Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory

Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory

Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory

Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory


America's slave past is being analyzed as never before, yet it remains one of the most contentious issues in U.S. memory. In recent years, the culture wars over the way that slavery is remembered and taught have reached a new crescendo. From the argument about the display of the Confederate flag over the state house in Columbia, South Carolina, to the dispute over Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings and the ongoing debates about reparations, the questions grow ever more urgent and more difficult.

Edited by noted historians James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, this collection explores current controversies and offers a bracing analysis of how people remember their past and how the lessons they draw influence American politics and culture today. Bringing together some of the nation's most respected historians, including Ira Berlin, David W. Blight, and Gary B. Nash, this is a major contribution to the unsettling but crucial debate about the significance of slavery and its meaning for racial reconciliation.

Ira Berlin, University of Marylan
David W. Blight, Yale University
James Oliver Horton, George Washington University
Lois E. Horton, George Mason University
Bruce Levine, University of Illinois
Edward T. Linenthal, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
Joanne Melish, University of Kentucky
Gary B. Nash, University of California, Los Angeles
Dwight T. Pitcaithley, New Mexico State University
Marie Tyler-McGraw, Washington, D.C.
John Michael Vlach, George Washington University


James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton

This book is a collection of essays that focus on public history and the difficulty that public historians encounter in dealing with the nation’s most enduring contradiction: the history of American slavery in a country dedicated to freedom. From its inception, the United States of America was based upon the principle that human freedom was a Godgiven right, but it also tolerated and was shaped by human slavery. By the time Virginia planter Thomas Jefferson penned the words announcing the colonies’ intention to seek independence from Britain, slavery had existed in British North America for more than a century. It held a firm grip on each of the original thirteen British colonies. Ironically, when Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” referring to basic human rights including freedom, he held at least 150 human beings in slavery. Jefferson personified the paradox of the new and emerging United States.

Many in Britain believed that this blatant inconsistency discredited the American cause, and said so directly. Granville Sharp, England’s most famous antislavery advocate, believed that slavery in America “weakens the claim [of] natural Rights of our American Brethren to Liberty.” English writer Samuel Johnson posed a pointed question calculated to underscore the hypocrisy of the situation: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps [for] liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Other English critics were more direct. One observed, “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his frightened slaves.”

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