Recently Completed Dissertations
Sarah Bischoff Paulus
"Abraham Lincoln’s Northwestern Approach to the Secession Crisis"
Advisor: John B. Boles
While the migration of Abraham Lincoln’s family to the Northwest has often been documented as a significant event of his youth, historians have neglected the powerful repercussions this family decision had on Lincoln’s assessment of the South and the secession crisis in 1860 and 1861. Lincoln’s years living and working in the Northwest from 1831 to 1861 exposed him to the anti–slave system ethos of that region’s southern-born migrants. Sensitive to the restraints they believed the social system of slavery placed upon their own liberties, these former southerners simultaneously despised the slave system, hated African Americans, and sympathized with white slaveholders and nonslaveholders who remained in the South. After building his initial sense of southern society from these migrants, Lincoln spent his years as a U.S. congressman learning the significance of the Northwest Ordinance in creating the free society in which they had thrived. Emphasizing Thomas Jefferson’s role in conceiving the Northwest Ordinance and utilizing statistical evidence to prove the superiority of free soil over slave, Lincoln’s colleagues further expanded Lincoln’s conception of the South.
All these influences combined to produce Lincoln’s uniquely northwestern approach to slavery, the South, and the secession crisis. Believing that the self-interest of white nonslaveholding southerners naturally propelled them away from the South and toward free society, Lincoln perceived the slave South as a vastly unequal society controlled by a minority of aristocratic slaveholders who cajoled or chided their nonslaveholding neighbors into accepting a vision of the South’s proslavery, expansionist future. As president-elect, Lincoln therefore overestimated the Unionist sentiment of southerners before and during the secession crisis. He remained convinced that the majority of white nonslaveholders would not support a secessionist movement that he believed countered their own self-interest. With time, and through careful communications with the South, he remained convinced that he could settle secessionist passions and bring southerners to trust him and the Republican Party. This northwestern perception of the South therefore explains, in part, Lincoln’s silence and his refusal to compromise during the secession crisis.
James Eyre Wainwright
"Both Native South and Deep South: The Native Transformation of the of the Gulf South Borderlands, 1770–1835"
Advisor: John B. Boles
How did the Native South become the Deep South within the span of a single generation? This dissertation argues that these ostensibly separate societies were in fact one and the same for several decades. It significantly revises the history of the origins of antebellum America’s slave-based economy and shows that the emergence of a plantation society in Alabama and Mississippi was in large part a grassroots phenomenon forged by Indians and other native inhabitants as much as by Anglo-American migrants. This native transformation occurred because of a combination of weak European colonial regimes, the rise of cattle, cotton, and chattel slavery in the region, and the increasingly complex ethnic and racial geography of the Gulf South.
Inhabitants of the Gulf South between the American Revolution and Indian removal occupied a racial and social milieu that was not distinctly Indian, African, or European. Nor can it be adequately defined by hybridity. Instead, Gulf southerners constructed something unique. Indians and native non-Indians—white and black—owned ranches and plantations, employed slave labor, and pioneered the infrastructure for cotton production and transportation. Scotsmen and Spaniards married Indians and embraced their matrilineal traditions. Anglo- and Afro-American migrants integrated into an emergent native cotton culture in which racial and cultural identities remained permeable and flexible. Thus, colonial and borderland-style interactions persisted well into the nineteenth century, even as the region grew ever more tightly bound to an expansionist United States. The history of the Gulf South offers a perfect opportunity to bridge the imagined divide between the colonial and early republic eras. Based on research in multiple archives across five states, my work thus alters our understanding of the history and people of an American region before the Civil War and reshapes our framework for interpreting the nature of racial and cultural formation over the long course of American history.