Monday, 12 May 2014

Fourteenth Annual Gordon Lecture in American Studies

On Thursday 8th May, The Centre for American Studies finished its 2013-2014 seminar series with the Fourteenth Annual Gordon Lecture in American Studies.  Papers were presented by guest speakers Professor Richard Blackett (Vanderbilt University) and Professor David Blight (Yale University) that focused on the issue of abolitionism, primarily through a discussion of the Underground Railroad and author Frederick Douglass.

Professor Richard Blackett’s paper focused on the legacy of abolitionism through an examination of the Underground Railroad.  Through a microcosmic analysis of southern white communities and their population’s reactions to the Railroad’s successes in helping slaves escape north, Blackett detailed the nature of their struggle for freedom.  He did this through a case-by-case analysis of successful and unsuccessful escape attempts, beginning with the story of Henry Banks.  In an intriguing section of Blackett’s paper, he noted the various letters that Banks sent to his slave-master after escaping.  In the first letter he related how he had reached New York through Philadelphia via Baltimore, when in the given time this would not have been possible.  The second letter maintained that Banks was heading to California, stirring new hope in the slave-owner that he would soon retrieve him.  However as Blackett argued, the initial two letters were meant to confuse Bank’s slave-owner in his pursuit, a strategy which proved to be effective when Banks would later pen a third letter to the slave-owner from the safety of Canada.   

Blackett continued with an account of free black Nathan James and slave drayman Alfred Savage’s attempts to help a Nashville slave escape north.  Having arranged for a pine box to be delivered to the leader of the Underground Railroad, Levi Coffin (under the pseudonym Hannah Johnson) in Cincinnati, Ohio, it accidentally broke open after being thrown on to the train platform of Seymour, Indiana, revealing Aleck inside of it.  Although the local court dealt with the key figures swiftly, with Aleck being sent back to Nashville, Savage sentenced to fifteen lashes and James imprisoned, Blackett argued that the local event illustrated the vulnerability of slave communities to fugitive slaves, and the problems of northern attempts to help them escape.  Amidst a flurry of public speculation over the extent of outsider influences involved in the escape attempt, Aleck was brought to court to identify the nature of the conspiracy, in an attempt to expose the workings of the Underground Railroad.  Although local communities such as Seymour, Indiana, became more acutely aware of how to recognise suspicious behaviour and readied themselves against successive escape attempts, Blackett argued that many slaves continued to escape regardless.  To complete his analysis he noted that the escape attempt undermined southern dominance over slavery, showing how James, Savage and Aleck had disrupted the social and political order of the small southern community.  In finishing his paper, Blackett argued that it is this sort of examination of local communities and their reactions to fugitive slaves that is crucial to understanding abolitionism.

Professor David Blight followed Blackett’s excellent paper with an analysis of Frederick Douglass in the 1850s, and his relationship with abolitionism in the pre-Civil War United States.  Blight began by noting his own research into another ex-slave, James McCune Smith, an African-American physician and abolitionist who was also an alumnus of the University of Glasgow.  Blight went on to emphasise the importance of treating abolitionist movements such as the Underground Railroad in more intricate detail, and in doing so, hopefully avoid the mythologies that surround them.  In the first section of his paper, Blight detailed Douglass’ escape to Canada, doing so with a great deal of passion and suspense as he read excerpts from his letters.  He went on to note Douglass’ successes as an orator in the Glasgow and Edinburgh lecture circuits as a free man.  After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, his anger towards slave-owners only increased further.  In the following year Douglass’ fury would escalate to the point where he publicly advocated that every slave-owner should be killed.  His venom towards those who captured fugitive slaves led him to declare slave-hunting (or “Bloodhoundism” as he titled it) America’s national sport, where rather than capturing animals, Americans were in the pursuit of slaves.  Douglass’ anger in this period was detailed by Blight as his fostering of a rhetoric of violence in the attempt to find a logic of violence that would justify his bloodlust for slave-owners.  In his attempts to do so, Blight detailed his relationship with abolitionist John Brown.

Douglass and Brown’s relationship developed over the course of eight to nine meetings.  Blight noted that although much scholarly thought on their relationship tended to argue that Brown intensified Douglass’ anger, he was of the opinion this was not the case, as Douglass’ own history as a slave provided ample material for this.  Blight characterised their relationship as one that agreed on issues, but not necessarily on tactics, exemplified in Douglass’ disillusionment with Brown after his raid on Harpers Ferry.
The issues raised in these papers were discussed in the questions and answers afterwards.  The first questioner asked Professor Blackett about the effects of white male involvement in the Underground Railroad’s activities, and how this related to his discussion of southern communities.  Unlike fellow slaves or black free men who may have participated in the organisation’s activities, Blackett commented that white male involvement was deemed particularly traitorous by southern communities.  In another question, Blight was asked if Douglass’ anger ever diminished in his later years.  Blight argued that the arrival of the Civil War allowed Douglass to vent his anger in the ongoing conflict, and additionally expend it in his letters and lectures, but he continued to call for the killing of slave-owners as he had done previously.  Although Blight noted that after the war, the ageing Douglass calmed down, he was incensed at the betrayal of Reconstruction. In a later question about John Brown’s involvement in the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856, Professor Blight highlighted the complexities of the massacre, noting that none of the five men killed were in fact slave-owners.  Noting Brown’s numerous visits to Douglass’ home after the massacre, Blight went on to theorise on Douglass’ opinion of the massacre.  In his answer, he leaned towards the suggestion that Douglass was aware of the massacre, but due to his support of Brown, did not discuss it in his letters.  In an answer that recognised the complex and contrasting opinions of Brown that exist in contemporary United States culture, he extended this to its historical setting with Douglass, and his own omissions of Brown’s abolitionist activities.

Both Professor Blackett and Professor Blight’s papers dealt with their respective topics with touches of poignancy and humour.  In concluding The Centre for American Studies’ 2013-2014 seminar series, the Fourteenth Annual Gordon Lecture proved to be an enlightening examination, expanding social, national, political and racial treatments of abolitionism in the pre-Civil War United States.  

- James Nixon
PGR at the University of Glasgow 

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