12/18/2014 Kate Carlisle

NEH Grant Supports Professor's Book on Role of African-American Voters Prior to Civil War

If any myths need exploding -- or at least, further exploration -- in American history, one of the most persistent is the idea that black Americans have only recently been participants in the political process.

Associate Professor of History Van Gosse intends to address that misconception in a book he is writing while on sabbatical this year, supported by a National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) grant announced in December.

"My work challenges most of the existing narratives of American politics between the Revolution and the Civil War," Gosse said. "I feel emboldened to make the case that free African Americans were a significant force in the North's electoral and party politics -- that their citizenship both mattered and was contested, as it still is today."

Coincidentally timed with the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Gosse's book, "We Are Americans: The Origins of Black Politics 1790-1860," will explore the electoral and partisan politics of free men of color from the Revolution to the Civil War. Gosse is especially interested in their participation as voters in key northern states, including Pennsylvania, prior to their disenfranchisement in 1838.

"There is an idea that black men -- and it was only men, of course, at that time -- never voted in elections. But in fact they did, and in significant numbers," Gosse said. "We see this particularly in parts of Pennsylvania, including Lancaster and York counties."

Despite the fact that free black men could vote in 10 of the original 13 colonies, few historians have examined how these men entered into the party systems of the early republic as voters and partisan activists -- let alone their central role in antislavery politics in the pre-Civil War decades, Gosse argues.

His book will show that African-Americans had a small but visible presence in many northern (and, until the 1830s, two southern) states, and that electoral politics was a main cause of their subsequent disenfranchisement in many states.

Gosse's grant of $29,400 was part of a $17.9 million bundle of NEH grants announced Dec. 8.

"I deeply appreciate the support from the Office of College Grants in applying for this grant," Gosse said. "The financial assistance for my sabbatical leave is a big help. Even more important is the endorsement for my work."

Research on African-American politics is a departure for Gosse, who has previously published on the politics of the New Left. In addition to his scholarship and teaching, Gosse blogs for The Huffington Post and is a manager for the Radical History Review.

Created in 1965, the NEH supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. 
  • Van Gosse Van Gosse Image Credit: College Communications
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