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Uncommon Sense

By Martha Howard · January 28, 2015

A conversation with OI Fellow Paul Polgar

fellowships 7 min read

We sat down with Paul Polgar, Omohundro Institute-NEH Fellow 2013-2015, earlier this month for a quick interview. 

What are you working on now? 

I spent a lot of fall semester compiling a database of New York and Philadelphia’s abolition societies’ cases and now I am working with that material.

These are cases brought to the societies by individual African Americans, claiming illegal enslavement for various reasons because there are a host of laws in many early states, especially New York and Pennsylvania, which limit slaveholders’ rights on the one hand and expand slaves’ rights on the other. They are passed at the same time as the Gradual Emancipation Statutes.

For example, if you’re in Pennsylvania and you’re an African American, after a certain date in 1780, if you’re not registered as a slave within six months you are actually free. In New York, for example, in 1785, you can’t import slaves.

Abolition societies took these cases on behalf of African American individuals who realized, who knew, they had been illegally held and they confronted the slave owners on their behalves. There are hundreds, even thousands, of these cases and because they are legal proceedings we have the minutes of specific cases and how they were heard.

As an historian I just find it captivating to read these narratives—even if often heartbreaking. There’s a riveting human story there. 

That does sound riveting—and like a lot of data: how are you approaching it?

I have looked at over ten years of these records and compiled 520 cases. Now, I am working on breaking the various cases down by success rate and type of case in an effort to expand our notion of emancipation in this period.

The ten years I am studying now will go into one chapter of my manuscript. I am forcing myself to stop after research on this particular period is done and then come back to the rest later, after this [manuscript] revision is done.

Eventually, I am planning to turn this into a much larger project, go into 50 or 60 years, and apply the methodology to a longer period.

What have you concluded so far?

Not all emancipation was gradual—some was immediate—and that any rigid conservatism we might usually associate with the abolition societies in that period is not correct. They were less paternalistic and racist than we might have been led to believe.

What made you question the general assumptions about early abolitionist efforts? 

Just as I was starting my Master’s degree (at George Mason University), I read Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers. There was this chapter about the first congressional debates over slavery and I was fascinated because, of course, as an undergrad I’d been taught that slavery becomes an issue no earlier than the 1830s and that when it becomes an issue there is the immense amount of racial prejudice that hasn’t been challenged before.

Then, as part of my M.A. studies I took a course in public history that was affiliated with the First Federal Congressional project ( ) at [The] George Washington University and the work I did there further complicated my early understanding.

The class centered on a public opinion project so I started looking at newspapers from that period. The coverage of the debates over slavery and the slave trade in those papers made strident racially egalitarian claims: African Americans were seen as just as capable as white Americans but lacking the opportunities and resources accorded them. That shocked me to see that and so I decided to pursue it further.

I started to read books and articles on abolitionism and what I found was that the challenge of this early abolition movement to racial norms was quite progressive, quite strident in its belief of equal ability of African Americans. Moreover, I found that this aspect of the movement wasn’t really covered in more recent work and so I decided to work on that.

What do you want to accomplish as an OI Fellow?

Of course, a former fellow here and someone I certainly emulate, Winthrop Jordan, was one of the first to discover the activism that I am talking about. He was writing just as the civil rights movement was taking off and since then the way we look at these groups has shifted. I am excited to have a chance to extend his argument and research and take what I hope is a new look at some under examined material.



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