Early American History Seminar: Julia Stern, Northwestern University

Early American History and Culture Seminar
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

5:30 pm to 7:00 pm

“Revolt: More Family Troubles in the House Divided”
Julia Stern, Northwestern University
In her Civil War narrative, Mary Chesnut reconstructs the final exchange between her cousin Betsy Witherspoon, a woman in her mid seventies, and the house slaves who are about to strangle her.  “She asked them what she had ever done that they should want to kill her?” The old woman’s question about “what she had ever done” to warrant being murdered by her “people” spoke to only one side of the double vision that enabled the white master class to hold nearly four million African Americans in bondage for more than two hundred years. Mrs. Witherspoon had treated the blacks under her authority better than had most of her neighbors.  But better than most did not change the fundamental truth that she had held them in bondage for the duration of their lives. In this chapter, I explore the Witherspoon murder as a limit case for insurrection. The incident put the white community on notice that no slaveholder, however “benevolent,”could be guaranteed immunity from the potential revenge of those held in bondage.