Today's edition of The Scholars Speak comes from one of our favorite historians and people - Jennifer Graber. She is the author of The Furnace of Afflication: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America and is currently writing a religious history of the Indian Wars of the mid and late nineteenth century. Below, she discusses how to integrate the history of prisons into the U.S. history survey. This is especially interesting to me, since we were just discussing Alexis de Tocqueville and his reflections on transportation changes in antebellum American in one of the primary selections in Major Problems. The Frenchman first journeyed to the U.S. not to study democracy - but to study prisons! How he got from one to the other is an amazing story, and the importance of prison reform is one of those fascinating elements we often overlook too often in the survey.
What got you first interested in prisons?
1) I was primarily interested in prisons. When I first entered graduate school, I thought I would focus on the post-Civil War era, when a big prison reform movement took off. But when I looked at the literature on prisons written by legal and institutional historians, I found very little reflection on the impact of Protestant reformers during the prison's formation in the early republic and antebellum periods. Historians mentioned that Quakers and other Protestant reformers were part of the prison's beginnings, but they did not specify how or why. I figured I couldn't understand the post-CW reform movement until I had explored the reformers involved several decades earlier.
How can we integrate the study of prisons into teaching the U.S. history survey? They seem to be completely absent.
2) You're right. Prisons have taken a back seat to coverage about economic and political issues, as well as slavery, in standard treatments of the era. But the prison is wrapped up in all three. Folks making arguments about economic conditions in American cities cited inmate populations as some of their primary evidence for economic problems. They associated urban poverty and economic depression with expanding prisons. Also, prisons were another site of heated disagreement between Whigs and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. In many states, reformers associated Whig politicians with milder prison disciplinary regimes and emerging Democratic coalitions with cruelty to inmates. And here, of course, is a tie to slavery. Slavery stood - at least for interested parties in North - as a kind of outer limit in debates about prison discipline. Folks who sought to abolish corporal punishment compared the warden's lash to the slavemaster's. Folks in the North simply could not have discussions about prison discipline without differentiating their plans and programs from practices on plantations.
When I think about how someone might integrate the story of the first American prisons into a unit on this period, I'd say make it a case study. One could focus on a few institutions, a few reformers, and a few politicians to show all the ways that massive changes in antebellum life (including economics, politics, and slavery mentioned above, but also immigration, revivalism, and urban labor) can be shown to influence the prison's development.
|Prison at Auburn, New York (c 1830)|
3) I would choose sources that show the ways that reformers imagined the prison to work and the ways inmates experienced it. To do that, I might choose a piece called "Sword of Justice, Wielded by Mercy," which was written by evangelical reformers at the Gospel Herald in New York. The authors wrote in the voice of an inmate and described a prison experience that prompted recognition of sin and movement toward salvation. They make prison sound tough, but worth it. I would contrast this piece with a narrative actually written by an inmate, such as Horace Lane's Five Year's In State's Prison, in which he reflected on his terms in prisons at Auburn and Sing Sing. Unlike the first piece, Lane details the spiritual depression that prison prompted. He writes of a desire to be saved that was crushed at every turn by staff violence.
Since we're such big fans of your first book, we were wondering what we could look forward to?
4) I'm working on a new book about religious transformations prompted by the violence and displacement of Indian wars on the western frontier.