The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Around MHS

Making the Body Politic

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Suzanne and Caleb Loring Research Fellow Ann Holder of the Pratt Institute discussed her research on post-Civil War citizenship, race, and public spaces in a presentation titled “Making the Body Politic: Sexual Histories, Racial Uncertainties, and Vernacular Citizenship in the Post-Emancipation U.S.” The presentation drew on one chapter from a book-length project exploring “public space as a battleground for citizenship.” In this particular chapter, Holder focuses on segregation debates and practices on streetcars and railways from the late 1860s into the early 20th century. She looks comparatively at Boston, Richmond (Virginia), and New Orleans in order to explore how the public space of streetcars and railway carriages were negotiated with regards to race, class, and sexuality, as these public transit systems developed and became necessary for urban life over the course of the 19th century.

Historians have often assumed that, following emancipation, the categories of black/white were easily mapped onto American society as a substitute for slave/free. Holder argues instead that racial segregation, in custom and law, actually rose in response to the uncertainty of racial categories in the Reconstruction era.  Inter-racial sexual relationships during the era of slavery had created racial ambiguity that slavery regulated; once slavery ended, the instability of racial identities exposed the fallacy of a clear demarcation between black and white. Segregation, she suggests, was a “newly-created borderland” between white and black communities, and one which required new mechanisms for enforcement – such as physical segregation in public spaces. Where once whites were relatively free to travel “at will” in black spaces, in the latter half of the 19th century they became subject to new laws restricting them to white spaces. This led to complaints, for example, by whites about crowded whites-only streetcars (particularly when black cars passed by relatively empty, as during organized boycotts), and the rise in arrests of whites for violating segregation laws. In other words, whites had to be disciplined into the “white role” in a similar (though lesser, less violent) fashion as blacks.

Here at the MHS, Holder is exploring the history of segregation in Boston transit, which was practiced customarily in the early 19th century before it fell victim to the campaigns to “strip the legal system of reference to race” in the early 19th century, and to repeal laws banning inter-racial marriage. She notes how the “forced democratization” of crowded public spaces, and the “physicality of encounters with the ‘other’” whether of another class, sex, and/or race, often discomfited those of higher social standing and introduced an unmistakable undertone of sexuality to the experience of traveling. In her presentation, she quoted an anonymous diarist who recounted his unhappy experience of traveling from New York to Boston on the railway, using the word “amalgamation” to describe class mixing in train cars – a word that would, in the Reconstruction era, come to mean inter-racial sexual relations.

Discussion following Holder’s presentation explored the various ways in which imposed order was attempted on the disorganization of public transit, whether by the creation of “first class” rail cars, smoking cars, women-only cars, or racially-segregated trolleys and trains.

We look forward to seeing where Anne Holder takes her research from here, and are very pleased to have her with us throughout the academic year pursuing her work in our Reading Room.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 8:00 AM

Who’s Your Favorite Historian?

Although it’s only early November, program planning for the winter and spring of 2013 is well under way here in the Education Department. The MHS will be offering an interesting mix of public programs in the coming months, including concerts, author talks, a walking tour, and even a dramatic reading! Even as we experiment with different program formats, however, we always remember to ask ourselves how we can shine a spotlight on the Society’s unique resources and assets. In addition to our amazing collections, the MHS also employs a phenomenal staff with connections to an engaging array of historians, public figures, artists, and others who make use of history in their work. How can we tap into this deep pool of historical enthusiasm? What is the best way to connect all of these fantastic people with our public program audiences?  We’ve come up with a few ideas, but we’d love to hear what YOU think.

One program we will pilot in 2013 is modeled after something we’ve tried at our annual fundraiser, “Cocktails with Clio.” At each of the past two events, the Society’s President has interviewed a prominent historian as part of the evening’s entertainment. We’d like to build on this format and develop an entire series of discussion-based programs that feature historians working on intriguing projects.

So ... who is your favorite historian? Who would you like to converse with at the MHS? Along the same lines, we’re also on the lookout for non-historians who could comment on how history affects their work. Jurists, for example, could discuss how they use history to frame their responses to current court cases, while city planners could explain how they engage with the past while planning for the future. Are there other “opinion makers” you’d like to see at the MHS? Use the comment form below to let us know!

Of course, writers and artists use history in their work all the time, and we’re excited to offer several prominent examples of historically minded creations this spring. In February, for example, we will host author William Martin, who will share the experience of writing his latest book, The Lincoln Letter, a work of historical fiction that takes readers on a an adventure through Civil War Washington. In May, we will bring our collections to life in song and theater. Local playwright Rob Velella will join us for a dramatic reading that explores the friendship between Charles Sumner and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His performance is based on the letters, journals, and other documents created by both men. Later in the month, Berklee Professor of Music Education Peter Cokkinias brings his Boston Saxophone Quartet to MHS. The group will perform music from the era of the American Civil war and provide historical commentary on songs that our audience will be sure to recognize. Are you ready to sing along?

Now that you’re all excited about 2013, don’t forget that we have some nifty programs coming up in November and December. Be sure to visit our web calendar often for more information about programs on the horizon.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 8 November, 2012, 1:00 AM

Terrorism No New Topic to Presidential Elections

It’s Election Day, and there has been a lot of talk in the news lately about terrorism influencing the current and last two presidential elections. But although sometimes it feels like it’s a relatively new political issue, the fear of terrorism has been part of the American political discussion since our nation’s founding. During the presidential election of 1800, terrorism and its prevention were hot topics, and part of what cost Pres. John Adams his reelection.

During Adams’s presidency, America was involved in the Quasi-War with France from 1798 through 1800. France was a great ally to the United States during the American Revolution, but much changed in the intervening years. The United States made peace with Great Britain in 1783, and several years later the French monarchy collapsed. Revolutionary France declared war on Great Britain, and Great Britain joined a coalition of European monarchies that aimed at containing the French Revolution. The United States remained neutral in the conflict. In addition, the U.S. government refused to repay debts owed to France from the American Revolution, claiming that they were owed to the French monarchy, which no longer existed. Ignoring American neutrality, French privateers began seizing American merchant ships in the West Indies. This led to an undeclared war between the United States and France—the Quasi-War.

Pres. Adams and the Federalist Party supporters aligned with Great Britain. They viewed the French Revolution as mob rule and resented what they saw as foreign intervention in American domestic politics. They also feared the threat of possible invasion. Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law in 1798. The four laws targeted French immigrants and sympathizers to the French cause, but also foreigners in general and anyone who criticized the government. The Alien and Sedition Acts increased the residency requirement for citizenship from five to fourteen years and empowered the president to deport aliens “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” at will. No one ever was prosecuted or deported as a “dangerous” alien and the law expired in 1800, but it had a chilling effect on resident aliens. A separate law that allowed the president to restrain or remove enemy aliens in wartime was the only act that had wide support in congress (and still is in effect today), but was not used by Adams because the U.S. never formally declared war on France. The laws also limited the freedom of the press, a sentiment that Adams had strongly supported as author of the Massachusetts Constitution. The Sedition Act gave the government broad power to suppress public attacks on the government and its officials, and, as a practical matter, allowed the Federalists to prosecute their political opponents. The Sedition Act also had a fixed term and ended on the last day of Adams’s presidential term in March 1801.

When the Federalists attempted to use the Alien and Sedition Acts to silence their opposition, they met strong opposition from the Democratic-Republican Party, a party more closely aligned with the ideals of the French Revolution and under the leadership of Vice President Thomas Jefferson. Most newspapers of the day were partisan, and when Republican newspapers harshly criticized the Adams administration for its handling of French relations, fourteen authors and editors were tried under the new Sedition Act. Playwright and newspaperman James Burke, Vermont congressman Matthew Lyon, and newspapermen Thomas and Abijah Adams were among those indicted for seditious libel.

The 1800 presidential election was a bitter continuation of the previous presidential election. One of the Democratic Republicans’ chief criticisms of the Federalist Party was of its efforts to centralize and increase governmental power, illustrated by the passage of the Alien and Section Acts and the resulting infringement on individual rights. Republicans were not necessarily against prosecutions for seditious libel, but believed they should take place in state rather than federal courts.

The Republicans won the election of 1800 and, at least in part because of the unpopular acts, Adams became a one-term president. He was succeeded by Jefferson who, in his conciliatory first inaugural speech, said that “…every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names, brethren of the same principle. WE ARE ALL REPUBLICANS; WE ARE ALL FEDERALISTS.” His administration too soon would be at war with foreign “terrorists,” in this case the Barbary pirates, who attacked and kidnapped American sailors in the Mediterranean.

During the recent presidential debates, Pres. Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney addressed their own positions on terrorism and homeland security. Although the threat may look slightly different now, with a greater focus on foreign terrorists rather than internal subversion, it’s nothing new to American politics. Just ask John Adams—and Thomas Jefferson. And don’t forget to vote!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 6 November, 2012, 1:00 AM

Brown Bag Lunch Talk: “The Theology of Citizenship”

On Wednesday, October 31, Andrew W. Mellon research fellow Ben Park, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, England,  presented a brown bag lunch talk, “The Theology of Citizenship: Local Preachers and the Production of Nationalism in Early America.” Park’s dissertation explores the local production of national identities in the Early Republic, using South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts as comparative regional case studies. His current research focuses on the role of the clergy in imagining and disseminating notions of citizenship and national character. To introduce his topic, Park described the evolution of the Reverend Jeremy Belknap (1744-1798), a key figure in the founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Belknap spent his early career in New Hampshire where his sermons remained politically neutral throughout the Revolution and into the 1780s. Only when Belknap moved from New Hampshire to Boston in 1787, where he took up a post at the Federal Street Church, did his weekly sermons begin to more overtly combine religious notions of providentialism with exhortations to patriotic sensibility. He began to speak of God’s role in shaping the United States as a nation, condemned those he saw as religious and political fanatics, had harsh words to say about French “atheist” revolutionaries, and expressed trepidation at the growing role of mercantilism in American life. Park theorizes that Belknap’s change in geographic location brought him into a new “localized nationalism,” in which particular Boston-based notions of civic responsibility and national identity galvanized him into political speech. Previous historians have explored the effect of politics on religious identity and practice; Park wonders about the effect of religion on political identity and action.

Conversation following Park’s presentation explored the working definitions of “local,” “national,” and “citizenship,” and the relationship between these three concepts: What does it mean for citizens to articulate ideas of nationalism from their position in a particular locality? What happens when individuals from two different localities converse about their mutual citizenship in the newly federal America? To what extent can existing sources – such as sermons – open a window into how congregants understood themselves in relation to political powers? When sources are clustered in urban centers (Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston) to what extent can arguments be made about the region as a whole? What interpersonal networks existed between urban and rural communities in each state? How does one get not only at local political ideas but also local political acts such as voting, pageantry, and revolts?

We look forward to following Ben’s work during over the course of his year-long residency here in Boston conducting his primary source research for the dissertation; and eventually we look forward to congratulating him upon a successful defense of his work and conferral of his Ph.D. Best wishes for a successful year of study and writing!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 2 November, 2012, 1:00 AM

Society Launches Modern New Website

On 18 September the MHS launched its brand new website, complete with features including an interactive Adams timeline, a gallery displaying prominent objects and manuscripts from the collections, and mobile access capability. The site contains eight search tools and over 11,000 transcribed pages and 102,000 digital images.

The goal of the website redesign is to better connect with our audiences – which means you! Our audiences include researchers, educators, the intellectually curious, and anyone who is interested in learning about the MHS. We invite you to discover who we are as a Society, and how you can become involved, either remotely or in person. Check out our events calendar, about section, visit the library pages, and online resources to find out more.

If you’re interested in finding an entry point to our collections, head over to our Adams family or American Revolution resources, or check out our object of the month. Want to visit the Society in person? We have two exhibitions on display right now – In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry and In The Arena: The Presidential Election of 1912 in Massachusetts. For more opportunities to connect with the MHS, visit our social media section.

Want to tell us what you think about the new website? We would love your feedback. Please contact us here with your comments or questions.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 8:00 AM

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