What in contemporary parlance we would call African American feminisms has been a politics and activism communal in its orientation, addressing the rights and material conditions of women, men, and children since the first Dutch slaver brought captive Africans to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Although Black women would not have used the terms “feminist” or “feminism,” which did not enter into use until what is recognized now as the first wave of feminism, scholars have been using those terms for the past two decades to refer to Black women’s activism in the United States stretching at least as far back as the 1830s with the oratory and publications of Maria Stewart and the work of African American women in abolition and church reform. Alongside and in many ways enabled by crucial forms of resistance to slavery, Black women developed forms of feminist activism and a political culture that advanced claims for freedom and rights in a number of arenas. Yet our historical knowledge of 19th-century Black feminist activism has been limited by historiographical tendencies. Histories of American feminism have tended to marginalize Black feminisms by positioning these activists as contributing to a white-dominant narrative, focused on woman’s rights and suffrage. The literature on African American feminism has tended to hail the Black women’s club movement of the late 19th century as the emergence of that politics. Though many people may recognize only a handful of 19th-century African American feminists by name and reputation, early Black feminism was multiply located and extensive in its work. African American women continued the voluntary work that benevolent and mutual aid societies had begun in the late 18th century and established literary societies during the early 19th century; they entered Black nationalist debates over emigration and advocated for the self-sufficiency and education of their communities, including women; and they fought to end slavery and the repressive racialized violence that accompanied it in free states and continued through the nadir. Throughout the century, African American feminists negotiated competing and often conflicting demands within interracial reform movements like abolition, woman’s rights, and temperance, and worked to open the pulpit, platform, press, and politics to Black women’s voices.
African American Women and Feminism in the 19th Century
Banking and Finance from the Revolution to the Civil War
Sharon Ann Murphy
In creating a new nation, the United States also had to create a financial system from scratch. During the period from the Revolution to the Civil War, the country experimented with numerous options. Although the Constitution deliberately banned the issuance of paper money by either Congress or the states, states indirectly reclaimed this power by incorporating state-chartered banks with the ability to print banknotes. These provided Americans with a medium of exchange to facilitate trade and an expansionary money supply to meet the economic needs of a growing nation. The federal government likewise entered into the world of money and finance with the incorporation of the First and Second Banks of the United States. Not only did critics challenge the constitutionality of these banks, but contemporaries likewise debated whether any banking institutions promoted the economic welfare of the nation or if they instead introduced unnecessary instability into the economy. These debates became particularly heated during moments of crisis. Periods of war, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, highlighted the necessity of a robust financial system to support the military effort, while periods of economic panic such as the Panic of 1819, the Panics of 1837 and 1839, and the Panic of 1857 drew attention to the weaknesses inherent in this decentralized, largely unregulated system. Whereas Andrew Jackson succeeded in destroying the Second Bank of the United States during the Bank War, state-chartered commercial banks, savings banks, and investment banks still multiplied rapidly throughout the period. Numerous states introduced regulations intended to control the worst excesses of these banks, but the most comprehensive legislation occurred with the federal government’s Civil War-era Banking Acts, which created the first uniform currency for the nation.
Economic Thought and Practice in America
Christopher W. Calvo
The conspicuous timing of the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and America’s Declaration of Independence, separated by only a few months in 1776, has attracted a great deal of historical attention. America’s revolution was in large part motivated by the desire to break free from British mercantilism and engage the principles, both material and ideological, found in Smith’s work. From 1776 to the present day, the preponderance of capitalism in American economic history and the influence of The Wealth of Nations in American intellectual culture have contributed to the conventional wisdom that America and Smith enjoy a special relationship. After all, no nation has consistently pursued the tenets of Smithian-inspired capitalism, mainly free and competitive markets, a commitment to private property, and the pursuit of self-interests and profits, more than the United States. The shadow of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations looms large over America. But a closer look at American economic thought and practice demonstrates that Smith’s authority was not as dominant as the popular history assumes. Although most Americans accepted Smith’s work as the foundational text in political economy and extracted from it the cardinal principles of intellectual capitalism, its core values were twisted, turned, and fused together in contorted, sometimes contradictory fashions. American economic thought also reflects the widespread belief that the nation would trace an exceptional course, distinct from the Old World, and therefore necessitating a political economy suited to American traditions and expectations. Hybrid capitalist ideologies, although rooted in Smithian-inspired liberalism, developed within a dynamic domestic discourse that embraced ideological diversity and competing paradigms, exactly the kind expected from a new nation trying to understand its economic past, establish its present, and project its future. Likewise, American policymakers crafted legislation that brought the national economy both closer to and further from the Smithian ideal. Hybrid intellectual capitalism—a compounded ideological approach that antebellum American economic thinkers deployed to help rationalize the nation’s economic development—imitated the nation’s emergent hybrid material capitalism. Labor, commodity, and capital markets assumed amalgamated forms, combining, for instance, slave and free labor, private and public enterprises, and open and protected markets. Americans constructed different types of capitalism, reflecting a preference for mixtures of practical thought and policy that rarely conformed to strict ideological models. Historians of American economic thought and practice study capitalism as an evolutionary, dynamic institution with manifestations in traditional, expected corners, but historians also find capitalism demonstrated in unorthodox ways and practiced in obscure corners of market society that blended capitalist with non-capitalist experiences. In the 21st century, the benefits of incorporating conventional economic analysis with political, social, and cultural narratives are widely recognized. This has helped broaden scholars’ understanding of what exactly constitutes capitalism. And in doing so, the malleability of American economic thought and practice is put on full display, improving scholars’ appreciation for what remains the most significant material development in world history.
Motherhood in Early America
Women’s lives in British North America and the early United States were fundamentally shaped by the experiences of childbearing and childrearing and by the ideologies of motherhood that emerged from a range of cultural contexts. Most women in this period became mothers, either through choice or coercion, but their experiences of childbearing and motherhood differed sharply depending on their cultural background, social status, and experience of freedom or bondage. The history of motherhood was marked by significant continuities as well as change over time. For most women, motherhood was fundamentally defined by the physical rigors of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, and these experiences remained central across generations. Motherhood comprised a range of roles, activities, and areas of expertise, and as a result many women enjoyed considerable authority as mothers within their families and communities; this too remained constant. Changes to childbearing, motherhood, and maternal ideology occurred gradually and unevenly and affected women from different backgrounds in distinct ways. The incursions of European settler colonialism and the later expansion of the new United States, for instance, brought growing instability to Native American communities and threatened to undermine Native women’s power as mothers, though they formulated strategic responses to preserve their authority. The second half of the 18th century saw changes to women’s experiences and to feminine ideology in Anglo-American society. Middle-class and elite White women precipitated a fertility revolution that resulted in steadily declining family size; in contrast, enslaved women of African descent generally experienced increasing rates of fertility in the 18th century, and their childbearing experiences were shaped by the commodification of their reproductive labor. At the same time, a gradual transition began in the realm of childbirth as some middle-class and elite white women called on male physicians to manage their births. Meanwhile, this same era also saw a significant ideological shift as motherhood gained new significance in Anglo-American culture, making the image of the ideal white mother the most potent symbol of feminine virtue and influence.
The Posse Comitatus Doctrine in Early America
Courts and legislatures in colonial America and the early American republic developed and refined a power to compel civilians to assist peace and law enforcement officers in arresting wrongdoers, keeping the peace, and other matters of law enforcement. This power to command civilian cooperation was known as the posse comitatus or “power of the county.” Rooted in early modern English countryside law enforcement, the posse comitatus became an important police institution in 18th- and 19th-century America. The posse comitatus was typically composed of able-bodied white male civilians who were temporarily deputized to aid a sheriff or constable. But if this “power of the county” was insufficient, law enforcement officers were often authorized to call on the military to serve as the posse comitatus. The posse comitatus proved particularly important in buttressing slavery in the American South. Slaveholders pushed for and especially benefited from laws that required citizens to assist in the recapture of local runaway slaves and fugitive slaves who crossed into states without slavery. Though slave patrols were rooted in the posse comitatus, the posse comitatus originated as a compulsory and noncompensated institution. Slaveholders in the American South later added financial incentives for those who acted in the place of a posse to recapture slaves on the run from their owners. The widespread use of the posse comitatus in southern slave law became part of the national discussion about slavery during the early American republic as national lawmakers contemplated how to deal with the problem of fugitive slaves who fled to free states. This dialogue culminated with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, in which the US Congress authorized officials to “summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus” and declared that “all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required.” During Reconstruction, the Radical Republican Congress used the posse comitatus to enforce laws that targeted conquered Confederates. After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Southern states pushed Congress to create what would come to be known as the “Posse Comitatus Act,” which prohibited the use of federal military forces for law enforcement. The history of the posse comitatus in early America is thus best understood as a story about and an example of the centralization of government authority and its ramifications.
The Underground Railroad
Africans and their descendants enslaved in the western hemisphere resisted their status in several ways. One of the most consequential methods was self-liberation. While many date the Underground Railroad as starting in the 1830s, when railroad terminology became common, enslaved people began escaping from the earliest colonial period. Allies assisted in journeys to freedom, but the Underground Railroad is centered around the enslaved people who resisted their status and asserted their humanity. Fugitives exhibited creativity, determination, courage, and fortitude in their bids for freedom. Together with their allies—white, Black, and Native American—they represented a grassroots resistance movement in which people united across racial, gender, religious, and class lines in hopes of promoting social change. While some participation was serendipitous and fleeting, the Underground Railroad operated through local and regional networks built on trusted circles of extended families and faith communities. These networks ebbed and flowed over time and space. At its root, the Underground Railroad was both a migration story and a resistance movement. African Americans were key participants in this work as self-liberators and as operators helping others to freedom. Their quest for freedom extended to all parts of what became the United States and internationally to Canada, Mexico, Caribbean nations, and beyond.
The US–Mexico War
The United States–Mexico War was the first war in which the United States engaged in a conflict with a foreign nation for the purpose of conquest. It was also the first conflict in which trained soldiers (from West Point) played a large role. The war’s end transformed the United States into a continental nation as it acquired a vast portion of Mexico’s northern territories. In addition to shaping U.S.–Mexico relations into the present, the conflict also led to the forcible incorporation of Mexicans (who became Mexican Americans) as the nation’s first Latinos. Yet, the war has been identified as the nation’s “forgotten war” because few Americans know the causes and consequences of this conflict. Within fifteen years of the war’s end, the conflict faded from popular memory, but it did not disappear, due to the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. By contrast, the U.S.–Mexico War is prominently remembered in Mexico as having caused the loss of half of the nation’s territory, and as an event that continues to shape Mexico’s relationship with the United States. Official memories (or national histories) of war affect international relations, and also shape how each nation’s population views citizens of other countries. Not surprisingly, there is a stark difference in the ways that American citizens and Mexican citizens remember and forget the war (e.g., Americans refer to the “Mexican American War” or the “U.S.–Mexican War,” for example, while Mexicans identify the conflict as the “War of North American Intervention”).
Women and Politics in the Era of the American Revolution
Sheila L. Skemp
Historians once assumed that, because women in the era of the American Revolution could not vote and showed very little interest in attaining the franchise, they were essentially apolitical beings. Scholars now recognize that women were actively engaged in the debates that accompanied the movement toward independence, and that after the war many sought a more expansive political role for themselves. Moreover, men welcomed women’s support for the war effort. If they saw women as especially fit for domestic duties, many continued to seek women’s political guidance and help even after the war ended. Granted, those women who wanted a more active and unmediated relationship to the body politic faced severe legal and ideological obstacles. The common law system of coverture gave married women no control over their bodies or to property, and thus accorded them no formal venue to express their political opinions. Religious convention had it that women, the “weaker sex,” were the authors of original sin. The ideology associated with “republicanism” argued that the attributes of independence, self-reliance, physical strength, and bravery were exclusively masculine virtues. Many observers characterized women as essentially selfish and frivolous creatures who hungered after luxuries and could not contain their carnal appetites. Nevertheless, some women carved out political roles for themselves. In the lead up to the war, many women played active, even essential roles in various non-consumption movements, promising to refrain from purchasing English goods, and attacking those merchants who refused to boycott prohibited goods. Some took to the streets, participating in riots that periodically disturbed the tranquility of colonial cities. A few published plays and poems proclaiming their patriotic views. Those women, who would become loyalists, were also active, never reluctant, to express their disapproval of the protest movement. During the war, many women demonstrated their loyalty to the patriot cause by shouldering the burdens of absent husbands. They managed farms and businesses. First in Philadelphia, and then in other cities, women went from door to door collecting money for the Continental Army. Some accompanied husbands to the battlefront, where they tended to the material needs of soldiers. A very few disguised themselves as men and joined the army, exposing as a lie the notion that only men had the capacity to sacrifice their lives for the good of the country. Loyalist women continued to express their political views, even though doing so brought them little more than physical suffering and emotional pain. African American women took advantage of wartime chaos to run away from their masters and forge new, independent lives for themselves. After the war, women marched in parades, lobbied and petitioned legislators, attended sessions of Congress, and participated in political rallies—lending their support to particular candidates or factions. Elite women published novels, poems, and plays. Some hosted salons where men and women gathered to discuss political issues. In New Jersey, single property-owning women voted. By the end of the century, however, proponents of women’s political rights lost ground, in part because new “scientific” notions of gender difference prepared the way for the concept of “separate spheres.” Politics became more organized, leaving little room for women to express their views “out of doors,” even as judges and legislators defined women as naturally dependent. Still, white, middle class women in particular took advantage of better educational opportunities, finding ways to influence the public sphere without demanding formal political rights. They read, wrote, and organized benevolent societies, laying the groundwork for the antebellum reform movements of the mid-19th century.