A Podcast on Antebellum America (ca.1815 - ca.1845) hosted by Daniel N. Gullotta and sponsored by Andrew Jackson's Heritage.
130 Earthquakes, Prophecy, and the Remaking of Early America with Jonathan Todd Hancock
The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811–12 were the strongest temblors in the North American interior in at least the past five centuries. From the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, a broad cast of thinkers struggled to explain these seemingly unprecedented natural phenomena. They summoned a range of traditions of inquiry into the natural world and drew connections among signs of environmental, spiritual, and political disorder on the cusp of the War of 1812. Drawn from extensive archival research, Convulsed States probes their interpretations to offer insights into revivalism, nation remaking, and the relationship between religious and political authority across Native nations and the United States in the early nineteenth century. With a compelling narrative and rigorous comparative analysis, Jonathan Todd Hancock uses the earthquakes to bridge historical fields and shed new light on this pivotal era of nation remaking.
Through varied peoples' efforts to come to grips with the New Madrid earthquakes, Hancock reframes early nineteenth-century North America as a site where all of its inhabitants wrestled with fundamental human questions amid prophecies, political reinventions, and war.
Jonathan Todd Hancock is an associate professor of history at Hendrix College.
129 How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America with Joshua D. Rothman
Slave traders are peripheral figures in most histories of American slavery. But these men—who trafficked and sold over half a million enslaved people from the Upper South to the Deep South—were essential to slavery's expansion and fueled the growth and prosperity of the United States.
In The Ledger and the Chain, acclaimed historian Joshua D. Rothman recounts the shocking story of the domestic slave trade by tracing the lives and careers of Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard, who built the largest and most powerful slave-trading operation in American history. Far from social outcasts, they were rich and widely respected businessmen, and their company sat at the center of capital flows connecting southern fields to northeastern banks. Bringing together entrepreneurial ambition and remorseless violence toward enslaved people, domestic slave traders produced an atrocity that forever transformed the nation.
Joshua D. Rothman is a professor of history and chair of the department of history at the University of Alabama. He is the author of two prize-winning books, Flush Times and Fever Dreams and Notorious in the Neighborhood. He lives in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
128 America's First Civil Rights Movement with Kate Masur
The half-century before the Civil War was beset with conflict over equality as well as freedom. Beginning in 1803, many free states enacted laws that discouraged free African Americans from settling within their boundaries and restricted their rights to testify in court, move freely from place to place, work, vote, and attend public school. But over time, African American activists and their white allies, often facing mob violence, courageously built a movement to fight these racist laws. They countered the states’ insistences that states were merely trying to maintain the domestic peace with the equal-rights promises they found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They were pastors, editors, lawyers, politicians, ship captains, and countless ordinary men and women, and they fought in the press, the courts, the state legislatures, and Congress, through petitioning, lobbying, party politics, and elections. Long stymied by hostile white majorities and unfavorable court decisions, the movement’s ideals became increasingly mainstream in the 1850s, particularly among supporters of the new Republican party. When Congress began rebuilding the nation after the Civil War, Republicans installed this vision of racial equality in the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment. These were the landmark achievements of the first civil rights movement.
Kate Masur’s magisterial history delivers this pathbreaking movement in vivid detail. Activists such as John Jones, a free Black tailor from North Carolina whose opposition to the Illinois “black laws” helped make the case for racial equality, demonstrate the indispensable role of African Americans in shaping the American ideal of equality before the law. Without enforcement, promises of legal equality were not enough. But the antebellum movement laid the foundation for a racial justice tradition that remains vital to this day.
Kate Masur is a professor of history at Northwestern University. A finalist for the Lincoln Prize, she is the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C.
127 John C. Fremont and the Violent Election Of 1856 with John Bicknell
The 1856 presidential race was the most violent peacetime election in American history. War between proslavery and antislavery settlers raged in Kansas; a congressman shot an Irish immigrant at a Washington hotel; and another congressman beat a US senator senseless on the floor of the Senate. But amid all the violence, the campaign of the new Republican Party, headed by famed explorer John C. Frémont, offered a ray of hope: a major party dedicated to limiting the spread of slavery. For the first time, women and African Americans actively engaged in a presidential contest, and the candidate’s wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, played a central role in both planning and executing strategy, and was a public face of the campaign. Even enslaved blacks in the South took hope from Frémont’s crusade.
The 1856 campaign was also run against the backdrop of a country on the move, with settlers continuing to spread westward-facing unimagined horrors, a terrible natural disaster that took hundreds of lives in the South, and one of the most famous Supreme Court cases in history, which set the stage for the Civil War. Frémont lost, but his strong showing in the North proved that a sectional party could win a national election, blazing the trail for Abraham Lincoln’s victory four years later.
John Bicknell is the author of America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election that Transformed the Nation. He has written and edited for Watchdog.org, Congressional Quarterly, and Roll Call, and was senior editor of 2016 and 2018 Almanac of American Politics. He lives in Virginia.
126 The Radical Significance of the Free Exercise of Religion with Jack N. Rakove
Today, Americans believe that the early colonists came to the New World in search of religious liberty. What we often forget is that they wanted religious liberty for themselves, not for those who held other views that they rejected and detested. Yet, by the mid-18th century, the colonists agreed that everyone possessed a sovereign right of conscience. How did this change develop? In Beyond Belief, Beyond Conscience, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jack Rakove tracks the unique course of religious freedom in America.
He finds that, as denominations and sects multiplied, Americans became much more tolerant of the free expression of rival religious beliefs. During the Revolutionary era, he explains, most of the new states moved to disestablish churches and to give constitutional recognition to rights of conscience. These two developments explain why religious freedom originally represented the most radical right of all. No other right placed greater importance on the moral autonomy of individuals, or better illustrated how the authority of government could be limited by denying the state authority to act. Together, these developments made possible the great revival of religion in 19th-century America.
As Rakove explains, America's intense religiosity eventually created a new set of problems for mapping the relationship between church and state. He goes on to examine some of our contemporary controversies over church and state not from the vantage point of legal doctrine, but of the deeper history that gave the U.S. its own approach to religious freedom. In this book, he tells the story of how American ideas of religious toleration and free exercise evolved over time, and why questions of church and state still vex us.
Jack N. Rakove is William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies Emeritus at Stanford University. He is the author of six books, including Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America, finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.
125 The Reverse Underground Railroad Toward Slavery with Richard Bell
Philadelphia, 1825: five young, free black boys fall into the clutches of the most fearsome gang of kidnappers and slavers in the United States. Lured onto a small ship with the promise of food and pay, they are instead met with blindfolds, ropes, and knives. Over four long months, their kidnappers drive them overland into the Cotton Kingdom to be sold as slaves. Determined to resist, the boys form a tight brotherhood as they struggle to free themselves and find their way home.
Their ordeal—an odyssey that takes them from the Philadelphia waterfront to the marshes of Mississippi and then onward still—shines a glaring spotlight on the Reverse Underground Railroad, a black market network of human traffickers and slave traders who stole away thousands of legally free African Americans from their families in order to fuel slavery’s rapid expansion in the decades before the Civil War.
Impeccably researched and breathlessly paced, Stolen tells the incredible story of five boys whose courage forever changed the fight against slavery in America.
Richard Bell teaches Early American history at the University of Maryland. He has received several teaching prizes and major research fellowships including the National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award. His first book, We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States, was published in 2012. He is also the author of Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home.