Freedom in a Slave Society: Stories from the Antebellum South

Overview

Before the Civil War, most Southern white people were as strongly committed to freedom for their kind as to slavery for African Americans. This study views that tragic reality through the lens of eight authors – representatives of a South that seemed, to them, destined for greatness but was, we know, on the brink of destruction. Exceptionally able and ambitious, these men and women won repute among the educated middle classes in the Southwest, South, and the nation, even amid sectional tensions. Although they ...

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Freedom in a Slave Society

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Overview

Before the Civil War, most Southern white people were as strongly committed to freedom for their kind as to slavery for African Americans. This study views that tragic reality through the lens of eight authors – representatives of a South that seemed, to them, destined for greatness but was, we know, on the brink of destruction. Exceptionally able and ambitious, these men and women won repute among the educated middle classes in the Southwest, South, and the nation, even amid sectional tensions. Although they sometimes described liberty in the abstract, more often these authors discussed its practical significance: what it meant for people to make life's important choices freely and to be responsible for the results. They publically insisted that freedom caused progress, but hidden doubts clouded this optimistic vision. Ultimately, their association with the oppression of slavery dimmed their hopes for human improvement, and fear distorted their responses to the sectional crisis.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“These life histories drive home a key paradox about those who benefit most directly from the inequalities of modern market economies. They always measure to the future with an accounting method that balances expectations of ever-increasing revenues with fear of inevitable demands for human equality.” —Edward E. Baptist, Cornell University

“Few authors, working on the intellectual history of the South in recent years, can equal Johanna Shields for her command of the evidence, felicity of style, and cogency of analysis. Her new book will be very influential on how we understand the complex situation of Southern authors, forced to reconcile the twin imperatives of slavery and freedom.” —Michael O’Brien, University of Cambridge

“Filled with rich research and colorful stories, Johanna Shields’s study of eight white writers in 19th-century Alabama will inform and please anyone interested in the United States during the Civil War era. Taking a cue from one of her writers, Shields embarks on an intellectual journey to the ‘weird utopia’ of a rising South which uneasily joined slavery to a vision of individual self-determination. Each of the authors is a portal on a society caught between the twin forces of middle-class striving and racial hierarchy. Shields deftly explores her authors’ key stories and characters, taking us into a fascinating terrain of authorship, friendship, and family. With a nuanced touch for both the power and the foibles that marked the creation of a popular literature, this study opens up new visions of a vibrant South and its place in our understanding of the American past.” —Steven Stowe, Indiana University

“This is far and away the best thing ever written on antebellum Alabama’s authors. But much more than that, it is a profound and moving meditation on the ways that freedom and slavery both reinforced and undermined each other in the minds of antebellum Southern intellectuals. It is a major achievement.” — J. Mills Thornton, University of Michigan

"Highly recommended." -Choice

"...an exemplary work of traditional intellectual history..." -Arthur Riss, The Journal of American History

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Johanna Nicol Shields holds a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Alabama. She taught at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) between 1967 and 2007 and is the founding director of the UAH Humanities Center. She has won numerous awards for teaching and research, including UAH's Alumni Association Distinguished Faculty Award. Shields has held research awards from the American Association of University Women and National Endowment for the Humanities. Her work has been published in the Journal of the Early Republic, the Journal of Southern History, Southern Cultures, Alabama Review and Mississippi Quarterly. She is the author of The Line of Duty: Maverick Congressmen and the Development of American Political Culture, 1836–1860 (1985), which won the Ralph Gabriel Prize awarded by the American Studies Association and Greenwood Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Regarding a 'weird utopia'; Part I. The Origins of Individual Freedom: 2. Self-making in southwestern towns; 3. The domestic foundations of self-determination; 4. The voluntary bonds of friendship; Part II. Writing Freedom, with Slaves: 5. Southwestern histories for a divided market; 6. Slave characters and the problem of human nature; Part III. The Crisis of the Rising South: 7. Slavery and political trust; 8. Self-determination and slavery in conflict.
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