Bartleby’s Insights on Complex Embodiment for a Post-Pandemic World

Twice in my teaching career, I’ve encountered Herman Melville at the intersection of past and present. When I was an adjunct instructor of English at Pace University’s downtown Manhattan campus, I taught “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” (1853) in the wake of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Because I taught the class in fall 2013, two years after the first protesters gathered in Zuccotti Park, I expected Melville’s story of Wall Street to resonate with students pursuing an expensive education in the financial center of a city still riven by income inequality. I did not expect the story to seem as urgent when I taught it again at Brigham Young University in Utah in 2020. But several months into a course on writing literary criticism in which I used “Bartleby” as the primary text, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the class online. And once again, the story of a “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” scrivener mapped uncannily onto the moment in which I was teaching it. From the bedrooms and living rooms my students converted into makeshift offices in which to conduct remote work, Melville’s “motionless young man” had something to say about our crisis (9). When domestic and corporate spaces collapse into one another, what form of humanity can one extricate from the mess?

Figure 1: “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” as it first appeared in Putman’s Monthly (1853).

Our crises exceeded these, of course, as we and others around the world grappled with mortality, grief, economic loss, food insecurity, homelessness, social dislocation, anxiety, and depression. The first person to die of COVID in Utah was my next-door neighbor, a close friend of our family’s. But as the course staggered on, these crises never seemed to outstrip the capacity of Melville’s story to offer some illustration and commentary, if not relief. One routine assignment was to formulate a conceptual question about the primary text, then to analyze the way two literary critics have approached dimensions of the question, and finally to propose an analytical response to the question which converses with these critical views. This assignment led many students toward the field of disability studies. The backdrop of the pandemic brought to the fore the investment in ideas of complex embodiment within “Bartleby.” As I modeled the assignment for my socially isolated, increasingly anxious, and depressed students, what emerged from the story and two works of literary criticism about it was a model not just for writing but also for living in a liable, contingent world.

Four years on, a disability-informed reading of “Bartleby” seems to address even more urgently the crises our students face. The COVID-19 pandemic has not abated as much as it has settled into cases of chronic illness (including mental illness), which are met mostly with the advocacy and compassion fatigue Melville’s story dramatized in the nineteenth century. Like Bartleby, many of our students in need of accommodations find themselves against the limits of what administrators, teachers, and peers deem “reasonable.” Melville’s story does not offer solutions, but it does suggest to those who experience disabilities exacerbated or caused by the psychic and physical ravages of the pandemic that they are not problems to be managed but rather bearers of hard-won knowledge.

Figure 2: Portrait of Herman Melville by Joseph Oriel Eaton (1870), Joseph Oriel Eaton, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

When Herman Melville’s narrator erupts in frustration with his silent, stationary employee, he gives vent to questions at the heart of the story: “What shall I do? . . . What ought I to do? What does conscience say I should do with this man, or rather ghost?” (18). These questions are entangled with another question, whose answer seems to hold the key to the narrator’s problem: what is wrong with Bartleby? If he can identify Bartleby’s defect, the narrator believes he can muster an appropriate response. The story ends with the narrator still searching for the elusive facts that could solve the puzzle of his scrivener’s behavior or calm his own conscience, but his failure in this regard hasn’t dissuaded many readers from pursuing the same questions.

Figure 3: “A Money Scrivener” by Thomas Rowlandson (1801). Thomas Rowlandson, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Over the last generation, the field of disability studies has reoriented interpretations of “Bartleby” by disregarding these questions in favor of new ones: What does Bartleby know? And what can readers learn from him? After all, Bartleby’s position at the margins of society, and finally at the margin between existence and whatever lies beyond, gives him access to forms of embodied and existential knowledge many people lack. Since the story goes to such lengths to detail Bartleby’s deviance from the norms of the law office in which he works under the narrator’s employ, such questions imply the distinct possibility that the very fact of human diversity, in all its irreducible variety, can teach us as much about the ultimate mysteries of life and death as we can ever hope to know.

Two critical treatments of Bartleby from the field of disability studies foreground the meanings Bartleby’s presence illuminates, rather than obscures. Kari Nixon’s reading of the short story proceeds from a series of novel (if mostly tacit) assumptions: there’s nothing wrong with Bartleby; the narrator’s obsession, then, with “medical categorization and definition of human individuality rather than accepting and upholding the value of difference” is inexplicable, hinging on unethical; the problems in the story emanate from misguided responses to Bartleby rather than with Bartleby’s behavior; and these responses are a missed chance to appreciate what Bartleby has to offer. Nixon pauses on a few minor interactions in the story that have mostly escaped critical attention and which indicate Bartleby’s inclination to cooperate and comply—if he’s approached on the right terms. As she points out, Bartleby has a range of responses beyond the iconic, confounding phrase “I prefer not to.” But these responses are not always spoken (sometimes, for example, he can be persuaded to “noiselessly slide into view” when called) and so fail to register as meaningful alternatives to the deadlock of human will that ensnares the plot (Melville 7, 16). The responsibility for the failures in “Bartleby,” Nixon concludes, extends to contemporary readers who follow the narrator in making Bartleby into a puzzle to solve. “Instead of hearkening to Melville’s ultimate claims about the value of purely accepting and embracing diversity and inscrutability,” she argues, “we struggle instead to make the inscrutable the comprehensible, and the strange a mere amalgamation of the familiar.”

Figure 4: Kari Nixon, Quarantine Life from Cholera to Covid-19 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021).

But Nixon’s conclusions create a dilemma for modern critics drawn to her conviction that Bartleby should be seen—as all humans—as a source of knowledge rather than frustration. Even as she validates Bartleby’s idiosyncratic way of functioning in the world, Nixon asks that we draw a curtain over the very dimension of Bartleby’s identity, his difference, that could show us what only he knows about a meaningful way of being in, and finally leaving, the world. Certainly, as Nixon insists, Bartleby has knowledge worth accessing. But in charging us to respect his “inscrutability,” she leaves readers yearning to discover: what is it he knows?  

While Nixon strenuously avoids naming or even fully acknowledging Bartleby’s neurodiversity (as a matter of principle, it seems, she never uses the term “disabled” to refer to the scrivener), Stuart Murray is more willing to study Bartleby’s difference and pursue the critical implications of a rudimentary diagnosis. In a sense, Murray commits the sin for which Nixon faults the lawyer and readers, but he demonstrates that something generative, and even generous, can result from taking up disability itself as a meaningful analytic category. Although he acknowledges that clinical medicine would not recognize the condition of autism until the 1940s and that a fictional character’s disability can never be a realistic portrait, he still notices, “the narrator’s descriptions of Bartleby time and again echo the descriptions of impairments—of communication, imagination, and socialization—that would come to be central to twentieth-century outlines of autism.”

Figure 5: Stuart Murray, Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008).

Bartleby’s difference thus named and categorized, Murray is able to explore a more significant concern: “the critical consequences that come with the admission of the fact of a narrative autistic presence, namely the manner in which Bartleby’s subject position then determines the various analytical interpretations that can be mobilized in discussions of the story as a whole.” To ignore—or even scrupulously gloss over—Bartleby’s disability is to deny that it is the presence (or at least the representation) of autism in the story that generates its chief tensions. Crucially, Murray argues, “the story leaves the space of autistic presence undisclosed and open, and invites interpretations that might make sense of it.” Legal, economic, political, religious, humanitarian, and philosophical readings all fall short, for Murray, to the extent that they fail to recognize that it is first and foremost the difference of disability that creates the interpretive space, or the ambiguities, they seek to fill. Bartleby’s autism is an observation or a conjecture, not an argument about the story. But if no meaningful interpretation ends with that fact, Murray argues, any meaningful interpretation begins there.

As they define the critical field in which they intervene, both Murray and Nixon cite a pioneer of disability studies, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who helped frame the terms of a field that insists we see people like Bartleby “not as objects of study but as knowledge producers.” Garland-Thomson was featured prominently in a section of a 2005 PMLA issue, edited by Michael Davidson, Tobin Siebers, and Rosemary Feal, that articulated the grounding assumptions and radical potential of the emerging field. It begins with a reappropriation of the term “disability,” which can no longer mean “defect.” Simply put, Garland-Thomson proposes, “Disability is a story we tell about bodies. It is a received yet pliable story that changes over time and across place.” Once we understand the narrative origins of the category, we recognize that disability, like other matrices of identity, is constructed in specific environments and in response to specific needs and desires. As a guiding principle, “disability studies points out that ability and disability are not so much a matter of the capacities and limitations of bodies but more about what we expect from a body at a particular moment and place.”

Figure 6: Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008).

When we understand these features of disability, we begin to grasp the proposition at the heart of the field: “Every life devolves into disability, making it perhaps the essential characteristic of being human.” Death is the breaking of the body’s vital organs, whether slowly or suddenly. Just as there is no life without death, there is no death without disability. Disability studies reframes our understanding of “inscrutable” characters like Bartleby, but more tellingly, it also stands to reveal to us the inscrutable reaches of our own pasts, possible presents, and certain futures.

With these convictions of disability theorists in view, we can return much more fruitfully to the question of what knowledge Bartleby has on offer. Both Nixon and Murray lead us to this question without answering it, leaving us the important work of grappling with possible responses. If we understand that Bartleby occupies the position of a subject experiencing disability and facing death, and that we will each come to occupy the same position (if we don’t already), he emerges as a kind of guide. The pandemic startled many people who were serene in illusions of their health and ability into a heightened awareness of their physical vulnerability. The margin of human experience in which Bartleby exists is also a precipice, which commands a view we all will see. What will we behold, and how can we possibly prepare?

Figure 7: Stereograph of a Clerk’s Office at the U.S. Court, “Clerk’s Office [at the] U.S. Court,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.

Bartleby’s position gives him incomparable authority on the question. He is a young man in the last few months of his life. The urgency of his mortality sneaks up on the reader, as it sneaks up on the narrator. Does it sneak up on Bartleby? Probably not. One has a strong sense of Bartleby as someone who understands and deeply feels the facts of his own disability and untimely death. His characteristic responses to others can be seen as his strategies for managing this knowledge. “When disability enters our lives, often our only available responses are silence, denial, shame, or determined and desperate vows to ‘fight it,’” Garland-Thomson observes. If we imagine Bartleby’s silence as bound up in denial or possibly shame around a disability he recognizes but lacks the medical lexicon to fully comprehend, it takes on a semantic complexity. We begin to realize the stunning depth of knowledge this silence covers when Bartleby has his last conversation with the narrator. He is incarcerated, emaciated, hours from death. He stands at the edge of an unfathomable beyond. His short life is all but behind him, and eternity stretches ahead. To the narrator, he says simply, “I know where I am” (30).

Figure 8: “Clerk” (1844), Bernard Taylor (1825-78), artist, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is Bartleby’s singular gift, one borne of his preference to be stationary (quarantined, we might even say), to become one with a place to such an extent that he cannot be extricated from it. When he stands at the threshold between disability and death with this knowledge, we finally understand that the places with which he’s so familiar are the very places most of us, including the narrator, spend our lives trying to avoid. Who wants to dwell on, much less in, chronic suffering, physical deterioration, mental distress, the agony of our final hours? Any sane person runs from the thought. But Bartleby’s expertise derives from the fact that he is not, from an ableist perspective, sane. He has occupied the position of disability as he now occupies the position of dying, and he knows where he is. With something more than sanity, Bartleby has learned how to domesticate, and then inhabit, the inhospitable. This is knowledge worth recruiting, especially in an era of long COVID and rising rates of other chronic illnesses. To come to know foreboding places, and to learn how to live in them, is what it means to be human.  


Further Reading

Daniel Diez Couch and Michael Anthony Nicholson, “Silent Eloquence: Literary Extracts, the Aesthetics of Disability, and Melville’s ‘Fragments,’” Leviathan 23, no. 1 (March 2021): 7-23.

Michael Davidson and Tobin Siebers, “Introduction: Conference on Disability Studies and the University,” PMLA 120, no. 2 (2005): 498-501.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Disability and Representation,” PMLA 120, no. 2 (2005): 522-27.

Herman Melville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street,” in Melville’s Short Novels, ed. Dan McCall, 1st ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002), 3-34.

David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000).

Stuart Murray, Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008).

Kari Nixon, “If You Don’t Know Me by Now: The Failure of Care in ‘Bartleby, The Scrivener,’” Disability Studies Quarterly 34, no. 4 (2014): np.

Samuel Otter, “Introduction: Melville and Disability,” Leviathan 8, no. 1 (March 2006): 7–16

Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008).


This article originally appeared in June 2024.

Mary Eyring is an Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Brigham Young University, where she teaches courses on early American literature, early American studies, and disability theory. Her book Saltwater: Globalizing Early New England Grief will be published by the Omohundro Institute and the University of North Carolina Press in 2025.

A Modest Proposal

Let’s stop using the term “puritan.” The migrants to English America, to whom the label has become attached, did not embrace the term, making it historically inaccurate. More importantly, our misappropriation of “puritan” has allowed scholars to ignore and the public to misunderstand religion. The price we pay in the present is a stunted and politicized understanding of the past. Instead, I propose we choose more accurate terms, accepting that “puritan” is almost never what we intend.

The term “puritan” emerged during the sixteenth century in debates over the nature of the Church of England. Supporters of the church’s modest reformation derided opponents who wanted a more vigorously reformed church as “puritan.” These critics sought to impose Calvinist style discipline on their communities. As a result, the label entered popular use as a taunt against those seen as rigid and judgmental. Unsurprisingly, the subjects of the term “puritan” never embraced the epithet.

This period in English history when godly reformers worked within the established church in hopes of its reformation lasted until the 1630s, when Archbishop William Laud’s persecutions dashed these hopes. On the English side of the Atlantic, the movement for reform within the established church foundered on Laudian persecution, Atlantic migration, and (after 1640) the fragmentation associated with the civil wars and revolution. 

Figure 1: John Barker (1811-1886), Battle of Marston Moor. Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museums, Gloucestershire, UK. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The name “puritan” became almost exclusively associated with New England, but individuals who had pushed for a more extensive church reformation and for godly discipline scattered throughout the English Americas and the wider Atlantic. Moreover, not all New Englanders had ever identified with a Calvinist-inspired deeper reformation of the English national church.

Reformers who once hoped to work within the established church used the freedom that they found in migration to create a new church order. Across the Atlantic, distance and a lack of oversight liberated them from the constraints that the Church of England imposed. They fashioned congregationalism, a Protestant variant that embraced Calvinist theology and emphasized discipline and congregational independence. They agreed on this church order, which they described generally as “the churches of Christ” and with ecclesiastical specificity as “congregational.” 

Figures 2a and 2b: The term “congregational” is used in Cambridge Synod, A Platform of Church Discipline (Cambridge, MA, 1649), ch. 5, point 1, unpaginated, a document known more commonly as The Cambridge Platform. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.    

In the meantime, in England itself, the godly shunted aside the Church of England and tried to use the power of Parliament to organize the creation of a better (to their lights) established church. That effort collapsed, even as the religious landscape fractured into numerous religious expressions. Presbyterians with ties to (or a deep admiration of) the Scottish kirke failed to gain control of England’s religious settlement. Independents—ecclesiastically more akin to the newly minted New England congregationalist orthodoxy—never had a chance to shape the national church settlement in England. Through the 1650s they gained a reputation for radicalism, particularly in London, that encouraged the church leaders in Massachusetts to distance themselves from them, effectively eschewing the term “Independent” for their own churches as a result. Meanwhile, others (including Baptists and, using the term “church” loosely, Quakers) furthered the fragmentation of England’s religious landscape.

Figure 3: Engraving from “Nalson’s Record of the Trial of Charles I” in the British Museum. Plate 2 from A True Copy of the Journal of the High Court of Justice for the Tryal of K. Charles I as it was Read in the House of Commons and Attested Under the Hand of Phelps, Clerk to that Infamous Court / Taken by J. Nalson Jan. 4, 1683: With a Large Introduction (London: Printed by H.C. for Thomas Dring, 1684). Uncredited engraver, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

By 1650, the puritan movement was effectively over, whether we understand it narrowly as a reformed movement willing to remain within and fight to improve an inadequate national church or more capaciously as a unified community of godly reformers working together to reorganize religion and society.

In England, subsequently, the term took on a political meaning. Nineteenth-century scholars concerned with the constitutional issues they saw as central to mid-seventeenth-century revolutionary upheaval dubbed it “the Puritan Revolution.” In this, they followed a revised meaning attached to the term that, by the early eighteenth century, had claimed “puritan” as encompassing only the moderate mid-century Parliamentarians dominated by the Presbyterians and opposed to regicide. Limiting the movement to this slice of it eliminated its radicalism, a narrowing that disavowed the radical religious roots of revolution by focusing on the Parliamentarians who opposed its excesses. If these moderates were the puritans, any “revolution” named for them could not have been especially revolutionary. 

Figure 4: The Execution of King Charles I (unknown artist, ca. 1649). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

These scholars rehabilitated the puritans into benign moderates who could serve as worthy antecedents to the Whigs, as Mark Goldie has shown in his assessment of late seventeenth-century “puritan whigs.” In this way, the term lost its original meaning (deriding those who sought other ecclesiastical forms and greater social controls) and came to denote the most moderate Dissenters, those who by 1700 were inspired by whiggish principles in favor of a limited monarchy and religious tolerance. The revolution associated with these moderates they dubbed “Glorious” for its lack of revolutionary violence, distancing it from the excesses of regicide and calls for drastic social transformation which they abhorred. 

Figure 5: William enters London in December 1688 during the Glorious Revolution. Romeyn de Hooghe, The Reception of His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange at his Entering London (ca. 1690). Romeyn de Hooghe, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The term has had its most lasting power in New England and has done the greatest damage to our historical understanding there. Like their counterparts in England, those godly men and women who migrated across the Atlantic were no more likely to value the appellation as their own. They did not describe themselves as puritan (nor, for that matter, did they use the phrase Perry Miller decades ago attached to them, “non-separating congregationalist”).

Free to do as they pleased, religiously speaking, the migrants moved beyond reforming the Church of England from within to establish their own version of a well-organized reformed church. If they hoped briefly that their example would inspire church-making efforts in England, that consideration was a distant second to their primary concern of creating the New England way centered around “churches of Christ” organized in each town in the colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Haven. 

Figure 6: Christ Church, 1723 (United States: s.n., ca. 1875). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

In New England, puritan came to mean (in its most narrow, religious sense), the new ecclesiastical and doctrinal forms hammered out in those three colonies. In this vein, much scholarship discussed the relationship between the church established in Plymouth Plantation (based on practices transferred from the exiled separatist community in the Netherlands) and those “puritan” churches organized in other parts of New England. As events unfolded, little distinguished the puritan from the separatist imports, although those older and increasingly irrelevant terms continued in use among scholars interested in identifying and understanding their interplay.

“Puritan” has been used capaciously, moving beyond acknowledging the relationship between the earlier English reform movement and the later New England church establishment. Every New England minister for a century has been declared a puritan, which has come to mean simply a clergyman serving in New England. 

Figure 7: John Foster, Mr. Richard Mather (Massachusetts: s.n., ca. 1670). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

The term is so entrenched that many people—whether scholars or a member of the wider American public—identify the local church establishment as “puritan,” as if that were the equivalent of a denomination or national church order such as Presbyterian or Anglican. Historians who study other aspects of early America or later periods of U.S. history have told me that they thought that New England churches adhered to a denomination dubbed “puritan.” Textbook maps have been known to distinguish puritan New England from Quaker Pennsylvania, as if there were some equivalences between the organized Society of Friends and a similarly organized institution known as “puritan.” Such an organization did not exist, and indeed has never existed.

Beyond the ill-informed sense that New England boasted an ecclesiastical form known as “the puritan church,” the term has come to stand in for the entire region in all its (usually unacknowledged) complexity. References to “Puritan New England” are common, even (or perhaps especially) in relation to subjects that have nothing to do with the difference among religious faiths and practices.

Using the word implies some religious connection, which fits with the idea that the region was uniquely devout, even when religion is far from the topic at hand. “Puritan” stands for the culture of New England, a culture that is assumed to be religious at its root. Scholarship too easily treats much of what occurred there, ranging from the execution of witches to fights over political economy or foreign policy, as if the puritanism of the region guided events. Popular opinion often derides the puritans as excessive religious hypocrites—a usage that inspires humorous (albeit historically inaccurate) Valentine’s Day cards denouncing desire and dancing as supposedly prohibited to puritans. Such joking references are, ironically, closest to the original meaning of the taunts aimed at overeager reformers.

This usage is both vague and exceedingly widespread. On some level, the term intends to mark the entire area (from the fishing villages of Maine through the merchant houses of Newport, Rhode Island, and on to the farms of Connecticut) as adhering, and adhering deeply, to a distinct religious culture. Puritan New England in this view represents a contrast to other British North American colonial regions, none of which are known for their overwhelming religiosity. In particular, the term sharply contrasts with the Chesapeake (and the mainland South more generally), where the settlers allegedly cared only for profit and attention to religion was purportedly weak to nonexistent.

Figure 8: John Carwitham, A South East View of the Great Town of Boston in New England in America (London: Printed for Carington Bowles, [between 1730 and 1760?]). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

The terminology of “Puritan New England” has become so common as a synonym for the region that some scholars and many laypeople reference all the people dwelling there as puritan—regardless of their degree of religiosity, of their specific religious orientation, or of the matter at hand. We have puritan fisherfolk, farmers, artisans, merchants. Indeed, everyone can be dubbed a puritan when it is a synonym for “English person living in New England.” That people who held the same commitment to reformed religion also resided in the Chesapeake cannot be accommodated in this false but pervasive binary.  

The sloppy way in which we use the term feeds the idea—popular in certain U.S. political circles—that one group who migrated to North America was intensely religious, created a region shaped solely by their faith, agreed on the necessity of making religion central to their lives, and established a model society to which the United States must return. This erroneous perception has been exploited by those interested in establishing the idea of the U.S. as a Christian nation from the first, an identity to which they declare that we must revert, by force if necessary.

This representation offers the antithesis to those taunts in the popular imagination, approving of the purported traits of the puritans without understanding their history or their faith any better than the makers of greeting cards do. When we are negligent about the realities of the past, we play into the hands of the Christian America mythmakers, who read the jeremiads Perry Miller discussed so brilliantly as straight reporting and who want to return to a day when all residents were required to sit and to listen to such a harangue. 

Figure 9: Winter Sunday in Olden Times (Boston: F. Gleason, ca. 1875). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

If pressed, most of us know that puritanism was not a religion, that not everyone in New England shared the same views, and that some people who were attuned with the congregational orthodoxy of (some of) the northern English colonies lived in other locations. Yet the shorthand use of a term that was somewhat outdated in 1630 became entirely inapplicable shortly thereafter. It not only fails to capture the religious culture of a region, but it is useless in any legitimate attempt to explain its entire history.

I propose we drop the term puritan and say what we mean—with due regard for whether we intend New England residents generally or want to say something specific about the congregationalist church order adopted widely, but not uniformly, in the region. I promise we won’t miss it! As proof of that point, I just published a long book review on a fabulous book on seventeenth-century debates over the imperial constitution (including its religious and political aspects) for the oh-so-rigorously edited William and Mary Quarterly. I never used the term and the editors never commented. Perhaps they noticed the omission, but they made no case for its inclusion, because of course it was absolutely unnecessary.

If I cannot persuade everyone to drop the term altogether—unless of course they are writing about late-sixteenth-century ecclesiastical and social reformers in the Church of England—could I at least get everyone to agree to use lower case: puritan?


Further Reading

Mark Goldie, Roger Morrice and the Puritan Whigs: The Entring Book, 1677-1691 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2016).

Perry Miller, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630-1650 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933), 105.

Adrian Chastain Weimer, A Constitutional Culture: New England and the Struggle against Arbitrary Rule in the Restoration Empire (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023).


This article originally appeared in May 2024.


Carla Gardina Pestana teaches at UCLA. She writes about religion and empire in England’s Atlantic colonies, especially in the seventeenth century. Her most recent book is The World of Plymouth Plantation (2020). She recently persuaded the New England Quarterly editorial team of the wisdom of the lower case “p.”

Was the Portrait of John Wilmot Destroyed in a Fire?

What do you do when you find that a significant painting of early American history, in the collection of a major American gallery, was reported in nineteenth-century British newspapers to have been destroyed in a fire? To be specific: Portrait of John Wilmot by Benjamin West, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1812, sold at auction in 1970 to an American collector, was reported as “totally destroyed” in 1863 on a train bringing the Wilmot family’s possessions from Bristol to London. 

Figure 1: Benjamin West, Portrait of John Wilmot (1812), Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

The picture, in the collection at the Yale Center for British Art, is well known to scholars of early American history. Historian Mary Beth Norton’s graduate work was on the experiences of the American loyalists in the War of Independence––colonials who remained loyal to the British government and were exiled from America by the revolutionaries. In a short paper in 1973, she described Wilmot’s life and focused on the “second” painting behind the figure of Wilmot, which is an allegory of Britain’s beneficence to the loyalists. Since then, books by Simon Schama and Maya Jasanoff, respectively on experiences of Black exiles and of loyalists across the British Empire, also comment on the allegorical “second” painting within the Portrait and the diversity of people shown in it.

With a prior interest in the Wilmot family from my local history work, I was researching from a different perspective: how did the picture come about? The Portrait was painted in London, in the troubled times of Britain’s war with Napoleonic France and continued conflict with the United States about the boundaries with Canada. Wilmot, a member of Parliament and lawyer in Georgian Britain, had led a commission adjudicating compensation for the American loyalists who lost their property or position through the revolution. West came to Britain in 1763 from the American colonies, became the most-favored painter of King George III, and rose to be president of the Royal Academy. During and after the American Revolution, he assisted returning loyalists yet also maintained patriot friends. He saw himself as the “father” of schools of painting in both Britain and America, received students from America, and maintained his links with Philadelphia.

The Portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1812, its full title describing Wilmot’s public service for the loyalists. The Prince Regent and his sons, the Dukes of York and Cumberland, came for a royal viewing, and the artist Joseph Farrington, whose contemporary diary is much used by art historians, wrote that, “The portraits principally occupied his attention, & he continually referred to the catalogue for the names of the portraits, & remarked upon those that were like.”  There is no record that the Prince asked about Wilmot, but a newspaper review described West’s “portrait which claims the merit of being an historical painting, from the accompaniments which embellish the subject of the piece.” This description of accompaniments is evidence of the “second” allegorical painting that we see in the Portrait.

In the year of his death, Wilmot published a book about his work with the commission and included, as a frontispiece, a line drawing titled “Reception of the American Loyalists by Great Britain.” Commentaries originally thought it was drawn from a separate picture by West, but since the Portrait came to public view, it has been considered copied from the “second” painting within the Portrait

Figure 2: Frontispiece by Henry Moses after Benjamin West and title page of Wilmot’s Historical View of the Commission (1815).

This was the state of play when, late one evening, idly scanning nineteenth-century English newspapers for “Wilmot” on the internet, I was shocked to find that British newspapers in early August 1863 described the Portrait being “entirely destroyed” by fire on a railway train. The Times report may be trusted for veracity, since Sir John Eardley-Wilmot was a judge and would have taken exception to misreporting. Three “valuable pictures,” it said, in the “safest and most commodious” van were “entirely destroyed” in the fire, including the “well-known portrait of Sir Eardley Wilmot’s grandfather, the commissioner selected by Mr Pitt to settle the claims of the American loyalists.”

Figure 3: “Accident to Goods on the Great Western Railway,” The Times, August 4, 1863, p. 7.

In my research on the Portrait, I had looked at the web pages of the Yale Center for British Art, which provide excellent metadata documentation of their collection. The Portrait of Wilmot has a bibliography of thirty references, many with further net links. They included the catalog and newspaper reports from the 1970 sale and an analytic article prepared for a special display of the painting in 1983. But there was no mention of the fire. I contacted the Center’s curators and shared my finding of the newspaper reports. The picture’s provenance from the London sale, in the Center’s own records, and the painting’s actual presence in the gallery are at odds with the newspaper archive, which could not be explained.

I worked along several lines of inquiry to explore the newspaper report. First was to relate the frontispiece print in Wilmot’s book with the oil-painted Portrait as a whole. Benjamin West had worked across his career with engravers to produce prints of his paintings—it was important for his income since many of the paintings themselves did not sell. By 1811, West had engaged a young artist, Henry Moses, to engrave prints for a collection of his recent paintings. The technique of outline-engraving that Moses used was faster than fully modelled engravings and it suited the sharply defined figures in West’s work. Moses’ name as well as West’s is in the print collection and also on the frontispiece of Wilmot’s book.

My next approach was to trace the Portrait across time. Little is known of the Portrait since it was displayed at the Royal Academy and before it emerged in 1970. It was not recorded by West’s biographer of 1820, nor in the early-modern record of West’s work by Grose Evans in 1959. It is included in the major catalogue raisonné of West’s work in 1988, but that was well after the auction sale. I’ve found just one direct mention before 1970. Following his work with the American loyalists, Wilmot became active raising money for French émigrés fleeing to Britain during the French revolution. Margery Weiner, a retired civil servant, wrote a history of the French émigrés. In 1966 she gave a talk, serendipitously in the house where John Wilmot had once lived and which has become the local museum. In the talk as later published, she described visiting Wilmot’s descendent, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, 4th baronet, who was “kind enough to show me the picture in his possession . . . with all the benefits of size and colour.” She did not mention a “second” picture within the painting. This is the only record of viewing Wilmot’s portrait before 1970.

The gallery metadata for the Portrait describes a label on the back, “Property of Late Sir John Eardley-Wilmot,” with the address of Mary Don, in Chenies Row, Chelsea. Visiting the local records office for Chelsea, I found Mary Don at this address as Sir John’s married daughter. I looked up Sir Eardley-Wilmot’s will, which instructed that “ALL the remainder of my property real and personal” should go to Mary, while adding that his nephew Commander John Eardley-Wilmot RN might buy from Mary, if they jointly wished and at an agreed valuation, four pictures: three other named ancestors and “my large picture of the Signing of the Agreement with the American Loyalists.” This last was presumably his name for the Portrait, loosely embracing Wilmot’s work, and would have been the Portrait that went to auction. How these four paintings relate to the three “valuable” family pictures that were apparently destroyed in the 1863 fire is unknown.

Figure 4: Spy (Leslie Ward) cartoon of Sir John Eardley-Wilmot for the magazine Vanity Fair (1885), National Portrait Gallery, London.

In my research about Wilmot, I found in the catalog of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, a print titled “John Wilmot Esq., 1788.” It is among many thousands of engraved prints, predominantly botanical and zoological, that a benefactor, Dr. Richard Hope, gave to the museum in the 1850s. Wilmot sits in the same pose as the Portrait but, instead of the “second” picture, a background curtain winds around a large fluted column, with trees further distant, while at the front there is no book on the table beside the pen and papers.

Oddly, this print is titled with the date “1788,” the year of Wilmot’s commission report, twenty years before he sat for the Portrait. Perhaps it was created later—but to what purpose? A possibility was for “extra-illustration.” In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was a vogue for adding print portrait sheets into existing books. Some portrait prints were created (or reproduced) to supply this market. Dr. Hope similarly gathered his large collection for its completeness as well as for the individual character of the prints. 

Figure 5: [Anonymous], after Benjamin West, John Wilmot Esq. 1788, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The Hope collection outline engraving imitates the work of Henry Moses, but it has no names at the base of the print, either of the artist (usually on the left) or of the engraver (usually on the right). Perhaps it’s an unacknowledged copy, but of what? If Wilmot’s Portrait was kept in the family, the image would not have been known. Did Moses make an engraving of Wilmot alone to complement the engraving of the loyalists that became the frontispiece? I have not found any record of this print in online catalogs of the period, although searching through archive boxes in London’s National Portrait Gallery does reveal a photograph of another copy in an unnamed private collection.

A last possibility for the Portrait was that it was recreated after the fire. Two other portraits of Wilmot come down to us, both earlier than Benjamin West’s and both in profile. He is shown with other members in a composite painting of the House of Commons in 1793 and 1794. It was made shortly before Wilmot stood down from Parliament and he is sitting in the front row, evidently an active member.

Figure 6: Karl Hickel, Members of Parliament 1793-1794 (Wilmot sixth from left in front row), National Portrait Gallery, London.

A second portrait was drawn by George Dance in 1803 for the series of drawings Eminent Persons, which were later published as etchings by William Daniell in 1811.

Figure 7: William Daniell (engraved print, 1811) after George Dance (pencil drawing, 1802), Portrait of John Wilmot, National Portrait Gallery, London.

In the Portrait, Wilmot wears the black coat and white kerchief of a professional and sits at a desk, hands outstretched to his papers. Although his pose appears rather stiff, in many respects it is like the portrait West painted of himself when he was elected President of the Royal Academy, in 1793. West’s black coat is single-breasted while Wilmot’s is double-breasted. These are formal clothes but contrast with the sitters in most of West’s other portraits (mainly before the 1780s), who are more colorful.

Figure 8: Benjamin West, Self-portrait (1793), Royal Academy of Art, London.

The print of Wilmot in profile by Heckel or Dance, the print of Wilmot at the Ashmolean, West’s oil self-portrait in characterful pose, and the whole scene of the Reception frontispiece print would together have provided sufficient material to re-create the Portrait.

So, did the fire really happen? The Railway Passengers Assurance Company were the main insurers for railway accidents at that time. I searched the board minutes for 1863 through 1864, held at the London Metropolitan Archives, but their insurance only covered bodily harm of people, not for goods. I went to the National Archives in Kew, London, (where the compendious volumes of Wilmot’s Commission are also held) to look for the board minutes of the Great Western Railway Company. For August 5, 1863 I found: “Mr Grierson reported that a Van of furniture belonging to Sir Eardley Wilmot had been destroyed by fire . . . for which a claim has been sent in of £500 for the furniture and £98 for the Van. Instructions were given to . . . offer reasonable compensation for the Van & furniture. But to decline all liability for sundry pictures destroyed which were not insured.”

My opening question is unanswered. I’ve linked the painting with its engraving, searched out parallel images, found sought out evidence for inheritance, and I’ve confirmed the fire. But I haven’t found an explanation. Perhaps the attention of Commonplace readers and new approaches can lead to a resolution.


Further Reading

Note: “John Wilmot” was how Wilmot styled himself up to 1812, when by royal deed he joined his father’s name Eardley to his own surname, becoming John Eardley-Wilmot. His son gained a baronetcy, his grandson Sir Eardley-Wilmot 2nd Bt lost the pictures in the fire in 1863 and the heirs of Sir Eardley-Wilmot 4th Bt sold the Portrait in 1970.

I am grateful to Yale Center for British Art for guidance about the Portrait. Writing mentioned in the text includes: John Eardley-Wilmot, Historical View of the Commission for Enquiring into the Losses, Services and Claims of the American Loyalists at the Close of the War between Great Britain and her Colonies, in 1783: with an Account of the Compensation Granted to them by Parliament in 1785 and 1788 (London: self-published, 1815); Mary Beth Norton, “Eardley-Wilmot, Britannia and the Loyalists: a Painting by Benjamin West,” Perspectives in American History 6 (1972): 119–31; Margery Weiner, John Eardley-Wilmot, A Man of his Time, (London: Edmonton Hundred Historical Society, 1970); Lucy Peltz, Facing the Text: Extra-illustration, Print Culture, and Society in Britain, 1769–1840 (San Marino Calif.: Huntington Library Press, 2017).


This article originally appeared in May 2024.


Mark McCarthy is a graduate of the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and an historian of Camden Town. Wilmot Place is the (unexplained) name of a local street. Lord Camden upheld democratic rights for the American colonists pre-Independence. A longer article on how Benjamin West’s painting of John Wilmot came about, in the context of British and American history, is awaiting a publisher.

Caroline’s Clothes: The Life and Loss of an Antebellum Woman

In Chatham Center, New York, it is said that the ghost of Caroline Sutherland Layton, a beautiful young woman who died in the 1850s, can sometimes be seen in her wedding dress walking the fields and picking flowers near her childhood home.

Caroline’s wedding gown happens to be in the historic textile collections of the Illinois State Museum, and her ghost tale was the first thing I learned while researching its provenance for an upcoming exhibition. It wouldn’t be the last. Caroline’s story, teased out of her artifacts and a few fleeting written references, represents a powerful, if brief, window into the life of a woman whose trajectory was all too common in her time: someone who married, moved west, and died young. In Caroline’s case, all of this happened within twelve months.

Analyzing these garments and the scant historical record against the backdrop of her social and historical context produces a poignant view of a westward migrant. It shows how she invested emotional, social, and physical work in building a life and family in a new state. Like many young brides who went west with their husbands, Caroline gambled the comfort of the familiar on the promise of the new. And like many young brides, Caroline lost that gamble, dying young despite her advantages of class and wealth.

Like countless other women, Caroline is remembered only as a brief footnote in the historical record. No family letters by, to, or about her survive. She appears only in the 1850 federal census, an 1851 school catalog, and three newspaper tidbits between 1856 and 1857. Beyond that, she is remembered only as a ghost story, and because of a macabre postscript to her life: in the 1930s, her family vault crumbled, and curious trespassers found Caroline’s iron coffin within. Visible through a glass faceplate, Caroline’s body was in a remarkable state of preservation, appearing unchanged by time. Word quickly spread through town, and scores of locals hiked out to the burial vault to gaze at her features. A newspaper article called her the “vision in the vault,” and the story of her extraordinary postmortem appearance passed into local legend.

Fortunately, something more tangible than a legend remains of Caroline. A small collection of her personal garments was preserved by her family for more than a century and a half. Initially sent back to New York with her remains after her death, they were brought to McLean County, Illinois, with her mother and brother when they relocated there in the late 1850s. They passed down through generations of her brother’s descendants until 2019, when they were donated to the Illinois State Museum.

Figure 1: A stenciled laundry mark enabled Caroline Sutherland to keep track of her “whites” in the wash. Illinois State Museum. Photo by Dannyl Dolder.

There is always a bit of hesitation when ascribing ownership to objects whose original owner is long gone from this world. Luckily, however, Caroline stamped her garments with her laundry mark, C. A. Sutherland. A nineteenth-century laundry mark, as I like to tell museum visitors, serves the same function as writing a kid’s name in their underpants with a Sharpie when sending them to summer camp: it helps to ensure that the right garments come back to the right person after being washed. In this case, the laundry mark, coupled with the garments’ 1850s construction and style, affords a high degree of certainty that these garments, untouched for decades, did indeed belong to Caroline. Considered together, these garments provide rich insight into the tumultuous last year of Caroline’s life, fleshing out her experience of having become a bride, new resident of Illinois, young matron, expectant mother, and mother in rapid succession before her untimely death at age 23 in 1857.

Figure 2: Maria Wilbour Sutherland (1806–1886), Caroline’s mother. Courtesy of Martha Ehler.

Caroline Sutherland was born about 1834 in Columbia County, New York to what seems to have been a prosperous middle-class family. Her mother, Maria Wilbour Sutherland, had studied under Emma Willard at the Troy Female Seminary in 1822. Her father, John Sutherland, was a physician until his death in 1842. The 1850 census found 15-year-old Caroline and her widowed mother living in a household headed by her 24-year-old brother Samuel and his wife Mary. Samuel is listed as a farmer with $12,000 worth of real estate, on the high end for his near neighbors.

Figure 3: Samuel Wilbour Sutherland (1826–1879), Caroline’s brother. Courtesy of Martha Ehler.

Nothing is known definitively about Caroline’s life in New York other than the fact that, like her mother before her, Caroline attended the Troy Female Seminary. She appears in its Catalog of Officers and Pupils for the 1851 to 1852 school year. The single known photo of Caroline, taken in the early 1850s, shows an attractive young woman whom family and local lore say was regarded as the “reigning beauty” of her town.

Figure 4: Caroline Sutherland Latham (c. 1834–1857?). Photo courtesy of Martha Ehlers.

The survival of her small clothing collection (comprised of two chemises, three nightgowns, one apron, one pair of drawers, one apron, one pair of stockings, four caps, a petticoat, and a wedding gown) helps to fill in the gaps of Caroline’s story.

Caroline likely created some if not all of the undergarments and nightwear before her marriage. Single, middle-class girls were expected to help with housework in preparation for becoming housekeepers themselves one day. For example, Caroline almost certainly helped with the family’s sewing and mending and probably sewed her chemises and drawers herself. Although middle-class women often hired a dressmaker to make gowns, they typically still undertook the creation of household textiles, men’s shirts, children’s clothing, and their own undergarments. Even if a family hired live-in domestic servants (which the Sutherland family did not, per the 1850 census), these servants were usually given more laborious tasks like laundry and cleaning and at best helped, rather than entirely took over, the sewing. The small, even stitches and solid construction of Caroline’s personal garments reflect her mastery of the needlework skills that she would soon be called on to employ as the mistress of her own home.

Figures 5 and 6: Caroline likely sewed her own chemises and drawers, perhaps as part of her bridal trousseau. Illinois State Museum. Photos by Dannyl Dolder.

Despite her sewing duties, however, the years before Caroline’s marriage were likely a relatively carefree period of her life, as it was for many middle-class women. The burden of household management would ultimately have fallen to Caroline’s mother or sister-in-law, leaving Caroline ample time for socializing. Her chemises, drawers, and petticoats were foundational garments that supported the dresses she wore while calling on friends, attending civic activities, and being courted by her admirers. The up-to-date hairstyle she sported in her photograph suggests that she followed fashion trends closely. This supposition is supported by the volume of her petticoat, with its cartridge pleated waist, which tells us her gowns had the stylish bell-shaped silhouette popular in the 1850s. These gowns were likely made by a skilled dressmaker who could create the precise fit and up-to-date styles that a well-to-do, fashionable woman like Caroline would have preferred. Caroline’s garments, photograph, and oral tradition combine to paint a picture of a beautiful young belle enjoying an active social life before she married.

Figure 7: Caroline’s cartridge-pleated petticoat supported fashionably bell-shaped gowns. Photo by Dannyl Dolder.

No evidence survives to suggest when or how she met her future husband. Though also a native of New York, Reuben Layton was from Wayne County (outside Rochester) more than two hundred miles from Caroline’s home in the Hudson River Valley. He appears in the 1850 census as an 18-year-old clerk living in his parents’ household. His father, a farmer, owned $8,000 worth of real estate, making him the fourth most prosperous of his 20 nearest neighbors. By 1856, Reuben was living in Rockford, Illinois, and working as a clerk in the banking house of Spafford, Clark, & Ellis.

Likely a combination of New York roots and business interests brought Reuben into Caroline’s geographical vicinity in New York. At some point, the man described in a Rockford newspaper as “every inch the gentleman” won the heart of Chatham Center’s “reigning beauty.”

Caroline Sutherland married Reuben Layton on November 18, 1856, wearing a gown of figured, cream-colored silk with a lace “bertha” collar. Its construction was complicated, involving puffed and ruffled sleeves, support boning, and box and cartridge pleats at the waist to create the wide-shouldered bodice, fitted waist, and bell skirt. The rigor of construction, cost of the silk material, and importance of the occasion suggest that this garment was made for Caroline by a professional dressmaker.

Figure 8: Caroline Sutherland married Reuben Layton in this gown on November 18, 1856. Photo by Dannyl Dolder. Dress photographed at Historic Edwards Place in Springfield, Illinois.

Caroline’s choice of a white dress is telling. It confirms her status as a well-off middle-class woman. As textile historian Leimomi Oakes has pointed out, textiles in shades of white were difficult to achieve and hard to maintain, meaning that white wedding dresses were often signifiers of wealth rather than purity. The richness of the gown further suggests that her family likely approved of her choice of suitor, as they underwrote the cost (in both material and labor) of this expensive gown. Caroline’s dress was meant to be seen and admired.

Caroline’s white wedding dress also hints that she was forward-looking in her approach to both fashion and in contemporary ideals of marriage. Although women were married in white for centuries, Queen Victoria popularized the trend when she married Prince Albert in 1840. Moreover, Albert and Victoria were also held up as models of a companionate marriage wherein partners shared romantic love and mutual respect. Caroline did not make traditional or practical choices with her wedding dress or choice of husband. She did not marry a prosperous local farmer in her best dress and stay in New York to live near her family. She married an upwardly mobile clerk from Rockford, Illinois, in a stylish white dress. Something within her led her to imagine a new kind of life for herself, in a new state with a husband with whom she likely shared a new ideal of partnership based on mutual respect and romantic love.

Like many antebellum young people, the newly-married Laytons probably saw the west (as Illinois was then considered) as a land of opportunities for financial and social advancement beyond what their rural New York roots could offer. Indeed, within 15 years Reuben would amass $125,000 in assets. Yet the move would not come without hard work and the sacrifice of leaving behind familiar people and places. Caroline, in particular, would be tasked with managing a household in a new city far removed from her social and familial support network.

Before she married Abraham Lincoln, a young Mary Todd once contemplated the change in demeanor of a recently wed girlfriend and wondered, “why are married folks so serious?” Caroline Layton’s linen apron, stained with use, reminds us of the unglamorous side of newly married life. As a young bride, Caroline went from helping her mother and sister-in-law with domestic tasks in her childhood home to being fully responsible for the management of her own, smaller, household. Food preparation, cleaning, and managing lights and fires were labor intensive tasks in the nineteenth century, and the availability of domestic help was not guaranteed. Caroline may well have had a similar experience to her fellow New York transplants to Illinois, Eliza Farnham and Helen Edwards. Farnham, as a new bride in Tremont, scrubbed the floors of her new home because “if I had not, no one would.” Edwards cried the first time she churned butter in Springfield, Illinois, overwhelmed by the extent of her new domestic duties. Caroline’s starched apron represents the mantle of responsibility she assumed as a married woman. The garment is plain, serviceable, and without frills, symbolizing the reality of housekeeping that lay behind the romantic ideal of marriage.

Figure 9: Caroline’s plain, starched linen apron speaks to the unglamorous realities of married life in the antebellum west. Illinois State Museum. Photo by Dannyl Dolder.

Among Caroline’s first tasks in Rockford was to begin building a social and domestic support system to replace the one she had left behind in New York. She had extra reason to need this support, because she had become pregnant sometime around her wedding night. Caroline’s petticoat reflects the accommodations she made to her changing figure during her pregnancy. The waist has been expanded with a length of cotton string, increasing the circumference from 25” to 29”. One imagines her wearing these garments, perhaps in a pretty day dress with the waist let out, as she took the first steps towards building a network of supportive women around her. The wives of her husband’s business associates likely called to introduce themselves, as did her near neighbors. She might also have been able to hire household help, such as a full-time servant or a weekly washwoman. All of these relationships would have been vital to easing her physical burdens as well as her anxieties as she adjusted to the realities of being a pregnant new wife in a new state. 

Figure 10: A length of string expanded the waist of Caroline’s petticoat during her pregnancy. Illinois State Museum. Photo by Dannyl Dolder.

Among Caroline’s cache of clothing is a linen nightgown with full, gathered sleeves and buttons extending the length of the front of the garment. Falling loosely from the shoulders, this garment would have been comfortable even in the very last stages of pregnancy. Indeed, Caroline may well have been wearing this gown (or one just like it) when she gave birth. In The Young Wife’s and Mother’s Book (1842), Pye Henry Chavesse recommends laboring mothers to “put on her clean night-gown, but to have it pinned up to her waist; to have a flannel petticoat to meet it; and then to put on a flannel dressing-gown.” As a middle-class woman, she likely would have had a physician there to attend to her labor (or “confinement,” in nineteenth-century parlance). Had Caroline been at home in New York, her mother or sister-in-law would have been by her side for emotional support. As it is, we don’t know who, if anyone, held Caroline’s hand in her new state as she labored. According to Caroline’s descendant (donor of her clothing collection), family tradition holds that her mother traveled to Illinois to be with her, but we will never know for sure.

Figure 11: Caroline’s nightgown. She likely wore this gown, or another just like it, while giving birth to her daughter. Illinois State Museum. Photo by Dannyl Dolder.

After giving birth to her daughter, Florence, Caroline likely followed the nineteenth-century custom of observing a “lying-in” period of recovery. Like many women of her class, she may have had a hired nurse with her during this time. During the first several days postpartum she was expected to lie flat in bed, regardless of her level of energy. Within a week of giving birth to her first child in 1844, fellow young wife Julia Trumbull of Alton felt “perfectly well” and complained “it seems hard to be forced to lie in bed when one feels so.”

After a week or so had passed, new mothers were permitted sit up and eventually to leave their beds (though not their rooms). At this point in her recovery, Caroline likely exchanged her nightgown for her wrapper. Made of cross-barred muslin, this garment has a straight full front and a cartridge-pleated skirt attached to a fitted back. This wrapper would have been ideal for Caroline to wear as a mother to a newborn. The loose waist would not have constricted her midsection, and the button-front bodice would have accommodated nursing. At the same time, the garment was considered socially acceptable for a new mother to wear when receiving calls in the home when she was well enough to show off the baby to friends.

Figures 12 and 13: Caroline’s wrapper was an appropriate garment for her to wear while “lying-in” after delivery once she was permitted to leave her bed. Illinois State Museum. Photo by Dannyl Dolder.

Caroline Layton may have felt, as fellow Illinois wife and mother Mary Lincoln did, that having a “loving husband and precious child” was the “happiest stage” of her life. Sadly, her happiness was not to last. The September 15, 1857, issue of the Rock River Democrat noted the death of “Florence, daughter of R. P. and C. A. Layton, aged 11 days.” The cause of death was not indicated, but such deaths were tragically commonplace in the antebellum Midwest, where infant mortality rates have been estimated at upwards of 40 forty percent. Caroline’s grief and the physical toll of childbirth may have left her weakened. On November 17, 1857, one year less one day after her wedding, she died at age 23. 

Figures 14 and 15: Baby Florence Layton died just eleven days after birth. Rock River Democrat, September 15, 1857. Caroline Sutherland Layton died at age 23 on November 17, 1857. Rockford Register, November 28, 1857.

Caroline’s family undertook significant expense to bring her remains to New York for a funeral and entombment in the family vault. This decision reflected their financial means and suggested that they considered New York Caroline’s home, if no longer in life, then for her eternal rest. Her body was placed in an iron coffin with a glass face plate. Likely a hermetically sealed Fisk metallic burial case, these coffins were popular in the 1850s for transporting remains over long distances because of the excellent preservation they afforded. Indeed, when the family vault crumbled in the 1930s, trespassers described Caroline as almost unchanged by time.

Figure 16: The Sutherland family vault in Chatham Center, New York, was breached in the 1930s. Inside, trespassers saw Caroline Sutherland Latham’s perfectly preserved features through the window of her iron coffin.

The faceplate built into Caroline’s coffin also gave rise to a myth that created some confusion about her wedding gown. Once it became known that a beautiful young woman’s body was remarkably preserved in her coffin, locals flocked to the tomb to see her for themselves. These onlookers saw a white garment through the coffin’s faceplate and assumed that she was buried in her wedding dress. This rumor was doubtless fueled by the fact that Caroline was still a newlywed when she died. It is more likely, however, that they saw burial clothes or a burial shroud.

Figure 17: Caroline’s remains were sent home to New York in an iron coffin, likely a Fisk metallic burial case. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Antebellum burial clothes were garments for the dead that mimicked clothes for the living, albeit with faster and poorer construction. Burial shrouds were smock-like garments that opened at the back for ease of dressing the body. Both burial clothes and shrouds could have elaborate details, particularly from the waist up, where the deceased would be visible in a coffin. Describing the funeral of a 20-year-old woman in 1868, Helen Edwards of Springfield, Illinois, described her as a “young bride of death” and reported, “She looked lovely I am told, in her shroud of finest white merino, a rouche about her neck, and a veil of tulle fastened at the side with a pure white Paponica flowers in her hand.” To those unacquainted with the sometimes-elaborate nature of nineteenth-century burial shrouds, such a garment could easily be confused with a wedding dress.

Family tradition holds that after Caroline’s death, her clothing was packed into her trunk and returned to New York with her body. It remained with the family, passed down through multiple generations, until its donation to the Illinois State Museum in 2019. Yet one garment hints that not all of Caroline’s clothes remained untouched after her death. Her split drawers, made of linen and edged in the same drawn thread embroidery as one of the chemises, displays something I have never seen in any other historical garment.

Caroline’s laundry mark, stamped in the inner part of the waistband, was altered by a subsequent user. Her first and middle initials, CA, were crossed out, and “M H” written by hand in their place with indelible ink. Apparently, after Caroline’s death, her sister-in-law Mary Hoag Sutherland appropriated her drawers and replaced Caroline’s initials with her own. To modern readers, this may seem like it crosses a line of privacy or propriety. To a nineteenth-century housewife and mother of four children like Mary, perhaps it was an expedient way to save a few stitches on the construction of a new garment for herself. If Mary Sutherland made use of Caroline’s drawers after her death, she may well have helped herself to the chemises and nightclothes as well, although we’ll never know for sure.

Figures 18: After Caroline’s death, her sister-in-law Mary Hoag Sutherland claimed her drawers and wrote her initials in the waistband in place of Caroline’s. Illinois State Museum. Photo by Dannyl Dolder.

Taken together, Caroline’s surviving garments paint a poignant picture of the last year of this young woman’s life. In November 1856 she was a Hudson River Valley bride in an ivory silk wedding gown. A year later she wore her burial shroud. In between, she moved west to Illinois and surely began expanding her social circle in her new home, even as she expanded the waist of her petticoat to accommodate her pregnancy. Her apron speaks to the physical labor she put into the effort of building her new life, while her nightgown and wrapper speak to not just the physical but the emotional journey of birthing and then burying a child shortly before her own untimely death.

Caroline Sutherland Layton was one of countless women throughout history who died young. Most of these women are forgotten, or at best, remembered as a line on a census or a name on a tombstone. Thanks to her family’s careful preservation of her clothing, a window into Caroline’s life has been preserved. In connecting with the things Caroline made, altered, and left behind, we connect with her humanity. We remember her not just as a statistic or ghost story, but as a person who experienced the joys and fears of becoming a young bride, wife, expectant mother, and mother during the eventful final year of her life.

Centering material culture when researching those with scant documentary evidence of their lives can help fill in the gaps of their experience. In Caroline’s case, analysis of her clothing illustrates both the aspirations and perils of those who moved west in search of a better life. Despite the advantages of status and prosperity, Caroline died a bereaved mother, far from her extended family.



Thank you to Martha Ehlers for entrusting this remarkable collection of Caroline Sutherland’s garments to the Illinois State Museum. Thank you to Dean Farmer for his meticulous research on Caroline Sutherland. Thank you to Dannyl Dolder for her top-notch photography.


Further Reading

Lyman Trumbull Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
Condell Family Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
David Davis Family Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library


Laura B. Bozeman, “The Genteel Frontier: Westward Expansion of Womanly Refinement,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation, 2014).

John Mack Faragher, Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).
Eliza Farnham, Life in Prairie Land (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

Eliza Farrar, The Young Lady’s Friend: A Manual of Practical Advice and Instruction to Young Females on Their Entering Upon the Duties of Life After Quitting School (New York: John W. Parker, 1853).
Sandra L. Myres, Westering Women and the Frontier Experience: 1800–1915 (Santa Fe: University of New Mexico Press, 1982).

Joan L. Severa, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840–1900 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1995).

Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework (New York: Macmillan Press, 2000).

Ann Buermann Wass and Michelle Webb Fanrich, Clothing through American History: The Federal Era through Antebellum, 1786–1860 (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood University Press, 2010).


This article originally appeared in April 2024.

Erika Holst is the curator of history at the Illinois State Museum. Her publications include Historic Houses of Lincoln’s Illinois, Edwards Place: A Springfield Treasure, and Wicked Springfield: Crime, Corruption, and Scandal During the Lincoln Era, as well as several scholarly and popular articles. Her current exhibition, Growing Up X, explores the toys, technologies, and cultural touchstones that surrounded and shaped Generation X in their youth.

How Can Charles Brockden Brown Help Us Think about AI?

In February 2023, New York Times columnist Kevin Roose shared a bizarre dialogue he had with a chatbot in Microsoft Bing—a conversation highlighted by the program declaring Roose was unhappy in his marriage and loved it rather than his spouse. Roose’s article seemed to confirm the worst fears of artificial intelligence pessimists that the technology could quickly slip out of human control and follow its own motivations.

In November 2023, I asked my students in the first half of the American literature survey to use a chatbot to help them create an interpretation of a course text. My class described far more benign exchanges than what Roose experienced, but when I asked them to reflect critically on these programs, they found it hard not to narrate their use of the programs as a dialogue with an often obtuse conversation partner—even as we repeatedly discussed how large-language models can’t be independent contributors in the same way humans can.

The linguist Emily Bender has described this tendency as one of the dangers of “stochastic parrots.” She coined this phrase to describe how chatbots generate strings of language that appear as a considered response to a human-supplied query, but are actually patterns based largely in the collocation probability of certain words.

Figure 1: Various chatbots now use AI to mimic conversation. The ELIZA chatbot was a very early example. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

As someone who researches and teaches early American literature, stochastic parrots make me think of Wieland, Charles Brockden Brown’s 1798 novel about the tragedy that befalls a Pennsylvania family when they begin hearing unexplained voices in the air around them. A Gothic novel written decades before the telegraph was invented, much less the server farm, might seem an odd connection to generative AI. But Brown asks questions of agency, authenticity, and accountability that encourage us to consider how we grant such qualities to the mysterious voices that emerge from our machines.

Here’s a quick plot summary of Wieland: Clara Wieland narrates the novel as a long letter to an anonymous correspondent. She describes her family’s suffering after her brother Theodore murders his wife and children, and then seeks to murder her, all while claiming God directed him to these crimes. Prior to this violence, the Wieland family had been hearing unexplained voices that are revealed as the work of a mysterious stranger named Carwin. Carwin practices what Brown calls biloquism—he can both throw his voice and imitate the voices of others with uncanny precision. Carwin reveals to Clara near the novel’s climax that he used his ability out of a perverse desire to test the virtue and rationality of the Wielands, but pledges he did not command her brother to murder his family. Carwin later saves Clara from her brother’s assault by using biloquism to order Theodore to stop attacking his sister; this encounter restores Theodore to his senses, and he commits suicide in remorse for his actions.

Brown invented the word biloquism. In a footnote, Brown explains this term as essentially a synonym for ventriloquism, but within the story, Carwin emphasizes his ability to speak in two voices, telling Clara he can “mimic exactly the voice of another.” This definition differs from ventriloquism, which refers to the ability to speak without moving the lips, creating the illusion that the sound comes from somewhere other than the speaker. Etymologically, ventriloquism comes from Latin words for stomach and speech, while Brown coins biloquism to mean double speech

Figure 2: Charles Brockden Brown coined the term biloquism to describe that Carwin could not only throw his voice like a ventriloquist, but also speak in two voices to exactly mimic others. Ventriloquist with his dolls, circa 1885. John Thomas, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

As the plot of the novel makes clear, the risk of biloquism lies not just in changing the perceived direction of speech, but in counterfeiting the voice of others. Carwin begins his challenge to Clara and her family with a seemingly innocuous imitation of Theodore’s wife Catherine, but later mimics Clara’s voice to convince her friend and potential suitor Henry Pleyel that Clara and Carwin are in a sexual relationship. I don’t think it’s too much of an anachronism here to say Carwin makes Clara the subject of a deepfake.

However, the novel shifts its suspense away from this impersonation toward the murders Theodore commits and the unexplained voice that inspires him. In this shift, the novel suggests two interrelated problems posed by biloquism: first, that we might not perceive the true source of a voice, since the biloquist can change the direction of his speech; and second that the authenticity of a voice cannot be guaranteed, since the biloquist can produce an accurate imitation of anyone.

Biloquism strikes me as a useful metaphor for considering generative AI because chatbots also have the capacity to “speak” from an unknown source and to imitate the voices of others. Theodore Wieland hears mysterious voices in the air, and while we know the source of a chatbot’s words, large language models pose a similar question of agency. A chatbot is not a human author, but the human using a large language model’s application programming interface doesn’t create the words on the screen, either. And given the vast quantity of data contained in a large language model’s training set, humans don’t have the ability to retrace the decisions within a chatbot’s neural network to understand why the program produced specific content. Such ambiguity underlies speculation that generative AI models might be approaching, or have already achieved, consciousness or sentience, like OpenAI chief researcher Ilya Sutskever’s provocative 2022 tweet that “it may be that today’s large neural networks are slightly conscious.” Sutskever’s qualified claim of slight consciousness gets to the philosophical problem we face in recognizing sentience in artificial intelligence. Lacking a universally accepted definition of human consciousness, how do we devise a universally accepted definition of machine consciousness? 

Figure 3: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, Charles Brockden Brown, New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The primary plot of Wieland dwells in this kind of ambiguity where science and speculation begin to blur. Theodore’s madness and the unexplained voices inspiring him shakes Clara and her family’s belief in a rational universe. Yet the novel’s focus on the line between empirical knowledge and speculative belief draws our attention away from the problem of authenticity and imitation posed by biloquism. That tension within the plot of Wieland offers a heuristic for the more quotidian, rather than existential, problems posed by generative AI.

Like Carwin, chatbots such as ChatGPT can imitate the voices of other writers or speakers. Like Carwin, users of generative AI programs could also falsely create sexually suggestive material or other content designed to embarrass an individual. The spread of pornographic deepfake images of Taylor Swift on social media in January and February 2024 offers just one prominent example of this problem.

Wieland explores Clara’s loss of agency when her friends and family trust the false content Carwin can create more than their prior knowledge of her character. Clara finds herself with few options besides trying to persuade the man who has spoiled her reputation to repair it. It’s at this point in the novel, however, when Clara discovers that her brother has murdered his wife and children, that the plot shifts from concern over Clara’s reputation to concern over her very life. The problem of imitation and the questions of authenticity it poses cede precedence to questions of subjectivity and agency.

Figure 4: Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland; or the Transformation. An American Tale (New York: T. & J. Swords, 1798).

Deepfakes and other deceptive uses of generative AI represent an immediate problem, but as with Brown’s novel, we’re often more interested in the mysterious voices. As many AI scholars have noted, contemporary discourses of AI catastrophe, like visions of general AI systems that revolt against humanity, or fears of autonomous weapons systems that evolve beyond human control, tend to minimize human agency and cast AI as a problem for the future. When we focus on looming dangers of AI subjectivity in an imagined future, we also tend to imagine conflicts with a non-human agent. That potential problem can overshadow the existing and more pressing dangers that come from AI misuse by human actors.

Thinking about this problem through the lens of Brown’s novel suggests our tendency to prioritize one side of a two-part problem. Biloquism reminds us that the questions of agency posed by generative AI are also always questions of imitation and authenticity. Biloquism is a human skill, like generative AI is a human product. Brown explains in a footnote defining biloquism that “[t]his power is, perhaps, given by nature, but is doubtless improvable, if not acquirable, by art.” ChatGPT and other chatbots require improvement by the “art” of data labelers (often low-paid workers in the Global South) who flag inappropriate content in the program’s training set.

The novel’s voices and today’s chatbots participate in a discursive context defined by human choices and dependent on human interpretation, regardless of the reality of supernatural voices or the likelihood of machine consciousness. Non-human discursive partners take on only the subject positions that human beings choose to recognize. Brown’s novel asks us to think carefully about that tendency, and how it often enables people to evade accountability for their choices.

Figure 5: William Dunlap, Charles Brockden Brown, 1806. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; given in loving memory of Katharine Lea Hancock by her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Conserved with funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, CC0.

Carwin’s reluctance to take full responsibility for his actions at the novel’s climax presents a significant example. Carwin blames his initial choice to test the Wieland family with mysterious voices on the inspiration of his “daemon of mischief.” You don’t have to squint too hard to see the similarities between daemon of mischief and that familiar Silicon Valley buzzword, disruptor, and what better way to describe his effect on the Wielands than Facebook’s old motto of “move fast and break stuff”? Carwin further denies reponsibility when he tries to persuade Clara that he did not give Theodore the command to murder his family:

Catharine was dead by violence. Surely my malignant stars had not made me the cause of her death; yet had I not rashly set in motion a machine, over whose progress I had no control, and which experience had shown me was infinite in power? Every day might add to the catalogue of horrors of which this was the source, and a seasonable disclosure of the truth might prevent numberless ills. . . .

I have uttered the truth. This is the extent of my offences. You tell me a horrid tale of Wieland being led to the destruction of his wife and children, by some mysterious agent. You charge me with the guilt of this agency; but I repeat that the amount of my guilt has been truly stated. The perpetrator of Catharine’s death was unknown to me till now; nay, it is still unknown to me.

In this dialogue, Carwin displaces the burgeoning responsibility he feels for creating a context that would destroy the lives of the Wieland family. Carwin transitions from recognizing that his imitations exacerbated Theodore’s break from reality to placing the blame on an unknown force. The last line of this passage, where he states that he still doesn’t know who killed Catharine, even as Clara has just informed him that it was Theodore, indicates that Carwin seeks to maintain his belief in a power outside human control.

In the novel’s opening paragraphs, Clara tells her unnamed correspondent to: “Make what use of the tale you shall think proper. If it be communicated to the world, it will inculcate the duty of avoiding deceit.” There are plenty of examples of deception within the novel, and Carwin obviously represents an early example of the kind of confidence man that will become so prominent in subsequent American literature. But I don’t think Brown is just urging readers to be more cautious in avoiding scams and grifters here.

Instead, the kind of deceit the novel has in mind is the self-deception that occurs when we cast responsibility outside ourselves and make imagined external subjects responsible for decisions that are ultimately the product of our own cultural choices. Being aware of the possibility of such deceit strikes me as more essential than ever as generative AI becomes part of our classrooms, our workplaces, and our lives more broadly.


Further Reading

Emily Bender, Timnit Gebru, Angelina McMillan Major, and Shmargaret Shmitchell, “On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big?” FAccT ’21: Proceedings of the 2021 ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency (March 2021): 610–623.

Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland; or The Transformation, ed. Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro (Cambridge, Mass.: Hackett Publishing Co., 2009).

Kevin Roose, “A Conversation with Bing’s Chatbot Left Me Deeply Unsettled,” New York Times, February 16, 2023.

Oliver Whang, “How to Tell If Your AI is Conscious,” New York Times, Sept. 18, 2023.


This article originally appeared in April 2024.


James M. Greene is Associate Professor of English at Indiana State University, where he also serves as the Faculty Fellow for Artificial Intelligence. He is the author of The Soldier’s Two Bodies: Military Sacrifice and Popular Sovereignty in Revolutionary War Veteran Narratives (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2020).

Gaps in the Record: Teaching with the Constitutional Convention

How do we know what happened in the Pennsylvania State House over the summer of 1787 when delegates convened there to write the federal Constitution?

On its face, answering this question doesn’t seem to pose any insurmountable obstacles. Afterall, the meeting was one of great historical import; the men who gathered in it were elite, literate, and even used to the idea of preserving records. Surely, it should be easier to answer than similar questions about what happened in any myriad of past events of less apparent significance or involving actors who did not or could not record their thoughts or actions. 

Figure 1: Details of the Constitution’s framing were not known until years after the conclusion of the convention and signing of the document. Howard Chandler Christy, Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, 1940. Howard Chandler Christy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, providing an account of what transpired in that series of famous meetings is much harder than one with a passing interest might suspect. The question of what took place behind closed doors over the summer of 1787 started to interest me as I was writing my book, Democracy in Darkness: Secrecy and Transparency in the Age of Revolutions. I worked with the Max Farrand edited collection of convention records throughout my graduate career and frequently turned to them to mine for evidence of what delegates thought (or at least expressed) about various topics. Among those was the issue of secrecy in government, including at the convention itself.

As I read through these records looking for what deputies reportedly said or wrote down about secrets and their place in politics, I began to reflect on how the secrecy surrounding the deliberations affected the very records I was consulting. The fact that the delegates met in secret rendered the process of forming the Constitution fundamentally opaque. The effect, as I argue in my book, was to help vest the finished product with an air of unanimous approbation and transcendent authority.

Too often, historians turn to records of constituent or legislative deliberations from the eighteenth century as a source to draw quotations from early American political figures, without questioning their accuracy. Even in meetings that were open to the public, the technological limitations of the era made recording speech anywhere near verbatim difficult—and this is on top of considerations like space constraints, printing costs, intended audience, or the distortions of memory. When a meeting was held behind closed doors, like the Constitutional Convention, there is the additional possibility of distortion due to the intervening time between when notes were taken and when they were revisited, edited, and published. Teaching with these types of sources highlights their limitations and, for me, forced a more critical engagement with them in my own scholarship. 

Figure 2: Later depictions imagine the mood or tone in the room over the summer of 1787, but it can be hard to nail down with the limited sources we have. Franklin at the National Convention/Lossing-Barritt (Philadelphia: n.p., ca. 1840-1890). Photography. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

When I embarked on teaching a historical methods course for undergraduate history majors and minors, it struck me that using the records of the Constitutional Convention as a case study might be a useful way to get students thinking about the construction of the archive, biases of sources, and the challenge of conjecture in writing history. To set up a unit on working with primary documents to write a research paper, I devised a lesson plan to encompass a single 75-minute class meeting.

As preparation, I assigned the students a podcast interview with Mary Sarah Bilder on Ben Franklin’s World in which she discusses the findings of her book on the story of James Madison’s notes from the convention: Madison’s Hand. In addition to giving background on the convention and legislative note-taking in the eighteenth-century, Bilder goes into how she uncovered evidence about the way Madison wrote and then extensively revised his notes. The podcast provides a good entry point into the class session, especially to start thinking about what Madison’s notes—the most complete we have from that summer—can and cannot tell us about the Constitution and its formation.

To begin the exercise, I pass out a packet to each student containing all the notes included in the Farrand volume for a single day of the Convention: May 29, 1787. I selected this date because it is early on and evidently contained discussion of meeting logistics in addition to being the day the Virginia Plan was introduced. Furthermore, the different degrees of detail and points of emphasis in each set of notes immediately highlights the challenge of producing a definitive account of what transpired in that session. 

Figures 3a-b: The official journal from May 29, 1787, provides a limited account of what happened in the meeting that day, focusing on the establishment of procedural rules. Journal pages for May 29 in Max Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911), 1:15–16. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

To start, I ask the students to read through the official journal (just two pages) for that date. Once they have done this, we pause and I ask them what strikes them about it. What impression do you get of the meeting that day and what was discussed? Did it seem like a long day? Could you get a sense of the feeling in the room? Could you look at this and tie any views to any specific people; would you feel comfortable quoting anyone from this source?

Students immediately note the brevity of the notes and the lack of any kind of speeches recorded—most conclude that they would definitely not be able to quote anyone from this record. The day’s meeting appears to have been short and mostly focused on establishing procedures. Many note an apparent consensus prevailing on the proposed rules and the introduction of “sundry propositions” by Mr. [Edmund] Randolph and a “draught of a foederal government” by Mr. Charles Pinckney, both apparently to be discussed later (Farrand 16). In terms of the feeling in the room, some students generally suggest it seemed efficient or matter of fact, while one or two usually conclude that there is little they could say about the atmosphere based on this source alone. What’s a historian to do in such a situation? First, look for additional sources.

In this instance, I have some at the ready for them. I give students a further ten minutes to read through the next set of notes: those belonging to Madison. These are much more extensive than the official journal record (seven pages); they include one vote tally on a particular question, they attribute names to ideas raised, and—perhaps most significantly—they present segments of fairly detailed speech from particular deputies. Most notable among these is the recorded speech Edmund Randolph gave to introduce the Virginia Plan, which Madison calls the “main business” of the day (Farrand 18). In fact, the bulk of his notes for this date are made up of a record of what Randolph purportedly said and the contents of the plan he laid out. Madison gives just two brief sentences at the end to note that “Mr. Charles Pinkney laid before the house the draught of a federal Government which he had prepared to be agreed upon between the free and independent states of America” (Farrand 23). 

Figure 4: Madison heavily edited his notes after the conclusion of the convention, as Mary Sarah Bilder has shown in her book, Madison’s Hand. James Madison, John Payne’s Copy of James Madison’s Original Notes on Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

When we debrief after their consideration of Madison’s notes, most students immediately identify how much more extensive they were than the official journal. Many come away with a different impression of the meeting that day; it was not devoted mainly to rules, but more to discussing the Virginia Plan. This record conveys more of a sense of gravity, even urgency, to the meeting that is not present in the official journal. Typically, one or two students remember Bilder’s discussion of how Madison revised his notes later and pick up on a difference in how Randolph’s plan is described as “the establishment of a national government” (Farrand 16) in the journal compared to “revising the foederal system” (Farrand 18) in Madison’s records. While some hesitate to say they would quote Randolph directly from these notes, most conclude that they would feel comfortable attributing particular ideas or points to him.

At this point, we pause and I have students read a page from Bilder’s book (pp. 180–81) in which she describes Madison asking Randolph in 1789 to recreate his speech from May 29, 1787, introducing the Virginia Plan. She recounts how Randolph handed over his notes, but refused to “dilate” the speech, as he put it (Bilder 181). Randolph apparently “found it impossible to retrace the subject” and noted that he would “mingle inadvertently much of what I have heard since, without being able to separate it from what occurred then” (Bilder 181). Nonetheless, as Bilder details, Madison proceeded to reconstruct the speech based on what Randolph had furnished and his own memory and existing rough notes.

Figure 5: James Madison’s notes are the most extensive we have from the convention. James Madison: Fourth President of the United States (New York: Nathaniel Currier, 1841). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

I then ask the students if they would revise their approach to Madison’s notes based on knowing this detail about how he composed them. While some suggest this information is not too surprising and that they would continue to trust the notes about the same as they had upon first inspection, others’ confidence is more shaken. Usually someone says something along the lines of: the notes might not be totally made up, but to cite them as direct evidence of what was said seems tricky. I ask them what they would do if they were still intent on writing an account of that day’s proceedings. As good historians in training, everyone generally suggests seeking out more sources—specifically, wanting to cross-check with additional notes available from the date.

Luckily for them, I have curated those as well. I give them another ten minutes or so to flip through the last three sets of notes included in the Farrand volume for May 29: the notes of Robert Yates (about one page), James McHenry (about three pages), and William Paterson (about one page). All three sets of notes include little, if anything, of procedural discussions in that session; Yates and McHenry note Randolph’s focus on the defects of the Confederation, while Paterson merely lays out the points he proposes as part of the Virginia Plan; neither McHenry or Paterson note that Charles Pinckney introduced a plan at all.

Students usually identify some small points of convergence across several of the sets of notes. For one, Yates writes that Randolph gave a “long and elaborate speech,” (Farrand 23) which seems to confirm the sense that this was the focus of the day’s session—an interpretation further backed by McHenry’s first line that “Governor Randolph opened the business of the convention” (Farrand 24). According to Yates, Randolph “candidly confessed that they were not intended for a federal government—he meant a strong consolidated union, in which the idea of states should be nearly annihilated” (Farrand 24). This is backed by Paterson’s record, which has Randolph saying: “We ought to be one Nation” (Farrand 27). 

Figure 6: Edmund Randolph introduced the so-called Virginia Plan on May 29 in the convention, though the details of what he said are difficult to pin down. Constantino Brumidi, Edmund Randolph, Head-and-Shoulders Portrait (Washington, D.C.: Detroit Publishing Co., 1904). Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

McHenry’s notes go into much more detail on Randolph’s criticisms of the confederation—its “imbecility,” as he puts it at one point (Farrand 25)—and also introduces the idea that the plan was presented as a response to defects in the state governments. A brief footnote at the end of McHenry’s records also advises that: “In all essential particulars McHenry’s copy of the Virginia Plan is identical with that of Madison. It is accordingly omitted here” (Farrand 27). The editor’s interjection seems to reinforce the accuracy of Madison’s plan report.

At this point, we take stock as a class of what we feel confident saying about what happened that day in the convention by considering the following questions:

Would you be able to/feel confident quoting anyone from the meeting? What about describing what they said or conveyed?

What is the effect of Madison including procedural notes where the others don’t? How does this create a sense of greater trust in his notes as more comprehensive or official?

Would you feel confident describing the length or mood of the meeting based on these notes?

What other sources would you want to consult in order to flesh out your description of what happened at the convention on this date? (This question provides a good opportunity to discuss how to weigh legislative notes with official journals and private correspondence, diaries, and/or memoirs. It also leads to a fruitful consideration of the lack of press reports due to the secrecy imposed on the convention and how that poses further limitations for historians.)

To conclude the exercise, I give the students a few final minutes to read from a secondary source describing this day in the convention: pages 66-67 of Carol Berkin’s A Brilliant Solution. What I like about using this passage is that Berkin’s book is clearly written to engage an interested audience beyond merely academics. As a result, she attempts to convey intangibles in her narrative—a prospect that provokes good debate among the students. How does she know that “Randolph struck a perfect note of humility and sincerity” (Berkin 66)? Was Madison “no doubt aware that all eyes were upon him” as the actual author of the Virginia Plan (66)? Is it accurate to say that after Randolph spoke of the confederation’s deficiencies “the specter of ruin and humiliation menaced the East Room” (Berkin 67)?

Figure 7: Delegates met behind closed doors in this room over the summer of 1787. Pennsylvania Assembly Room, Independence Hall. Reading Tom from Reading, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This can open a thoughtful conversation not only about how historians work and write, but also about how the Constitution is interpreted and the difference between history and law. The exercise generates questions about the role of conjecture in historical writing, particularly how historians attempt to account for gaps in the sources and build narratives to capture things like the mood of a room when the evidence doesn’t explicitly lay it out. We talk about whether a historian is responsible for indicating when something is conjecture in writing, how they can do this, and the extent to which they must walk the reader through their process.

Getting students to closely consider the available notes from a single day of the Constitutional Convention proves to be an engaging way to talk about the challenges of using primary sources to build a narrative of the past. More specifically, it can also give rise to questioning how the Constitution gets interpreted legally, particularly through the framework of originalism. Most students walk away convinced that it’s a lot harder than it might seem to know what the framers were doing or thinking over the summer of 1787. If it’s the only takeaway from the class, it’s a worthwhile one.

Further Reading

Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 3 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911).

Katlyn Marie Carter, Democracy in Darkness: Secrecy and Transparency in the Age of Revolutions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2023).

Mary Sarah Bilder, Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021).

Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (New York: Harper Collins, 2002).


This article originally appeared in February 2024.

Katlyn Marie Carter is an assistant professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Democracy in Darkness: Secrecy and Transparency in the Age of Revolutions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2023).

Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the Hands of the Red Scared

In February 2023, I impulsively booked tickets to Glasgow to visit an old friend. I have been completing a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and American Studies at the University of Manchester, an urban campus in a city shaped by the nineteenth-century cotton trade. But Glasgow is older—and cooler. The buildings are moody and gothic, surveyed by the looming angels of the Necropolis cemetery. When it rains, as it often does, the sandstone shines. In place of huge, flat shopping centers, cobbled Glasgow offers rows of unnamed storefronts selling eclectic antiques.

Figures 1 and 2: Opening images on Uncle Tom’s Cabin filmstrip.

Rooting around in one of those shops, I found it: a little tin so small that it could fit in your fist. UNCLE TOM’S CABIN was stamped on its label. I bought it without opening it. It cost two pounds.

At the time, I was enrolled in Dr. Gordon Fraser’s class, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a Global Media Event.” Each student in that class was asked to develop a project that considered how readers around the world responded to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous anti-slavery novel. I still wasn’t sure about my research project, although I had a few ideas. I had read a lot of Toni Morrison, and I was thinking about The Bluest Eye and its Shirley Temple doll, a cultural derivative of the angelic little Eva from Stowe’s novel. Perhaps I could find British dolls referencing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I thought. But serendipitously, I found a mysterious tin labelled with the name of the novel I was studying in class. I felt obligated to investigate.

Figure 3: Aus Onkel Tom’s Hütte (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) (Wissembourg: C. Burckardt, ca. 1852-1899). British Museum 2012, 7020.17. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

My friend’s heating was broken, so I sat in bed at four in the afternoon, shivering from the cold. I heated my palms with my breath and tugged at the tin. It was a roll of film. Holding it up to the light revealed its title: “Great Books Retold In Pictures” and “A Beacon Filmstrip.” So, I thought, this is a filmstrip. Whatever that is.

Figures 4a-e: Scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe part of Great Books Retold in Pictures. Click images to expand.

When I get something in my head, I can’t shake it, and this was in my head. I scoured antique sites and publisher’s logs. The name “Beacon” turned up nothing related. In fact, I came to realize, the record of filmstrip publishers, or the use of filmstrips at all, is extensively erased. Predating wheely-TVs and PowerPoint presentations, filmstrips are a largely forgotten form of educational technology. They were invented in 1943 and used for geography, history, and science. A teacher armed with a filmstrip could project a series of still images onto a screen, guiding students through a pre-written educational script. The Irish Catholic journal, The Furrow, endorsed the use of filmstrips in a 1960 article, explaining:

“This learning process may be pleasant or unpleasant and . . . [we] would prefer it to be pleasant . . . We should never underestimate the value of pleasant sentiments . . . where knowledge is worse than useless unless it is accompanied by love.” Learning made “pleasant”: the act of showing filmstrips, to the Furrow, was an act of love. Peering at the mauve-tinted illustrations shaded and flattened in budget history textbook style, illuminated bleakly in the weak, cold afternoon light, I was skeptical. 

Figure 5: Teacher learning to use filmstrip projector in March 1948. Newark (N.J.) Board of Education, Newark School Photographs. The Newark Public Library. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Back in Manchester, and hitting a wall in my research, I turned to my lecturer. Gordon was able to find records of a series of “Beacon Filmstrips” released under “Hulton Press,” which were recorded in a US Library of Congress Catalog for 1968. A hunt for “Hulton Press” led us to the UK government’s registry of corporations and to a company named “Hulton Educational Publications,” incorporated in 1959. We were hoping to find details about the company’s goals in its corporate filings. Why was it incorporated? Why did this British firm make an educational filmstrip based on an American novel? 

Figure 6: Catalog listing of Hulton Press filmstrips at the Library of Congress. National Union Catalog, 1963-1967 Motion Pictures and Filmstrips, vol. 1 (Ann Arbor: J. W. Edwards, 1969), 400. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

This is where the story started to get strange.

The company’s founder, Edward George Warris Hulton (1906–1988), was the son and heir to the estate of British publishing magnate Sir Edward Hulton, 1st Baronet. Hulton could only be described as a rabid anti-Communist. The journalist Tom Hopkinson explains that he was forced by Hulton to resign from his job as photo editor of photojournalism magazine, The Picture Post. In his autobiography, Of This Our Time (1982), Hopkinson reported that he had produced an expose on the allies’ treatment of prisoners during the Korean War. Hulton, who owned The Picture Post, was furious. Hulton said: “I cannot permit editors of my newspaper to become organs of Communist propaganda. Still less to make the great newspaper which I built up a laughing-stock.” Hopkinson got the last laugh, though. Shortly after his resignation, the magazine had lost so much money that it closed in 1957. This story gave me a picture of the person I was researching—the man who produced this “Beacon Filmstrip” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Anti-communism was inextricable from anything he might produce.

Figure 7: Cover to Tom Hopkinson, Of This Our Time: A Journalist’s Story, 1905-50 (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1982).

I looked back at the images in the old filmstrip. Could I detect Hulton’s aggressive anti-Communism in his twentieth-century illustrations of this nineteenth-century novel? There was something strange about the filmstrips’ retelling of the book. What I saw in the still images was a recurrent pattern of female suffering. Certainly, Stowe’s novel is organized around the experiences of women—mothers and young girls, especially.

Figures 8a-e: Scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe part of Great Books Retold in Pictures. Click images to expand.

Jane Tompkins identifies Stowe’s focus on the experiences of women and girls as “a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman’s point of view.” And yet, in the filmstrip, I saw only some of the women from Stowe’s novel. The clever Cassy, who protects a fellow enslaved woman by pretending to be a ghost, is not visible in the filmstrip. The model Quaker women, whom Tompkins saw as guides to a future, matriarchal society, are also not visible in the filmstrip. Aunt Ophelia, the earnest Vermont woman who abhors slavery—not visible. 

Figure 9: Harriet Beecher Stowe (1850s), Photographed by Southworth & Hawes, Albert Southworth, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In place of these figures, the filmstrip highlights helpless women endangered by a centralized authority. Again and again, the filmstrip shows its viewers images of women in states of distress. In fact, in twelve of the twenty instances of a woman’s appearance in the filmstrip, that woman is in a state of anguish—crying, weeping, begging for mercy. These depictions are antithetical to what Tompkins saw in Stowe’s novel: a reorganization of society around the values of women, a politics borne from maternal morality. Instead, the viewer encounters broken female figures who are dispersed almost at random amongst the scenes: helpless, disempowered.

Strikingly, the images in the filmstrip also resemble those in Hulton’s periodical, The Picture Post. A 1955 article describes the Korean women and children whose lives are torn apart by Communist reformation. A woman “walked for six months to get treatment for her son’s paralyzed arm.” Other women “conceive and bear their children in the dust, and do their business in the nearest ditch.” Hulton pushes the image of these women as human chattel, the currency of war. In a 1949 publication from the magazine set in the immediate aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, The Picture Post describes the lives of the women and children rendered “Pawns” in “the Fashionable Game called ‘Cold War.’” They are emaciated “ghosts” scouring the countryside for stalks of wheat. Hulton’s magazine is much more interested in describing women alone in suffering than together in survival, and the article makes clear why this is the case. These women are “a fertile breeding ground for Communism.” In short, westerners need to protect these women—or the women will, defenseless in despondency, fall into the arms of Communists.

Figures 10a-e: Scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe part of Great Books Retold in Pictures. Click images to expand.

Like any adaptation, the Beacon filmstrip calls attention to some parts of its source material and not to others. As I came to realize, Hulton’s filmstrip of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and his Picture Post description of refugee Arab women mask the same thing: women’s political autonomy. Looking back to Stowe’s text, I reflected on how the character of Cassy was Stowe’s subversive answer to those who try to control women’s bodies. Cassy is described as wild and heathenish, and is sexually exploited by her master Legree. And yet Cassy is the moral and political center of Stowe’s parable. This is where I fall head-over-heels for Stowe’s novel. Having lost her own child, Cassy takes a vital maternal role in advising the young, enslaved girl Emmeline. Cassy also stands up to Legree in an act of defense: despite the implications concerning the physical and sexual violence Cassy has been subject to at her master’s hands, she returns to the house to confront him when Legree targets Tom. Women help women and demonstrate profound bravery. This is Stowe’s vision, and it is the very thing that Hulton’s Picture Post and his filmstrip of Uncle Tom’s Cabin eliminates. Cassy does not appear once in the filmstrip. 

Figure 11: Cassy is missing from the filmstrip version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Here she is pictured with Tom from an 1852 edition. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1852). Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, many have critiqued Stowe by suggesting that her novel is an example of what queer theorists have called heteronormativity, the unspoken assumption that the world is properly organized into male and female domains and that differences in sexuality are defined as deviancy. I understand why critics have come to this conclusion. And yet viewing Hulton’s revision of Stowe’s novel renewed my belief that Stowe was communicating something important about the role of women in a culture defined by the violent behavior of men. Stowe’s politics can be read through Cassy: a model of maternal strength as a political force. Her sacrifice, like Uncle Tom’s, is martyr-like. Her body, all that she has, is a buffer that protects Emmeline and others from the violence Legree would otherwise have directed at them. The “maternal values” that Tompkins highlighted as the core of Stowe’s philosophy, her political “reworking,” is not heteronormative or even conservative. Instead, Stowe offers an ideal of maternal feelings that fuel political action. This is as brave as it is overlooked, and it is the very thing that Hulton erases from the filmstrip.

In short, when I looked back at the Uncle Tom’s Cabin filmstrip, I realized that Hulton’s anti-Communist project obscured the very thing that I had appreciated about Stowe’s novel: its commitment to maternal values, feminine sentimentality, and Christian virtue—a society remade in the archaic image of Christian motherhood. The literary scholar Jim O’Loughlin has suggested that Stowe’s use of “iconography” and “stereotypical” visual images means that in practice her novel is directly linked to the racist depictions that followed its publication: the minstrel shows and racist caricatures. And yet throughout the Uncle Tom’s Cabin class, I felt inexplicably, passionately defensive of Stowe. Sometimes, I found it almost painful to hear my classmates’ exhortations about Stowe’s “white saviorism,” her supposed ignorance and arrogance. Stowe’s commitment to Christianity was unapologetic. It was this absolutism that, in practice, drove her to challenge racial injustice.

Figures 12a-e: Scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe part of Great Books Retold in Pictures. Click images to expand.

Stowe’s use of direct address is brilliant. Through it, she makes clear these revolutionary aims, and she draws the reader in, offers them a seat. Many complain about this stylistic device, one that links women’s narratives as diverse as Charlotte Temple (1791), The Color Purple (1982), and Fleabag (2016). I love it. I love these texts. Stowe, in conversation with her reader, exhorts her to change the world. There’s something lovingly matriarchal about exhortation, as if we are sitting around the kitchen table: well let me tell you, well I’ll tell you this, and so I said to her I said. This is Stowe’s mode of address when she speaks to “the Women of the United States of America” or when she calls out to “You, mothers of America, you who have learned, by the cradles of your own children, to love and feel for all mankind.” This is Stowe’s mode of address when she writes, “By the sacred love you bear your child . . . pity the mother who has all your affections, and not one legal right to protect, guide, or educate, the child of her bosom! . . . And say, mothers of America, is this a thing to be defended, sympathized with, passed over in silence?”

I maintain that you can’t really understand Stowe’s method unless you understand that kitchen table culture: women catching up over (what in England we would call) a cuppa. I feel we ought to understand Stowe’s exhortation as iced tea on the porch after Sunday service, while the husbands do whatever husbands do. “As a mother . . . ,” “Dear mothers”: she wasn’t writing to twenty-first century Liberal Arts students whose most active socialization occurs at Thursday night pre-drinks. She assumes the primordiality of Christianity and maternal values—even treats them as necessary. To what extent should our politics reflect our religion, our morals, our maternity? Absolutely and essentially, she answers.

Figures 13a-e: Scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe part of Great Books Retold in Pictures. Click images to expand.

The Beacon filmstrip I discovered in Glasgow showed none of this. Instead, it depicted women in distress—always in distress, always helpless and crying, always defeated. In the filmstrip, enslaved Black women were pawns in the struggle between white authorities, just as, in The Picture Post, Korean and Arab women were “pawns” of Communism and the “Fashionable” game of “Cold War.” Hulton’s filmstrip company was a footnote in his larger political and economic project. In his 1952 autobiography, When I was a Child, Hulton offers a list of griefs, grievances, and thwarted ambition. He links world politics (“social revolution and total war”) to his own losses. In 1921, he lost his father and much of his father’s newspaper empire. His mother was “shattered” by her husband’s death. His sister died at age twenty-two. The “political advancement” that he had expected remained continually beyond his reach. He ran for Parliament twice as a Conservative, in 1927 and 1931, but lost both times. Hulton is in his autobiography beset from all sides by threats to his wealth, political ambition, and ideology.

Hulton remained ambitious. Hopkinson, the photographer Hulton forced to resign, observed that Hulton in the 1950s “had not yet altogether given up his pre-war parliamentary ambitions.” The filmstrip, then, imperfectly reflects the values of an ardent anti-Communist who had continued to nurture conservative political goals. 

Figure 14: Edward George Warris Hulton (left) pictured on fire watching duty from the roof of Hulton Press during World War II. From Answering You – the Production of a BBC Radio Programme For the United States of America, 1941Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

These political goals had no real place for female authority. Hulton’s publications regarded women not as co-authors of a political project but as endangered prizes to be won or lost. Examining the images in the Beacon Filmstrip reveals its failure to acknowledge the abiding, enduring power of kitchen table empowerment in Stowe’s novel. Stowe’s politics are organized around women talking, wrestling with the uses of power or the role of morality in the law. Stowe was deeply committed to maternal values, of the right-and-wrong that originates in feminine spaces. Stowe believed that politics ought to reflect the archaic good of maternal instinct.

I am grateful, then, that Stowe’s novel remains an important cultural touchstone, the kind of book that can function as the subject of an entire university class. Vital political progress will emerge from those spaces where women talk. Stowe understood this. Politics begins at the kitchen table, with iced tea on the porch after Sunday Service. Meanwhile, I found Hulton’s filmstrip discarded in an antique shop in Glasgow, stuffed between a plastic rocking horse and a box of forgotten family photographs.


Further Reading

Tom Hopkinson, Of This Our Time: A Journalist’s Story, 1905-50 (London: Arrow, 1982).

Edward George Warris Hulton, When I Was a Child (London: Cresset Press, 1952; London: Springwood Books, 1978).

Jim O’Loughlin, “Articulating Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” New Literary History 31, no. 3 (Summer, 2000): 573-97.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ed. Janet Fagan Yellin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Jane Tompkins, “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” in Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985): 122-46.


This article originally appeared in February 2024.

Georgina Blackburn is a writer from East London currently studying MA English Literature and American Studies at the University of Manchester in Manchester, England. Having written many essays in the past, Georgina specializes in Southern American literature and American Gothic horror aesthetics.

Mason-Dixon Lines

* Editor’s note: This past December, shortly after completing this article, Edward Gray tragically and suddenly passed away. In addition to his award-winning teaching and scholarship, Ed was a central figure here at Commonplace. He served as our editor from 2005 to 2009 as well as the inaugural review editor from 2000 to 2004. Please read this obituary highlighting a bit of his full life.


Search engines usually list my new book, Mason-Dixon: Crucible of the Nation, somewhere among listings for the Dixie Belle Paint Company’s chalk mineral furniture paint, Mason Dixon Gray (a children’s book series about a fourth grader named Mason Dixon), and Thomas Pynchon’s 1997 novel Mason & Dixon.

I can’t vouch for the paint or the children’s books, but I can say that Pynchon’s novel and my book are very different. Mine is a work of non-fiction. It begins with the founding of colonial Maryland and ends in the era of the Civil War. Pynchon’s centers on the eight-year partnership of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, the two English astronomers charged with establishing the boundary between the colonies of Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. 

Figure 1: Edward G. Gray, Mason-Dixon: Crucible of the Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2023).

Naturally, there’s a bit of overlap. Pynchon and I quote some of the same documents. We include many of the same characters—including Mason and Dixon. Both our books follow the surveyors through the mid-Atlantic and upper-Chesapeake, across three hundred miles of swamplands, dense deciduous forests, and the Appalachian range. Neither Pynchon’s story nor mine ends well, although they do end very differently. Pynchon’s ends with Charles Mason’s death in 1786. Mine ends at the turn of the twentieth century, as Americans were doing their best to forget Mason and Dixon’s line.

Pynchon’s novel and my history share another far more consequential commonality. Our books center on a region of the United States largely lost to history. Part of the reason, as I’ve already suggested, was the carefully plotted, well-funded, and remarkably effective campaign to erase sectional division from national memory. But even as historians have corrected the many distortions introduced by that campaign, others remain. Because the Mason-Dixon Line is America’s great divide, separating the nation’s historic sections, the North and the South, the lands on either side have long been understood as separate lands. Pynchon understands, and my book explains, the opposite is the case. Precisely because of their proximity to so notorious a geo-political demarcation, the borderlands adjoining Mason and Dixon’s original line were bound together. They may have been in-between lands but only very late in their history, following the passage of the 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Act, did they become divided lands.

Figures 2a and b: These 1768 strip maps, engravings of the original manuscript maps made by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, were too large for printers to fit on a single sheet. Charles Mason, A Plan of the West Line or Parallel of Latitude (Philadelphia: Robert Kennedy, 1768); Charles Mason, A Plan of the Boundary Lines Between the Province of Maryland and the Three Lower Counties of Delaware (Philadelphia: Robert Kennedy, 1768). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.


How Pynchon and I arrived in the same place, I can’t say. I can say our stories center on the same historical events and those events pointed us in similar directions. Let me explain.

I first read Mason & Dixon long before I started my own book on the Line. When it was published in the spring of 1997, I was seeking relief in art following another disappointing season on the academic job market. Historical novels offered especially well-calibrated relief—the sweet spot where pleasure reading meets research. Two books I remember most from those days are Barry Unsworth’s novel of the transatlantic slave trade, Sacred Hunger, and John Updike’s Memories of the Ford Administration, featuring a stunning portrait of James Buchanan, at the time one of only two contenders for the title of America’s worst-ever president.

I had read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and V some years before. Failing to conquer Gravity’s Rainbow, I was resolutely of the short-Pynchon camp. Michiko Kakutani’s Mason & Dixon review in the April 29th New York Times might have sent me back to long-Pynchon. Although, to be honest, short or long, I was likely to attempt Mason & Dixon. The novel’s subject matter landed squarely in my field of study.

Figure 3: Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon: A Novel (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997).

After I read the book, I remember asking a foreign-born friend about Mason & Dixon. I figured she’d be enthusiastic since she was doing her Ph.D. in the history of early astronomical science. “I don’t identify with the culture,” she told me. I was appalled by the response. Exactly what culture did she not identify with? American culture? Pynchon’s book takes place before there was a United States.

In retrospect, I kind of see what she meant. Pynchon is an American novelist in every sense but you wouldn’t recommend him to a foreign visitor. The intimate struggles at the core of our national being don’t interest him in the way they did Melville or Faulkner or Roth or Morrison. In Pynchon’s America, most of us are busy buying muscle cars and steak knives while a few outliers, inclined to plumb the nation’s deeper realms, face a terrifying epistemological void.

Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon embody neither of these Pynchonian archetypes—they inhabit a world of producers rather than consumers. It is a starkly Newtonian world. There is light and there is dark. There are lines and there are circles. There are statements of truth and statements of abject fiction. But there is also a shadowy netherworld, not quite the dark web of Pynchon’s modern America, but something altogether more creepy.

Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, Mason & Dixon’s narrator, recalls a strange assemblage of travelers journeying in a Jesuit coach, “a Conveyance, wherein the inside is quite noticeably larger than the outside.” He joined the travelers before the French and Indian War, somewhere near the meandering waters of the lower-Susquehanna and the frontier outpost of Lancaster. One of the travelers, the “jovial Gamer” Mr. Edgewise, is heard to say,

We have passed, tho’ without comment, out of the zone of influence of the western mountains, and into that of the Chesapeake,—as there exists no “Maryland” beyond an Abstraction, a Frame of right lines drawn to enclose and square off the great Bay in its unimagin’d Fecundity, its shoreline tending to Infinite Length, ultimately unmappable,—no more, to be fair, than there exists any “Pennsylvania” but a chronicle of Frauds committed serially against the Indians dwelling there, check’d only by the Ambitions of other Colonies to north and east.

The boundary lines preceding Mason and Dixon, everybody knows, were a sham. What’s to follow, despite the weighty authority of astronomical science, will be no better. 

Figure 4: Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason, A Map of that Part of America Where a Degree of Latitude was Measured for the Royal Society (London: s.n., 1769). Lionel Pincus and Princess Piryal Map Division, Lawrence H. Slaughter Collection of English Maps, Charts, Globes, Books and Atlases, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

On a glorious Sunday in September of 1765, Charles Mason took a break from surveying to visit a giant cavern near present-day Cavetown, Maryland, and not far from Antietam Creek. Locals, many of whom were Catholics, denied the customary glories of medieval architecture, used the wondrous grotto for religious services. But for Mason it provoked “a strong and melancholy reflection: that such is the abodes of the Dead: thy inevitable doom, O stranger; soon to be numbered as one of them.” The quote appears on page 497 of Mason & Dixon, copied verbatim from the official journal kept by Mason and Dixon, now held in the National Archives. Mason and Dixon recognized that their labors were unlikely to bring peace to the Maryland-Pennsylvania borderlands.

As Pynchon approaches the problem, it isn’t just that an accurately-plotted boundary line across the infinite variation of the natural world is an impossibility. Should the astronomers’ line deviate by an “Eye-lash’s Diameter,” it would leave a “an Unseen World, beyond Resolution, of transactions never recorded . . . where one may be lost within minutes of entering the vast unforgiving Thicket of Stalks.” The Maryland grotto is not a Pynchonian portal into some reality-bending cosmic abyss. But the work of scientifically-inclined human beings might be. Mason and Dixon of the novel never bother with the usual Pynchonian quest for what is only vaguely apprehended. These reluctant Prometheans must move on, their business too serious to dwell on portents of a lunatic netherworld.

A few months after Mason and Dixon landed in America, eastern Pennsylvania witnessed some of the worst ethnic violence in American history. Local vigilantes known as the Paxton Boys slaughtered a large group of Conestoga Indians outside Lancaster. The atrocity was followed by another murderous rampage, this time against surviving Conestoga elders, women and children, hiding in Lancaster’s only fortified structure, the town jail.

Figure 5: Preparations in Philadelphia for the Arrival of the Paxton Boys. Henry Dawkins, The Paxton Expedition, 1764. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In Pynchon’s telling, Mason and Dixon had seen other acts of white savagery—the slave drivers of the Cape of Good Hope, where the astronomers had traveled to observe Venus’s transit across the face of the sun. There had even been a fair amount of white savagery at home in England too, especially the summer of 1745 when the pretender to the throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie, led his Jacobite band in a failed bid to reclaim Britain for the Stuart line. The Pretender’s fantasy ended in the Scottish Highlands, on Culloden Moor, after the army of King George II, led by his son, the Duke of Cumberland, slaughtered hundreds of Charlie’s Jacobite followers. In kindly England, all that sort of savagery was now ancient history. But in the colonies, it seemed, right-thinking Protestants “are become the very Savages of their own worst Dreams.”

Insofar as Mason and Dixon of Mason & Dixon are consumed by dark mystery, it is this—the savagery of their colonial brethren. As the Englishmen experience it, the American berserk requires no deep descent into some paranoiac’s dark realm. It’s right there, all along the Line. 

Figure 6: Map showing the eastern sections of Mason & Dixon’s Line, published in 1862. The Boundary Lines Between the Provinces of Maryland & Pennsylvania (Chicago: s.n., 1862). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Early in their American journey, Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon overhear the most alarming public-house chatter: “The true War here is between the city and the back Inhabitants.” The latter never know where to direct their fury—marauding Indians or indifferent provincial authorities. Much like the neo-liberals of nineties Washington D.C., the grandees of Pennsylvania’s imperial capital at Philadelphia are too consumed by a noxious combination of commercialism and internationalism to be troubled by the seething white people of the not-so-distant frontier. The ensuing frontier rage constituted a clear danger, not only for the native peoples near the line, but for any perceived alien. “The worst sort of Celtick Degenerates,” as Pynchon’s Mason calls the Scots-Irish Paxton boys, are unlikely to discriminate between foreign-born astronomers and the true sources of their resentment. “Mason and Dixon look at each other bleakly. ‘Well, if I’d known ‘twould be like this in America.'”

Best to retreat to the safety of the astronomers’ temporary observatory at John Harlan’s farm, near the forks of the Brandywine. You can visit the site today, marked by the famed Star Gazers’ Stone, the original benchmark from which Mason and Dixon began plotting the Line. 

Figure 7: Original Mason-Dixon Crown Stone, showing the Penn Family Crest, Marydel, Maryland. Photo by author.

A year after the Paxton massacres, Pynchon sends Mason and Dixon to Lancaster (Mason recorded such a visit in the astronomers’ official journal), “where was perpetrated last Winter the Horrid and inhuman murder of 26 Indians, Men, Women and Children.” A guide, happy disaster profiteer, warns the two sightseers to mind their belongings. There’s nothing sacred even in Lancaster, land of the Pennsylvania Dutch and their solemn rites. The tourists keep coming, “some bring Sketching-Books, some Easels, others their Specimen Bags, but all converge thro’ the same queer Magnetism.” Bodies attract, dead ones no less than living. Such laws are the stuff of science, the creed that guides these English astronomical hirelings.

Mason and Dixon concluded their American survey in the fall of 1767, 31 miles short of its planned endpoint. Iroquois guides, appointed to escort the Englishmen and their party through some of the most contested lands in the world, determined that Dunkard Creek, north of present-day Morgantown, West Virginia, would be the end of the line. As the astronomers made the 232-mile journey back to Harlan’s farm, they checked the several hundred boundary markers they’d placed along the way. A few remain, weathered and chipped remnants of the work of Mason, Dixon, and their surveying party.

Figure 8: Stone placed in 1883, marking the farthest western point of Mason and Dixon’s Survey, reached on the 9th of October, 1767. Photo by author.

After completing a detailed map of their line, in September of 1768, Mason and Dixon returned to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. Dixon would eventually return to the northern English countryside of his birth, finishing his days surveying the lands of the lords of Durham. Mason migrated to America, but died shortly after arriving and now lies buried in Philadelphia’s Christ Church burial ground.

Pynchon doesn’t much bother with Mason and Dixon’s American legacy. Because the phrase “Mason-Dixon” remains so deeply embedded in national memory, few of his readers will doubt that the astronomer’s efforts to end one boundary dispute prepared the way for another, not between English lords tussling over land title and tax revenue, but between partisans fighting over the fate of America’s great shame, the institution of chattel slavery. It’s no coincidence that countless underground railroad stations, John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, and the Civil War battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg are not far from Mason and Dixon’s line. The Englishmen may have had some sense of the clinical derangement all around them, but with no United States, Mason and Dixon could never have anticipated their role in the great American cataclysm.


Further Reading

Edward G. Gray, Mason-Dixon: Crucible of the Nation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2023).

Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (New York: Picador, 2004).

Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger (New York: Nan A. Talese, 1992)

John Updike, Memories of the Ford Administration (New York: Knopf, 1992)


This article originally appeared in January 2024.

Edward G. Gray was the author of Mason-Dixon: Crucible of the Nation (Harvard University Press, 2023) and Professor of History at Florida State University. He wished to thank Peter C. Mancall for his many incisive comments on an earlier draft of this essay.  

Editor’s Note – Submission Going Down, Down, Dragging me Down*

It is that time of year again when I point you to Leon Jackson’s excellent article on the newspaper carrier’s New Year’s address and give you an update on what is going on at Commonplace while hitting you up for contributions (no money is necessary, just submissions). In my last editor’s note about social media, I mentioned the tough decisions individuals and organizations need to make about where to engage the public and peers at a time when so many platforms are helmed by billionaires whose statements do not align with our own. As I write this for example, several large corporations from Disney to Comcast are deciding whether to temporarily pause or completely cut advertisements on Twitter in the wake of yet another round of extreme statements by Elon Musk as well as his decision to reinstate the accounts of individuals such as Alex Jones.

Personally, I have recently stopped posting on Twitter and have moved over to an account on Bluesky, while cross-posting historical and Commonplace-related material on the instance on Mastodon. This is working for me for now, but navigating multiple sites both as a reader and a poster hoping to find engagement for my posts is difficult. The official Commonplace account still posts occasionally on Twitter and discussions are ongoing about whether and how to change this in the future. One of the issues for a small publication like Commonplace is how to communicate with the public if no single shared social media space exists in the way that Twitter did just a couple of years ago. Erin Bartram, an editor at Contingent Magazine and the president of the magazine’s board of directors explained on Bluesky that a series that they run that usually has a great response was now having trouble getting traction. She noted that she “could not express to you how much Twitter’s collapse combined with no clear alternative site for sharing and engaging with print pieces crushed readership for what is usually one of our best-read set of pieces each year.” Will Twitter finally collapse, forcing a more clear-cut successor or will things continue to fracture? With the news that Bluesky is moving to open access from its current invitation-only model early this year, it may become a more important destination for people looking for an alternative to Twitter, but that is far from clear. I will try to keep you posted (literally).

Figure 1: This chart depicts the growth of Bluesky registered users from May to November, 2023. (Pedro), (Eddie), VintageNebula, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to this editor’s note, we are posting two other pieces to Commonplace today. These are previously unavailable selections from October 2008 that we could not locate when we moved the back catalog from the old site to our new URL. As I detailed in my first editor’s note, it was quite an effort to migrate twenty years of material that existed across several platforms to our new site. A very small number of pieces which had been missing from the old site for years were not able to be recovered during the process. I have now managed to recover two of those. The first posting today captures a month of Jeff Pasley’s Publick Occurences 2.0, an occasional blog that he ran from 2008 to 2015. Posts from October 2008 seemed to have eluded the process we used to capture blog entries from the old site and it took a little while to track them down. While these posts are short (some of them are only a couple of hundred words long), it has been important to us to provide the most complete possible archive of everything that we have published on Commonplace.

The second back catalog piece posted today came out of something called Myths of Lost Atlantis, a short-lived blog series put together by Jeff Pasley in dedication to American Antiquarian Society scholar Philip Lampi and his work on A New Nation Votes: American Election Returns 1787-1825. The site has amazing election returns data from a wide variety of early republic contests at various levels of office. For example, with a little poking around, I can see that A. Greenberg (no relation) picked up 2 votes in the 1814 Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor’s race. He only finished 55,503 votes behind Federalist William Phillips, but I’m sure he will get him next time.

Figure 2: Ticket for the Free Bridge Party from the 1827 Massachusetts Gubernatorial Election, Collection of Election Ballots, 1827-1889. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

The idea behind the Lost Atlantis series was to supplement a politics-themed issue of Commonplace that we published in the runup to the election of 2008. In addition to smart, short pieces by scholars Rosemarie Zagarri, Donald Ratcliffe, Andrew Shankman, Catherine O’Donnell Kaplan, and Andrew Robertson that sought to address some myths about politics in the early republic, one of the posts by Matthew Mason had gone missing. It had taken up the question: “Was Slavery Really Not a Major Issue in American Politics Before the Missouri Crisis?” It has now been recovered and is available here.

One purpose of the New Year’s address is to let our readers know what we have been up to at Commonplace over the last year. While it often goes unnoticed, we have been hard at work to enhance the reader experience by adding new features to the website and making some vital backend improvements. Readers and especially teachers have reached out to ask for a more convenient way to access our materials offline, so we added new options to save and print articles while preserving their original formatting. For those who want to stay digital, but distribute and post articles, we have added new share buttons for Mastodon and link copying in addition to the existing options. Backend changes also included moving from http to an https standard so is more secure to access from a variety of browsers and devices. 

Figure 3: Look for these buttons on the top of each page for saving, printing, and sharing articles.

Now we come to the portion of the piece where I ask you to contribute something to help us keep Commonplace going. As I sat down to write this appeal, I was reminded of something I came across many years ago while working on a book about organized labor and masculinity in early republic New York City. On March 7, 1834, a prolabor newspaper called The Man ran its daily “Marriages” column, but instead of a list of newly married couples, it declared: “If the people won’t marry, we can’t help it.”

Figure 4: “Marriages,” The Man, March 7, 1834.

We are amazingly proud of the articles, reviews, and historical creative writing pieces that we publish and we believe that they offer our readers smart, interesting open access scholarship. This model only works if we receive submissions from our readers. I am thrilled that the quality of our submissions is so high. It makes the editorial process easier from initial review to final publication, but like many journals in the wake of Covid, budget cuts, and worsening academic job markets, we have seen a downturn in submissions. So, I am asking that if you have an idea for an article or review and would like to pitch it, please reach out. If you had to cut something from a larger project and think your darlings might find a home in a short piece for a wider audience, please reach out. If you found something fascinating in the archive and are not sure what to do with it, please reach out. Any other thoughts or questions about Commonplace, please reach out. We can be reached at


Happy New Year!


* This lyric originally comes from the Sex Pistol’s “Submission,” but I prefer the Peel Sessions version by my favorite band, Galaxie 500.


This article originally appeared in January 2024.


Joshua R. Greenberg is the editor of Commonplace: The Journal of Early American Life. He is the author of Bank Notes and Shinplasters: The Rage for Paper Money in the Early Republic (2020) and Advocating the Man: Masculinity, Organized Labor, and the Household in New York, 1800-1840 (2008).

Words to Weapons: A History of the Abolition Movement from Persuasion to Force

In 1961, Benjamin Quarles wrote in his The Negro in the American Revolution that “black Americans quickly caught the spirit of ’76” during the American Revolution (xxviii). While this “contagion of liberty” thesis, later popularized by Bernard Bailyn in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, does not hold nearly as much historiographical purchase now as it did in the 1960s for explaining the Revolution, Quarles importantly connected Black Americans with Revolutionary ideology. Kellie Carter Jackson’s Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence builds upon the work of Quarles, Manisha Sinha, and others by centering the role of Black activists and their political discourse of violence in the antebellum abolition movement. Carter Jackson highlights the importance of political violence in our understanding of Black-led abolitionism and explains how Black abolitionists recalled the Revolutionary idea of forcing freedom during the antebellum period. Moral suasion and nonviolence being insufficient tactics for effecting social and political change by the 1850s, these thinkers and leaders saw an opportunity to finish the Revolution as they conceived it and realize its radical egalitarian legacy through armed resistance. Though Black women and early abolitionism could have been more fully integrated into her analysis, Carter Jackson illuminates the power of Black Americans claiming and enacting their own right to revolution in this brief but incisive book.

Figure 1: Kellie Carter Jackson, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

Force and Freedom is organized into five chapters which move chronologically through the three decades before the Civil War. Chapter one examines how Black abolitionists like David Walker and Henry Highland Garnet became frustrated with the ineffectiveness of Garrisonian moral suasion and nonresistance strategies and articulated an ideology of political violence as necessary for abolition in their writings and speeches. Chapter two centers the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 as a catalyst that reinvigorated the abolition movement and prompted Black Americans in Northern states to defend themselves individually and as a political group. Chapter three moves through the 1850s and discusses how events like the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision made violence inevitable and drove Black abolitionists to further militancy and radical politics. Chapter four reveals the influence of Black leadership in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 and reframes Brown and his vision as following the lead of Black revolutionary violence. Lastly, Chapter five shows that Black leaders saw the Civil War as a Black war of emancipation and a revolution for Black Americans. 

Figure 2: Henry Highland Garnet by James U. Stead, c. 1881. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause has drawn attention not only to the centrality of Black actors to the long abolition movement from the Revolution to the Civil War but also to how Black people during and after the Revolution forged and engaged with its legacy as thinkers and activists, a discussion to which Carter Jackson contributes. The presumptive or aspirational “radicalism” of Revolutionary liberty and equality in rhetoric turned into actual political radicalism, Carter Jackson observes, as Black abolitionists summoned a “philosophy of force” against white supremacist domination (2). François Furstenberg explains in his germinal article “Beyond Freedom and Slavery” that early white Americans excluded Black people from their concept of freedom on the basis that they did not virtuously resist enslavement and so must have consented to it (unlike white colonists who contested British administrative overreach). Carter Jackson builds on this thesis by showing how Black abolitionists resisted this exclusion and forged their own radical tradition of American freedom through a language of political violence. They realized that if Black Americans wanted the freedom they deserved, they had to win it by force. Emancipation could not be given but had to be taken and earned.

Figure 3: Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

The Revolution was a vital source of inspiration to Black abolitionists for whom it had a transformative meaning. The famous ultimatum for “liberty or death” resonated with them. By homing in on the necessity of “force for freedom” in that popular slogan, Carter Jackson retrieves the intellectual rationale for collective Black resistance (4). She recognizes the explosiveness of this idea and shows how radical thinking about the Revolution by Black people justified and framed radical action against slavery such as thwarting the Fugitive Slave Law, forming military companies for self-defense, and raiding Harpers Ferry. Black abolitionists were not just critiquing and repurposing a founding creed that did not apply to or include them; they excavated their own creed based on a fundamental critique of the country’s progress. Their critical memory of the founding fueled the abolition movement and their desire to finish an incomplete revolution. 

Figure 4: Effects of the Fugitive Slave Law (New York: Hoff & Bloede, 1850). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Insofar as Black abolitionists seized on the fulfillment of founding ideals, Carter Jackson is careful not to neglect the impact of the Haitian Revolution. While the American Revolution “supplied the language and ideology . . . to rationalize a violent overthrow of slavery,” the Haitian Revolution provided a “precedent” of the “successful overthrow of slavery” by Black people through violence. It was a “constant reminder” that the American situation could be improved and that abolition and equality were still possible in the nineteenth century. Combined, these two revolutions offered Black abolitionists the foundation of “an alternate revolutionary tradition” in which they nurtured their own radical notions of egalitarianism (3, 5). Carter Jackson, though, does not see Black activists as mere unthinking vessels for the problematic ideas of the age of revolutions so much as interpreters, reformers, and critics, imagining all means necessary for the United States to live up to its ideals, the most effective being violence rather than Christian morality. Black abolitionists had a distinct political tradition which merely appropriated the language of republicanism to make resonant claims to American ideals while finding white fidelity to them wanting. 

Figure 5: Toussaint Louverture in Marcus Rainsford, An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti (London: J. Cundee, 1805), 240. Library of Congress.

By emphasizing the importance of earlier Atlantic revolutions, Force and Freedom traces a genealogy of freedom in which the paradigm of racial exclusion gave way to the pursuit of Black liberation. Carter Jackson argues that violence as a strategy and response must ground abolitionist debate and the road to the Civil War. More than an appropriation of Revolutionary ideology, violence was for Black abolitionists a “rational response to oppression” and “the new political language for the oppressed” (44, 53). The same ideology which justified and animated the American founding also gave renewed license to Black Americans’ individual and collective self-defense and emancipation. They finished the Revolution by leading their own, culminating in the Civil War and abolition. 

Figure 6: Currier & Ives, The Gallant Charge of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts (Colored) Regiment (New York: Currier & Ives, [ca. 1863]. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Though Carter Jackson is attuned to the gendering of violence as masculine in the historiography and to how Black women disrupted this ascription, her book would have benefited from closer attention to how “freedom” itself was gendered as well as to what female resistance meant for gendered emancipation and equality. Carter Jackson mostly examines the public writings and speeches of prominent Black male abolitionists. While Black female voices are included, they are submerged in a few passages scattered across the work. Carter Jackson admits in the introduction that “[f]ew black women” publicly challenged nonviolence between the 1830s and 50s. She goes on to analyze Black women’s responses within the context of the broader abolition movement, recognizing their equal “influence, rhetoric, and action” (8-9). However, her chapters suggest that the movement was male dominated and that women were also capable of violence, not that they made equal contributions. Carter Jackson mentions Maria Stewart, an early Black female political thinker in Boston, but primarily focuses on how Stewart echoed David Walker’s forceful rhetoric in his Appeal in IV Articles (1829). How could Stewart’s perspective on Black freedom have differed from Walker’s? Was freedom “not gendered” for Stewart, as Carter Jackson proposes, or was Stewart’s analysis driven by the recognition that it was gendered (30)? 

Figure 7: David Walker, Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles (Boston: David Walker, 1830). Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

In early and antebellum America, the violence of slavery, and the force necessary to escape it, were coded as masculine. Black men, Carter Jackson rightly notes, sought to prove their manhood in self-defense and self-emancipation just as white revolutionaries had done a generation before them (58-59). Force and freedom were not only gendered by historians but by contemporary political discourse and actors. Given this and the seemingly male-led nature of abolition, the reader is left wondering exactly how women’s contributions shaped or redefined the philosophy of force and the principles which underlaid it. The lack of a clear gender analysis make Black women’s roles appear additive rather than transformative—an appendage to male leadership, thought, and action.

Figure 8: Harriet Tubman by John G. Darby, c. 1868. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Though Carter Jackson wishes to decenter William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, and other white abolitionists in her work, she ends up inadvertently reinforcing an older tendency in scholarship to begin the abolition movement around 1830. To her credit, Carter Jackson counters the traditional foregrounding of Garrison’s Liberator by acknowledging Walker’s Appeal as a starting point for Black abolitionist thought. However, work by Richard Newman, Christopher Cameron, Sinha, and Paul Polgar has pushed back against this periodization, focusing more on the early rise of abolitionism and its radical, interracial nature (167n5). In Standard-Bearers of Equality, for instance, Polgar examines what he calls the first abolition movement in the urban mid-Atlantic around the turn of the nineteenth century. He aims to undermine the Garrisonian depiction of early abolitionism as too gradualist and therefore too conservative. Carter Jackson, however, implies early in her book that the “antislavery movement” started only a few decades before the Civil War, rather than during the colonial period and Revolution, where the origin is now regularly placed in the historiography (8). In doing so, she dismisses the early movement as insignificant, if not nonexistent, and gives the impression that Black Americans only grappled with American republicanism from the 1830s on when we know that they were counter-critiquing and recreating that tradition since the late eighteenth century.

Figure 9: William Lloyd Garrison ([United States]: s.n., 1846). Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

In crafting a “road to the Civil War” narrative, Carter Jackson could do more to acknowledge the deeper origins of the abolition movement and to the dynamic, revolutionary discourse with which Black abolitionists were in conversation. While it makes sense to bookend a story about the abolitionist tactical shift from moral suasion to violence with the 1830s and the 1860s, that story leaves out antislavery and Black radical thought before Walker and Garrison and suggests that the political discourse of violence sprung up in their wake. Carter Jackson’s analysis would have benefited from a brief comparison of early and later abolitionism and how Black thought explored and superseded the Revolution’s ambivalent promise of freedom and equality.

With Force and Freedom, Carter Jackson makes a stimulating and insightful debut which will have a major influence on abolition movement scholarship. She recenters Black leadership in the movement and illuminates how critical it is to understanding the shift in strategy from public persuasion to political violence. While Carter Jackson could have paid more attention in her analysis to the gendering of Black abolitionism and to the earlier movement and development of abolitionist thought, she compellingly connects Black abolitionism and the embrace of revolutionary ideas. Black people and their resistance to slavery were indeed crucial to the expansion of American freedom and equality during the antebellum period and the Civil War. They led a movement devoted to securing perhaps the most radical and elusive principle of all American history: Black humanity.


Further Reading

Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, 2nd ed. (1967; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).

Christopher Cameron, To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2014).

François Furstenberg, “Beyond Freedom and Slavery: Autonomy, Virtue, and Resistance in Early American Political Discourse,” Journal of American History 89, no. 4 (Mar. 2003): 1295-330.

Richard S. Newman, The Transformation of American Abolitionism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

Paul J. Polgar, Standard-Bearers of Equality: America’s First Abolition Movement (Williamsburg and Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (1961; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

Benjamin Quarles, “The Revolutionary War as a Black Declaration of Independence,” in Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution, ed. Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 283-301.

Manisha Sinha, “Coming of Age: The Historiography of Black Abolitionism,” in Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism, ed. Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John Stauffer (New York: New Press, 2006).

Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

Manisha Sinha, “To ‘Cast Just Obliquy’ on Oppressors: Black Radicalism in the Age of Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 64, no. 1 (Jan. 2007): 149-60.


This article originally appeared in December 2023.

William Morgan is a Ph.D. student in the Indiana University Bloomington Department of History. He studies the cultural history of early America with emphases on early Black politics, the long Revolution, and the first abolition movement.