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Atlantic History  

Alison Games

The field of Atlantic history analyzes the Atlantic Ocean and its four adjoining continents as a single unit of historical analysis. The field is a style of inquiry as much as it is a study of a geographic region. It is an approach that emphasizes connections and circulations, and its practitioners tend to de-emphasize political borders in their interest in exploring the experiences of people whose lives were transformed by their location within this large region. The field’s focus is the period from c. 1450 to 1900, but important debates about periodization reflect the challenges of writing a history that has no single geographic vantage point yet strives to be as inclusive as possible. The history of the United States intersects with Atlantic history in multiple ways, although the fields are neither parallel nor coterminous. Assessing the topics of slavery and citizenship, as they developed in the United States and around the Atlantic, demonstrate the potential advantages of this broader perspective on US history. Although the field emphasizes the early modern era, legacies of Atlantic history pervade the modern world, and individuals and institutions continue to struggle to understand all of the ways these legacies shape legal, social, economic, cultural, and political practices in the first decades of the 21st century.

Article

Early American Slave Law  

Sally Hadden

Slave law in early America may be found in the formal written laws created in metropolitan places such as Paris or Madrid as well as locally within English colonies such as Barbados or South Carolina. These written laws constitute only one portion of the known law governing slave behavior, for individual masters created their own rules to restrict enslaved persons. These master-made rules of conduct almost never appear in print and were conveyed most often through oral transmission. Such vernacular laws provide another element of the limitations all enslaved people experienced in the colonial period. Those without literacy, including Native Americans or illiterate settlers, nonetheless had rules to limit slave behavior, even if they remained unwritten. Customary law, Bible precepts, and Islamic law all provided bases for understanding the rules that bound unfree persons. Most colonial law mandated barbaric punishments for slave crime, though these were sometimes commuted to banishment. Spanish and French codes and local ordinances did not always agree on how slaves should be treated. The numerous laws found in English colonies, sometimes wrongly denominated as codes, spread widely as individuals migrated; the number and variety of such laws makes comprehensive transimperial comparisons challenging. Laws might occasionally ban keeping slaves or trading in them, but most such laws were ignored. Slave courts typically operated in arbitrary, capricious ways that assumed slave guilt and accepted weak evidence to prove it. Runaways might, if they joined strong maroon communities (bands of runaways living together), end up enforcing the laws against slave flight, much as slave catchers and slave patrols did. Laws to prevent manumission by a master frequently required the posting of bonds to prevent those freed from becoming a financial burden on their communities. Later manumission laws often mandated the physical departure of those freed, creating emotional turmoil for the newly emancipated.

Article

Loyalists and the American Revolution  

Rebecca Brannon

Loyalists supported the British cause and loyalty to the British sovereign during the American War for Independence. Their motivations were quite varied. A few enunciated a clear and sophisticated Loyalist ideology that privileged stability, constitutional restraint, and the benefits of membership in an empire. Others simply valued loyalty, while others chose the side they saw as more trustworthy or even the side they thought could best protect them in a raging civil war. Loyalists included white men and women of all ranks and occupations as well as Native Americans who allied with the British and enslaved Africans who resented their owners and saw the British as true, or at least possible, supporters of freedom and liberty. Their support helped Britain’s war effort considerably. But Britain never trusted or fully used its Loyalist allies, and after the war, Britain offered Loyalists only limited financial support. The majority reintegrated into the new United States, promising to be good citizens and to support the national project they had opposed. An unhappy minority became refugees who spread out across the world.

Article

Material Culture in the 18th Century  

Jennifer Van Horn

Material culture refers to human-manufactured, human-altered, or human-used physical things of all sizes and materials, from houses to domestic artifacts to tools to landscapes. Material culture also refers to the study of artifacts and scholars’ use of objects as a form of evidence to ask and answer questions about the 18th century. Material culture studies is not limited to physical examination of artifacts. It also involves consideration of an array of documentary, literary, and visual sources that provide information about material life. In 18th-century colonial America, the meanings and uses of material goods changed radically. Anglo-American colonists obtained greater numbers and novel types of objects through transatlantic and global trade networks. The British manufactures that flooded the colonies fulfilled colonists’ desire to assert social status and to participate in social rituals that demonstrated refinement. Scholars have labeled these changes the “Consumer Revolution” and the system of “gentility.” Artifacts also built communities and buttressed political beliefs, particularly through non-importation or boycotts of British goods during the imperial crisis. Ideas of gender shaped how women’s growing activity of shopping was understood and critiqued, as well as the association of fashion with women. The importation of Asian and Indian goods, primarily textiles and porcelain, fulfilled fantasies of the exotic while enabling American consumers to demonstrate their worldliness and status. Material goods facilitated cultural exchange and trade between those of different races and ethnicities. At the same time, oppression and political and economic disenfranchisement shaped American material culture. Indigenous peoples expressed consumer preferences for manufactured goods during negotiations within the fur trade. They incorporated British manufactures into preexisting material practices. Enslaved African Americans entered the market as both commodities and consumers. Through their purchases and creative use of refined artifacts, bond people expressed individual identity despite their legal status as property.

Article

Piracy in Colonial North America  

Mark G. Hanna

Historians of colonial British North America have largely relegated piracy to the marginalia of the broad historical narrative from settlement to revolution. However, piracy and unregulated privateering played a pivotal role in the development of every English community along the eastern seaboard from the Carolinas to New England. Although many pirates originated in the British North American colonies and represented a diverse social spectrum, they were not supported and protected in these port communities by some underclass or proto-proletariat but by the highest echelons of colonial society, especially by colonial governors, merchants, and even ministers. Sea marauding in its multiple forms helped shape the economic, legal, political, religious, and cultural worlds of colonial America. The illicit market that brought longed-for bullion, slaves, and luxury goods integrated British North American communities with the Caribbean, West Africa, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans throughout the 17th century. Attempts to curb the support of sea marauding at the turn of the 18th century exposed sometimes violent divisions between local merchant interests and royal officials currying favor back in England, leading to debates over the protection of English liberties across the Atlantic. When the North American colonies finally closed their ports to English pirates during the years following the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), it sparked a brief yet dramatic turn of events where English marauders preyed upon the shipping belonging to their former “nests.” During the 18th century, colonial communities began to actively support a more regulated form of privateering against agreed upon enemies that would become a hallmark of patriot maritime warfare during the American Revolution.

Article

Slave Conspiracies in the British Colonies  

James F. Dator

Slave conspiracies in the British colonies developed alongside the institution of slavery. They were terrifying events for colonists and enslaved people alike. For historians, they are complicated events to study because white British authorities left behind an archival record written from the perspective of the ruling class, which usually comprised slaveholders who were anxious to maintain their power and interpreted alleged plots in ways that accorded with their racialized view of the world. Nonetheless, studying these conspiracies tells us a considerable amount about the social climate of the period. Thus, studying them illuminates not only the emotions of fear and terror that haunted these societies but also the role that culture, economy, and political values played in their development.