Check out part two of Chauncey’s podcast series on the relationship between America’s gun culture, citizenship, race, and masculinity, which features Richard Slotkin, the Olin Professor of English at Wesleyan University, and the man whom I would like to nominate as the Dean of American Violence Studies. Some of you may know Slotkin through his incredible work on the long, dark history of racialized violence and gun culture in the United States in books such as Regeneration through Violence: the Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (1973), The Fatal Environment: the Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization (1985), Gunfighter Nation: the Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (1992), among other history titles and three historical novels. No other scholar has researched violence, firearms, and America’s frontier mythology across such an enormous span of time and space.
Slotkin’s Regeneration through Violence was a key text in inspiring me to write about violence in early American history. I read that book in my first year in graduate school, and it really turned my head after reading community study after community study about New England towns that portrayed them as “closed, corporate, Christian communities” rather than frontier encampments surrounded by palisade fences with male citizens required to participate in militia training days and to walk the watch in turn, day and night. Slotkin’s book suggested to me that the studies of communities within the palisade fences of early Anglo-American towns were missing a vitally important context, namely, the coercive and violent relationships with Native Americans and African Americans within and without town walls.
In any case, Chauncey’s interview with Slotkin is fascinating, stimulating, and well worth an hour of your time. You can catch up on the podcast series here, including Chauncey’s interview with me last month! Keep reading We Are Respectable Negroes, as Chauncey has more interviews lined up for this series on gun violence, race, and masculinity.
11 thoughts on “Chauncey DeVega’s interview with Richard Slotkin at We Are Respectable Negroes”
I think this is right, and insightful, about the palisadoed towns, although I would throw in a couple of tiny elaborations or qualifications. I think at least some of those community studies would not have denied at all that both external aggression against the other and huddled fearfulness of aggression by the other was fueled partly by the very need to maintain practices of internal harmony amid pressures of population growth, agricultural meagerness, and just plain human nature. And also, it just occurred to me that it would be fascinating to have a historical atlas of some of these phenomena. The geographical incidence of fully and partly-fortified settlements; their repair and/or disintegration over time; the adherence to and/or slacking away from strict attention to militia training regimes, and the like. By the late 18th c., I think, in some of the incunabula of Minutemen closer to the coast than to the frontier, training day had become as much drinking day or courting day or playing day as it was two-a-day scrimmage. It’s amazing that anybody hit anything during the retreat from Lexington and Concord. It would be interesting to see this inevitable variation arrayed graphically. Maybe it already is somewhere.
Oh, dangit! I have no scholarly excuse to read these books but you’ve made me want to, anyway, with this post and links. One of the great benefits with the current trends in cultural history is that we see more about such scholarship digging into the otherwise invisible cultural imperatives and anxieties that add so much to historical analysis.
Janice, I’m sure you’d bring a lot to Slotkin’s books, having lived your life on the other side of the border. In the interview, he talks about Canada as another settler society that has a very different relationship with guns and gun violence.
I’m a fan of Slotkin’s work too, but a few important complexities are worth keeping in mind. I’ve always hated the “closed corporate Christian communities” idea, which was in its origins a kind of willful blindness to how “open” New England towns and villages were. But this speaks to the palisades problem. It’s not all that clear that very many New England settlements were palisaded, and even those that were tended to be self defeating. The whole point (in English eyes) of “settling” these communities was to work and harvest the land — farming, timbering, etc — so the people who lived there always burst out beyond their bounds where there were stockades. And in parts of Anglo-America not primarily settled in towns (pretty much everywhere but New England) palisades were even less workable.
But also remember that a great deal of the violence (and there was plenty) was directed toward the European “other” (English vs. French, Dutch, Spanish, and possible combinations, as well as English vs English, French vs. French, and Native vs. Native . . . ) as much as against African and Native American “others”.
On the militia question, remember that the coast was the frontier just as much as far inland places were, eg, the horrific Acadian ethnic cleansing of the 1750s. And militia training days were always also drinking and courting days, but that actually didn’t make what they did as soldiers any less serious. When General Gage in Boston imagined in April 1775 that he could send out a thousand regulars and the militia would fold, there were veteran New England commanders (now loyalists) from the Seven Years War in Boston, like Timothy Ruggles and Abijah Willard, who knew better and told Gage so, because they had trained and fought with these men.
Finally, also keep in mind the degree of violence that took place within these towns as the English trained and disciplined a labor force (and this includes the militia part) out of their own offspring. The only palisades needed here were labor and residence regulations enforced by the towns. Barry Levy’s book, Town Born, is brilliant on this.
Sorry for the long rant, but I’ve been thinking and writing about a number of these issues lately.
While Canadian settler society may have been significantly different than the US. I don’t know enough about it. There seem to have been parallels with US and other settler societies in South Africa and Australia. In fact the late George Fredrickson wrote some fascinating comparative pieces regarding US and South African frontier society. One interesting conclusion Fredrickson reaches is that as long as the frontier exists then the indigenous population can still continue to resist. It is only when the frontier is closed that the Native Americans are all finally herded into Reservations and full scale segregation followed by apartheid could be instituted in South Africa. The frontier in the last settler state, Israel, is still open in that the Palestinians still have not all completely been subjugated and thus have means to resist beyond the stockade or “apartheid wall”.
I’m with Mark on the militias. While 18thC militia were days of carnival, they were also opportunities for men to show off their military prowess for ‘the ladies’, and part of the reason they turned into days of celebration were the large crowds that turned out to watch the drills. In that context, men were encouraged to perform well and to practice at home for the big event. In Scotland and Ireland at least, fighting for the right to have a militia was a central political question in the 18thC, so when they finally got them, men were very invested in showing that they were worthy. In Ireland, both legal and non-legal militias used their drills to act as warning messages to ‘others’ (in multiple senses) within their communities about their readiness to fight for their rights, and the ability of Irish Catholic peasants to drill well (despite not being allowed in militias) constantly worried the ruling classes (how worried they should have been is a matter of debate). Given the centrality of ‘bearing arms’ and ‘militias’ to political rights in the 18thC imagination in the UK and the US, I wouldn’t be surprised that the colonists also took their training quite seriously.
Thanks for the comments–Wednesdays and Thursdays are my very busy days off-blog, so I haven’t been able to comment.
My sense is that training days were more or less serious depending on how proximate war was. I think communities cycled through periods in which they were taken very seriously, and times when they were taken less seriously, depending on the urgency of the moment.
I agree that “frontier” has less to do with an East-West axis than specific local conditions. Maine was (and some would say still is) very much a frontier well into the 19th century.
Historiann probably has it right that “proxim[ity] to war,” spatially and temporally, is the key variable in the focus and intensity of militia training in New England. (Not very different from the National Guard activities that draw away some of our students mid-semester). I don’t know about “large crowds” assembling in the small communities of 18th century Anglo-America, although a substantial handful of people would be a figuratively large crowd if it included close kin, generational cohort rivals, and potential future employers and marital partners scrutinizing for the smallest signs of “likelihood” or worthiness. For the American Revolution itself, Charles Royster called the Continental Army as it moved across the countryside something like “one of America’s great spectacles, which people went out of their way to watch” (approximate quotation). On stockades and palisades, Mark has it right outside of New England. Exposed but dispersed Middle Atlantic backcountry communities built temporary fenced structures and “house forts” to which frightened civilians could resort during the Seven Years War, but raiding Indians pretty quickly figured out how to cut them off, burn them down, or deke their frantic inhabitants into bolting from them. Lisa Ford has some interesting observations on some of these issues for a different place and time context, but with the comparitive dimension that J. Otto Pohl suggests, in _Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia, 1788-1836_. The American example is backcountry Georgia in the early 19th century.
The proximity to war idea is probably right, but for the century before independence, at least in New England, war was pretty proximate an awful lot of the time. To use the New England names and dates for them:
King Philip’s War, 1675-79
King William’s War, 1689-97
Queen Anne’s War, 1702-13
Father Rale’s War, 1722-25
King George’s War, 1740-48
The French War, 1755-61
There was no generation or cohort that would have missed some serious militia training because of the proximity of war.
Mark, it looks like you copied that list from the list of wars in my book! (Except I always call the 1722-25 war Dummer’s War. Fr. Rale wasn’t killed in a battle–it was more of an execution in my view.)
Interesting comment about Scotland and Ireland, Feminist Avatar.
I was surprised to discover one of my (pre-Famine) Ireland-to-Canada emigrant ancestors on the muster rolls for an Upper Canadian militia (for 1828). Then I read of the Militia Act of 1793: all ‘able-bodied’ male inhabitants of Upper Canada between the ages of 16 and 50 were required to enroll in the local regiment of the provincial militia and to attend an annual muster on 4 June (the King’s birthday). There were fines for absences and/or non-compliance. The idea, I believe, was to prepare the (male half) of the population to defend the province against possible American aggression.
I don’t believe I ever heard of the Upper Canada militias in high school history classes (in Canada); in Canada, there is almost no cultural memory of an armed-and-ready citizen-militia past. I suspect the Canadian settlers were no less effectively armed than their American counterparts (which isn’t to say that the Canadians were effectively armed: on both sides of the border, I suspect, the citizen-militia was a bit of an ad hoc and slapdash affair). But “the militia” (as a past precedent which should govern present and future policy gun policy) just isn’t a thing in Canada (or in Soviet Canuckistan, perhaps I should say? because if you’re not ready to lock-and-lock, aren’t you already locked up in a gulag?).