Thursday, September 19, 2019
September 19, 2019: Constitution Week: Gordon Barker’s Vital Book
[September 17th is Constitution Day, so to celebrate this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for that foundational American document. Leading up to a special weekend post on threats to the Constitution in 2019!]
On a book that helps us understand a complex, crucial Early Republic question.
First, I’ll ask you to check out this long-ago post of mine, on the complex question of whether we progressive AmericanStudiers can and should support more noble nullification efforts (such as Thomas Jefferson’s resistance to the Alien and Sedition Acts or William Apess’s arguments in favor of the Mashpee Revolt) and yet oppose more ignoble ones (such as John C. Calhoun’s South Carolina nullification fight) without hypocrisy. Of course I believe that specific contexts matter, and that absolutist perspectives very rarely make sense; but on the other hand, in all three of these cases the arguments were in favor of states or communities having the ability to resist and even nullify federal laws and thus the Constitution itself, and that is, to say the least, a slippery and dangerous slope that seems to end quite clearly at secession.
However we answer those vexed questions, the overarching takeaway from all those histories is that the Constitution, like America itself, remained an entirely living and evolving entity throughout the Early Republic period (and still does to this day, but I’d say that it was even more fragile and in-progress in that post-Revolution era). In his impressive book Fugitive Slaves and the Unfinished American Revolution: Eight Cases, 1848-1856 (McFarland, 2013), Professor Gordon S. Barker goes one step further, arguing that the Revolution itself was still unfolding through such national and Constitutional crises. Beginning and ending with two of the most famous fugitive slave cases (William and Ellen Craft, whose racial and gender passing was just as revolutionary as their legal status; and Margaret Garner, whose choice of infanticide became the starting point for multiple cultural works including Toni Morrison’s Beloved), Barker moves through eight such historical moments, arguing for what each contributed to these evolving debates over law, justice, and America.
I’m not going to summarize or paraphrase Barker’s arguments—as with every post in which I highlight the great work of a fellow AmericanStudier, one of my main points is that, to quote LeVar Burton’s magnum opus, if you want to know the rest, read the book! Instead, I’ll end by connecting these arguments to two of my favorite Americans, Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker, the Massachusetts slaves whose legal petitions, along with those of their fellow slaves—and all based directly on the language and ideas of the Declaration and Revolution—contributed significantly to that state’s Revolutionary-era abolition of slavery. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, Edmund Morgan’s magisterial book American Slavery, American Freedom argues that the founding of America was inextricably tied to, and even required the existence of, the system of slavery—but what Walker and all of Barker’s focal cases (and his impressive analysis of them) illustrate is how much debates over that system helped shape and reshape our national identity and ideas, in the Revolutionary moment and long after.
Last ConstitutionStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?