Learning to Think Like Joe Lee

In the spring of 1847, the First African Baptist Church in Richmond Virginia raised twenty six dollars and thirty four cents to aid “the suffering of Ireland.” That amount is worth about eight hundred dollars today – an impressive sum for a one-time collection by a congregation.  But the donation is even more notable, I think, because the congregation was predominantly comprised of enslaved people. So, in the midst of the Irish famine, but also at the height of the American slave system, people who did not own their own labor managed to scrape together funds for a suffering population an ocean away.

Why am I telling you this story? It’s partly because historians like to start with stories. It’s partly because a story like this began my dissertation, which Joe supervised. It was my second year in the history Ph.D. program at NYU.  I’d come across a reference in Christine Kinealy’s A Death Dealing Famine to famine donations made by Cherokees and Choctaws.  I was in Joe’s office, trying to figure out what to make of these, and I asked him if he knew of anything written on Indian Territory famine relief.  He said no, and then told me I’d found a dissertation topic. It’s partly because I think we can all agree that Joe is the undisputed master of telling stories. His prose is certainly enviable, but it seems that whenever we get together he begins a narrative which always seem to reveal some interesting historical connection or framework that we (or at least, I) had never noticed before.

But really, I started by talking about the Richmond donation because the most meaningful mark that Joe has left on my intellectual work is the ability to move from stories like these, to broader ideas and more powerful theories about the historical relationship between Ireland and the world beyond its borders.

I thought I’d use my short time here today to talk about several ways that his methods and approaches have helped me to move from the story of enslaved people raising funds for Ireland, to a broader argument about the relationship between morality, solidarity and disaster in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. I am going to say a few brief words about Joe’s use of evidence, conception of politics, his role in the quantitative turn, and finally his truly global conception of Irish studies.

One of the things I remember Joe saying to me most frequently (and I’m paraphrasing here, but hopefully getting close to the spirit of the comment) was “we mightn’t know for sure that something happened the way you say, but what you need to do is to explain why yours is the most plausible explanation given the evidence.” As a young scholar, this was an incredibly empowering piece of advice.  It didn’t ask me to leave archival evidence in flights of fancy, but it did make space to argue for connections that I suspected, but which were archivally obscured. I think that, methodologically, one of the things that Joe has contributed to Irish history and Irish studies, are theoretical leaps that allow us to see connections that we hadn’t been able to see before. So, to pick a recent example, connections between historical conceptions of gender and the practice of business (I’m referring here to his “The Guinnesses and Beyond”) that help us to see Irish economic history in new ways.  Because of Joe, whenever I am writing something new, I first turn to broader hypotheses about why something might have happened, and then – crucially – mine the evidence to determine whether there is a more plausible explanation. This deep theoretical and explanatory work is one of the thing that makes Joe’s writing relevant decades after it was first written.

Joe has also argued for a robust conception of politics. For instance, his work on the Ribbonmen in nineteenth-century rural Ireland troubled traditional conceptions of landlord-tenant conflict. He called for an economically-inflected understanding of politics that encompassed farmers as well as laborers, and which made space for the intellectual and political lives of people who traditionally are not given space in intellectual and political histories. In my own research, Joe encouraged me to think about the politics of philanthropy, and to consider apparently individual and altruistic donations in light of a broader political framework.  In terms of the Richmond donors that I began with, this approach led me to think about the intellectual lives of enslaved people, and how these donors might have conceptualized their contributions in light of the broader political currents of antebellum America.

Joe was also an early adopter of what we might call today “computational history.”  In his early works, like The Modernization of Irish Society, in his still-influential “On the Accuracy of the pre-famine Irish Census” Joe brought methods from the social and quantitative sciences to bear on Irish history.  This meant that his in-depth investigations of Irish society were always richly contextualized in terms of economic and demographic phenomena.  It also meant that he was constantly looking for ways in which the methods of other disciplines might be brought to bear on his own subjects.  When I was struggling to integrate a demographic analysis of Irish famine donors into my otherwise cultural history of philanthropy, Joe pointed me towards the work of scholars like Mary Poovey, who (I gather) had helped him to refine his use of measures and statistics.  It is in part because of Joe that, when I begin researching a new community of donors, I look to demographic analyses as well as cultural zeitgeists around giving.

Finally, Joe called for a deliberate integration of transnational and global history into Irish studies.  He was never content to let a history lapse at the boundaries of the island of Ireland. This is visible in the volume he edited with Marion on Irish America, but also in his comparisons of Irish, American and European politics. This kind of framework helped me to look at Irish famine relief not merely as a local matter, but as the entanglement of politics and ideas that spanned the Atlantic.

So, to end with another story – the ways in which Joe thinks about Irish history have led me to conceptualize the story I began with not as a local anomaly, but as an act of politics with repercussions around the Atlantic world.  Joe’s guidance has helped me to ask questions about the demography of enslaved populations in Virginia in the 1840s and about economic connections between Ireland and the United States.  These questions have led me to make positive arguments about the political lives of people held in bondage.

For these modes of thinking, and for his incredible generosity of time, publication opportunities and attention, and for giving me a model (which I strive to live up to) for mentoring my own students, I am unspeakably grateful.


Diagnostic tools – or – the pretty visualization is not the end

As the semester and my first graduate digital history class wind down, I’ve been thinking a lot about building DH things for investigation vs. argument.  There’s a lot of good work on tools-as-theory, and whether a digital thing can be a satisfying argument, and an upcoming conference on argumentation in the digital humanities – so I’m not the only one.

I also just finished writing 1-2 pages – maybe 1,000 words – based on a diagnostic tool that it took me over a month to build.  I’m hoping to spin what it tells me out into a longer article in future, but for now I thought I’d share it here, with some commentary on how I made it, what it told me, and why it is not an effective argument.

One of my book chapters is on a group of enslaved and free people in Richmond who raised funds for victims of famine in Ireland.  The First African Baptist Church of Richmond raised just under $35 in 1847. While the amount per congregant was low (the church listed thousands of active members, but many of them were not able to regularly attend because of their enslavement) the donation itself was relatively unique in the church’s history.  This was one of the first times that this congregation raised funds for people not connected with the church.  I have a much longer argument on the political work that this donation did, but I wanted to be able to make some concrete statements about congregants’ experiences in the 1840s.

This was helped by the church minute books, which recorded the names of baptized, excluded and restored members (there were a lot of exclusions for adultery in the 1840s) as well as the names of the men and women who owned the congregants who were enslaved.  So I built a network (using Gephi, which benefits tremendously from the recent update) that showed only relationships characterized by slavery, to see if any white Richmonders were particularly over-represented. (made with sigma.js and the Gephi plugin created by OII)

While some men and women owned more than one congregant, by and large this network was fairly diffuse.  Congregants obviously shared the religious and physical space of the church, but their relationships outside of the church did not seem to be conditioned by their enslavement by particular men and women. (There is an excellent and robust literature on enslaved people in urban spaces, resistance and community building, which I won’t recap here – but suffice it to say that scholars have charted many other ways of relating beyond ownership by the same person, and I assume those modes were at play in 1840s Richmond).

As I put together the database of congregants, I realized that many and unusual names (Chamberlayne, Poindexter, Frayzer, Polland, among others) recurred among both slaveholding and enslaved people.  So I made another network, this one assuming that people who shared a surname had some kind of relationship (this is not a 100% defensible assumption – some of the more common names might have been happenstance).  With those kinds of connections, the network (which includes all of the same people as above) becomes much more dense, with clusters that signify relationships based both in slavery and (most often coerced) sex.

It’s interactive!  It’s dynamic!  It’s a network!

It is not an argument.

At best, this is a tool that lets me locate an individual and see connections.  It relies on two kinds of relationships (and likely overstates the certainly of genetic relationships or previous ownership based on shared surnames).  It helped me to write two pages about the density of connections among black and white Richmonders, and bolster claims about the broader relationships that the First African Baptist Church was embedded in.  It remains an investigative tool.

I think it could be helpful, which is why I am putting it on the internet, but it does not constitute argument.  It does not even constitute analysis (that happened behind the scenes in R).  It did take – from the start of transcription to now – over a month to build.

Was it worth it?  Well, I was able to see connections among the 800+ congregants mentioned in the minute books from 1845-1847 that I would not have been able to see just by reading the names.  I was able to place individuals in a broader social context.  I wrote two pages.  I think that work like this can be tremendously generative, but either happens behind the scenes and only lives on a researcher’s computer, or is presented as the end of an investigative process. This is firmly in the middle of the investigation, but I suppose that has value too.

Archival gem (on stereotypes)

I took a trip down to Charleston today to look at the records of the Charleston Hibernian Society – the body that collected donations for famine relief in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.  All told, these men took in approximately $15,000, and letters to the English consulate in New Orleans suggest that still more donations were made directly to British representatives in America.  Sadly, the 1886 Charleston earthquake seems to have destroyed the minute books between February of 1847 and early 1857, so there was less than I’d hoped for.  Nevertheless, I’ve come away with a list of members of the Charleston Hibernian Society to crosslist (and hopefully map) against the list of donors I’ve already assembled.

I also came across this delightful budget from February of 1847 –

The Treasurer Reports having paid the following bills:

Hayden & Gregg for Lamps                           $         3.38

To Patriot for Advertising                                          17.50

G W Black for Building Drain                                    157.22

Stevens & Betts for Spittons & Spade                     4.62

Stephen Jones for Repairing fence in yard             3.37

And for 1 Doz Porter                                                  3.25

Aside from whatever was going on with that drain (G.W. Black was admitted to the Hibernian Society at the same meeting that bill was submitted, and seems to have been related to other members of the society, so I couldn’t help but wonder whether he was getting some kind of kick-back), I very much appreciate that a dozen porters could be bought for the same price as lamps or fence repairs, and that whoever bought those beers saw fit to charge them to the Society.  The treasurer’s books also featured several remittances for whiskey.

Google map engine and Charleson donors

Although the Google map engine API is meant for businesses, there’s a lite version for non-business map geeks.  I like this tool because it’s easy to embed a lot of data into the map.  Here’s a quick version of the Charleston famine donors map that I’d previously made just using Google maps and dropping “pins” in places where donors were located:

[googlemaps https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msa=0&msid=214677819635357292007.0004d08361291f904d1c3&ie=UTF8&t=m&ll=34.016263,-82.283671&spn=3.169364,6.305034&output=embed&w=425&h=350]

All of these donations were printed in Charleston newspapers, and when I first started mapping them I was struck that (1) many of the donors printed in Charleston papers didn’t seem to live in Charleston and (2) how many of them were slaveowners.
The new map is here.

On starting new projects

I’m deep in the next-year’s-research planning phase of the summer, which is mostly comprised of figuring out what other donor communities I want to look at for the book manuscript.  I chose sites for the dissertation largely based on news production – locales in which a lot of news was being produced, reproduced and consumed – but for the book I’ve been thinking about how to better center the experiences of non-elite donors, which means looking for places from which donations flowed, rather than places in which people were merely reading about the famine in Ireland.  As part of this, and as part of a related project to collect the names of donors to a wide range of 19th century philanthropic projects, I’ve been working on a database which tracks not only individual donations, but also biographical information about donors.  I’ve been using this data – and in particular donations to national famine relief funds (the American Society of Friends rather than the New York Irish relief committee, for example) to try to map places where donations came from, but that I haven’t yet explored.

So: a very few, very preliminary findings:

  • Most of these donations are coming from cities.
  • Many are on behalf of relief committees of entire cities – it’s not clear yet whether these are Quaker relief committees or ones without religious (or with another religious) affiliation, but I hope that’s something I’ll be able to check out at the Haverford Quaker archives.
  • Of those donations made on behalf of urban relief committees, the people doing the collecting were almost entirely merchants.

The orange circles are the places I’ve yet to explore – lots to do!

CRC donor locales

Hunger as politics

I’m just back from ACIS’s 2013 meeting, where, inevitably, famine and hunger strikes were often on the agenda.  I’m also in the process of designing a course on popular politics, which I’ve conceiving of as means of acting politically open to those traditionally excluded from formal politics. This semester, I’m also sitting in on a class on humanitarianism at NYU, which pushes me pretty far out of my 19th century comfort zone.  We’ve been talking a lot about whether enumerated rights give oppressed people resources to fight their oppression, or whether oppressive regimes will always find ways to loophole their way out of those enumerated rights (as an aside, I just finished We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which is rife with heartbreaking examples of the ways in which the international community convoluted itself to avoid acknowledging genocide in Rwanda).  So, both in light of the panels I heard this weekend, and in light of this class, this op ed in today’s New York Times is particularly apposite.  If we agree that freedom from want is (or should be) a universal right, what do we make of the freedom to willfully starve onesself?

Hunger strikes are political tools with long shadows – those used by people who have little or limited access to other forms of resistance.  Suffragettes in prison used, and died as a consequence of hunger strikes.  Irish Republican political prisoners starved and died in the H-Blocks.  While the World Medical Association sees force-feeding in response to hunger strikes as a possible assault on bodily integrity, the United States’ policy on the treatment of prisoners stipulates that “It is the responsibility of the Bureau of Prisons to monitor the health and welfare of individual inmates, and to ensure that procedures are pursued to preserve life.” and when “a medical necessity for immediate treatment of a life or health threatening situation exists, the physician may order that treatment be administered without the consent of the inmate.”

My own work is so much about the political utility of acting to prevent hunger, that I sometimes forget the political utility inherent in hunger – and public displays of hunger in particular.