The Worm in the Apple: Slavery, Emancipation, and Race in Early New Englan

American Studies Seminar
Joanne Pope Melish

New England’s complicated relationship with slavery and emancipation is an important part of the American story. In the eighteenth century, the trade in Indian and African slaves and products produced by their labor undergirded New England’s maritime commercial development. Ending slavery in the region was a painful and lengthy process accompanied by increasing white hostility and violence toward free people of color. In the nineteenth century, the growth of New England’s textile industry was almost entirely dependent on processing slave-grown Southern cotton, marketing cotton and woolen textiles to plantation owners to clothe their slaves, and manufacturing the tools slaves used to grow cotton and carve fields out of forests as the cotton revolution spread westward. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people of color in slavery and freedom made essential contributions to early New England life, not only as artisans and laborers but also as poets, polemicists, soldiers, and ministers; at the same time, slavery as a moral issue inflamed New England politics and inspired some of the region’s most memorable literature. This history informs and complicates the triumphal narrative of New England as the birthplace of American freedom.

This course will investigate the social, economic, cultural, and political history of slavery, antislavery, and evolving ideas about race from settlement to the eve of the Civil War in the New England region, with special attention to Massachusetts and the Worcester area. Students will read a selection of recent interpretive books and articles focusing on this history. They also will draw upon the rich print and manuscript resources of the American Antiquarian Society to produce a substantial research paper (20-25 pages) on a topic of their choice by the end of the semester. The seminar is open to students from all disciplines whose academic record, personal statement, and letters of recommendation indicate a commitment to academic excellence, the ability to work independently, and a sincere interest in the seminar’s subject matter

The seminar was led by Joanne Pope Melish, Associate Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her research focuses on slavery, emancipation, and the development of racial ideologies from the colonial period through Reconstruction, especially in the northern colonies and states. She is the author of Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860 (1998) and is currently working on book project provisionally entitled “Making Black Communities” that investigates how and why the mixed-race neighborhoods of laboring poor in northern cities began to be characterized as “black” and targeted by hostile white mobs in the early nineteenth century.

The following American Studies Seminar research papers were written by students in the 2016 seminar:

  • "The Beginning of the End: What Really Ended Slavery in New England," by Joe Baron
  • "Two Sides of the Same Coin: African Slaves of the United States and American Slaves of the Barbary States," by Kathryn Collins
  • "'Thoughts that breathe and words that burn': Publicizing the Anti-Slavery Movement in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1830-1860," by Michael T. DeSantis
  • "Gender Influences on Personal Relationships between Black Slaves and Their White Slaveholders: Colonial Massachusetts between 1740 and 1780," by Alexandra Jeannotte
  • "Roots in Slavery: Tracing the Meaning of Racial Differences from Environmental, to Hereditary, to Pseudo-Scientific," by Rebecca Levesque
  • "Was it Wrong? The Morality of Slavery through the Eyes of Early 19th-Century Americans," by Zachary Noel
  • "Who Said That?: Black/White Ventriloquism in 1800s New England," by Carly Priest

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