What role did Enlightenment ideas play in the cultural origins of the French Revolution?

Akin to Daniel Mornet’s underlying thesis that ‘it was, in part, ideas that determined the French Revolution’, this study will highlight the importance of Enlightenment in Revolution.[1] There are undoubtedly greater political and economic causes, including resentment of an increasingly objectionable monarchy and the financial strains of substantial expenditure on wars including the American War of Independence. Jonathon Israel states that, despite continued efforts by academic historians, there has been a significant gap in our causal understanding of the French Revolution due to the prevalence of numerous factors.[2] However, culturally, the Enlightenment played a somewhat significant role in its outbreak. The French Revolution was ultimately a complete reorganisation of the French state, both politically and culturally, bringing about the institution of a secular society. Eric Hobsbawm has stated that the French Revolution was, and remains, ‘the most prominent’ of its kind.[3] Whilst the Revolution was by no means an ‘isolated phenomenon’, it provided the greatest fundamental changes to its own nation and to others; it was, in the truest sense of the word, revolutionary.[4] As a consequence of this uniqueness, its origins cannot be explained in terms of the general conditions of Europe, but must be specific to the context of French culture at that particular moment in history.[5] Therefore, whilst the Enlightenment played some part in the cultural origins of the French Revolution, only limited importance can be attributed to it. This study will argue that, rather than playing a significant role in the Revolution’s origins, the Enlightenment played a greater part in its growth. This is due to the fact that Enlightenment ideas flourished and spread with ease in the social and political atmosphere created by the tragedy and violence of the Revolution.

In order to establish the Enlightenment’s role within the cultural origins of the French Revolution, one must first determine its arrival in France. It was primarily England that first bore the seeds of the fruit which is Enlightenment ideology, and, from England, these ideas travelled outward to France and other nations.[6] Developing ideas concerning physics and natural philosophy, promoted by thinkers such as John Locke and Isaac Newton, inspired and influenced the confidence in natural law, human reason and the rights of man that was emphasised the French philosophes.[7] Such confidence inspired, also, scepticism, particularly concerning organised religion and the authority of an absolute monarchy.[8] Notably, Montesquieu was hugely inspired by the works of Locke. Locke’s fundamental thesis, in terms of foreshadowing the French Revolution, was that ‘absolute monarchy is inconsistent with civil society’.[9]Montesquieu’s ‘The Spirit of Laws’ developed and exaggerated Locke’s key questions; he stressed the importance of the limited power that should be attributed to a government that separated powers between legislature and executive.[10] Dominated by an absolute monarchy, hereditary aristocracy, and powerful Church, the development of the belief in reason and independence from authority led to an inevitable rejection of traditional monarchic hierarchy. Furthermore, the concept that echoed throughout the Revolution, ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, is first met within the works of French Enlightenment writer, Rousseau.[11] The works of the philosophes emphasised progress in terms of democratic government and freedom from Church authority, and, therefore, it can be argued that they provided the ideas which formed the cultural origins for the Revolution. As this study progresses, it should become clear that Enlightenment ideas acted as a catalyst that sped up and directed the course of the Revolution, whilst providing a stage for social unrest and a new government regime.

The question prevails, then, of how these ideas travelled and how they existed within the public sphere, if they were to cause such a large scale violent rebellion. As a rejection of the absolute authority of the crown and the fanatical prevalence of the Church, these ideas could not have simply appeared within the intellectual clubs of the eighteenth century, since these societies frequently required paid membership; this limited such clubs to elite individuals who could afford to be part of them, such as royal officials and members of the aristocracy. Instead, writing in 1797, Augustin Barruel emphasised the role of secret societies and clubs, as well as informal gatherings and discussions held in salons.[12] In particular, Barruel insists that ‘all the great events of this world are dependent on hidden causes, which these secret societies powerfully influence’; these secret societies were responsible for paving the way, politically and socially, for change.[13] Recent historiography similarly stresses the role of such informal discussions in establishing a culture of critique. Gatherings took the form of judgements concerning ideas and society; ‘such judgement was exercised by the institutions that made the public into a tribunal of aesthetic criticism – the salons, the cafes, the clubs and the periodicals’.[14] It is within such informal societies that the ideas of the Enlightenment were allowed to gain momentum and spread.

The existence of social clubs in France during the period does not distinctly marry the Enlightenment to the cultural origins of the Revolution, without questioning the ultimate intellectual aims and grievances addressed by such clubs. Chartier states that politicisation in eighteenth century France saw ‘intellectual sociability…as founding a new public area in which the use of reason and judgment was exercised’.[15] The popularisation of artistic and literary criticism within sites, such as cafes and salons, paved the way for ‘the emergence of a new political culture’ whereby it became commonplace to discuss previously forbidden topics, including the authority of the Church and state.[16] To put the Enlightenment in its most simple terms, it was a movement which established conversation and debate in arenas of religion, tolerance, morality, experimentation and observation.[17] Whilst undoubtedly the themes of the Revolution, such as liberty and the rights of man, run concurrent with these ideas, there is only a certain level of continuity of ideas between the Enlightenment and the informal social gatherings that were happening throughout France. It could be argued that those Enlightenment ideas which most specifically link to revolutionary ideals were considered the least significant to thinkers outside of the volatile French socio-political environment. As aforementioned, John Locke’s discussions of the limits that could be placed on governmental power were indeed developed by Montesquieu, however, recent historiography, as in the work of Brian Tamanaha, suggests that Montesquieu’s development of Locke’s thesis exaggerates it to the point of misrepresentation; Tamanaha states that Montesquieu ‘misread the actual extent of separation of powers in England’.[18] Perhaps, grievances contemporary to the society in which Montesquieu lived, such as an increasing resentment for France’s absolute monarchy, led him to purposefully emphasise the extent to which power should be devolved to the citizens. This suggests that, whilst there existed some level of continuity of ideas between Enlightenment and Revolution, it cannot truthfully be stated that the Revolution founded its cultural origins wholly in the Enlightenment, since they were evidently also a product of contemporary grievances.

Traditional accounts of Revolution stress the significance of great ideas written by great men, such is the traditional understanding of the Enlightenment. Works, such as Henri Peyre’s 1949 article, ‘The Influence of Eighteenth Century Ideas on the French Revolution’, name Voltaire and Rousseau as key influential figures with regards to influencing revolutionary movement in France.[19] Peyre argues that, during the reign of Louis XIV, Enlightenment thinking develops, encouraging its followers to ‘take it upon themselves to influence the existing facts, to change man by education, to free him from out-moded superstitions, to increase his political liberty and his well-being’.[20] Peyre describes the Revolution as a sudden break point following this building of passion for Enlightenment ideas, which culminates in a rush that ‘sweeps aside the old regime, devours men, and causes heads to fall’.[21] Whilst certainly offering a romanticised ideal of what the years of bloodshed and terror that was the French Revolution, the question remains whether the philosophies of the Revolution truly reflected those of these great writers in such a way that theirs can be considered a cultural origin.

There exist significant inconsistencies between the writings of much celebrated Enlightenment thinker Rousseau, for example, and the actual practicing rebels of the Revolution. Eric Hobsbawm suggested that whilst great men, such as Rousseau, are credited with the philosophical origin of the movement, they had few followers at the time.[22] ‘Poised between pure individualism and the conviction that man is only himself in a community’, Rousseau provided a similar school of thought to predecessors, such as Thomas Paine.[23] Hobsbawm states that, whilst Rousseau provided a strong and persuasive intellectual debate, there existed no ‘specific Rousseauist school of thought’, since his ideas were fused with others of the period, never allowing for a distinct influence of Rousseau on the French revolutionaries.[24] Supporting this suggestion is the work of Daniel Mornet on the contents of French libraries. Analysing the catalogues of five hundred private libraries, Mornet found only a single copy of Rousseau’s ‘Contrat Social’.[25] This theme continued throughout Mornet’s investigation, ultimately establishing that, during the period 1750 to 1780, private libraries ‘contained a surprisingly small percentage of the Enlightenment classics’.[26] This would suggest that Enlightenment ideas could not possibly have established the cultural origins of the Revolution, since the most key figures were not widely read.

One counterargument to this attack on Rousseau’s significance lies in who was likely to have read in such an environment. Surely, any library that was large and significant enough to have had its own catalogue, would not represent the consumption patterns of the everyday reader.[27] Further, Robert Darnton notes that ‘auction catalogues had to pass the censorship before being printed’; as a result, any controversial texts, likely including any Enlightenment literature that could inspire a revolt against the establishment, may have been purposefully struck from the official records.[28] Additionally, it must be considered that Mornet’s research ends in 1780, a full nine years before the break of Revolution; is it not probable that any works that would have influence on the origins of Revolution would be most popular in the years leading to its beginning? Cross-referencing this argument with the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe’s database for sales destinations, allows one to see that 2035 copies of Rousseau’s works were sold in France between 1769 and 1789.[29] Of these, 1909 copies were sold between the years of 1780 and 1789, suggesting that Mornet’s research may prove of limited use regarding the influence of Enlightenment literature on the outbreak of Revolution. This figure appears to contrast any suggestion that Rousseau held little significance in the period leading to Revolution, since there are a noteworthy number of sales in the region in the twenty years prior. By contrast, only 1597 copies of the Bible were sold in France between the years 1769 and 1789.

Similarly, Voltaire, another great Enlightenment writer, noted for his contributions to the field, has received criticism from modern historians. However, there is a mass of data regarding sale destinations of works on which Voltaire was the primary author up until 1789. The FBTEE database lists 7312 copies of his works sold in France, selling consistently across the region, from Paris in the North, to Montpellier in the South.[30] Jonathan Israel states that whilst Voltaire ‘was the first to emancipate the human mind and render philosophique reason popular with readers’, he was still ‘marginal in terms of the philosophy that caused the Revolution’.[31] He also notes that Brissot himself judged Voltaire ‘no friend of the people’.[32] This demonstrates that the popularity of an author’s work is not enough information upon which one can judge its influence.

In addressing whether the Enlightenment provided the cultural origins for the French Revolution, it should also be considered that, perhaps, there can be no singular term of ‘Enlightenment’. Rather, it may be more pertinent to address the movement as a series of ‘Enlightenments’, since the philosophes did not produce a unified body of thought. Key terms varied across time, geographical region, and even individual writer, meaning that the Enlightenment could be considered a process of debate and intellectual and cultural growth. Far from being considered the ‘unitary phenomenon’ it once was by 1960s historians, such as Peter Gay, the Enlightenment is studied in modern historiography by national context, by class and even by method of transmission.[33] National context, in particular, highlights the vast variations between Enlightenments. As discussed, the Enlightenment in France could be considered to have paved the way for violent revolt and a total restructure of their authority structure. Contrastingly, the Enlightenment in Spain was halted by the strength of their Church; Norman Hampson stated that despite a reforming ruler, the new ideas made very little headway in the face of clerical opposition’.[34] The inability to define a specific set of intellectual ideals, revolutionary authors or even geographical region that classifies the Enlightenment as a unitary phenomenon, poses a significant issue for the historian. However, whilst it proved problematic to establish consumption of specific authors and texts by French readers preceding the Revolution it may be possible to identify the cultural origins of the French Revolution within the confines of a broader, and perhaps less traditional, definition of the Enlightenment.

There exists greater evidence in pre-Revolutionary France that the common man would be influenced by an Enlightenment classified simply as a grand progression to greater rights for man and faith in natural law. Peter Gay’s understanding of the Enlightenment is one that limits political and social discussions to the confines of a greatly educated few, who formed a ‘family’ of philosophers that engaged in discussions concerning humanity, freedom and religion through their literary works.[35] However, modern historiography has come to emphasise the role of the general populace in the Enlightenment. Enlightenment ideas were commonplace within cafes and salons, pamphlets and newspapers; this is true to the extent that Carla Hesse has suggested that ‘no technology better embodied the ideal of ‘Enlightenment’ than the printing press- a machine of human invention that could make useful ideas manifest in material form and spread them in unprecedented quantities.’[36] An Enlightenment as defined by Gay was unlikely to have caused such a large scale violent uprising as the French Revolution, however, an Enlightenment in which ideas were frequently and quickly transmitted between ordinary people may have.

In order to claim that the Enlightenment had any role in the cultural origins of the French Revolution, one must make both the assumptions that: revolutionaries read and were immersed in Enlightenment literature, and that these texts undermined the old regime. It has already been established that a not insignificant amount of Enlightenment literature was circulating during the years preceding the revolution. More accessible texts and the role of the press have been discussed at length by historians, such as Jack Censer. Censer states that debates that were usually confined to the private sphere furthered increasingly into the public sphere as the eighteenth century progressed.[37] Whilst careful to not directly attack either the Church or the state, the literary and philosophical press succeeded in disseminated Enlightenment thinking and the Enlightenment emphasis on rationalisation.[38] However, any evidence that revolutionaries read, or even were exposed to, Enlightenment texts must be addressed carefully, since there exist innumerable issues with this data. Contemporary readers may have been oblivious to the nature or purpose of the texts, either misinterpreting authors or simply missing the key message of the piece. Further, Censer notes that the care taken to avoid offending authority figures and not to breach censorship laws significantly impacted the role that the press were able to play in motivating and mobilising readers to Revolution; thus, the Enlightenment’s role is also dampened.[39] Additionally, it is not wholly realistic that every person that was exposed to Enlightenment literature would be immediately motivated to rise up against the absolute authority of the crown and Church, without other considerable motivations; as aforementioned, the Revolution was caused by an array of social, political and economic grievances, as well as the influence of the Enlightenment.

In order to establish a greater understanding of the relationship between the Enlightenment and revolution, the events of France will now be compared to those of America in 1776. The primary causes of the American Revolution are economic and political; heavy taxation and resentment of British rule sparked the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The American Revolution saw a new way of life forced upon colonies by a change in imperial administration. In this, the American Revolution is somewhat less complex than the French, and as such is placed more easily within the confines of an Enlightenment definition.[40] Robert A. Ferguson defines the Enlightenment in America as ‘the political right of self-determination realized’. Further, the legacy of the Revolution is ‘government by consent of the governed’, emphasising the ‘primacy of reason’ and the ‘value of individual freedom’.[41] Perhaps, therefore, it should be the legacy of the French Revolution which defines the role of the Enlightenment in its origins. However, in the case of the American Revolution, as is exhibited in that of the French Revolution, it is evident that whilst Enlightenment ideas certainly marry with revolutionary movements and share some similarity with the cultural origins of such, the Enlightenment is not the sole basis for the origins of revolutionary ideals. Furthermore, it is possible that the prevalence of Enlightenment literature within revolution periods is caused by the societal desire for critical literature to reflect existing political tensions; this is in stark contrast to the conception that critical literature caused social unrest. Whilst not denying that Enlightenment and Revolution are concurrent through the eighteenth century, this study proposes that the socio-political environment that is created by violent revolution enables an atmosphere in which such critical literature can exist and flourish.

To conclude, the Enlightenment played a significant, if limited, role in the cultural origins of the French Revolution. Suggesting that the cultural origins of the Revolution lay with the Enlightenment is not to determine the cause of the Revolution, but rather to pinpoint ‘the conditions that made it possible because it was conceivable’.[42] Ultimately, the complexity of the Enlightenment complicates the debate regarding its legacy and certainly its place within the cultural origins of the French Revolution. Ultimately, the legacy of the Enlightenment and the Revolution run concurrently as the enactment of democratic values, individual freedoms, and reason. The Enlightenment may have not exploded with such success in France at this point had there not been a culmination of significant political and social grievances. Culturally, the Enlightenment did not cause the French Revolution, but acted as a catalyst, providing depth and academic substance to social grievances, and exacerbating issues by acting as a vehicle for these ideas through the social classes and across a wider geographical area. Similarly, the French Revolution did not cause or establish the Enlightenment in France, but, rather, announced and exaggerated it. The two happenings are intrinsically interlinked in a way which makes it almost impossible for the historian to determine any detail of a causal relationship; the two coexist unquestionably.

[1] R. Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, (New York: Duke University Press, 2004), p.3.

[2] J. Israel, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from the Rights of Man to Robespierre, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014), pp.6-7.

[3] E. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789 – 1848, (London: Abacus, 1977), pp.74-75.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] H. Trueman Wood, The Reciprocal Influence of English and French Literature in the Eighteenth Century, (London: Macmillan and Co., 1870), pp.25-28.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] B. Z. Tamanaha, On the Rule of Law: History, Politics, Theory, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp.49-53.

[10] Ibid.

[11] H. Trueman Wood, Reciprocal Influence, p.39.

[12] A. Barruel, Memoirs, Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, (London: Author, 1798), pp.54-56.

[13] Ibid., p.55.

[14] Chartier, Cultural Origins, p.22.

[15] Ibid., pp.16-17.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Tamanaha, Rule of Law, pp.49-53.

[19] H. Peyre, ‘The Influence of Eighteenth Century Ideas on the French Revolution’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 10.1, (January 1949), pp.63-87.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Hobsbawm, Age of Revolution, pp.300-301.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] R. Darnton, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp.167-168.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29]‘STN Online Database Archive’, French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, <http://fbtee.uws.edu.au/stn/interface/query_places.php?t=author&e=rawsales&id=au0000783&pa=on&ea=on&ta=on&d1=01&m1=01&y1=1769&d2=31&m2=12&y2=1789&g=geographic_zone&d=map&gt; [accessed 18th May 2016]

[30] ‘STN Online Database Archive’, The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, <http://fbtee.uws.edu.au/stn/interface/query_places.php?t=author&e=rawsales&id=au0000931&pa=on&d1=01&m1=01&y1=1769&d2=31&m2=12&y2=1789&g=town&d=map&gt; [accessed 19th May 2016]

[31] Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, pp.18-19.

[32] Ibid.

[33] D. Outram, The Enlightenment: New Approaches to European History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p.1.

[34] N. Hampson, The Enlightenment: An evaluation of its assumptions, attitudes and values, (London: Penguin, 1982), Chapter 1 (ebook).

[35] P. Gay, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1966), p.3.

[36] Carla Hesse, ‘Print Culture in the Enlightenment’, The Enlightenment World, M. Fitzpatrick et al. (eds.), (London: Routledge, 2004), pp.366-381.

[37] J. Censer, The French Press in the Age of the Enlightenment, (London: Routledge, 2002), p.210.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] R. A. Ferguson, The American Enlightenment, 1750-1820, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p.22.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Chartier, Cultural Origins, p.2.


How has the historiography of the Enlightenment changed since the 1960s?

Discussions of the Enlightenment have been in place since as early as the eighteenth century.[1] ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity’, Immanuel Kant stated in his 1784 essay, ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’[2] In this, Kant cleverly defines the Enlightenment as an event or a process which brings humanity out of its self-inflicted ignorance and lack of knowledge through reason. Similarly, Moses Mendelssohn defines the Enlightenment as an ongoing ‘process of education’.[3] Academics, such as Christopher Nadon, have suggested that the Enlightenment will never cease to hold significance in a society in which it is paramount that one knows and understands the world, in order to make informed choices from a young age.[4] Further, historian Anthony Pagden defines it as the ‘true beginning of modernity, as an open-ended, continuing progression’, suggesting that the study of the Enlightenment is paramount to any historian analysing the journey that society, and humanity, embarked upon in getting to its current point.[5] This study will examine and investigate the historiography of the Enlightenment, from the limited early studies of historians such as Peter Gay in the 1960s, through the breaking of the limitations of these early studies, to current understandings. Specifically, this essay will address how historians developed Enlightenment history in a national context and how historians came to uncover the ways in which the Enlightenment was transmitted through newspapers, pamphlets and popular culture.

Originally, the Enlightenment was studied as a ‘unitary phenomenon’, presented as a period in which rationality prevailed over faith, and in which ideas were shared by the great thinkers, such as Voltaire, Diderot, Wolff and Leibniz.[6] Peter Gay is an example of the historians of the 1960s who studied the Enlightenment by this definition. Gay defines the periods of the Enlightenment by the chronology of the thinkers, from Voltaire to Diderot and Rousseau, followed by Kant.[7] Further, Gay defines the Enlightenment as a movement in which ‘men …united on a vastly ambitious program, a program of secularism, humanity, cosmopolitanism, and freedom’, in a staunch rejection of organised religion in favour of progress.[8] Interestingly, Gay suggests that the philosophers of the Enlightenment formed a ‘family’, in which philosophical unity did not necessarily dictate political alignment and so there were numerous rifts within the family.[9] However, since the ‘lofty’ intellectual discussions of Peter Gay and the 1960s, academic historians have generated new ‘down-to-earth’ approaches to Enlightenment history, which attempt to locate it more precisely in terms of its geographical and social context.[10]

Robert Darnton was one of the first historians to offer a comprehensive discussion of the limitations of Gay’s work; Darnton suggests that Gay was most simply limited by his blinkered focus on the great writers of eighteenth century France – ‘for how can it be written from within the confines of even a first-rate library?’[11] Further, one cannot truly understand the culture of France’s ancien régime or how it, coupled with an insidious distaste for their monarchy, paved the way for a period of new thinkers.[12] Darnton proposes that new sources and methodology must be approached in order to enable historians to place the Enlightenment more accurately within a social and geographical context.[13] Since the work of Darnton, historians have challenged these limitations, creating histories which address the Enlightenment through different geographical perspectives, and economic structures, taking into consideration its movement through social classes and the public and private spheres. Further, historians have considered how the Enlightenment was transmitted through pamphlets, newspapers and novels, as well as its interactions with popular culture and women. Enlightenment studies continually developed from the study of great men with great ideas, to a study of the transmission of new ideas in varying cultures and contexts.

For Peter Gay and other historians of the Enlightenment, it was very much a case of studying the thinkers of eighteenth century France; Charles W. J. Withers states that Gay’s Enlightenment was ‘embodied in those Voltairean radicals’.[14] However, despite the beliefs of many 1960s historians, the Enlightenment found a home in many cities outside of Paris. Voltaire himself stated in 1733 that ‘the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of Kings by resisting them’ was the English; thus is it not England that embodies a spiritual home for the history of the Enlightenment.[15] The Enlightenment was studied in a national context which provoked analysis of varying writers, the structures within each society, such as the Church and newspapers, and the transmission of ideas between states. Withers further discusses the development of the Enlightenment in a national context by highlighting the pluralisation of the term in order to avoid its unitary presuppositions. National difference has become one of the most frequent themes in Enlightenment studies, regardless of whether the discussion also concern economic, social or gender themes.[16] This is, perhaps, due to the fact that the culture and socio-political context of a single nation can have the greatest impact on the development of its history.[17]

The development of the Enlightenment in France, for example, was unique to its nation. Norman Hampson discusses how France remained powerful despite its ineffectual monarchy; France’s power instead stemmed from a ‘highly developed’ bureaucratic government, containing law courts, civil services and a largely literate public.[18] ‘The disgruntled parlements and a divided Church weakened the authority of the state’ so that ‘critical writers might find protectors amongst their disunited opponents’.[19] Hampson states that though censorship in France was theoretically strict, publication and spread of new ideas was made relatively simple by the ‘pretence of anonymity’ and the ‘manipulation of influence’.[20] Contrastingly, Naples and Palermo formed part of a kingdom in which ‘real power belonged to a landed aristocracy’.[21] Whilst the eighteenth century proved unsettled for much of Italy, factors such as Catholicism and ‘their proud cultural tradition’ kept it in close contact with other European nations.[22] The strength of their Church and theatre created what Hampson claims was a ‘complicated pattern of influences’ by which Italy allowed the ideas of a similarly-minded Paris to flow into its culture without much resistance.[23] Additionally, the Enlightenment in Spain proved to be an interesting contrast to those aforementioned; ‘despite a reforming ruler, the new ideas made very little headway in the face of clerical opposition’.[24] It is evident that placing the Enlightenment within a national context is significant in terms of gaining a full understanding of its origins and how it was accepted and adapted across the globe. These ideas have been discussed by several historians concerning a wide range of nations; Sergio Moravia addressed the Italian Enlightenment as early as 1969 and notably Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich provide a fascinating collection of essays concerning an array of nations.[25]

Alongside studying the Enlightenment in a national context, historians have also used the Enlightenment as an opportunity to study the transmission of ideas. Though the historians of the 1960s focussed on great thinkers, such as Voltaire and D’Alembert, who passed on their ideas by recording them in grand academic literary works, it has since become evident that the ideologies of the Enlightenment were more frequently shared in pamphlets, newspapers, and discussions in salons. For the literate public, the widespread availability of printed material enabled ideas to travel with speed and accuracy; Carla Hesse states that ‘no technology better embodied the ideal of ‘Enlightenment’ than the printing press- a machine of human invention that could make useful ideas manifest in material form and spread them in unprecedented quantities.’[26] Historians, such as Hesse, discuss the Enlightenment in terms of how print culture affected the transmission of ideas, since it would surely not have been possibly to amass such support without ease of communication. For those less-literate, culture played a large part in the spreading of ideas. For example, in a state in which power lay in the hands of the people and not their monarchy, such as France, ideas could quickly spread by word of mouth, in lectures and meetings; Norman Hampson stated that the salons of Paris ensured quick dissemination of Enlightenment ideas.[27] Recent historians have increasingly focussed on how Enlightenment ideas came to the attention of wider audiences instead of their circulation amongst an elite few which was focussed upon by earlier historians, such as Gay.

To conclude, the original view of the Enlightenment was entirely limited. Historians of the 1960s chose to approach the Enlightenment as a unitary movement, which was led by a small group of eighteenth century French philosophers, such as Diderot and Voltaire, leaving them largely open to criticism from historians, such as Darnton, who suggest that the Enlightenment should be approached in a way which enables thorough analysis of its social and political context.[28] The historiography of the Enlightenment has much developed since this point, encompassing analyses of how ideas were transmitted, the people who became involved in the Enlightenment and the countries which it spread throughout. By taking an interest in the print culture surrounding the transmission of Enlightenment ideals and the geographical context in which these ideals were spread, historians can gain a much more thorough understanding of why these philosophical ideas became popular at this specific point in history and how this popularity differed between nations. Historians have now come to the conclusion that to use the term Enlightenment is misleading, when history abounds with many varying Enlightenments, emerging in different places at different times.

[1] D. Outram, The Enlightenment: New Approaches to European History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p.1.

[2] I. Kant, An Answer to the Questions: What is Enlightenment?, (London: Penguin Books, 2013), p.1.

[3] Outram, The Enlightenment, p.1.

[4] C. Nadon, Enlightenment and Secularism: Essays on the Mobilisation of Reason, (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013), p.xi.

[5] A. Pagden, The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp.10-11.

[6] Outram, The Enlightenment, p.3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] P. Gay, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1966), p.3.

[9] Ibid., p.4.

[10] R. Darnton, ‘In Search of the Enlightenment: Recent Attempts to Create a Social History of Ideas’, Journal of Modern History, 43.1, (1971), pp.113-132.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] C. W. J. Withers, Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p.26.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., p.28.

[17] Ibid.

[18] N. Hampson, The Enlightenment: An evaluation of its assumptions, attitudes and values, (London: Penguin, 1982), Chapter 1 (ebook).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Enlightenment in the National Context, R. Porter and M. Teich (eds.), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Sergio Moravia, ‘An Outline of the Italian Enlightenment’, Comparative Literature Studies, 6.4, (1969), pp.380-409.

[26] Carla Hesse, ‘Print Culture in the Enlightenment’, The Enlightenment World, M. Fitzpatrick et al. (eds.), (London: Routledge, 2004), pp.366-381.

[27] Hampson, The Enlightenment, Chapter 1 (ebook).

[28] Darnton, ‘In Search of the Enlightenment’, JMH, (1971), pp.113-132.


Master-Slave Relations in the Antebellum South

How far do you agree with the view that master-slave relations in the antebellum South are most accurately described as paternal?

There exists much study surrounding the issue of master-slave relationships in the antebellum South; that is, debate regarding whether slaveholders lived up to their arguably propagandist paternal reputation or whether their relations with their slaves were different. Howard McGary defines paternalism in slavery as the belief that ‘slaveholders held slaves because they believed it was in the slaves’ best interests’ and that ‘slaves viewed their masters in a manner similar to the way children see their guardians’.[1] However, Peter Kolchin identifies that a growing America’s economic system was ‘heavily dependent on coerced labor’ and that colonists were merely ‘eager for material gain’.[2] This essay brings to question whether slave owners were father figures who protected and nurtured their slaves or whether they had a distinct economic agenda, putting profit above else – and moreover, whether these two relationships were intrinsically interlinked. Spanning a relatively large sector of American history, master-slave relations, among other plantation relationships, are most likely varying. Analysing a base of primary evidence, as well as investigating slavery scholarship, this study will aim to determine to what extent it is accurate and appropriate to describe such master-slave relations as paternal. This study will first discuss paternalism within existing historiographical theory, followed by an in depth analysis of primary evidence which will enable a conclusion on the issue of whether master-slave relations in the antebellum South are most accurately described as paternal or otherwise.

The Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery, compiled by Randall M. Miller and John David Smith, states that the concept of paternalism became ‘salient in the South after about 1820’; as such, its associations with the 19th Century pro-slavery agenda create controversy about its meaning.[3] Miller and Smith suggest that the concept is intrinsically racist due to ‘its definition of blacks as inherently and permanently inferior’; this being a result of the idea that Africans were safer, happier and healthier within the confines of servitude and were granted some sense of civilisation when under the rule of a master. [4]

The concept is evidently borne of a propagandist attempt to justify and rationalise the capture and enforced labour of millions of Africans across the country at a time when American slavery was perilously close to its ultimate outlawing. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese suggests that whites assigned caricatures which explicitly contradicted their own ideals concerning gender stereotypes and roles to their slaves in an attempt to subvert their discomfort concerning traditional gender roles and the slave experience.[5] Many black slaves were viewed as the stereotypical ‘Sambo’ character, which Fox-Genovese suggests embodies a ‘reversal of white attitudes towards masculinity’; slaves were viewed in ‘an image of docility in direct opposition to the white ideals of male honor’. In this, Africans were naturally subservient and neither wanted nor deserved liberation.[6] This suggests that paternalism is a propagandist idea and not a concept that one could view in action amongst the busy and violent reality of a plantation.

David F. Ericson discusses various factions of the proslavery movement in his works. He suggests that whilst the liberal proslavery argument claims that African Americans are at their most free when enslaved due to their inherent inability to walk equal alongside the white man, the non-liberal proslavery argument firmly states that African Americans are an inferior race, ‘consigned by nature or God to be the slaves of a superior white/Anglo Saxon/Protestant race.’ Ericson discusses at length and identifies three key elements of both proslavery arguments, however. He states that the proslavery movement had to ‘consider themselves on the defensive’, and as such had to highlight three points: firstly, that whilst most racial slavery was unjust, this is not the case in the South. Secondly, whilst it may look dehumanising and lacking freedom, practically, slaves enjoyed greater liberties than free blacks. Finally, that the abolition of slavery would have dire consequences for both existing freemen and the newly created freemen. The concept of paternalism addresses the majority of these arguments. By developing an image of the happy, docile slave who was well-treated within the safe confines of his plantation, away from the evil injustices rife in the outside world, the proslavery campaigners countered any issues raised by the abolitionist movement. It is evident that historians commonly view paternalism as a propagandist ideal, a far stretch from the cruel and punishing reality that was master-slave relations.

This manipulated image, and implication that blacks are naturally at the will of the white man further supports the notion that the concept of paternalism is one which was designed to alleviate stresses of the slaveholder and ultimately justify slavery. Historians, such as James M. Baird, have suggested that as well as proslavery propaganda, the concept of paternalism was created in order to justify and rationalise enforced labour. Baird argues that the concept of paternalism was ‘born of a desire to distance masters from the reality of the exploitation that they otherwise encouraged and in which they were complicit.’[7] However, Baird also states that ordinarily slaveholders managed ‘their bondsmen through other men’, and as such, in reality, they had little contact with their slaves. This suggests that there exists no way in which masters could represent father figures to their slaves, since they were absent. Further, Baird argues that even if one was to suggest that it was the overseers that represented paternalism within the plantation, in reality, these men were provided with a financial incentive to produce the greatest yield in the crop and had ‘little reason to employ paternalistic authority’.[8]


Kenneth M. Stampp offers a thoughtful discussion of paternalism in his The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. Whilst his thoughts on paternalism in many ways reflect those aforementioned, Stampp projects a somewhat unique perspective on the concept of paternalism. Firstly, Stampp suggests that nostalgia clouds memory of the ‘the good they think they see in some misty past’ and that any person who looks upon the past seeing generous masters and mollycoddled slaves is wholly misguided in memory.[9] Stampp outlines that the institution of slavery was ‘not so much a patriarchal institution as a practical labor system…slaveholders were more often ambitious entrepreneurs than selfless philanthropists’.[10] However, unlike many of the works cited earlier in this study, Stampp does not deny what he refers to as the ‘kernel of fact’ from which the proslavery paternalism agenda was borne.[11] In reverse of the assumed, it is the slaves themselves that Stampp suggests held ‘paternalistic impulses’; it was not uncommon to find a ‘mammy’ who was devoted to her master’s children or a house servant that loved to feed and care for the family within the ‘Big House’.[12] There do exist examples of such love and devotion within the source material available, as well as examples of masters demonstrating, at the very least, gratitude. Perhaps, there is some morsel of accuracy in referring to master-slave relations as paternal, if the term is used with care.

Ex-slaves, such as Clara Davis, have recorded their memories of their time on the plantation with fondness. Dated July 1937, the testimony of ‘Aunt Clara Davis’ describes her old home on the plantation as a ‘mighty pretty place’.[13] Davis’ fond recount of days gone by includes the phrase ‘when I tell you ‘bout it you gwine to wish you was dar too’.[14] She speaks fondly of her old master, stating that he was ‘de bes’ white man in de lan’’ and that he provided ‘eve’ything dat we could hope to eat’.[15] The way in which Clara Davis recalls her plantation days mimic traditional fond memories of childhood such as a longing to be ‘back dar wid my ole folks’, and ‘playin’ wid de chilluns down by de creek.’[16] The evident care and paternal love with which Master Mosley maintained his slaves suggest that he was certainly a father figure within the plantation, and undoubtedly in cases similar to this it is accurate to refer to master-slave relations as paternal. Similarly, an ex-slave named Mary Edwards recalled in 1937 that her master ‘had lots o’ slaves and he give ‘em good quarters and plenty to eat.’[17] Additionally, in December of the same year, Mom Ryer Emmanuel provided an extensive account of her time on the plantation. Though she was only young during her enslavement, Emmanuel provides useful details regarding childhood on the plantation. She states that her master, Anthony Ross, had many slaves that were well looked after and well fed; ‘my white folks never did let dey colored people suffer no time’[18] Furthermore, Emmanuel very deliberately identifies her master’s stringent policy on child labour – ‘dey had to be over 16 year old fore old Massa would allow dem to work’.[19] These accounts of slavery, coming from the minds and hearts of ex-slaves, suggest that there were many cases across the antebellum South where master-slaves relations were best described as paternal.

Referring back to Kenneth M. Stampp’s debate regarding misplaced nostalgia, it would be pertinent to analyse the perspective from which Davis, Edwards and Emmanuel were writing. Firstly, it must be highlighted that these women were recording their experiences many years after the abolition of slavery, and they would have only been young when it was in practice. Emmanuel states herself that she knows ‘nothin bout slavery’ because she ‘was just a little yearling child den’.[20] Furthermore, Stampp states that ‘the evil that confounds men in the present often causes them to look nostalgically’ at the past.[21] This means that if these women, who were recording their experiences, were at a point in their lives where they considered themselves to be worse off than they were in slavery, their accounts would tell of an inaccurate level of happiness and security of their past.

Though it has not been possible to uncover any more about these women’s personal lives post-abolition, it is possible to speculate. Historian Michael Naragon states that ‘begrudging acceptance of emancipation by former slaveholders and other whites’ under no circumstances ensured that African Americans would see any shift in their ‘legal subordination’.[22] African Americans were, in fact, to suffer over a hundred years of prejudice and continued subjugation. Ex-slaves, following emancipation, were thrust into an unkind world without legal documentation, such as birth certificates, without any sense of identity and with very little by way of personal property or financial support.[23] Newly free African Americans were destined to suffer an economic situation which was defined by destitution and immobility and would cripple the black population for generations.[24] The accounts of slaves who experienced financial security and stability in their younger years, but were later torn from this ‘sanctuary’ with no education and no support, are unsurprisingly nostalgic for bygone times. It is highly possible that, in light of their experience of freedom, these women longed for the paternal bosom of their masters, and as such retold their stories with favourable accounts of masters Ross and Mosley. This does not mean, however, that it is accurate to describe these masters as paternal, but that in some way the confines of servitude represented a familiar and safe father figure for these women.

Turning to the specific relationship of masters with their slaves, and their masters’ ultimate motives, despite some keeping up of appearances, slaveholders were almost without exception eager capitalists, as opposed to well-meaning humanitarians. Ryer Emmanuel’s master was spoken of kindly, however, there appear to be subtle ulterior motives in her master’s philanthropy. Master Anthony Ross held to an inflexible child labour policy; whilst Emmanuel clarifies that this was ‘’cause he never want to see his niggers stunt up while dey was havin de growin pains’, it is possible that this suggests evidence of keen business prowess within the plantation environment.[25] Young slaves were particularly valuable, especially when viewed as an investment. Anthony Ross, who appears to be the slaveholder of a very large plantation, appears to acknowledge this fact, protecting and nurturing young slaves in order to increase their yield later in life. Emmanuel’s account of her master, taken at face value, appears paternalistic, however, it is highly likely that his care stemmed from an ambition to yield the greatest profit from his investment.

Contrasting to the accounts of Davis, Edwards and Emmanuel, Sallie Crane tells a more familiar story in her account of her time in slavery. She states that her master forced her to wear a ‘buck and gag’ for three days whilst withholding food and water and that she was ‘whipped from sunup till sundown; it is also recorded that Crane ‘pulled open her waist and showed scars where the maggots had eaten in’.[26] Similarly, William Colbert of Georgia, discusses his master, stating that he ‘wasn’t good to none of us niggers’ and that everybody hated him.[27] Colbert describes in detail a particular event, when his master whipped a slave, but was infuriated because ‘he couldn’t make January holla’; in this instance, it is evident that the master was neither paternal nor intent on securing profit, he plainly wished to inflict pain.[28] Clearly, master-slave relations in the antebellum South are most accurately described as varied.

To conclude, the reality of master-slave relationships in the antebellum South, the memory of those relationships and the scholarship surrounding this area of contention are a rich and fascinating point in African American history. Historians, such as Kolchin, Stampp and Fox-Genovese, all offer interesting and thoughtful interpretations of paternalism, ranging from stating that paternalism was a created propagandist ideal to accepting its ‘kernel of fact’.[29] However, delving into the wealth of first-hand testimonial evidence available from the period, enlightens us to the reality of paternalism from the slaves’ perspectives. Certainly, there existed cruel masters or those who were firmly and solely interested in the profitable investment that was slave ownership, it is interesting to note that some ex-slaves looked back on their time on the plantation with a sense of nostalgia. Whilst these examples of slave memories evidently assign a notion of fatherhood to their masters, it is yet not accurate to describe these master-slave relations as paternal for several reasons; this being that, primarily, emotion in slave memory was commonly wrongly placed due to their circumstances post-abolition. Instead, we should understand that whilst masters cared for their slaves, it is the motivation behind this care that is key to separating paternalism from capitalist sensibilities.

[1] H. McGary, ‘Paternalism and Slavery’, in Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery, eds. H. McGary and B. E. Lawson, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp.16-17.

[2] P. Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), pp.3-4.

[3] R. M. Miller and J. D. Smith, Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery, (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1997), p.559.

[4] Ibid.

[5] E. Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black & White Women of the American Old South, (London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), pp.291-293.

[6] Ibid.

[7] J. M. Baird, ‘Paternalism and Profits: Planters and Overseers in Piedmont Virginia, 1750-1825’, in Cultures and Identities in Colonial British America, eds. R. Olwell and A. Tully, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), pp.147-168.

[8] Ibid.

[9] K. M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), pp. 322-323.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] ‘Aunt Clara Davis is homesick for old scenes’, interview recorded by John Morgan Smith and Francois Ledgere Diard for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, (July 1937), American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938 < http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/S?ammem/mesnbib:@field(AUTHOR+@od1(Davis,+Clara))> [accessed 14th December 2015]

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] ‘Stories from Ex-Slaves’, interview recorded by Elmer Turnage for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, (June 1937), American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, <http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?mesnbib:2:./temp/~ammem_Z242::> [accessed 15th December 2015]

[18] ‘Mom Ryer Emmanuel’, interview recorded by Annie Ruth Davis for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, (December 1937), American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, < http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mesn&fileName=142/mesn142.db&recNum=14&itemLink=D?mesnbib:3:./temp/~ammem_4aZ6::> [accessed 15th December 2015]

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Stampp, The Peculiar Institution, p. 322.

[22] M. Naragon, ‘From Chattel to Citizen: The Transition from Slavery to Freedom in Richmond, Virginia’, in After Slavery: Emancipation and its Discontents, ed. H. Temperley, (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000), pp.93-94.

[23] W. A. Dunaway, The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp.223-224.

[24] Ibid.

[25] ‘Mom Ryer Emmanuel’, interview recorded by Annie Ruth Davis for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, (December 1937)

[26] ‘Whipped from Sunup to Sundown’, interview recorded by Samuel S. Taylor for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, <http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mesn&fileName=022/mesn022.db&recNum=53&itemLink=D?mesnbib:3:./temp/~ammem_xSRO::> [accessed 15th December 2015]

[27] ‘My Master was a Mean Man’, interview recorded by John Morgan Smith for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, < http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mesn&fileName=010/mesn010.db&recNum=86&itemLink=D?mesnbib:1:./temp/~ammem_xJ8U::> [accessed 16th December 2015]

[28] Ibid.

[29] Stampp, The Peculiar Institution, p. 322.

Autobiographies under Jim Crow

What are the strengths and weaknesses of autobiographies as evidence on the nature of black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow? Answer with detailed reference to TWO key studies.


The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia describes the Jim Crow system of segregation as a ‘racial caste system’ in operation largely in southern states that not only developed anti-black laws, but also promoted social and cultural white supremacy as well as economic and political dominance.[1] With such a suppressive system in place to subjugate blacks and draw a particularly distinct colour line, it is important that in order to gain an understanding of the period, one appreciates black-white attitudes and relationships under the Jim Crow system. However, the study of history has progressively become more all-encompassing in terms of both genre and materials enabling the historian to explore an enormous wealth of sources in attempting to gauge historical truths.

Whilst traditionally the subject of history was studied by privileged white male academics, for an audience of the same concerning primarily the cultural and political ‘elite’, more recent trends within the field display a developing desire for social history. Described by S. Fielding as ‘new’ political history, there is a pressing desire by academics to study the ‘importance of popular experience and…oppressed groups’ struggles against the ruling elite’.[2] It is within this branch of social and ‘new’ political history that we begin to understand the significance of monographs on ‘self’ and personal testimonies of individual experiences. In such works, one is exposed to a multitude of emotions, attitudes and reactions that may never have come to light in a source produced for and about an external entity because often the autobiography is a work produced as much for the author’s benefit as the reader’s.

It is of the utmost importance that the Historian should comprehend both the strengths and weaknesses of autobiographies as historical evidence, specifically in the study of oppressed and less vocalised groups of society, such as coloured peoples, women and children. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is a particularly interesting example, which follows the events of the early years of Angelou’s life as a young girl. With the initial publication in 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first in a series of seven chronological autobiographical accounts of Angelou’s life which each detail a different period of her life in an unusual pseudo-fictional style. Owing to its unique style and personality, the text offers some fascinating insights into the perceptions of race relations that are held by a black child.

Angelou skilfully addresses many themes within the book, including the sexual abuse of children and self-identity, however, her recollection of events concerning racial prejudice ensure the utility of the text in social history studies. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings explores both her experiences with general public attitudes concerning black-white relationships as well as more intimate encounters with both black and white peoples. In as early as the opening few pages, it is obvious that young Maya Angelou thought of black and white people in completely separate spheres by her use of categorising terms such as ‘black’ and ‘colored’ in reference to herself and others.[3] Angelou is very clear about marking herself as a ‘Black girl’; this also marks the beginning of her use of subtle, racially-fuelled imagery such as describing her own head as a watermelon.[4] Over the course of the book, it is evident that the town of Stamps is rife with prejudice and discrimination in many forms; Angelou goes as far as to assert that ‘the whites in [Stamps] were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream’.[5]

Though examples such as these grand assertions of public prejudice are useful in terms of analysing black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow segregation, the specific encounters of racism that Angelou recalls from intimate situations are paramount to understanding the way in which black and white people perceived each other along with any preconceived stereotypes expected to arise and how race relations were taught. A prime example, which will be discussed further in this essay, is Angelou’s memory of her time providing maid services to a white woman, Mrs Cullinan. Viola Cullinan is often derogatory of Angelou, refusing to call her by her name and renaming her ‘Mary’ for ‘her convenience’ as well as referring to her with generalising terms such as ‘that…nigger’ in fits of anger.[6] Such a decaying of the concept of ‘self’ was a distressing and largely insulting act from the point of view of Angelou. She notes that it was well known that a Negro should not be ‘called out of his name’ since identity held great importance for African Americans.[7]

James Weldon Johnson opens his book with a similar sentiment regarding race relations. Johnson points out that ‘writers, in nearly every instance, have treated the colored American as a whole’ and that it is this inability to understand the individuality and identity of each black person as a single being and outside of the racist grouping ‘nigger’ that is hindering.[8] By analysing Johnson’s autobiography it is possible to more fully understand black-white relationships under Jim Crow. This is because where Angelou promotes black identity at the forefront of her writing, Johnson emphasises the fact that in order to completely disrobe oneself of the blinkers of expected characteristics, stereotypes and vices of viewing blacks as a group and release oneself from a racist ‘us versus them’ mindset, it is essential to comprehend the complexity of relations within the black community in addition to relations with communities outside that of the African American.

James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 book, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, offers a valuable insight into the nature of black-white attitudes and relationships. In contrast to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings telling the story of Angelou’s childhood, Johnson has written the fictional ‘coming of age story’ of a school boy who discovers his race in his journey to adulthood. The author originally published the work anonymously in an attempt to trick his audience into believing the nonfictional style, however, its success only become visible upon the revealing of Johnson’s already successful name. Events that Johnson describes, for instance, when the protagonist discusses the prospect of him teaching piano lessons, are valuable in terms of evaluating the nature of black-white relationships under Jim Crow. A distinct example of race lines affecting such race relations is in the fact that it is clear that for his companion ‘the thought of [his] teaching white pupils did not even remotely enter her head’.[9]

Despite being a work of fiction, some publishers of the book, such as Dover Publications, advertise it as demonstrating ‘parallels [to] Johnson’s own remarkable life’.[10] Perhaps this may suggest that a large part of the book will prove useful as evidence of the nature of black-white attitudes and relationships; this is because some incidents within the book are clearly demonstrative of actual events, even if details are fictionalised. Linda Anderson, whose work on autobiographies will be discussed further, argues that it is the intent of the author that determines the reliability of the message, and, for Johnson, his intent was to educate about the African American experience.[11]

Using Autobiographical Evidence in History

Autobiographies have been discussed at length within historical literature alongside an array of personal writings including song lyrics, poetry and oral testimonies. These types of sources are similar in that they all have a tendency to be emotionally provocative and dramatically written. Their place in academia, therefore, may appear questionable. However, it is noted by historian John Murphy that this style of history is not new; ancient history is awash with history by memory, with its most notable sources being compiled hundreds of years after the events such as Herodotus’ Histories. [12] In holding autobiographies in the same light as oral tradition, indeed they should be tried against the same criticisms. Taking the example of historical poetry, Jan Vansina disparages this type of source due to the purpose of its creation; often historical poetry would be created ‘for propaganda purposes’ meaning that it may hold a distorted or weighted version of the truth.[13] Furthermore, Vansina argues that embellishments and illusions found in this type of work ensure that the sources are not fit for analysis.[14] However, Murphy argues that the characteristics of memory, language and interpretation held by both autobiographies and oral traditions make them powerful historical sources because they are able to ‘throw light on historiographical problems in general’.[15]

Perhaps, it is more appropriate to compare autobiographies to oral tradition, to poetry and song than it is to compare it to academic writing due to the intentions of the material. Unlike Murphy, for Vladimir Nabokov, the true purpose of autobiography is to seek artistic patterns in ‘the limits of life and the nature of the world’ through an analysis of self and history.[16] Being mindful of Nabokov’s argument, it should be noted that the learning of history is not the intention of any autobiography and if any history is learned in reading an autobiographical work it would only be by chance. Therefore, the utility of autobiographies as an historic source is lessened, if not eradicated entirely. Leland De La Durantaye suggests that this perspective may offer a greater understanding of general issues though, which is more similar to Murphy’s account.

Conversely, Robert F. Sayre rejects the relationship between autobiography and artistic literature, noting that such an association belittles its significance in historical writing.[17] Furthermore, he continues, it is inappropriate to dismiss such a source due to any distortion of the truth within autobiographical writing since it is not out of line with historical writing to be ignorant of the truth or to present purposeful misrepresentation. However, more significantly, autobiography was traditionally largely didactic, as was history itself.[18] With forerunners in the genre including Benjamin Franklin and Henry Adams, Sayre asserts that the intention of autobiographies was often in the interest of progressing historical literature; it is only following the scientific revolution that academia has favoured scientific observations, leading to a neglect of moralistic and personal accounts of the past.[19] It is evident that the place of autobiographical works within history has been highly contested amongst historians. Whilst the genre can offer recollections of relationships and facts that may be inaccessible otherwise, one should be cautious of such accounts due to their reputation for embellishment and artistic licence.

Additionally, the utility of personal testimonies is stressed by Kidada E. Williams, who argues that neglecting to explore such records can leave many questions unanswered about the impact and aftermath of historical events.[20] Williams boldly asserts that there exists an ‘historical amnesia’ concerning racial violence and black history meaning that one of the best ways to extract historical truth from such periods is to analyse victim and witness testimonies.[21] Using autobiographies in this way can allow historians to gain a fuller account of black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow segregation because it will reveal the way that these African American authors thought and felt about the period as well as shedding light on any elements that Williams terms ‘silences’.[22] Corresponding with Williams’ book, these testimonies, through the medium of autobiography, have the ability to retell African American history by focussing on the voices of the oppressed men, women and children.[23] In this respect, autobiographies prove to be an invaluable historical source.

In They Left Great Marks on Me, Williams successfully combines different types of historical sources, such as poetry and newspaper articles, in order to create a fully comprehensive and more factually sound argument. Whilst it is decidedly clear that autobiographical evidence can hold a place as a valued historical source, it is useful to use an array of sources in order to gain a more complete picture. Though autobiographies are well placed to describe in great detail the attitudes and opinions of the authors, that alone is insufficient. This is especially the case when analysing the black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow since there exists an expansive wealth of legal documentation, signage and photographic evidence that clearly depict a significant divisive colour line.

The Significance of Autobiographies in the Analysis of Black-White Relationships

It is significant that when analysing the utility of autobiographies, one should compare the work of both men and women, since the different sexes recall their past differently. Paul Thompson outlines the differing focusses of male and female memories in his work on oral histories, arguing that men ‘more readily talk about work, women about family life, and…feelings’.[24] Thompson quotes the observations of Isabelle Bertaux-Wiame, when he asserts that female memory is more powerful in terms of analysing relationships because they, unlike men, are more likely to consider their story part of a group narrative.[25] This theory is confirmed when comparing the works of Angelou and Johnson. Angelou frequently discusses family life and her relationships with her brother, grandmother and her mother’s partner; even in discussing her work as a maid for a white family, she focusses her memory on her attitudes towards Mrs Cullinan and Miss Glory. Johnson, on the other hand, more eagerly discusses his own personal achievements and aspirations such as his talents as a linguist and a musician developing his path, with little mention of the characters who aid his journey. Therefore, perhaps it is pertinent to be considerate of this when trying to determine the state of black-white relationships under Jim Crow.

One of the key strengths of using autobiographies in history is the ability to highlight the roles of individuals over events. Reiterating Fielding’s explanation of new political history, there is a growing focus on and desire to study social history in order to understand the relationships between peoples and contemporary attitudes.[26] As previously mentioned, Angelou’s book is significant in the way in which she addresses her relationships with others frequently and shamelessly. Angelou’s most stimulating accounts of her relationships with people of both black and white descent appear in the earlier parts of her book, as she is still learning her race and her own person. Jennifer Ritterhouse illuminates the way in which race and the knowledge of a hierarchy are taught within the home, through social interactions.[27] An acceptance of racial hierarchy and customs are, therefore, cross-generational as they are passed through teachings of racial etiquette. Angelou’s upbringing as a child of the South did not stray from this hypothesis. Her education with regards to the appropriate way in which to speak to her white superiors came largely from her grandmother in Stamps, since these were the ‘safe’ methods of interracial communications.[28] ‘Momma’ did not believe that ‘whitefolks could be talked to at all without risking one’s life’ and taught that ‘they couldn’t be spoken to insolently…even in their absence’.[29]

In this case, Angelou’s autobiography proves to be of great value in terms of assessing black-white relationships since it provides an intimate event which can act as evidence for some theories of race. In addition to proving Ritterhouse’s theory for learning racial etiquette, one may also be directed to Stetson Kennedy’s 1990 account of the expectations of interracial etiquette. Angelou confirms academic expectations concerning the peculiar etiquette between the black and white races under Jim Crow. Kennedy outlines the way in which there were separate customs for ‘dealing with persons of another race’ and that ‘what you have been taught is proper behaviour in human relations…is altogether taboo in interracial relations.’[30] It was to risk your own life, to be an African American acting above their granted societal position; such was the advice of Angelou’s grandmother some fifty years prior to Kennedy’s writing.[31]

                Though autobiographies can prove useful in both providing such evidence and highlighting the place of individuals and relationships within history, it is pertinent to be wary of their weaknesses. For instance, it is not implausible that within a piece that discusses one’s life from one’s own perspective, there may exist bias and evidence of self-promotion. Trevor Lummis argues that whilst it is important that the historian does not neglect the significance of personal accounts of history, it is necessary to compile first-hand sources with all other available evidence in order to detect bias.[32] He continues, self-motivation, self-justification and self-promotion are largely limiting factors in these types of works, though this should by no means lessen their import.[33] Johnson’s autobiography is almost overwhelmingly dedicated to self-praise; most events throughout the book are attributed to his ‘talent for languages as well as for music’; the protagonist frequently refers to his ‘talent’ with more appreciation of it than of his relationship with others.[34] It is the responsibility of the analyst to ensure cross-referencing reduces the effect of such favouritisms, and enables them to utilise only details of historical significance. Equally, an historian should allow for any distortion of truth due to memory fault, as well as purposeful misrepresentation, taking into account the distance of time between the event and the writing.

Nevertheless, writing from memory offers the opportunity to explore an area of history that may have otherwise been forgotten by presenting a new angle for analysis. Despite any self-glorification that may appear to consume the novel, Johnson’s representation of the path of a black man and his relations with peoples of both black and white descent during an era of Jim Crow segregation was a pioneering work that offers insights into African American attitudes from the period. His pseudo-nonfictional work explores the experiences of a white man with a black mother and therefore, enables us to compare his being both accepted and rejected by both races at different points. Through this unusual narration, Johnson is able to more fully discuss what he terms the ‘Negro question’ and the black-white relationships under Jim Crow. The protagonist is able to easily discuss with a fellow African American the future progression of the race into a status of possible equality, but also, a short while later, receive the sentiments of a white Texan gentleman as he condemns people of colour into an eternal state of inferiority and subjugation.[35] In this sense, Johnson’s novel is a very powerful source as evidence on the nature of black-white attitudes under Jim Crow.

One of the greatest criticisms of modern autobiographies that significantly applies to Johnson’s work is that this type of literature may be written for commercial purposes and as such may generate scandalous content in order to generate sales. Lummis explains the issue of commerciality by asserting that in order for a publisher to deem the text valuable enough to invest in, it must provoke interest in the general public; this may incite a desire in the author to exaggerate and distort the truth.[36] Whilst posing as nonfictional, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is, at least in part, undoubtedly falsified. Whilst current publishers, such as Dover Publications, claim that the novel is based on Johnson’s own experiences, it is impossible to ascertain the extent to which the book was fabricated.[37] Furthermore, whilst it is significant that this genre places emphasis on the role of emotions and attitudes, it is important that one is wary of the effect of emotive language on an audience. Emotive language used as a literary device to dramatise a described event, particularly in an attempt to generate sales, may or may not reduce the utility of the source in gauging attitudes and relationships between the races. Michael Clark presents the argument that whilst scientific language promotes proven facts as ‘truth’, emotive language proffers ‘truth’ as something that is both morally correct and necessary.[38] Any poetic language and artistic licence used in creating Johnson’s ‘autobiography’ therefore only aids in helping the historian understand black-white attitudes and, subsequently, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a valuable historical source.


Over the course of this essay, it has become clear that there are many strengths and weaknesses to consider when using autobiographies as evidence on the nature of black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow.  Firstly, one should appreciate the ability of human memory to shed light on facts and events that documentation has been blind to, especially in terms of intimate events such as those in Angelou’s childhood. Willams’ description of ‘historical amnesia’ extends further than her own work on racial violence, and can easily be applied to any instance where existing theoretical histories would benefit from personal experience – Angelou’s autobiography is particularly powerful when taken in conjunction with Jennifer Ritterhouse’s writings on the how race is taught.[39]

Furthermore, it is important to be mindful of that in using autobiographies to analyse interracial relationships within the Jim Crow system, they ought to be studied as part of a collection alongside existing texts on race theory, demographic documentation, cultural relics, such as segregation signage, and other oral testimonies. This is because it is only by providing an analysis of a complete set of historical sources that one can begin to gain a more complete comprehension of the period. In particular, it is pertinent to be wary of any fault in memory or purposeful misrepresentations of the truth in histories of the self. This is because it is not uncommon that one might improve the commerciality of the text by generating scandalous content, or indeed, to distort the factuality of the narrative in an act of self-promotion or self-justification. Nevertheless, the genre of autobiography acts as powerful historical evidence in terms of offering a voice to the oppressed, this is especially significant in studying black attitudes towards their relationships with whites under the Jim Crow culture.

Lastly, one of the most significant debates regarding the utility of autobiographies as an historical source is whether or not they should be considered a wholly artistic source. Some historians, such as Sayre, suggest that this is a perspective which should be avoided in order to not detract from the use of autobiographies as an academic source.[40] However, as noted by Clark, artistic sources and those that exhibit the author’s true attitudes towards the event can be a very useful angle, particularly for a social historian.[41] John Murphy concurs, adding that memory and interpretation are powerful tools that can allow historians to access a subject from a whole new perspective.[42]

To conclude, in this modern culture of exacerbating racial violence, Loic Wacquant asserts that, as opposed to progressing from the periods of enslavement and Jim Crow segregation, we have simply entered a new stage in which a disproportionate mass incarceration of black males presents an entirely new social issue.[43] There exists a continuing issue in black-white relationships, and, according to Wacquant, this is still under the influence of Jim Crow.  It would be beneficial to the future of African American studies for contemporary victims, such as the friends and relatives of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, to record their personal experiences regarding racial prejudices and the new Jim Crow. James Weldon Johnson, despite possible criticisms regarding the truth behind his novel, enables historians to more completely understand the experience of a man hindered by his own race and Maya Angelou explains the reality of black-white attitudes and relationships behind the theoretical literature provided by academic historians. It is within the dissimilarities of the sources that historians can best discover new material that will allow them to more completely immerse themselves in the past. Such is the strength of autobiographies as historical evidence.

[1] D. Pilgrim, ‘What was Jim Crow?’, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, (2000) <http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/what.htm&gt; [accessed 9th January 2015]

[2] S. Fielding, ‘Political History’, Making History, <http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/political_history.html&gt; [accessed 7th January 2015]

[3] M. Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (London: Virago Press, 2007), pp. 1-6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Angelou, Caged Bird, p.53.

[6] Angelou, Caged Bird, pp.118-120.

[7] Ibid.

[8] J. W. Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), p.vii.

[9] Johnson, The Autobiography, p.32.

[10] P. Smith, in J. W. Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), outside rear cover.

[11] L. Anderson, Autobiography, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), pp.2-3.

  1. Smith, in J. W. Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), p.iii.

[12] J. Murphy, ‘The Voice of Memory: History, Autobiography and Oral Memory’, Historical Studies, 22.87 (1986), p.157.

[13] J. Vansina, Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2009), pp.148-149.

[14] Ibid.

[15] J. Murphy, ‘The Voice of Memory: History, Autobiography and Oral Memory’, Historical Studies, 22.87 (1986), p.157.

[16] L. De La Durantaye, ‘The True Purpose of Autobiography, or the Fate of Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory’, in M. DiBattista and E. Wittman (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.167-168.

[17] R. F. Sayre, ‘American Autobiography and History’, in M. DiBattista and E. Wittman (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.102-114.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] K. E. Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I, (New York: New York University Press, 2012), pp.3-5.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Williams, They Left Great Marks, p.7.

[24] P. Thompson, Voice of the Past: Oral History, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp.173-183.

[25] Ibid.

[26] S. Fielding, ‘Political History’, Making History, <http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/political_history.html&gt; [accessed 7th January 2015]

[27] J. Ritterhouse, Growing up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), pp.55-56.

[28] Angelou, Caged Bird, p.51.

[29] Ibid.

[30] S. Kennedy, Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A.: The Laws, Customs and Etiquette Governing the Conduct of Nonwhites and Other Minorities as Second-Class Citizens, (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1990), pp.203-204.

[31] Ibid.

[32] T. Lummis, Listening to History: The Authenticity of Oral Evidence, (New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books, 1998), pp.83-84.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Johnson, The Autobiography, p.33.

[35] Johnson, The Autobiography, pp.70-81.

[36] Lummis, Listening to History, pp.83-84.

[37] P. Smith, in J. W. Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), outside rear cover.

[38] M. Clark, ‘The Genealogy of Coherence and the Rhetoric of History in American New Criticism’, in R. Fleming and M. Payne (eds), Criticism, History, and Intertextuality, (New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1988), pp.37-38.

[39] Williams, They Left Great Marks, pp.3-5.

[40] R. F. Sayre, ‘American Autobiography and History’, in M. DiBattista and E. Wittman (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.102-114.

[41] M. Clark, ‘The Genealogy of Coherence and the Rhetoric of History in American New Criticism’, in R. Fleming and M. Payne (eds), Criticism, History, and Intertextuality, (New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1988), pp.37-38.

[42] J. Murphy, ‘The Voice of Memory: History, Autobiography and Oral Memory’, Historical Studies, 22.87 (1986), p.157.

[43] Loic Wacquant, ‘From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the ‘Race Question’ in the US’, New Left Review, 13 (Jan-Feb 2002), pp.41-42.

Analytical Biography of Solomon Northup

Northup, Solomon: born: Minerva, New York, 1808; died: unknown.

Now the focus of a major narrative on the silver screen, the life of Solomon Northup has intrigued and appalled viewers. Provoking tears and sorrow in millions, there possibly exists no single slave who holds greater fame. Ironically, perhaps, it was the desire for fame or simply wealth that began his tragic journey as a slave. Born a free man, the life of Solomon Northup and his capture into slavery is pertinent to modern slavery studies and the question of the significance of race over status. Whilst there exist a number of slave narratives coming from a range of backgrounds, that of Solomon Northup holds significance due to his unique perspective; ‘it comes from the perspective of a person who grew up free and therefore had the assumptions and values of a free society before he entered slavery.’[1] This biography will highlight key events in Northup’s life that illuminate the experience of the slave across antebellum United States.

Northup was born of slaves on the paternal side, from which he derived the name Northup.[2] It was common for slaves to maintain the surnames of their masters after emancipation if they had had little conflict with those masters, as a symbol of rejection of present or future masters, or for purposes of protection if those masters had been important people.[3] Northup’s father, Mintus, worked in agriculture, gaining the modest respect of those who knew him; as such Solomon was happy to follow in his footsteps.[4] Throughout his life, Northup had spent time reading and playing the violin in his leisure time and gained further work as a raftsman on the waterways of New York. He eventually married a mulatto woman named Anne, with whom he fathered three children, and it was at this point that his previously comfortable existence was set upon by the tornado that was the slave movement, ripping his family and life from underneath him.

The circumstances in which Northup was brought into slavery enable the historian to further comprehend how people outside of Africa were brought into slavery. Earning his notoriety as a fiddle-player, his talents soon proved the catalyst of his downfall. Having been offered substantial wages to join a travelling musical show in 1841, Solomon Northup quickly lost his freedom as he was drugged and sold into slavery. Historian Carol Wilson stated that it was an ‘all-too-common occurrence’ that free blacks would be sold as slaves, though it is little analysed by historians who are often too focussed on the lives of enslaved blacks in this period.[5] This, which Wilson refers to as an ‘ever-present danger’, proved a grave threat to the free blacks of nineteenth century America, and is the terrifying phenomena which Northup’s capture into slavery can enlighten us to.[6] It is especially Northup’s autobiography that provides a most useful source because it illuminates the emotions that run through the mind of a victim of kidnapping. Northup explains that whilst confused at first, believing that there must have been some sort of mistake, eventually a desolate sense of betrayal overcame him as he realised that he was being deliberately oppressed.[7] Northup’s capture allows historians a valuable emotional insight into the experiences of a kidnapped ‘free black’.

Northup’s experience also brings into question the issue of whether race or social class more greatly affected how Africans were viewed and treated in nineteenth century America. Regardless of region, slave status, lineage, wealth or career, blacks in America were affected by a common disadvantage; that being that they were ‘constrained by a lack of economic and educational opportunity, the absence of legal protection, overbearing legal restrictions, and the contempt of whites’.[8] As a result of this, Ira Berlin referred to free blacks as ‘slaves without masters’.[9] Whilst travelling with Brown and Hamilton, Northup demonstrates how restricted African Americans were whilst moving around the country. Northup has to go to great lengths to gain papers which prove his freedom, and have white colleagues provide testimony regarding his freedom.[10] Requiring such proof of identity is a restriction that is not forced upon Northup’s white companions – notably of the same travelling profession – in the same way, proving that Northup’s race is the most significant part of his character. This is illustrative of how blacks were treated across the country.

During Northup’s enslavement, he was held under the ownership of a number of masters, frequently changing hands. The way in which he was treated by these ‘owners’ offers some insight into the world of slaveholder brutality. Northup’s autobiography is one of many slave narratives that provide examples of brutal punishments and examples of plantation justice, enacted at the hand of the slaveholder. It has been argued by historians such as Dickson D. Bruce Jr. that such cruel violence ‘often slipped over into sadism: ingenious, gratuitous, even inflicted for pleasure’, as the ‘slaveholder seized upon the most trivial shortcomings as pretexts for “punishment.”’[11] One such example of this punishment is that inflicted upon Northup’s friend and fellow slave, Patsey. The scene played out with Master Epps ‘furious and savage as ever’, his mistress looking on ‘with an air of heartless satisfaction’ and Solomon’s ‘heart revolted at the inhuman scene’ as Patsey was mercilessly beaten to the point of unconsciousness.[12] Conflicting with some elements of plantation theory, it may not have been the case that masters held a patriarchal and paternal role amongst the slaves, protecting and leading them.

In studying the philosophy of economics, Margaret Schabas states that ‘plantation owners also recognized that slavery was most productive if their slaves were well-fed and clothed’, claiming that slaveholders were economically astute and recognised the investment value of slaves.[13] Reminiscent of, and quoting, Fogel and Engerman in her quantitative analysis of slavery, it is easy to rebut Schabas assertions about such topics, using slave narratives such as Twelve Years a Slave. The recorded lives and testimonies concerning the lives of slaves in particular enable the historian to quash false application of theses and misreading of events, through carefully chosen and powerfully emotive speech that tells the story of the slave. In this, Solomon Northup enlightens the historian to an almost incomprehensible truth – that human beings, when allowed control are capable of unthinkable and unpredictable acts of brutality that supersede intelligent theory. There is no conscious humanity or organised economic plan behind Epps’ merciless beating of Patsey as he ‘literally flayed’ the girl, simply hatred.[14] This level of brutality and inhumanity was possibly repeated in hundreds of plantations across the Americas; Northup’s account simply offers a unique look at the trauma of a master-slave relationship in microstudy.

In terms of reliability on the part of the slave narratives, it is difficult to ascertain whether there will ever be a source which is free from bias or misinformation. Accounts of this pre-Civil War era, especially drawing so close as Northup’s 1853 publication, are especially liable to influence by the abolitionist agenda. Many men were drawn to tell their stories through slave narratives and the structural and thematic sameness of the accounts is telling of their agenda; conventions of abolitionist pieces include the introductory material ‘customarily written by white abolitionist supporters, a short summary of the writer’s birth and parentage, followed by descriptions of education, auctions, and labours, all of which we can see in Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave.[15] Sterling Lecater Bland Jr. notes that narratives such as these were so formulaic in detail that they did little to reveal the ‘personal thoughts and desires of the narrator’ but instead highlighted a constructed plot that was useful to the abolitionist agenda.[16] Therefore, it is possible that Northup’s life offers the historian little of any reliability to study. Nevertheless, historians consistently work with ‘biased’ sources and this does not mean that they are of no use. Utility in these sources, even if written with an abolitionist agenda, can be found in analysing their purpose and what these constructed events in Northup’s life can tell us about the aims and nature of the abolitionist agenda – primarily, that it wished to portray the institute of slavery as cruel and inhuman.

To conclude, though it is not possible to critically analyse all the events of such a fascinating man’s life in such a short biography, the events that this study has highlighted demonstrate his importance in the study of slave history. Solomon Northup’s life and the accounts of it offer much in terms of enlightening the historian to the experience of slavery in the Americas. It is possible to study the emotional betrayal and prevalence of the kidnapping of free blacks, through Northup’s life. Northup also instructs academics about the inhuman world of slaveholder brutality, in the events witnessed and experienced by him.  Furthermore, even if one insists on questioning the authenticity and reliability of such an account, it is impossible not to appreciate Northup’s constructed life as a piece of evidence to illustrate the agenda of the abolitionist movement and how the movement attempted to rally support.

[1] D. Fiske, et al., Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, (California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2013), p.4.

[2] S. Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, (London: William Collins, 2014), p.2.

[3] O. Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp.39-44.

[4] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, pp.2-3.

[5] C. Wilson, Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865, (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009), p.1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.17.

[8] Wilson, Freedom at Risk, p.1.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.12.

[11] D. D. Bruce, Jr., ‘Politics in the slave narrative’, in., The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative, ed. A. Fisch, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp.38-40.

[12] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, pp.182-183.

[13] M. Schabas, ‘Parmenides and the Cliometricians’, in., On the Reliability of Economic Models: Essays in the Philosophy of Economics, (Norwell: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995), pp.189-191.

[14] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.183.

[15] S. Lecater Bland, Jr., African American Slave Narratives: An Anthology, vol.1, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001), pp.15-17.

[16] Ibid.

In what ways was the credo “cuius regio, eius religio” (‘whose realm, his religion’) challenged in the sixteenth century?

The Latin adage ‘cuius regio, eius religio’, which translates as ‘whose realm, his religion’, suggests that it was the religion of the ruler that determined the faith of the inhabitants of a kingdom. However, it is commonly known that periods in English history, such as the sixteenth century, offered turbulent times in politics and religion, with the country frequently changing hands, and as a result, its faith. The sixteenth century in England, dominated by the infamous Tudor dynasty, was notoriously a period filled with religious unsettlement following Henry VIII’s break with Rome. Other monarchs of the sixteenth century, notably his children, force the realm into religious turmoil as they fluctuate between staunch Catholicism, aggressive Protestantism and the contrastingly liberal and refreshing strategy taken by Elizabeth I, which will be discussed further. With faith supposedly a characteristic which a person maintains from birth to death, it is improbable that those generations which survived multiple monarchs would have consistently observed every religious change. This study will analyse the extent to which the credo, ‘cuius regio, eius religio’, was adhered to, and in what ways it may have been challenged. The essay will take a chronological approach, as opposed to thematic, in order to allow for a full and cohesive exploration of each monarch’s impact on the religion of the realm.

The first 16th Century monarch that this study will look at is Henry VIII, who was revolutionary in terms of securing significant religious change in his 38 years on the throne. Henry VIII’s characteristic impatience meant that in late 1530, following four frustrating years of desiring Anne Boleyn and having been refused a divorce since early 1527, he began to seek alternative methods of gaining sacred blessing for his separation from Catherine of Aragon.[1] Inspired by the principles of Thomas Cranmer and Edward Foxe in the Collectanea Satis Copiosa, Henry defended the concept of royal supremacy which would put him, as the King of England, outside of the jurisdiction of the Pope.[2] Henry, also, legally and financially separated his realm from Rome in the Act for the Submission of the Clergy and Restraint of Appeals, 1534, which denied people the right to an authority outside of their country, and the Act Restraining the Payment of Annates and Concerning the Election of Bishops, 1534, which stopped payments to Rome.[3] Furthermore, he removed papal powers in England and Wales via the Act of Supremacy, 1534, demonstrating that he had the power to change the religion of the realm at will.[4]

Whilst Henry did sway the religion of the whole country, it is arguable that this is not due to his position as leader of the realm granting him dictatorial power over the faith of his subjects, but because of the resources that his station offered to him, enabling him a unique position from which he could influence popular beliefs through other means. As King, Henry sought to assert his own royal supremacy, however in order to achieve this most effectively, he had to denounce the authority of his greatest opponent, the Pope. G. W. Bernard states that it is clear that as early as 1527 Henry begins to challenge the legitimacy of papal authority; he used his position to gain support from ‘university theologians and canon lawyers…in a sense to qualify the plenitude of papal power’.[5] Similarly, Henry had to embark upon a campaign which besmirched the reputation of the monks and nuns of the monasteries before he built a strong enough case for their dissolution. Commissioners sent to visit the institutions and report back found evidence of gambling, promiscuity and homosexuality, which resulted in many monasteries being destroyed and their wealth reaped by the King.[6] To clarify, Henry’s rule did not dictate which religion was followed by those in his realm, but, allowed him the resources with which to influence religious belief.

Henry evidently also had to battle to claim royal supremacy, suggesting that religion was in some ways viewed as more superior, and it was he who was dictated to by religion and not vice versa. In addition, the level of resistance and opposition Henry met in the form of violent rebellion from his subjects suggests that he had not influenced their faith, but had simply disturbed their ability to practice it. Individuals such as ‘Bishop John Fisher, Thomas More and several monks and friars’ had refused to accept Henry’s ultimate authority, though, it was not until late 1536 that Henry was met with an organised opposition, The Pilgrimage of Grace.[7] Henry was, however, able to easily quash conflict due to his position as king and support from patriotic supporters.[8]  During the reign of Henry VIII in the 16th century, it immediately appears that his realm had to follow whichever religion Henry chose to follow, since he held legal authority over such business. However, it is clear that ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ was indeed challenged. There existed little blind following of Henry’s move away from Roman Catholicism, instead the King had to work hard to persuade and motivate religious change across the country, using the intelligence and power available to him. He was also challenged, if only somewhat, in terms of popular risings. The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Lancashire Risings both demonstrated to Henry that he did not hold supremacy in the eyes of all of his subjects.

Edward VI experienced similar challenges to his authority during his short reign between 1547 and 1553. For the first time in English history, under Edward VI’s reign, Protestantism was almost completely established; this marks a huge turning point in religious history, perhaps even more so than the changes implemented by his father before him, due to Henry’s sudden about turn in the waning years of his life. Edward introduced a Puritan-influenced Prayer Book in 1549 which was published in English, allowing his subjects to worship in their own language.[9] Under his rule, there was also an act established to remove age old traditions regarding the marriage of priests, which was likely influenced by the Reformation in Germany and the growth of Lutheranism.[10] Unlike Henry VIII, Edward experienced exacerbated challenges to his supremacy due to his age. Raised and educated as a Protestant, Edward was closely advised by Archbishop Cranmer and Lord Protector Somerset. With a powerful few at his side and at such an impressionable and vulnerable age, the question arises as to whether Edward had any influence over the drastic reforms to the religion of the realm which were made in his name; Jennifer Loach states that ‘the history of his reign must therefore be the history of those who ruled in his name’.[11] Very shortly after Henry VIII died, Edward Seymour established himself as Lord Protector of his nephew Edward VI; T. A. Morris describes his seizure of and time in power as ‘autocratic’.[12] Moreover, Seymour’s successor, John Dudley, ‘amplified’ the ‘Protestant elements in his religious policy’. [13] Not insignificantly, this included support for Archbishop Cranmer’s ‘Forty-Two Articles’ which G. L. Bray considers the ‘most advanced systemization of Protestant theology then in existence anywhere in the world’.[14] This would suggest that between 1547 and 1553, the Latin adage ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ was entirely challenged, since it was in fact the religion of Edward’s advisors that dictated that of the country.

Edward’s religious authority was also diminished by the rebellions of 1549. These rebellions, such as the Western rebellion, made clear religious demands, which A. Wood states focus on ‘the reinstitution of the Henrician settlement rather than the wholesale return to Catholicism.’[15] This demand may be viewed as a popular rejection of the authority of the King and his council. Since, the rebels are not seeking a return to Catholicism, they are simply seeking a reversal of laws passed under the boy king. Alternatively, and more probably, the demands could be perceived as a rejection of the religion of the King in a defiant act of heresy due to the extreme and alien measures that were passed during Edward’s reign, including permitting the marriage of clergy. In this case, the decisions made by the King regarding religion do not dictate popular faith in practice. However, the subsequent execution of Robert Kett once again proves that the King has the resources at his disposal to form a legal basis for his chosen religion, whether or not this affects that which his subjects truly believe.

Upon the death of King Edward VI in 1553, the Tudor dynasty was put to the test as both of the remaining heirs to the throne were female; at this point there existed little threat from any potential Scottish heir since Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, was both female and merely ten years of age. Mary Tudor, the next English monarch, faced many challenges to her authority as ruler, due to her gender. At this point, her realm was unfamiliar with female rule and unsure of their expectations for her; historian David Loades states that these difficulties arise from the expectation of her position as a ‘surrogate male’ conflicting with ‘the traditional limitations of her sex’.[16] Most notably, with papal authority eradicated in England and the monarch instated as head of the Church, was it possible that Mary’s subjects could appreciate a woman as Supreme Head of the Church of England.  Loades notes that whilst not the most popular belief ‘John Knox was not alone believing that the rule of women over men was unnatural’.[17] Mary’s image as the ‘helpless virgin’ was the making of her success as Queen, however, dampened her ability to exercise power though not necessarily to influence religion.[18] From the moment of her accession, Mary began dismantling the religious reforms put into place by her father and brother. In a set of legislation known as the Marian Injunctions of 1554, Mary successfully eradicated all laws which affected England’s relationship with Rome, including Royal Supremacy and anti-Papal legislation.[19] This again demonstrates the legal authority of the monarchs of the period, and their ability to influence religious practices in this way.

If Mary had begun reversing all Protestant legislation as early as her proclamation as Queen in July 1553, so did the Marian exiles begin to flee in the August of the same year and the ‘great movement’ to Germany began a mere four months later.[20] The most common understanding of these exiles states that they were ‘protestants, forced solely for the sake of their religion to take refuge abroad from the persecution of a bigoted and cruel queen’.[21] Christina Hollowell Garrett, who hails herself as the first historian of the Marian exiles since 1574, states that from John Foxe to Heylyn, Burnet and other ‘irresponsible’ contemporary Englishmen, the number of Marian exiles varies between 300 to over 1000.[22] When considering even a conservative 300 exiles, it is still evident that Protestantism was not at all eradicated in England despite any number of injunctions that Mary put into place. Instead, it is clear that people would prefer to maintain their faith and abandon their country. Furthermore, in some cases it is demonstrated that Mary’s subjects would prefer to lose their life than allow the monarch to dictate their religion. Mary’s policy of terror led to the deaths of more than 300 ‘humble and gentle’ Protestants, either in prison or savagely burned at the stake.[23] David Loades suggests that her ‘biggest mistake had been to make a martyr out of Thomas Cranmer’, because this contradicted her otherwise docile, pious and virginal image that had earned the support of her subjects.[24] Therefore, it is fair to propose that any influence Mary Tudor had over the religious beliefs of the inhabitants of her realm were based primarily on fear of death and absolutely not her respected authority.

The last Tudor monarch was Elizabeth I, remembered as the Virgin Queen who led her realm through its Golden Era. Specifically, Elizabeth is praised for offering a sense of stability in terms of her religious policy, contrary to those immediately before her; she was revolutionary in offering a breakthrough in religious tolerance which ultimately defined her reign. Elizabeth certainly handled religious policy much more carefully than her sister, offering a combination of both Catholic and Protestant doctrine as a solution to the debate. G. L. Bray suggests that she was forced to ‘tread warily’ in the early days of her reign since the bishops were largely Catholics appointed in the reign of Mary.[25] Elizabeth set out to placate and appease clergy and laymen alike, beginning by instating herself as Supreme Governor of the Church of England in the Act of Supremacy, 1559; note that the subtle change in language from Henry VIII’s ‘Supreme Head’ allowed those who did not support female rule to still perceive the Pope as the ultimate religious authority.[26] Furthermore, subtle revocations of Mary’s anti-Protestant legislation, such as reforms to the Prayer Book and use of Latin, reflected Elizabeth’s personal religious preferences.[27] This brings to question whether the latter half of the sixteenth century in England truly abided by the credo ‘cuius regio, eius religio’, or whether the Elizabethan Religious Settlement was simply so intrinsically ambiguous that religious practices across the realm in reality were insignificant.

Controversially, perhaps, historian Patrick Collinson describes Elizabeth and her advisers as the ‘front and rear legs of a pantomime horse’ as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement came into being; he states that the two parties are inseparable in terms of determining who shaped it.[28] It is possible that the religion of the realm at this point was shaped largely by government policy, and not merely the Queen. Regardless of who formed religious policy, however, parts of the Elizabethan realm remained unsettled. A Catholic Queen in Scotland, Mary Stuart, had won the hearts of some Englishmen and the Northern Rebellion of 1569 can in part be attributed to her providing a figurehead.[29] Led by the Earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland, Mass was restored in Durham Cathedral alongside systematic destructions of Bibles and Prayer Books.[30] From 1569 onwards, Elizabeth was forced to put more pressure on heretics, imposing greater fines on recusants and declaring it treason for Catholic priests to enter England, where before she had showed tolerance.[31] This again illustrates how the credo ‘whose realm, his religion’ was challenged in the sixteenth century since monarchs were primarily forced to use legal action in order to achieve religious compliance.

To conclude, it is evident that whilst the religion of the ruler did to some extent determine to faith of the inhabitants of his realm, it certainly impacted greatly upon the religious practices that could be performed openly. From the introduction of English Prayer Books in 1549 to the compulsory attendance of Protestant services under the Elizabethan Injunctions of 1559, legally England experienced turbulence in terms of religious policy under the law in the sixteenth century. As a result, there were many challenges to the Latin credo ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ ranging from Thomas Cranmer sacrificing his own life to the mass migration of Protestants to Germany and France in 1553, alongside popular revolts and rebellions against the rulings of the crown evident within the reign of every Tudor monarch.

[1] C. Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society Under the Tudors, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p.105.

[2] Ibid.

[3] ‘Act for the Submission of the Clergy and Restraint of Appeals’, 1534, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), pp.84-87.

‘Act Restraining the Payment of Annates and Concerning the Election of Bishops’, 1534, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), pp.88-93.

[4] ‘Act of Supremacy’, 1534, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), pp.113-114.

[5] G. W. Bernard, The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p.26.

[6] C. Haigh, The Last Days of the Lancashire Monasteries and the Pilgrimage of Grace, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1969), pp.21-24.

[7] Bernard, The King’s Reformation, p.293.

[8] R. W. Hoyle, The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.11.

[9] ‘The Preface to the Book of Common Prayer’, 1549, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), pp.272-276.

[10] ‘Act to take away all Positive Laws against the Marriage of Priests’, 1549, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), pp.279-280.

[11] J. Loach, Edward VI, (Suffolk: St Edmundsbury Press, 2002) p, 39.

[12] T. A. Morris, Europe and England in the Sixteenth Century, (London: Routledge, 1998), pp.233-234.

[13] Ibid.

[14] ‘The Forty-Two Articles’, 1553, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), pp.284-312.

[15] A. Wood, The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 45.

[16] D. M. Loades, Tudor Queens of England, (London: Continuum Books, 2009), p.3.

[17] Ibid., p.8.

[18] Ibid.

[19] ‘The Marian Injunctions’, 1554, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994),  pp.315-317.

[20] C. H. Garrett, The Marian Exiles: A Study in the Origins of Elizabethan Puritanism, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1966), pp.2-3.

[21] Ibid., p.1.

[22] Ibid., pp.30-31.

[23] Loades, Tudor Queens, p.206.

[24] Ibid.

[25] G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), p.318.

[26] ‘Act of Supremacy’, 1559, in G. L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation 1526-1701, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1994), pp.318-328.

[27] S. Doran, Elizabeth I and Religion 1558-1603, (New York: Routledge, 1994), pp.15-16.

[28] P. Collinson, Elizabethans, (London: Hambledon and London, 2003), p.39.

[29] S. Arman, et al., Reformation and Rebellion 1485-1750, (Oxford : Heinemann, 2002), p.89.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

In what ways do historians’ own personal experiences shape their interpretations of the past?

Alan Atkinson, in the journey to understand whether or not a ‘good historian’ should allow compassion to stain their work concluded that to not experience and project emotion is inhuman.[1] Similarly, Charles Beard’s 1935 article condemned the possibility of writing an entirely objective history, asserting that this was simply an unachievable yet ‘noble dream’.[2] Despite some academics, such as Leopold Von Ranke who will be discussed further, arguing that it is pertinent for historians to remain entirely objective in their interpretations of the past, it is widely accepted that oneself may bleed into one’s work. Whilst debates regarding whether an historian should be objective are prevalent, there exists less discussion concerning how personal experiences and opinions can affect interpretations of the past.

According to traditional hermeneutic literature, in an attempt of interpretation, an academic is in the pursuit of truth – this being an actuality and certainty within the interpreted source.[3] However, more modern considerations of the nature of interpretation, such as in the work of Ruth Lorand, suggest that interpretation is to be considered as a pursuit of desired knowledge, not truth.[4] Lorand asserts that interpretation is a deliberate act to uncover specific truths, not a general truth, thus, the interpreter dictates the nature of interpretation.[5] Being mindful of Lorand’s hermeneutic theory, it is pertinent to consider that the personal experiences and intentions of an historian will significantly shape their interpretations of the past. Personal experiences, for the purposes of this essay, will be considered as an historian’s background and upbringing, educational environment and academic influences as well as any significantly emotive personal events at any stage of life, these may include the death of a mentor, the experience of prejudice, or political upheaval in their homelands.

Historians’ own personal experiences shape their interpretations of the past largely incidentally. An historian may not hold the intention of allowing the events of their childhood and involvement with their immediate surroundings affect their account of the past, however, it is possible that this intention of objectivity is irrelevant. It is in an indirect way in which historians’ experiences shape their work. Mark Donnelly and Claire Norton, in their critique of the practice of history, argue that historians’ work is shaped by the limitations and conventions of the genre that they have chosen, their specific source collection and their intended research questions.[6] These factors are influenced by more intimate factors, such as their political alliances, personal morality, academic interests and social values, which are, in turn, impacted by an historian’s home life and environment.[7] Linda Anderson quotes Candace Lang’s assertion that all writing may be perceived as autobiographical, adding that ‘the writer is always, in the broadest sense, implicated in the work’.[8]

Leopold von Ranke argued that to allow oneself to influence how the past is interpreted in unnecessary and inappropriate; it should not be judged ‘by the historian’s own criteria’.[9] Rankean theory states that each period of history should stand alone from the rest, and in this the historian should attempt to retell it without judging the past.[10] The preoccupations of this scientific style of history, according to Green and Troup, include ‘rigorous examination and knowledge of historical evidence, verified by references’ as well as ‘impartial research’ and ‘an inductive method of reasoning’.[11] This style of historical study gained a wide following, particularly in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the intention of this essay is to discuss ways in which historians’ personal experiences have affected their interpretations of the past, regardless of whether or not it is appropriate for them to do so.

The life and works of Slavoj Zizek offer a particularly interesting case in terms of analysing in which ways an historian’s work is influenced by their own personal experiences. On the first page of Zizek’s introductory essay he remarks that ‘every history is a history of the present’, continuing with the explanation that ‘historiographical reception always closely mirror[s] the twists and turns of political struggles’.[12] Zizek offers that any history written, particularly that of the French Revolution, is consistently written with the influence of the current political upheavals and power conflicts in mind.[13] In times of particular conservatism, he states, the French Revolution is rejected as a catastrophic rebellion against the state, however, liberal attitudes reclaim the idea that the period was a ‘historical necessity to assert the modern principles of personal freedom’.[14] Zizek was born in Yugoslavia in 1949. This places the beginnings of his academic career within the influence of the political environment of 1970s East Europe, a time of the liberalisation of the Communist regime – a factor which would have manipulated his ideologies. The liberalisation of Communism was unwelcome in parts of Eastern Europe, since despite its oppressive nature, it ensured some sense of equality. This breakdown of equality in young Zizek’s environment may have acted as an indoctrinating factor, leading Zizek towards an anti-socialist mentality.

One area in which this experience has filtered into Zizek’s work is in his study of Maximilien Robespierre; whilst many historians, such as John Kekes who will be discussed further, are prone to criticise the motives of Robespierre in attempting to construct a Republic of Virtue, Zizek argues that Robespierre was correct in attempting to create a more moralistic society.[15] It is possible that these beliefs stem from seeing the rise of dissimilarity and inequality of income that accompanied the rise of socialism in Eastern Europe. Correspondingly, the Jacobinism of the French Revolution has been considered the beginning of Communism.[16] Being surrounded by Marxist and Communist propaganda and literature in his early academic career has shaped the way Zizek has interpreted Robespierre’s role in the French Revolution. In discussing Robespierre, Zizek references Marx’s assertion that without virtue and terror, there is simply corruption.[17] Perhaps due to Zizek’s early life being influenced by Communism, he was directed to Marxist literature and as a result has interpreted Robespierre’s career in light of his own personal influences. Zizek also frequently discusses the nature of belief within the context of Marxism and Hegelianism in his 2001 book.[18] This interpretation of the past is clearly shaped by Zizek’s research interests, which can be traced back to his political environment in youth.

Another valuable case study is American historian and philosopher John Kekes’ interpretation of Robespierre’s motives during the French Revolution. Due to Kekes’ extensive philosophical knowledge and experience, it is appropriate that Kekes would approach the topic of the French Revolution with a significantly different stance to Zizek. With the opening lines of his 2006 article on the subject, Kekes admits that he is unusual in being an American academic that is unfavourable to the history of the French Revolution, since America was ‘itself born in revolution’.[19] However, Kekes maintains that Robespierre was a terrorist who sought little more than power by way of unjustifiable massacres.[20] He discusses the idea that people who defend Robespierre with the argument that he wholeheartedly believed it was moral and correct to pursue a Republic of Virtue by any means necessary are misguided.[21]

Kekes states that any defence of Robespierre would prove equivalent to tolerating the crimes of any terrorist or Nazi supposing that they were truly fanatical about their cause.[22] As a man of religious and philosophical background, it is not unexpected that Kekes’ interpretation of the past would take into great consideration debates of human morality and ethics. In his book, The Roots of Evil, Kekes places great emphasis on providing an interpretation of events in history with the intention of analysing the events in terms of philosophical and ethical protocol. For instance, in his discussion of Robespierre Kekes denounces Robespierre’s claim to morality and virtue stating that he did not intend to provide equality for all, simply those he approved of.[23] Kekes argues that it is the pursuit of terror and inflicting pain and suffering beyond which is necessary to achieve an end that is decisively evil, and Robespierre’s pursuit of virtue surpassed any appropriate measure of terror for righteous means.[24]

Contrastingly, Marisa Linton is a modern, British historian who, perhaps influenced by a conservative British culture, would be more drawn to a revisionist style of writing. British historical studies, dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, are traditionally empirical in their approach; concepts of scientific methods of enquiry originating in the Enlightenment influenced social studies. Green and Troup state that with this newfound ‘professionalism for historical study came an emphasis upon systematic archival research.’[25] Historical revisionism, with its foundations in the reinterpretations of orthodox views by reanalysing evidence, is very much a rebirth of this style of interpretation. Typical to a more conservative historical analysis, Linton asserts that Robespierre was a terrorist with motives against traditional government, however, this is delivered in a revised style. Linton suggests that Robespierre was simply a scapegoat for the more powerful terrorists within government due to his public image.[26] Linton does not deny that Robespierre was part of the Terror, or even that he did hold some authority in the revolution, however, she does state that Robespierre had a ‘dream of a virtuous republic’ suggesting that he was unlike the other men in the committees in both character and ambition.[27] This is a relatively new interpretation of a much discussed field of history.

Additionally, Linton’s frequent use of primary sources would highlight a predilection for empirical, revisionist histories that are popular with British historians. In one essay concerning Robespierre, Linton frequently references contemporary sources, such as Robespierre’s speeches and the works of Saint-Just; for instance, in her discussion of Robespierre’s pre-Revolution works.[28] In her wider range of works on the Terror period of the French Revolution, Linton criticises the politicians’ influence in inciting fear, suggesting that such governmental corruption was an inevitably catastrophic course. Such a standing is typical of a British historian due to the custom of checks and balances present in the British political system and the long tradition of a strong constitutional monarchy. In this way, Linton’s personal upbringing and environment have affected the way in which she interprets the past.

Hampson suggests, as does Linton, that Robespierre’s political influence was more than likely overstated by fellow politicians who had held major roles in the Terror in an attempt to avoid ridicule and reprimand from the surviving victims of the Terror.[29] In a similar vein to Linton, though writing much earlier, Norman Hampson was one of the earliest revisionist historians to write about the French Revolution. Donnelly and Norton argue that each new wave of history on a particular subject is, in a progressive manner, part of an unending improvement process; with the development of revisionism in the study of the French Revolution, Hampson brought a new interpretation through a new use of the sources.[30] This is likely associated with the time of his writing. Whilst Linton is developing an existing school of historical study in her work, Hampson’s writing on the topic began in the 1960s. Following the mid-century studies of the causation of the French Revolution decidedly viewing it as a successful bourgeois revolution, further research in the 1960s by historians, such as Francois Furet, developed the theory of causation to where it stands today. Norman Hampson was part of a generation of historians that expanded the discussions of the French Revolution into a series of complex social questions and debates regarding the relationships between internal and external warfare alongside economic crisis as part of the beginning of the revolution. In this manner, Hampson’s interpretations of the past were shaped by his academic influences and experiences, which came from his colleagues and the natural progression of the study of history.

To conclude, it is evident, therefore, that there exist many ways in which an historian’s interpretation of the past can be shaped by their personal experiences. One of the most significant ways in which personal experience can affect the work of an academic is through their childhood and upbringing. Most significantly their political and cultural environments. Zizek is a prime example of an historian whose academic career was largely influenced by his upbringing in Eastern Europe and his resulting political affiliations. In reaching adulthood in a politically-charged environment, with a sense of revolution and radicalism filling the hearts of all young academics, it was inevitable that Zizek would turn to the less conservative works of Marx, Engels and Lacan to inspire his interpretations of history. Contrastingly, it is anticipated that the works of a middle-class, white British woman would offer a more conservative interpretation of the period. Marisa Linton has sought influence from a subconscious comparison of the relative peaceful and uncorrupted modern Britain; in doing so, Linton is typically offended by the blatant corruption and savagery of revolutionary France.

Offering significant dissimilarity, Hampson and Kekes are more greatly influenced by their academic experiences that their cultural or political environments. Hampson’s work is strongly affected by the natural progression of the subject as it gains new evidence and researchers. With the development of historical revisionism, Hampson’s career – and, as a result, his interpretations of the past – followed a specific set of guidelines that fit within this new field of history. Equally, Kekes’ works and interpretations of the past are largely restricted by the limitations of his genre. Kekes’ research intentions, in his analysis of Robespierre, were to understand the events of the French Revolution within the confinements of understanding human morality and philosophical righteousness. It is clear that Kekes’ interpretation of the past has been significantly shaped by his background as an academic and professor of philosophy.

[1] A. Atkinson, ‘Do Good Historians Have Feelings?’, in S. Macintyre (ed.), The Historian’s Conscience: Australian Historians on the Ethics of History, (Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2004), p.26.

[2] C. Beard, ‘That Noble Dream’, The American Historical Review, 41.1 (1935), pp. 74-87.

[3] R. Lorand, ‘The Logic of Interpretation’, in P. Machamer and G. Wolters (eds.), Interpretation: Ways of Thinking about the Sciences and the Arts, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), pp.16-29.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] M. Donnelly and C. Norton, Doing History, (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), p.93.

[7] Ibid.

[8] L. Anderson, Autobiography, 2nd ed. (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), p.1.

[9] A. Green and K. Troup, The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p.2-3.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Zizek, Robespierre, p.vii.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] S. Zizek, Robespierre: Virtue and Terror, (London: Verso, 2007), pp.vii-xxxix.

[16] W. H. Chamberlain, ‘The Jacobin Ancestry of Soviet Communism’, Russian Review, 17.4 (1958), pp.251-257.

[17] Zizek, Robespierre, p.ix.

[18] S. Zizek, On Belief,  (London: Routledge, 2001), pp.1-5.

[19] J. Kekes, ‘Why Robespierre Chose Terror’, City Journal, 16.2 (2006), p.92-103.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] J. Kekes, The Roots of Evil, (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), p.37.

[24] Kekes, The Roots of Evil, pp.1-2.

[25] Green and Troup, The Houses of History, p.1.

[26] M. Linton, ‘Robespierre and the Terror’, History Today, 56.8 (2006), pp.23-29.

[27] Ibid.

[28] M. Linton, ‘Robespierre’s Political Principles’, in C. Haydon and W. Doyle (eds), Robespierre, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.44.

[29] N. Hampson, ‘Robespierre and the Terror’, in C. Haydon and W. Doyle (eds), Robespierre, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.173.

[30] Donnelly and Norton, Doing History, p.94.


Did the experience of the Second World War radicalise the British public?

It is not true that the British public become supportive of extreme political and social movements as a result of the cultural impact of the experience of the Second World War. Whilst it is evident that the experience of the Second World War radicalised the British public to a certain extent, it would certainly be more true to say that the change to the British public and sociopolitical circumstances that succeeded World War Two was more of a slow process that was in part a continuation of the alteration in mind set that accompanied the end of the First World War.

Arguably, the implementation of a form of total war in Britain during the Second World War is the greatest extent to which the British public were radicalised since as well as being conscripted to military activities, the home front played a large part in the effort to win the war. Historian Mark Duffield argues that to force a country into a state of total war is to instigate a state of environmental terror, which in turn revolutionises the participants by forcing them to fully experience the emotional state of war from the home front. Such as in the French Revolution of 1789, entering a mass of untrained, unprepared citizens – at worst, women and children – is likely to spark a newfound support for radical politics, often in resistance to whichever regime caused the trouble.

However, it appears that in the case of the Second World War the British public did not vote for the opposition in a radical resistance to the current government. Conversely, it appears that Labour’s 1945 landslide victory was a result of a long-approaching swing to the left which may have happened as early as 1942 with the publication of the Beveridge report according to historian John Barnes. In addition to this, the swing to the left, whenever it took place, cannot be considered a radicalisation of the entire British public. This is because at the time of the election, only 66% of the electorate actually registered to vote and an even smaller number of people turned out to vote. This obvious act of apathy towards the existing democratic system refutes any claims that the British public was radicalised in any political sense.

Furthermore, the Beveridge report of 1942 was a document that came out of the war experience that outlined improvements to the current socio-economic situation in areas such as the education, health and facilities of Britain. The report influenced the public in a less extreme manner than total warfare; it was deemed at the time ‘evolutionary rather than revolutionary’ by contemporary writer Eveline Burns since it simply suggested advancements for the entire country to take part in rather than suggesting any move towards political extremism as a means of producing a more efficient and effective Britain. Despite its huge popularity, with an estimated 92% of the population aware of it the day after its publication, the report’s impact cannot be considered radical or a radicalisation of the British public. In this, the experience of the Second World War did not radicalise the British public.

To conclude, the experience of World War Two radicalised the British public in the short term since the implementation of a state of total war was definitely an attempt to radicalise and militarise the entire British public. Otherwise, the slow gain in popularity accumulated by the Labour party, starting in the First World War and culminating in their landslide victory in 1945, proved to be anti-radical in that it was a definitive move towards peace government. Furthermore, the impact of the Beveridge report proved to be a major effect of the experience of the Second World War, though this too was both politically inoffensive and also longstanding.

The period 1851 – 1914 was an important time in the transition of leisure and cultural practices in Britain.

It is certain that the period 1851 – 1914 was an important time in the transition of leisure and cultural practices in Britain. These changes were led by a combination of the upper classes placing an emphasis on leisure time being used to create a sense of morality and rightness and a revolution in leisure technology taking place across the Atlantic at this time.

One of the most revolutionary and staying factors of the changing leisure practices of the period 1851 to 1914 is the birth of the weekend culture; between 1850 and 1913 the pattern of the working week relented from sixty five hours per week to fifty six. This may likely be a result of the introduction of the concept of rational recreation into Britain at this time. This concept encourages the lower classes to utilise their time away from a working environment to morally improve themselves by partaking in activities which may be deemed traditionally acceptable or educational as a means of preserving their respectability, such as attending museums and art galleries. This was an attempt by the upper classes to lure lower classes away from non-respectable activities such as attending cock fights and public houses. It is therefore evident that this period was an important time in the transition of leisure and cultural practices in Britain as it was a time which emphasised the importance of free time to better oneself.

However, the late Victorian era and beyond also saw a rise in alternate leisure activities. Spectator sports, such as football, were originally frowned upon since they could not be considered ‘rational’ activities; however, from around 1850 the popularity of these games soared and they were in fact encouraged because they started to be seen as promoting exercise, discipline and order. This promotion of moral and physical health, subtly drilled key military skills into working class citizens effectively providing Britain with a generation of ready-made soldiers – perfect for imperialist nineteenth century Britain. However, the level of spectators to such games far outnumbered the participants causing concerns amongst upper classes of football hooliganism, drinking and gambling which furthered the desire to popularise rational activities. Though, the continuing popularity of spectator sports such as football has proved that this was a revolutionary period for leisure and cultural practices in Britain.

Similarly prevalent today, the emergence of British cinema bloomed within the rapid expansion of music halls in the late nineteenth century; between 1850 and 1890, the music hall experienced a large growth in its clientele and by the 1890s roughly 45000 patrons were attending music halls every night in London alone. However, the development of cinematic technology in the United States at this time, with the first commercial motion picture exhibition in 1894 in New York City, proved to have the most revolutionary long term effect on the cultural and leisure activities in Britain with people today studying motion picture technology and film production at university level.

To conclude, it is evident that the period 1851-1914 was a very significant time for changing cultural and leisure practices in Britain. Together the impact of militaristic encouragement of football and the technological revolution of cinema had profound effects on Britain’s leisure activities that have endured more than a century.

What makes deviance?

Cresswell claims that deviance “is created through reactions . . . [and] when we concentrate on this aspect of deviance, the analysis of the process of labelling becomes more important than the characteristics of those who are so labelled.” Taking the witch as an example, to what extent do you agree with this contention?

Historians, such as Cresswell, have asserted that the concept of deviance exists only through the reactions of those who label it as such, therefore, in order to understand deviance it is more appropriate to analyse this ‘process of labelling’ than the nature of those who are labelled. This contention is particularly appropriate in the case of the ‘witch’. In analysing the witch, as with many other deviants, it is especially fitting to understand the background and nature of the accusers more than that of the witch. This offers a more substantial and developed understanding of the nature of deviancy as it attempts to address both the cause and process of labelling someone as fundamentally different. However, historically, deviance has been associated with hereditary and genetic faults, such as in the study of the ‘Jukes’. In accordance with Nicole Rafter’s assertion that this study relies ‘on purely biologistic explanations’, it is also possible that Cresswell’s argument is only appropriate to a certain extent or within certain boundaries.

Cresswell defines deviance as synonymous with terms such as abnormality; this suggests that any act which is outside of normal and expected behaviour can also be described as deviant. Assuming Cresswell’s definition of normality is a pattern followed by the majority, it is correct to assert that deviance is ‘created through reactions’ since visions of normality will fluctuate naturally with changing societal norms. Since the concept of abnormality must exist concurrently with the concept of normality, it is acceptable to suggest that in order to fully understand either concept one must understand the other. This is also true of deviance; deviance must exist through the manifestation of orthodoxy. Howard S. Becker explains that if social groups are responsible for the creation of deviance as punishable opposition to expected behaviours, it is the actions and agendas of those belonging to the non-deviant group that require more extensive analysis. This is because deviance, under these terms, is not an ‘act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions’.

Cresswell also finds deviancy synonymous with dysfunctionality, arguing that it may be considered ‘actions that fail to function in a way that leads to some goal’. This interpretation would suggest that society’s perception of normality – and, hence, creation of deviant characters – stems from achieving success or failure in performing culturally and socially assigned tasks. Under these terms, it is essential that the ‘labellers’ are held accountable and scrutinised in the process of labelling because, as Cresswell argues, ‘the delineation of appropriate goals is often a political act’. This becomes evident in the case of the witch. The conflict that arises between the political power of the Church in the medieval world and the existence of magic, which brings into question Christianity’s core beliefs and entitlements, suggest that any intense periods of witch hunting and the historical demonization of the witch are largely political struggles.

Historian Keith Thomas has written extensively on these conflicts, arguing that, despite the possible assimilations of religion and magic throughout the early medieval period, the existence of magic becomes a great issue for Christians because it can be seen as  a miraculous ability to manipulate God’s will.[1] Thomas asserts that the title of witchcraft was associated, in Reformation England, with only some forms of magic. In providing a specific title to one type of magic, whilst allowing variant forms – such as that used by the clergy – to continue in practice, the labellers were able to more effectively penalise the offensive group, which undermined the practices of the Church.[2] In accordance with Cresswell’s theory of political functionality, magic crafts such as astrology and witchcraft become acts of deviancy throughout the cleansing purge of the Reformation. In that, any person performing witchcraft was removed from the label of ‘normality’ and was not able to obstruct the common political goal of the promotion of a new church in England. Stephen Pfohl states that it is a common theme that deviants would be labelled as a form of social control; this maintained order through ostracisation. It is certain that, in the case of the witch, it is more appropriate to analyse the actions of the group which labels this craft as deviancy, than the actions of the accused; this is because it is evident that the purpose of creating this label was to categorise and marginalise this group in order to more easily penalise them.

On the other hand, historically, the idea of deviance and criminality has been associated with physical attributes such as genetic defects or deformities. Richard Dugdale states that ‘the first observation of hereditary transmission is as old as antiquity’. Nicole Rafter asserts that certain nineteenth century studies, such as the study of the ‘Juke’ family, determined that the cause of crime and feeble-mindedness was often ‘inferior heredity’. In this case, it is possible that deviancy is not a label created for a purpose, but is one that it is possible to observe scientifically. If this were the case, it would be the actions and nature of the deviant that would require more rigorous analysis because deviancy would not be ‘created through reactions’. However, to use the witch as a case study, historian Robin Briggs argues that despite popular opinion there was no such thing as a set of definitive ‘witch’ traits; Briggs especially discounts any references to an overwhelming female or significantly older population.[3] In the absence of a consistent set of physical traits to act as a clear determinant of deviancy, it is essential that the historian closely studies the accusers.

To conclude, it is clear that ‘analysis of the process of labelling’ is significant in most cases of historical deviancy. It is often the case that deviants are labelled as such in order to fulfil a communal political goal, such as to ensure the prosperity of the new Church in England. As such, the concept of the witch developed as a negative stereotype for those who performed magic outside the boundaries that the Church permitted. This categorisation was to allow for easy penalisation of the witch so that they could not hinder the progress of this new Church, free from magic which could deny or control the power of God. Whilst, historically, deviance has been associated with visible bodily attributes and malformations, it is evident that this is not always a suitable line of analysis. Therefore, whilst it may be relevant to study the deviants in order to understand deviancy, it is frequently more appropriate to understand the ‘process of labelling’ in order to access a more complete and in depth comprehension.

[1] K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, (London: Penguin Books, 1991), pp.27-58.

[2] Ibid.

[3] R. Briggs, Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), pp.257-261.