An Interview with Jonathan W. White

An Interview with Jonathan W. White by Sara Gabbard


Sara Gabbard: Please describe the Center for American Studies at Christopher Newport University.

Jonathan White: The Center for American Studies is a group of faculty on campus who seek to help students gain a better understanding of American history and political thought. Every year we put on a conference on America’s founding principles and history, as well as a Constitution Day Debate. We’ve had a number of eminent historians speak at our conferences, including Harold Holzer, Allen Guelzo, Mark Neely, Lucas Morel, Gary Gallagher, Elizabeth Varon, Michael Burlingame, Michelle Krowl, Peter Onuf, and David Kennedy, to name just a few.

The Center also funds students to be research assistants for faculty—something we call junior fellowships. Junior fellows work closely with a faculty mentor to assist that professor in his/her work, but I’ve also worked hard to have my junior fellows craft their own research agendas. Over the past few years I’ve worked with my students to publish more than three-dozen articles in historical magazines, newsletters, and websites. I’ve been really proud of the work they’ve accomplished. They’ve placed pieces in several scholarly journals, including Civil War History, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, and Ohio Valley History, as well as popular history pieces in The Lincoln Forum Bulletin, Military Images, Civil War Navy: The Magazine, and At Home and in the Field, the journal of the Society for Women and the Civil War. Recently I’ve also published two books with students: Untouched by the Conflict: The Civil War Letters of Singleton Ashenfelter, Dickinson College, (Kent State University Press, 2019), which I edited with my student Daniel Glenn, and My Work Among the Freedmen: The Civil War and Reconstruction Letters of Harriet M. Buss (University of Virginia Press, 2021), which I edited with my student Lydia Davis. The Center funded most of their time working on these projects and I couldn’t have done it without that support. And for that I owe a big “thank you” to the Center’s two founding co-directors, Nathan and Elizabeth Busch.


SG: What classes do you teach? How do your students react to subjects such as slavery, secession, and Abraham Lincoln?

JW: Every fall I teach a course called “The American Experiment: Formation of Democratic Life” (American Studies 100). AMST 100 is usually a large class (well, large for CNU)—typically with between 45 and 99 students. To put that in perspective, most of CNU’s classes have 19 or fewer. On the first day of class I walk in and without even introducing myself, I launch into a lecture on the early life of Abraham Lincoln. I tell them about Lincoln’s parents; his birth in a log cabin; the times as a child when he almost died; how he lost his mother when he was nine; the time he was attacked and almost killed by Louisiana slaves; how he fell into depression when Ann Rutledge died of typhoid fever; his education and path to becoming a lawyer; and Joshua Speed’s story about how he visited a prostitute but left because he didn’t have enough money to pay her. At this point I stop and put a slide of the Lincoln Memorial up on the screen. I say, “I’m sure that most of you are really confused right now. You expected to go over the syllabus on the first day of class and you have no idea why you just heard a 45-minute lecture on the early life of Abraham Lincoln.” I then proceed to explain that when most of us think about Lincoln—if we think of him at all—we imagine a 19-foot statue in Washington, D.C.—an icon, not a real person. It’s easy to forget that Lincoln was a living, breathing human being who experienced love and loss, heartache, sadness, joy, struggle, and triumph. I tell them that for the next class session they will be reading Lincoln’s famous 1838 “Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield,” and that I’ve brought them up to the point in his life when he delivered this speech. So now when they read it they can think about Lincoln as a real-life person, not Lincoln the larger-than-life monument.

I know that most of my students in AMST 100 are taking the course because CNU requires them to complete 3 credits in “Civic and Democratic Engagement.” I also know that most of them don’t care much about American history, and some actively dislike it. I hope that by humanizing Lincoln on the first day of class I can begin to win them over—to show them that there is something captivating and worthwhile in the subject.

We spend the rest of the semester studying how the Declaration of Independence has informed and inspired various reform movements over the course of American history. We start with the Constitutional Convention and then move on to movements like abolitionism, women’s rights, and the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. We read a lot of Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, among other things. I find that students are really surprised when they encounter these readings for the first time. Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” opens their eyes to the evils of slavery in a new way, as does Lincoln’s speech in response to the Dred Scott decision from June 1857. I think they are really struck by Lincoln’s powerful metaphor of a shackled slave, and his argument that African Americans were treated better in the United States in 1776 or 1787 than they were in 1857. That, I think, is really eye-opening.

In the spring I teach a variety of courses. One, called “Encounters with the Constitution,” spends about a third of the semester looking at slavery and the Civil War—as the nation’s greatest constitutional conflict. We read landmark cases like Amistad (1841), Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), and Dred Scott (1857). We also read a lot of Lincoln. In this course I try to get my students to think about the different ways that judges have interpreted the Constitution over the past 230 years.

One of my greatest joys as a professor is the opportunity CNU has given me to integrate my teaching and my research. Every other year I teach an upper-level course called “Treason in America” (AMST 330) in which we discuss nefarious scoundrels from the past four hundred years of American history. I first developed this course during the Spring 2010 semester—the very same time that I was writing Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman (LSU Press, 2011). I used to joke that I did nothing but think about treason that semester. Being able to teach and write about the same topic enabled me to finish the manuscript in nine months. Even more importantly, it brought my students into my thinking on the subject and it enabled me to work through ideas with them that eventually found their way into the book. It is no exaggeration to say that I could not have written the book without the conversations we had in class, at office hours, and in the coffee shop at the library.

SG: What led you to the material found in To Address You as My Friend?

JW: I honestly don’t remember what led me to start this project. I’ve checked my files and can tell that I began saving scans of letters from African Americans to Lincoln in February 2015, but I can no longer remember how I got the idea. I found most of the letters on the website of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln (PAL) project. PAL has put almost 82,000 scans of letters and other documents on their website. All of these sources lack transcriptions, so I just browsed through them looking for letters from African Americans. I went through record groups in which you would expect to find letters from African Americans, such as the records of the Colored Troops Division in the Adjutant General’s Office. But I also wanted to find things that haven’t been mined by scholars. I think the best finds I had were in the presidential pardon records in Record Group 204 at the National Archives at College Park. These case files contain incredible correspondence from African American convicts and their family members, as well as a few from black victims of crimes.

A few of the letters in my book are well known. I have letters from the Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, including the famous letters from Frederick Douglass and from Lincoln’s old friend William Florville (“Billy the Barber”). I have also turned up some things that will be new to people in the Lincoln field. The famous black spiritualist and “sex magician” Paschal B. Randolph wrote to Lincoln about raising black troops for the Union Army. A group of Odd Fellows in Washington, D.C., sent him an invitation to attend their anniversary celebration in 1863. Some of the correspondents went on to achieve renown in state and national politics. Rev. Richard H. Cain, who would later serve in Congress, sought financial assistance for his ministry to former slaves. Aaron A. Bradley, who would become a prominent labor leader in Georgia during Reconstruction, wrote to Lincoln in April 1861 seeking a federal appointment. The last letter I discovered was by Benjamin Franklin Randolph. I found it during the copyediting phase and was able to squeeze it in. I then was able to work his picture into the book when I was working on the page proofs. Randolph was a chaplain in a USCT regiment during the war and he wrote to Lincoln asking for chaplains to get new uniforms that distinguished them from ordinary clergymen so that they would not suffer “indignities.” After the war Randolph became a state senator in South Carolina, where he also served as chairman of the Republican State Central Committee. Unfortunately, in 1868 he was brutally assassinated at a train depot in broad daylight by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Most of the letters, though, were written by ordinary Americans who needed some sort of help, and most of them will be new to readers. Out of the 125 or so letters in the book, only fourteen appear in the volumes of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project.


SG: Are there some underlying concerns in many of the letters? Any hopeful/positive feelings?

JW: African American men and women, from both the North and the South, frequently wrote about justice and equality. Men who were serving in the Union Army were justifiably angry when they did not receive equal pay as white soldiers, so they wrote to Lincoln about it. Their families back home were also gravely affected by this issue. If soldiers weren’t paid on time, or at all, it was their families that suffered. Many wives and parents wrote to Lincoln asking for their husbands and sons to get paid—and to receive the full pay and bounties they were promised when they enlisted.

Concerns regarding justice and equality are also found throughout the letters of civilians. Some freedpeople who were working on government farms in the South wrote to Lincoln to say that they should get the same pay as white workers. At least two groups of southern African Americans personally presented petitions to Lincoln asking for the right to vote. African Americans realized that the Civil War was bringing about profound changes, and they decided to go straight to the Commander in Chief to push for their rights.

SG: From the contents of the letters, can you develop a theory as to the way that the writers thought of Abraham Lincoln?

JW: Many African Americans believed they had a “friend” in Abraham Lincoln. A number of them called him their “friend” in their letters, or wrote to him as a last resort, telling him that they were “friendless.” When Lincoln died, at least one even exclaimed that he felt like he had lost a friend. So I called the book To Address You As My Friend, which is a quote from one of the letters. I think that phrase captures the personal connection that many African Americans felt to Lincoln during his presidency. This, I think, is one of the most important contributions of this collection. Much of what we know about how African Americans viewed Lincoln comes from problematic sources—either the Works Progress Administration (WPA) slave narratives from the 1930s, or filtered through the pens of white Americans who wrote down what they heard—or thought they heard—black people say. In these letters, by contrast, we get black correspondents writing to Lincoln and telling him what they think.

I call the final chapter of the book “Mementos.” This chapter includes letters of gratitude that former slaves sent to Lincoln, as well as gifts, poems, and resolutions of thanks for the Emancipation Proclamation. Almost all of these letters are housed in the Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, which signifies that Lincoln kept them for himself, rather than routing them through the vast federal bureaucracy. (If he had done that, they would now be housed in a record group at the National Archives.) I think Lincoln’s decision to hold onto these letters says something special about how he viewed this correspondence from African Americans. In one of my favorites, a former slave told Lincoln about how he dreamt about him before the war. I actually discussed this letter in Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). In another very moving letter, a black soldier describes how much Lincoln’s reelection meant to one of his comrades.


SG: You include letters from both African American soldiers and civilians? Are their attitudes similar?

JW: There are a lot of similarities in their attitudes about the war. Two themes that inform many of the letters are poverty and suffering. Of course, many Americans, regardless of their race, were suffering in unbelievably awful ways during the Civil War. But African American suffering was more acute in some ways because of the additional sting of racial prejudice. Not only did black soldiers face injustice from federal authorities (unequal pay, inferior weapons, fatigue duty)—they also risked being murdered or enslaved by the Confederates if they were captured on the battlefield. So black soldiers really understood that a lot was at stake when they decided to enlist. Their family members also suffered. They needed pay and they worried about the safety of their loved ones in the army. So whether soldier or civilian, they wrote to Lincoln seeking redress.

A lot of the letters from soldiers and civilians have to do with military recruitment. Some soldiers and civilians wrote to Lincoln telling him about how they’d recruited men into the ranks, and that they were willing to do more of that sort of work. In some cases, men were arrested for illegal recruitment practices, and so they wrote to Lincoln asking for release from prison. A number of the “recruitment” letters show unseemly aspects of the draft system—for instance, how freedmen in the Border States were often rounded up without an official draft and were forced into the ranks against their will. These actions, of course, could have terrible consequences for their wives and children.

And this makes me think of another major theme. Soldiers and their families often wrote to Lincoln or other federal officials asking for discharge from the army—especially for minors who’d enlisted without their parents’ permission. In one letter, a father compared his son’s commanding officer to Captain Nathaniel Gordon, the infamous slave trader who was executed in 1862. The father said that the army was kidnapping his minor-son in the same way that Gordon kidnapped and enslaved Africans. In another fascinating series of letters, a Pennsylvanian who’d enlisted as a minor tried to deceive Lincoln by writing letters in his father’s name to make Lincoln think that his father was asking for his son’s release.


SG: Who was Harriet M. Buss?

JW: Harriet Buss was a middle-class, Baptist woman in her mid-thirties from Massachusetts who traveled south during the Civil War to teach freedpeople. She was born in 1826 and was well educated. In the 1850s she began teaching white students in Massachusetts. Then for a time she traveled out to Ohio and Illinois to teach. Her earliest correspondence that survives is from 1850. Throughout her life she talked about wanting to make a difference in the world. By 1862 she saw that she could do something of significance by teaching former slaves in the South.

The thing that is really incredible about her letters is their breadth. Most northern teachers who went to the South spent only a short period of time there, probably not more than two years. Harriet, by contrast, went south time and again. She spent 1863-1864 in Beaufort and Hilton Head, South Carolina. From 1868 to 1869 she taught in Norfolk, Virginia. From 1869 to 1871 she taught in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she helped found Shaw University. At the end of her life, in the 1890s, she returned to Shaw. She really led a remarkable, selfless life. In reading through her letters, you can also see a shift in attitude toward her students. At first she wrote in some mildly condescending ways about her students, but by the late 1860s or early 1870s she sees herself as on a mission with her students.


SG: Did her work put her in danger, or at least lead to severe criticism?

JW: Harriet never felt in danger in the South. Part of that is because she tended to be in places with a strong military presence. But part of it was her personality. She was very strong-willed and independent. Very brave. She didn’t want men to “domineer” over her, telling her where to go or how to live.

When she got to the South, she was anxious to see what was to be seen. I actually first came across her letters around 2014 when I was writing Midnight in America. In 1863 Harriet had a dream about going into combat, as many northern women did. She described not being at all afraid in her dream. In her waking hours, she wrote about wanting to fight in the war, or to witness a battle. When she visited Hampton, Virginia, in 1869, she reflected on the Battle of Hampton Roads and said she wished she could see a fight between ironclads.

Of course, Harriet was aware of the threats of the Ku Klux Klan and she wrote about them on several occasions when she was living in North Carolina. But the Klan was outside of the urban area where she was living, so she never really feared for her own safety. For the most part, southern whites appeared to leave her and her fellow teachers alone. She wrote on several occasions that she had no “southern society” in the South, but that didn’t bother her at all. She loved her students and her fellow teachers, and she had plenty of fun times with them. Along the way she also met a number of famous people. In South Carolina she had dinner with Lincoln’s private secretary, John Hay, and she was quite taken with him. She also met Dorothea Dix and Union generals Rufus Saxton and David Hunter. Her description of Colonel James Montgomery is fascinating, and she very clearly did not like General Hunter. Harriet’s most famous student was the ex-slave Robert Smalls. In fact, she was the person who taught him how to read and write. Her diary records some new information about Smalls that hasn’t been seen before, including some incredible remarks he made about white southern women and interracial marriage.


SG: What was her opinion of Reconstruction?

JW: Harriet’s primary goal in the postwar period was to train black teachers to “radiate” their “light” into African American communities throughout the South. At the Raleigh Baptist Institute, which later became Shaw University, she taught future teachers and ministers. She believed that the best way for African Americans to come out of slavery and into citizenship was by being taught by fellow African Americans. She often had her best students assist her in the classroom and in Sunday School.

Politically, Harriet was a Republican. In 1859, when she was teaching in Illinois, she penned a letter to her parents decrying the politics of Stephen A. Douglas. In 1867, she wrote of her disgust with Andrew Johnson and said she would refuse to shake his hand if given the opportunity. In 1868, she had a lot to say about the presidential election, and she celebrated Ulysses S. Grant’s victory.

Harriet was deeply concerned by what she saw as the threat of Roman Catholicism. She frequently described the work of Catholic missionaries among former slaves, which she worried about for both political and religious reasons. As a Baptist, she feared that the freedpeople would come to accept heretical doctrines. From a political perspective, she worried that the Jesuits would persuade freedmen to vote Democratic. A major theme in her letters is how she and her fellow teachers should strive to teach the freedpeople not to fall for the lies emanating from Rome.


SG: Did she believe that the federal government was doing enough to promote the status and well-being of former slaves?

JW: Surprisingly, Harriet didn’t say a whole lot about this. In one letter from Norfolk she described the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau to supply African Americans with daily provisions, but that is the only thing that comes to mind. That said, she frequently described the poverty and living conditions of the formerly enslaved. This was often within the context of her asking the folks at home to send her old clothes, linens and supplies that she could distribute to the poor.

Some of her most touching letters are about a student in Raleigh named Thomas Noel. During the war Noel fought with the 54th USCT (not to be confused with the 54th Massachusetts). Although he was an Episcopalian, he attended the Raleigh Baptist Institute, and Harriet allowed him to drill the other students in military maneuvers. Noel became very ill and desperately needed money, so on several occasions she wrote home asking for donations to help him. Her approach to helping Noel was similar to her approach more generally—she usually looked for private charity to help those in need.


SG: What is your next project?

JW: In February 2022 I’m going to publish a book called A House Built By Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House with Rowman and Littlefield. I’d originally conceived of To Address You As My Friend as a collection of “African American Correspondence and Conversations with Abraham Lincoln,” but I soon realized that I had more material than could fit into a single book. So around 2017 or 2018 I decided to break it into two separate books. The letters part will be published by UNC Press in October, and the “conversations” part will come out on Lincoln’s birthday next year.

I’ve got a few ideas for my next book projects. I’ve written about 30 pages of a potential book on Abraham Lincoln and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and I’m excited to see where the research takes me. I’ve also recently discovered the diaries of a soldier who fought in the Indian wars in Minnesota in 1862 and who then went on to become an officer in a U.S. Colored Troops regiment. He started the war as a Douglas Democrat but came to support Lincoln by the time of the presidential election of 1864. I’m working with a student to transcribe and edit the diaries and think we shouldn’t have trouble finding a publisher for them. They are a truly remarkable firsthand account of the war in the west.

Jonathan White is Associate Professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University.  He serves on the Boards of The Abraham Lincoln Institute, the Abraham Lincoln Association, and the Lincoln Forum.

Jonathan W. White is Associate Professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University.  He serves as a Director for the Abraham Lincoln Institute, the Abraham Lincoln Association, and the Lincoln Forum.