On Our (Awfully) Peculiar Institution

Published:May 18, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

The idea of this post is juxtaposition. (It’s also about burying the lede, so please read the whole thing!) First, there’s the image above, from 1863, of a former slave who enlisted in the United States Army. (No black Confederate, this guy. Go figure.) And then there’s this, from The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tennessee:

The material [written and collected by local Tea Party activists back in January] calls for lawmakers to amend state laws governing school curriculums, and for textbook selection criteria to say that “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”

Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.

“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody—not all equally instantly—and it was their progress that we need to look at,” said Rounds, whose website identifies him as a Vietnam War veteran of the Air Force and FedEx retiree who became a lawyer in 1995. [My emphasis.]

An awful lot of made-up criticism.


It should be emphasized, though, that these are a couple dozen people who in no way represent any government or school board. I say this because, let’s face it, getting really, really, REALLY outraged at small groups of non-representative blowhards is a little too easy sometimes. But it does suggest that there’s still plenty of room for education on the subject of American slavery, which is why …

AND HERE, FINALLY, IS THE LEDE: We at Encyclopedia Virginia are in the process of launching a new section of content on slavery. Just as we have hundreds of entries each on twentieth-century history and the Civil War, and are working hard on colonial and precolonial history, we will have hundreds of entries covering

  • material culture
  • slavery-related laws and court cases
  • the work lives of slaves
  • the punishment of slaves
  • the economy of slavery
  • slave resistance
  • slave culture
  • emancipation

Our section editor is Dr. Ywone Edwards-Ingram, a visiting lecturer at the College of William & Mary and a a staff archaeologist and Coordinator of African American Archaeology at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. We’re thrilled to have her working with the project. And if you are a slavery scholar and interested in contributing to the project, please let us know.

IMAGE: This 1863 photograph of the former slave “Peter” displaying scars from his overseer’s whippings, was widely reproduced as evidence of slavery’s cruelty. The image was sometimes paired with a photo or drawing of “Peter” after his enlistment in the U.S. Army. “Peter” was sometimes identified as “Gordon.” From the National Archives, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs.


1 Comment on “On Our (Awfully) Peculiar Institution”

  1. Henry Wiencek

    If it is only “their progress that we need to look at,” then the Tea Party is making an excellent argument against Justice Scalia’s “originalism.” Don’t look at what the Founders actually did and wrote, just look at what came later. So we can toss the Constitution?

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