Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts

Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts

Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts

Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts


Making Slavery History focuses on how commemorative practices and historical arguments about the American Revolution set the course for antislavery politics in the nineteenth century. The particular setting is a time and place in which people were hyperconscious of their roles as historical actors and narrators: Massachusetts in the period between the Revolution and the Civil War. This book shows how local abolitionists, both black and white, drew on their state's Revolutionary heritage to mobilize public opposition to Southern slavery. When it came to securing the citizenship of free people of color within the Commonwealth, though, black and white abolitionists diverged in terms of how they idealized black historical agency.

Although it is often claimed that slavery in New England is a history long concealed, Making Slavery History finds it hidden in plain sight. From memories of Phillis Wheatley and Crispus Attucks to representations of black men at the Battle of Bunker Hill, evidence of the local history of slavery cropped up repeatedly in early national Massachusetts. In fixing attention on these seemingly marginal presences, this book demonstrates that slavery was unavoidably entangled in the commemorative culture of the early republic-even in a place that touted itself as the "cradle of liberty."

Transcending the particular contexts of Massachusetts and the early American republic, this book is centrally concerned with the relationship between two ways of making history, through social and political transformation on the one hand and through commemoration, narration, and representation on the other. Making Slavery History examines the relationships between memory and social change, between histories of slavery and dreams of freedom, and between the stories we tell ourselves about who we have been and the possibilities we perceive for who we might become.


This is a story about storytelling, in all its myriad forms, from the narrative of national pride enshrined in a granite monument to the tales of a beloved ancestor whispered around a midnight fire. It is about who gets to tell stories about the past, whose stories get to be told, and who is around to listen. At its heart, it is about how people in a certain place and time thought about who makes history—whether in the sense of firing a bullet to start a revolution or in the sense of writing it all down—and how their answers to that question shaped their ideas about what sort of future to call into being. My subjects wrestled with these questions in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the problem of who makes history has been no less important for historians in our own time. For the last two generations or so, social historians have understood their project as the recovery of the “agency” of those hitherto seen as passive, marginal, and inarticulate, including women, workers, and slaves. This work is impressive not least for the methodological creativity and painstaking research that it has demanded. Since marginalized people left little in the way of transparent first-person sources, historians have developed ways of wresting meaning from mute or misleading material. Social historians have become excavators, rescuing individual lives and collective mentalities from the sediment of history.

But there is something troubling in this idea of “rescue.” The proposition of rescuing someone from obscurity puts that person in a subjected position, at the mercy of the historian, at the very moment when attention is supposedly being paid to the person’s own self-determination. The language of rescue suggests that a historian today can somehow reach back in time and pluck a forgotten actor from the debris of generations of historical narration, as though the histories that were written and not written about her, in her own day and in all the generations since, could somehow be brushed aside from her historical significance. “Rescue” creates too radical a break between the present and a discrete past. There is only the historian’s “now” and the . . .

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