Focus Statement, Spring Break, and Secondary Sources

Focus Statement

I am seeking to understand more fully the reason white delegates at Tennessee’s 1834 constitutional convention and North Carolina’s 1835 constitutional convention disfranchised free African Americans. Scholars have traditionally viewed this event through the political lens of the developing second party system, explaining that future Whigs supported black suffrage and Democrats sought to enact universal black disfranchisement. Politics is certainly important to a full understanding, but class division, racial identity, and contemporary threats to elite whites’ masculinity also played an important role in the disfranchisement decision. Elite southern whites restricted the voting rights of free blacks because it gave them some sense of control as they faced numerous economic, political, and racial challenges to their previously hegemonic social order. My study will be based on the proceedings of the two constitutional conventions, local newspaper articles and diaries, voting rolls, the census of 1820 and 1830, manuscript collections of the convention delegates, and legislative documents. This study will illuminate nineteenth-century concepts of race, masculinity, political development, and class that have heretofore only been attributed to the antebellum North.

Spring Break

I had hopes that spring break would provide an opportunity to find some key primary sources, but unfortunately this was not the case. I traveled to the Library of Virginia in Richmond and the Library of Congress in Washington to conduct research for Dr. Quigley research seminar class. I also hoped to look at a collection in the Library of Congress that could shed some light on the perspective of free blacks to disfranchisement in antebellum North Carolina. The collection I looked at was the Willie Person Mangum Papers. Mangum, a U.S. senator from North Carolina during the time of the constitutional convention, maintained a correspondence with an elite free African American, John Chavis. Interestingly, Chavis operated a school in North Carolina, and Mangum was one of his students. Throughout their lives, Chavis would give Mangum advice on politics and other matters. So my hope was that in the Mangum Papers there would be a letter from Chavis to Mangum expressing his opinion on disfranchisement. I perused Mangum’s boxes of papers from 1830-1836, and I was only able to find one letter from Chavis. Unfortunately, it was written in 1833, two years before the convention, and is incredibly difficult to read. Chavis wrote the letter in pencil and in a light hand, so much of it is practically illegible. Nevertheless, the simple fact that the letter exists prevents the generalization that all free blacks were at the mercy of white politicians and that they were not politically active. Also over spring break, I finally read an article by James Brewer Stewart that I had been putting off because I felt it would be essential to my thesis, and I wanted to be “fresh” when I read it. I analyze it below.


Stewart, J. B. “SHA Roundtable: Racial Modernity – The Emergence of Racial Modernity and the Rise of the White North, 1790-1840.” JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC 18, no. 2 (1998): 181–217.

Although primarily concerned with the antebellum North, James Brewer Stewart employs a fascinating methodology, and his use of racial modernity will be very important to my thesis. Lately, I have been struggling with the interrelatedness of class struggle, whiteness, and masculinity within the context of southern black disfranchisement in the 1830’s. Stewart’s article combines these three into a narrative to explain the causes and consequences of he race riots that exploded across the antebellum North during this same time period. He uses the term “racial modernity” to encapsulate his argument. He defines it as “a reflexive disposition on the part of an overwhelming number of northern whites…to regard superior and inferior races as uniform, biologically determined, self-evident, naturalized, immutable “truths”–and, the development of integrated trans-regional systems of intellectual endeavor, popular culture, politics and state power that enforced uniform white supremacist norms as “self-evident” social “facts” (183). After reading his article, I think there are similarities between the racial violence in the North and disfranchisement in the South, so hopefully I can use Stewart’s work as a model for my own analysis.

I found several key aspects of his article that are very useful. First, he argues that whites of all classes united against free African Americans. Whereas inter-class tensions existed over wages, immigration, etc., common ground could be found in contrast to abolitionists’ reforms (182,198). It “united whites of every class in one common enterprise” and a “brotherhood of whiteness” (203). Possibly this could have been occurring in the South, especially as a result of fears of slave uprising, and contributed to disfranchisement. Second, Stewart deals with the similarities of ideas of whiteness in both the Whig and Democratic parties and the different ways they advocated “white solidarity and intersectional cooperation” (207). The more-studied Democrats blatantly called for attacks on abolitionists and northern African Americans, but Whigs also had white supremacist tendencies. Stewart argues that Whigs supported colonization colonization as a way to simply distinguish “their new party’s formulation of white supremacism from that of the opposition” (206-207). So regardless of party, the electorate was “united in its ‘whiteness'” (208). Also, Stewart provides numerous references to works on whiteness and masculinity that appear to be useful for my study.

JER Racial Modernity Roundtable based on Stewart’s article

Historians Jean Soderlund, James Oliver Horton, and Ronald G. Walters responded to Stewart’s article on the development of racial modernity in the antebellum north during the 1830’s. Each offers his own perspective on Stewart’s work, and their criticism will be helpful for my thesis just like the original article.  The most common criticism of Stewart has to do with the periodization that comes along with the classification of “modernity,” meaning that Stewart must also contends that there is a pre-modern and post-modern era of racial relation. Soderlund and Walters hammer this point home and cite repeated references to a racialized North and several specific interracial alliances formed long before the abolitionist crusade of the early 1800’s and the subsequent white backlash in the 1830’s. However, Walters still maintains that Stewart could still “be right in arguing that something fundamentally  important was happening in the antebellum North” (229-230). Horton, on the other hand, seems to call for other possible points of modernization, like the creation of the Constitution as “a potential divider of those who shared the lower levels of American society” (224). Thus, Horton contends that the shift to modernity that Stewart offers might not be as complete, meaning that the development of racial modernity was a long, drawn-out process possibly still occurring today (225-226). In the final article, Stewart comes back and agrees with all of the criticism and explains his theory of racial modernity in terms easier to comprehend.

McGehee, Elizabeth Hathhorn. “White Democracy, Racism, and Black Disfranchisement: North Carolina in the 1830’s.” The College of William and Mary, 1989.

I was excited and somewhat nervous to read this thesis. McGehee’s topic appeared similar to mine and likely would provide me with a model or my thesis on black disfranchisement. However, after reading the work, I was disappointed. Her thesis does not seem to complicate or add to historians understanding of black disfranchisement in the 1835 North Carolina convention. Her key methodology, like that of other scholars who have worked on this topic, is merely political. She argues that Whigs and those less involved or devoted to slavery agreed to permit some African Americans to vote, while Democratic slaveholders called for all-out restriction on the vote. She does attempt to relate the context of disfranchisement, but I felt like there was little or no connection between the political and racial context she offers and disfranchisement itself (4). McGehee does suggest that the Nat Turner slave insurrection may have had something to do with disfranchisement, which is something I had not previously considered, but she then concludes by saying that “many North Carolinians believed Free Black Codes sufficiently strong to prevent another revolt…from arising” (102).

In spite of its shortcomings, I did find some helpful tidbits in McGehee’s thesis. First, she shows that cities and towns were where the boundaries between slaves and free blacks were broken down (11). Also, McGehee argues that disfranchisement would have never occurred had the population of free not exploded from 1790 to 1860. In that period, free black population increased from 4,795 to 19,543, with most of them living in the eastern portions of the state (13-14). Third, and something that I would like to pursue further, is McGehee’s contention that the defense of slavery as a positive good, rather than a necessary evil, changed during the 1830s, sparked by the Virginia slavery debates in 1830-1831 (25). Disfranchisement might be a consequence of this change in thinking. Finally, McGehee mentions the five delegates at the convention composing the committee charged with drafting an amendment dealing with black suffrage: Nathaniel Macon, John Branch, Richard Dobbs Spaight Jr., William Gaston, and John M. Morehead. I will need to be aware of these men as a begin my primary source research.

5 thoughts on “Focus Statement, Spring Break, and Secondary Sources

  1. The connection between Magnum and Chavis is fascinating. How did you discover it? Too bad about the one existing letter — did Chavis leave any papers (that would be a miracle, right?) But, I think you are right in thinking that the mere existence of the letter is a significant bit of evidence, even if the content can’t be read.

    1. I read an article on prominent North Carolina African Americans and Chavis’ name showed up. I think the fact that a free black man ran a school for white students is fascinating. I am going to spend some hours in the computer lab with the document highly magnified to hopefully discover as much as I can.

  2. That’s annoying that it was tough to read… x amount of years from now, do you think scholars will be interpreting only typed sources while looking at our generation? What if they will be using sources like our iMessage chats, tweets, and Facebook posts? Scholars looking at the 21st century will likely never know the agony of trying to read handwritten sources….

    Anyways, I have a suggestion for you! I’ve never tried it, but apparently the app “Scripto” is designed to allow members of the public to transcribe a range of different kinds of files, Scripto will increase your content’s findability while building your user community through active engagement. I think its basically crowdsourcing the work! Check it out:

    1. Rose thanks for the suggestion! That is really cool! I’ll check it out and let you know how it works. I definitely could use some help on this one.

  3. Sounds like you have a pretty good focus/idea of what you’re going to be doing! I’ll second the others in appreciating the conclusions you can draw from that letter, even if it’s not directly relevant. I think the most helpful part of the research I did over break was get some names to search for, not just generic terms–sounds like you’re already finding that approach helpful, so keep it up!

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