My research interests broadly include: the historical development of slavery, race and whiteness in North America; the American South; and the American Civil War (especially in an Atlantic context). In specific terms, I focus on the peculiar time and place of the Old South, a slave society presenting a distinctive set of racialised relationships by the 1850s.
My first monograph was a biography of the controversial North Carolinian abolitionist Hinton Rowan Helper (1829-1909), published in LSU's Southern Biography Series. Helper was author of The Impending Crisis of the South (1857), rivalled only by Uncle Tom's Cabin in its impact on the United States in the 1850s. He claimed to be a spokesman for lower-class white southerners and recorded in detail his concerns, offering a valuable window into their elusive world. After the Civil War, Helper became a notorious anti-black polemicist whose multi-faceted outlook of the 1850s collapsed into a shallow binary that literally divided the world into black and white, as whiteness overrode all other factors.
A second book, Race in the American South, looked more broadly across time and space in considering the significance of race and race relations within southern history (from 1607 to the present). This co-authored work, a Choice Outstanding Academic Title, charted the turbulent course of southern race relations from colonial origins to the maturation of plantation slavery in the nineteenth century, through the rise of a new racial order in the Jim Crow South, to the civil rights revolution of the twentieth century. It attempted to move beyond the binary, black-white dynamic, which has dominated southern historiography, by evaluating the different influences – including Native American, Spanish, French, Irish and Italian – that shaped the South.
A third monograph picks up questions and threads from the other two books to consider nonslaveholders in a wider context. The heterogeneous mixture of southern farmers, tenants, artisans and labourers, variously called poor white trash, crackers, or plain folk, have been vastly understudied by southern historians - this is the first comprehensive assessment since 1949. It provides an interpretation of the white lower classes and their relations with slaves and planters on the eve of the Civil War. This book is a work in progress, but several essays that I have published in recent years give an idea of the way it is developing, most notably "A Vagabond's Tale" (Journal of Southern History) and "John Calhoun's Conundrum" in a collection of essays that I co-edited Creating Citizenship in the Nineteenth-Century South. A further essay on "Southern Peace and Dissent" during the American Civil War is forthcoming in the Cambridge History of the American Civil War.
Current research projects:
I am also currently writing a book that explores Britain and the American Civil War in the first scholarly examination of the Manchester Union and Emancipation Society. This organisation was formed following an important meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on New Year’s Eve, 1862, that implored Abraham Lincoln to carry out his emancipation policy. In early 1863, Lincoln was under considerable pressure due to the Emancipation Proclamation, yet he felt it important to respond, writing a famous letter to the “Workingmen of Manchester.” The Union and Emancipation Society sought restoration of the American Union and the end of US slavery. It attracted national support, arguably leading the last major British abolitionist campaign (1863-1865) and making a crucial contribution in coordinating a particular British response to the American Civil War. For more see: http://www.alc.manchester.ac.uk/american-studies/research/projects/britain-and-the-american-civil-war/. This research has generated considerable media interest and has been featured in The Manchester Evening News, Radio Four (In Our Time and elsewhere), and on television, most recently in David Olusoga's Black and British: A Forgotten History.