African American Intellectual History before the American Revolution

As a historian of slavery and colonial America, I have to admit I was a bit taken aback when asked to write for the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog. Perhaps I am a bit naïve or perhaps my definition of “intellectual history” was too narrow, but when Chris Cameron first approached me, I had to stop and think about what exactly “intellectual history” meant for studying African Americans before the American Revolution. After talking to Chris, our conversation raised two interesting, interrelated questions: is it possible to write an intellectual history of African Americans before the Age of Revolutions and if so, what does that history look like?

Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley

Since I am currently writing this post, it is safe to assume that I believe the answer to the first question is yes. Yet, the second question poses a much bigger problem considering that most African Americans were illiterate. Granted, there are notable exceptions such as Briton Hammon, Phillis Wheatley, and the innumerable Islamized Africans who could read and write Arabic. That said, the material these men and women left behind before the late-eighteenth century is quite sparse and heavily analyzed by scholars. But what about the millions of other people of African descent, the vast majority of them slaves laboring on plantations in the Greater Caribbean? Can we understand their intellectual history?

One way I believe we can better answer these questions is to analyze the thousands of court and ecclesiastical records that document the trials and lives of Africans in the Americas. While common in the historiography of Spanish America and Brazil, where the Inquisition and hyper-bureaucratic administrative structures created a large paper trail, these documents are much rarer for the territory that became the United States (indeed, Greg Childs has written an excellent piece on Afro-Latin America for this blog). Part of the problem is one of centralization. Whereas the records of the Spanish and Portuguese are only held in a few large repositories, English-language material is spread across dozens—if not hundreds—of archives. Even more problematic were the often-devolved legal systems of English America where local judicial authorities were in charge of keeping records. And unlike Latin America, there was no Catholic Church with its meticulous, centralized record keeping and attention to detail. The Anglican Church and its missionary wing, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to Foreign Parts, documented black voices, but often sporadically and at a distance, while records are incomplete at best for the many other denominations in British America. Nevertheless, as others and I have found, documents for the Anglophone Atlantic do exist and allow us to better understand the intellectual history of early African Americans.

A good example of these relatively obscure documents are those housed at the Massachusetts State Archives as part of the Suffolk Files, a collection of court file papers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The collection is relatively hard to navigate (numbered chronologically and containing nearly 200,000 case files) and underused by scholars of slavery. Yet, inside the collection is a real treasure trove of documents. Consider the following court order from January 1711:

“Upon an Information given to the Court by Samuel Aspinwall of Brookline Yeoman that he hath in his house a Negro man named Trusty who is a sick and impotent person, and that the said Trusty hath a considerable Sum of money in the hands or under the management of Samuel Baxter and Benjamin Webb of [Brookline]. It is Therefore Considered and Ordered that the said Samuel Aspinwall have power to demand and receive any sum or sums of money now in the hands of the persons above named, or of any other person, belonging to the said Trusty, and to give discharge or the same, and to lay out so much thereof as shall be necessary for the comfort and support of the said Trusty.”

Documents such as this one raise interesting questions. Trusty seemed to have earned enough money to warrant court intervention and the document even suggests that Trusty was a creditor. Even more telling, he was in the care of a white man, while two other men managed Trusty’s estate during his illness. Was Aspinwall his former or current master? Were Baxter and Webb business associates? Unfortunately, the document raises more questions than it answers. Even with the many lingering questions, however, records such as this one are important and can lead to new debates and interpretations of African American intellectual history. At the very least, for example, Trusty’s case shows the complex and complicated relationships that blacks formed with other peoples in colonial societies.

There is a caveat to using these sources to write history. Despite being able to hear black voices by thoroughly combing the archival records of early America, legal and ecclesiastical documents often give us a better understanding of action rather than thought. Without people of African descent leaving behind letters, memoirs, diaries, and other writings, thought is nearly unknowable. Or for a more concrete example, we know from membership rolls that many blacks, free and slave, joined northern church congregations during the eighteenth century, but we do not know why.

Our job as historians, then, is to properly contextualize actions—what I will call experiences—to give them meaning. Examining black experiences, exploring what those meant in a particular moment and place, and then aggregating these many different experiences into a collective whole, I contend, offers a way to examine and analyze the mindset—or what historian Robert Darnton calls mentalité—of early African Americans. Much like how historians of early modern Europe have examined the actions and cultures of peasants and artisans to understand their intellectual history, we can do the same for early African Americans.

Over the next few blog posts, I plan to explore these mentalités. Almost all of the examples come from my forthcoming book Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston (New York: New York University Press, 2016). The documentary record, especially court records, is particularly rich for early Massachusetts and gives witness to black experiences. Unlike other colonies, Massachusetts never created special slave courts, meaning slaves and other blacks appeared before the same magistrates—with the same record keeping standards—as white colonists. Such a dynamic archive allows not only to explore early African American intellectual history, but also to see the various patterns and themes that emerge. These themes will be the subject of my posts.


Comments on “African American Intellectual History before the American Revolution

  • Jared Hardesty,
    I want to thank you for your insightful piece. However, I would like to correct some of your statements regarding the study of black history in Latin America. I focus on colonial period period 1600-1850 in Latin America with an emphasis on the 18th century Argentina. Yes we do have Inquisition records along with religious brotherhoods proceedings that assists those who are interested in the Church among other themes, but we do have similar research problems. First there are not just a few centralized repositories. Instead there are hundreds scattered throughout Spanish and Portuguese America in addition to Spain and Portugal, Angola, and the Philippines. Second, most of the references Greg Childs address are from the 20th century, with exception to Morrison and Bennett both who study the colonial period and use court proceedings and/or brotherhoods. But more importantly, I think you are addressing a larger issue of the black voice in documents overall and the time period. I have the same problems and rely on similar sources, civil, ecclesiastical, and criminal proceedings for the 18th century. Rather than making it an Anglo vs Latin America contrast regarding research methods, I would rather stress our similarities as historians of the African Diaspora. I look forward to reading your future blogs and learning more about the black experience in Boston.

  • I wrote briefly about pre-Revolutionary Black American religious and intellectual history in an essay entitled, “Black Women and Religion in the Colonial Period” over the name Lillian Ashcraft Webb (my name at that time). The essay can be found in WOMEN AND RELIGION IN AMERICA, Volume 2: The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods, eds. Rosemary Radford Reuther and Rosemary Skinner Keller, 1983. I intended to start the conversation on this topic, but if researchers don’t search in secondary sources they miss published works that are heavily footnoted. I am looking forward to reading Jared Hardesty’s forthcoming book that is certain to contain information on religion.

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