Jen Manion is Associate Professor of History at Amherst College. Manion’s book, Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America, was the inaugural winner of SHEAR’s Mary Kelley Book Prize.
The Republic (TR): For those who haven’t read your book, would you provide a synopsis?
Jen Manion (JM): The book examines the origins of the penitentiary system in the U.S. through the lives of people who were its targets: African Americans, European immigrants, and poor women and men who were struggling to survive, fighting for their own freedom, and seeking to claim for themselves the promises of American independence. It explores how prevailing ideas about race, sexuality, gender, and class influenced which people were targeted for arrest and how they were treated once imprisoned. The book shows how the dramatic changes in governance, politics, and work led to somewhat more widespread expressions of emotion, more liberal attitudes towards sex, greater challenges to social hierarchy, and a hardening of racist views. It specifically shows how men having sex with each other in prison was used as justification for widespread use of solitary confinement and an expansion of punishment more generally. The entire system was organized in highly racialized and gendered ways from the beginning, making it far more than a simple scheme to control the poor but rather one that helped to define the rights and responsibilities citizenship as something for white men, to the exclusion of others.
TR: What led you to choose this topic for your book?
JM: The history of punishment in the U.S. is incredibly important and yet we still know very little about the actual lives, dreams, and actions of those who were subject to its reach and why they were targeted. We know an absurd amount about the actions and aspirations of the political and economic elites and hardly anything about the masses of people who made their wealth and rise to power possible. The penitentiary system — and the carceral state more broadly — is one of the places where these two groups interact intimately on a regular basis. It is undeniable. The founding generation created the idea of imprisonment as the premier approach to punishment, an idea their decedents embraced wholeheartedly by expanding the carceral state dramatically throughout the antebellum period. I wanted to understand the social, political, and economic conditions that made this move seem necessary to them and what its impact has been, not only on people who were arrested and imprisoned but also in the creation of ideals about who deserves rights and protections and who does not.
TR: Are there parallels to today’s criminal justice system that readers might find in your discussion of the Early Republic’s penitentiary system?
JM: People who are critical of mass incarceration and seeking to undo decades of racial disparities in punishment would actually find a great deal of useful information in reading my book. There are several reasons for this. One is that punishment by imprisonment was an invention — it is neither natural nor an inevitable outcome, meaning that there are other ways to imagine a state might hold people accountable for violating its laws. Two, if you really want to get to the heart of the criminalization of African Americans in the U.S., you have to take a long view of the history of slavery and especially how racial difference was understood in the moment of transition from slavery to freedom. This happens in Pennsylvania from the 1780s to the 1830s, laying an ideological foundation for the criminalization of free blacks. Then, as now, the punishment of women and children was given less attention because they are a smaller overall percentage of inmates but they were generally treated terribly and throw doubt over widely held believes Americans have about the desire to cherish and protect women and children. I focus much of this research on women imprisoned because it is a very important dimension of punishment for us to understand and yet few people even realize it happened.
TR: What is your current/next project?
JM: I’m working on a history of gender non-conformity in the nineteenth century called, “Born in the Wrong Time: Transgender Archives and the History of Possibility, 1770-1870.” This project really has three inspirations. I have long collected records pertaining to same-sex relationships between women in the 18th and 19th centuries but in most of them, gender crossing or non-conformity is a very central aspect of the story. Second, I was surprised in researching my first book that the carceral state did not explicitly or actively target people for crossing gender until the 1850s and 1860s and I want to better understand why that was the case. Third, I hope to add to rather slim body of scholarship documenting a “past” for the transgender community.
TR: What are the challenges of researching the Early Republic’s transgender community?
JM: The hardest challenge I face is determining the language to use in writing this history. While it would be anachronistic to assign a transgender identity to someone who lived two hundred years ago, that does not mean that people did not move in the world and understand themselves in ways with clear parallels to that of a modern transgender identity. But most of the records are about such people rather than by them, so I try to write about people in broad, expansive ways that create space and possibility for how they might have lived, how they understood themselves, and how other people viewed and treated them. Scholarship in Queer theory and transgender studies is immensely helpful in this process and I am having a lot of fun. But there is still a great deal of resistance to gender neutral pronouns such as “they” within academic writing. I have already had editors on four or five different pieces undo my careful work by inserting gendered pronouns into my writing. It requires constant editorial vigilance and educating. I usually convince people by the end but that does not mean it is not undone by someone else in the next round of editing. It is impossible for most people to think, write, or edit without labeling people “he” or “she.” That is what we call the gender binary and language fortifies its resilience, even though people live their genders in much more nuanced ways. This project is partly about recovering an archive but it also very much about how we think and write about the past as well.