After passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, American citizens and elected officials alike debated the states’ obligations to enforce prohibition — much like the current day debates over state legalization of marijuana. Rather than understood as an individual rights question, America’s “noble experiment” with prohibition was debated almost entirely on federalism grounds. This presentation, “‘Secession’ and ‘Nullification’ in Prohibition America,” will look to these debates about prohibition to argue that “states’ rights” and federalism arguments were, rather than primarily associated with southern racial conservatism, instead mostly used by northeasterners between the Civil War and New Deal. Some state officials argued that states retained sovereignty and could abstain — they would not obstruct federal enforcement, but they were not bound by it either. Others, even some who had opposed its ratification, argued that the amendment modified the otherwise basic presumption of state authority and instead created an obligation, and thus efforts to ignore prohibition were commonly opposed as “nullification” and occasionally even “secession” — by New York and Massachusetts, not Mississippi or Texas.
My dissertation, “Felonious Transactions: Legal Culture and Business Practices of Slave Economies in South Carolina, 1787-1860” presents a broader narrative of enslaved peoples’ participation in the American marketplace. By focusing on South Carolina, arguably the state most dedicated to preserving slavery as an economic institution, my dissertation recovers the history of enslaved peoples’ independent participation in trade by interrogating how legal traditions and economic change influenced slaves’ moneymaking strategies. I argue that as enslaved people gained the locally recognized right to make money and buy goods for themselves, slavery as a system became more exploitative. The experiences of enslaved African Americans in local courts and marketplaces reveal that as slaves took advantage of customary rights to engage independently in trade, their dedication to earning and spending money ultimately supported South Carolina’s slaveholding regime.
My dissertation prospectus, “Views from the Midwest: Rural Communities, Law, and Nation, 1910-70,” takes twentieth century rural communities as a unique site for inquiry in an effort to make “the rural” legible in new ways to historians as well as legal scholars. The traditional narrative of 20th-century rural American largely focuses on national and urban efforts to “modernize” rural communities, beginning with the Country Life Commission in 1908. Yet, the top down political approach traditionally taken on this topic has left us with very little knowledge about life on the ground in rural communities during the 20th century and even less knowledge about how rural communities governed themselves. My dissertation will ask what was the experience of living in and maintaining a rural community in an urbanizing and urbanized America? My talk will highlight the fruits of my recent archival work on the Resettlement Administration’s efforts to construct new rural communities from whole cloth during the 1930s, and discuss how my investigation into federal involvement in local community construction has reoriented the concerns of my dissertation research.