not afford to serve in Congress, but did the drudgework the great orators shirked, then quit to seek patronage offices when he was nearly bankrupt. Matthew Livingston Davis was a printer from the 1790s and longtime henchman of Aaron Burr who pioneered punditry in the 1830s with a column signed “The Spy in Washington.” The column’s inside information set nerves on edge and helped stir up a string of violent incidents involving members of Congress, including the shooting death of another former editor, Rep. Jonathan Cilley of Maine, in a misbegotten duel.
Southampton County, Virginia, was the locale for the 9/11 of the Old South’s slave system. Randolph Scully, Patrick Breen, and Anthony Kaye show that any effort to understand Nat Turner’s extraordinary rampage must build on our understanding of the ordinary and familiar. Churches and evangelical communities stood at the center of the Old South’s social order, as did attachments to neighborhoods.
Scully and Breen provide fresh readings of Baptist church records. Although the “shocking, exceptional nature of the Turner rebellion” (16) defies easy analysis, Scully notes that Turner was “a frustrated black spiritual virtuosi” (16). Breen studies the months after the Turner rebellion, when evangelical congregations attempted to rebuild communities of trust. Kaye sees the Turner rebellion as a neighborhood undertaking.
Too much that is polemical or speculative has been written about Nat Turner. These essays, by contrast, exercise admirable restraint. None claim to find some kind of silver bullet that explains the Turner insurrection. None credit after-the-fact reports of vast conspiracies known to many slaves within a fifty or hundred mile radius. None wish away the obstacles that were sure to crush any slave insurrection in antebellum America.
Breen notes that Turner, a young black man who realized that he had far more God-given ability than his white enslavers, grew up in a locale where some local whites didn’t approve of slavery, and where some shared with blacks a belief that it was contrary to Christian teaching.
This article provides an expanded perspective on the Nat Turner rebellion by tracing the developing tensions between black and white visions of evangelicalism in southeastern Virginia in the early nineteenth century. As growing black membership prompted white-controlled churches to segregate and marginalize blacks, blacks took advantage of this segregation to exercise an increasing degree of independent action and judgment about fundamental aspects of evangelical faith. Many of the tensions produced by these developments revolved around the gendered issues of black men’s access to religious authority and black congregants’ willingness to accept the authority of white male church officials. Unlicensed preaching by black men became a particularly contested issue as black men sought sources of evangelical authority outside of the region’s increasingly hostile white-controlled churches. This evolving religious dynamic profoundly affected the Turner rebellion’s meanings for black and white Virginians. Nat Turner himself drew on independent black practices of preaching and evangelical authority to shape his leadership and recruit followers, and a variety of both black and white observers suggested that religious resentments helped spur the revolt. The uprising prompted a religious crisis in southeastern Virginia, as both blacks and whites came to distrust the patterns of interaction that had tentatively united them in evangelical fellowship in earlier decades. Understanding the Turner rebellion as an episode in a longer history of religious development and conflict helps us understand these dimensions more completely and better integrates the rebellion itself into the history of social and cultural change in early national Virginia.
David Barrow, one of the most vocal antislavery activists of the revolutionary era, played a central role in establishing several Baptist churches in southern Virginia. Barrow’s strong antislavery position created significant tensions within these churches. Those who sought to uphold Barrow’s antislavery teachings faced stiff resistance from others who accepted and defended chattel slavery. This conflict hindered communion on several occasions between the 1790s and the 1830s as David Barrow’s churches debated the possibility of fellowship in the churches so deeply divided on the question of slavery. This paper examines these debates over time and finds that Barrow’s former churches clearly distanced themselves from Barrow’s antislavery position even as they confirmed a commitment to a non-egalitarian interracial fellowship. During David Barrow’s ministry, conflict erupted in the 1790s as Sarah Barrow, David Barrow’s wife, and others, tried to exclude slaveholders from communion at Black Creek Baptist Church. These efforts failed. Decades later, another minister at Black Creek Baptist Church, Jonathan Lankford, renewed the debate when he announced that he would withhold communion from the church’s slaveholders. This effort to remove slaveholders from communion failed, and Lankford was removed as minister and excommunicated from the church. After Nat Turner's revolt, all of Barrow’s former churches suspended their black members. As the fear of another revolt declined, whites debated the wisdom and propriety of resuming interracial fellowship. Despite the intense racial tensions following the revolt, each of Barrow’s former churches ultimately determined to bring blacks back into communion.
This article reinterprets Nat Turner’s rebellion based on a rereading of The Confessions of Nat Turner elaborating its pervasive theme of neighborhood. A comparison of The Confessions with contemporary newspaper accounts suggests Turner’s talk of neighborhood throughout the document is authentic. According to Turner, an ongoing, often contentious negotiation with other slaves gave him a unique place in their neighborhood. He stood out for his precocious intellectual abilities yet reluctantly agreed with neighbors these gifts were God-given. Neighbors scorned Turner after he absconded, only to return a seemingly repentant runaway, yet his initial recruits to the rebellion were all from his neighborhood. The progress of the rebellion itself turned sharply on neighborhood lines. While the rebels remained in their neighborhood, they proceeded swiftly and drew new recruits. Turner marked their entry into a new neighborhood in instructions to one detachment and in a change of tactics. Outside his neighborhood, new divisions surfaced among the rebels. They met the first onslaught of county militia at the gates to Parker’s farm, where Turner waited while others went recruiting among slaves who were strangers to him. Turner decided to return to his neighborhood after the rebels met resistance from militia forces again, and he remained in his neighborhood throughout the several weeks he was at large. The neighborhood thesis does not preclude the possibility the revolt extended over a broader terrain, but it underscores the difficulties of uniting such a force and illuminates several puzzling aspects of the rebellion.
This essay comments on three articles appearing in the same issue of the Journal of the Early Republic: Randolph Ferguson Scully, “‘I come here before you did and I shall not go away’: Race, Gender, and Evangelical Community on the Eve of the Nat Turner Insurrection”; Patrick H. Breen, “Contested Communion: The Limits of White Solidarity in Nat Turner’s Virginia”; and Anthony E. Kaye, “Neighborhoods and Nat Turner: The Making of a Slave Rebel and the Unmaking of a Slave Rebellion.” Both the comment and the papers originated in a panel session at the 2005 annual convention of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. The comment suggests that the three articles fit together exceptionally well and demonstrate how local history can provide an ideal setting for raising questions of far more than local interest. Scully and Breen provide book-ends to the Nat Turner insurrection, examining religious tensions in southeastern Virginia on the eve of and immediately following the rebellion. Together, their articles reveal a basic continuity in the dominant pattern of black-white interaction within the Baptist churches of Southampton County, Virginia, a pattern in which segregation and subordination coexisted with a significant degree of black religious autonomy. Kaye focuses on Nat Turner and the revolt that he led, arguing that its most salient characteristic was its local orientation; the revolt “arose from the solidarity of neighborhoods, and it broke apart on the shoals between them.” Although these articles have a local focus, they raise big questions, touching on black-white religious interaction, disagreements among whites over the place of blacks in Protestant churches, the sources and limitations of slave rebellion, and the overall impact of the Turner insurrection. Together, they give readers a lot to think about.