Pulling Apart the Patchwork

Van Gosse

Senator David Levy Yulee of Florida, by Matthew Brady. Yulee was derided by black and white abolitionists for his dubious racial antecedents. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This article has a long history. I began writing the original version in winter 2006, while a Fulbright lecturer at University College Cork in Ireland. It was inspired by Rogers Smith and Desmond King’s seminal “Racial Orders in American Political Development” (American Political Science Review, 2005). The then-new concept of “racial orders” was revelatory. To me, however, seen from the vantage point of “the States” (as they were called then), there were competing sub-orders rather than any coherent single national pattern. Herein lay a fascinating contradiction, in that no matter how “confederative” the federal government was prior to 1861, the United States was still a state‒nation, in which case the parallel existence of radically different juridical‒political orders implied serious tensions, if not outright chaos. Good; that was worth exploring! I took the historian’s affection for the unresolved complexity of history literally, embracing the messiness, for two reasons. First, this disorder was often fruitful for African Americans, whether enslaved or semi-free, and, second, posing competing orders within the larger frame of antebellum development got at how repressed tensions over slavery and race (and racialism) constantly disrupted partisan arrangements and sectional comity.

There are substantive reasons why it has taken fifteen years for this essay to reach its final form and see the light of day. Relying on a theorization from another discipline does not come easily for U.S. historians. We are often allergic to theory in general, or prefer to make up our own. But in this case it paid off, since I was led to consider different ways of thinking about U.S. political development, well outside of my own training and reading.

Originally this article was meant to be Chapter 3 of a book I was writing (to be released later this year by the University of North Carolina Press as Native Sons: Black Politics in America, From the Revolution to the Civil War). An early, very different version was submitted to another publisher eleven years ago, and deservedly sent back for reconsideration. Part of my rethinking led to taking out the “Patchwork” chapter, because it no longer fit into a narrative based in a set of state- or region-focused studies. This essay then became a stand-alone seeking a venue. After considerable thought, I decided to step outside of history and engage with political scientists. In 2010 I sent the essay to the American Political Science Review, where it received a thorough reading leading to significant improvements, notably the incorporation of legal scholarship of which I had been unaware. First-round reviews were quite positive but requested large-scale revisions, and second-round reviews were also positive. Ultimately, however, the APSR’s editors decided that my approach was too far outside of political science to fit in their journal. The experience was entirely worthwhile in retrospect, since I don’t think the essay would have been much good without those reviews.

The next phase in this long history brings in the JER. In 2012, I had written a book review for the journal, and following that, I asked its then-editor, David Waldstreicher, if he would give “Patchwork Nation” an informal look, and some advice about whether it might be publishable somewhere, and what it needed. David’s advice proved to be vital. He pointed out what was missing in the piece, a sense of change-over-time, not just one relatively static set of orders, but a jumble that constantly shifted, like tectonic plates. This caused a major revision, in fits and starts, while moving forward with my main book project. Finally, in 2017, I felt ready to submit to the JER, under Catherine Kelly’s editorship.

I don’t know whether my fellow historians will assimilate this mix of legal, political, black, and cultural history into their syntheses and teaching. “Patchwork Nation” is part of an effort to put black Americans back into the core narrative of antebellum American politics from which they have been largely excluded, other than in the rapidly growing studies of fugitivity (see recent books by Kellie Carter Jackson, John L. Brooke, Andrew Delbanco, and R. J. M. Blackett).  I hope readers are not put off by its reliance on Smith and King’s argument, without which it will not make much sense—but then again, no political historian worth her salt would admit to not knowing Smith’s Civic Ideals. I also suspect that Scott Smith’s excellent maps will make a difference as to whether or not my argument gets through! It is fortuitous that I will publish Native Sons later this year, and before that, the collection I have edited with David, Revolutions and Reconstructions: Black Politics in the Long Nineteenth Century (based on a conference we organized in 2017 at the CUNY Graduate Center and Penn’s McNeil Center) will come out.

23 March 2020

About the Author

Van Gosse is Professor and Associate Chair of History and Program Chair of Africana Studies at Franklin & Marshall College.

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