African Americans in the Early Republic, 1789-1831. By Donald R. Wright. (Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson Inc., 1993. 252 pp., index, biblio. essay, no notes, paper).
This thoughtful book, the sequel to Wright’s African Americans in the Colonial Era, is part of the American History Series edited by John Hope Franklin and Abraham S. Eisenstadt. It is an excellent survey of the lives and thoughts of blacks during the first four decades of this nation’s existence.
Donald Wright’s extensive knowledge of the historical literature concerning this subject, combined with his crisp prose and knack for organization, make African Americans in the Early Republic not only useful, but a joy to read. Wright looks especially closely at what he terms “a second forced migration,” the varying nature of slave life, slave revolts and slave resistance, the life of free blacks, and the Early Republic’s mix of racism, colonizationism, and abolitionism.
Although not a product of extensive primary research, Wright’s contribution could still be termed original because he condenses, analyzes, and synthesizes a wide variety of secondary works into a highly readable, accessible form. Undergraduates and general readers looking for a brief, yet accurate and able description of both African American history, and African American historiography, will benefit most from this book. By using a number of well-placed firsthand accounts, especially those of Charles Ball, Wright’s account is neither pedantic nor filled with meaningless over-generalization.
Researchers may find the complete lack of citations annoying, especially when Wright discusses African epidemiology and other less known facets of African American life in the Early Republic. Graduate students and established historians in other areas of specialization can benefit from Wright’s lucid historiographical analyses, which cover most of the major works of the last twenty-five years. Unfortunately, Norrece Jones’ provocative Born a Child of Freedom, Yet a Slave (1990) is not discussed. Even established historians in this field may benefit from Wright’s careful balancing between conflicting historiographical interpretations and his own sense of the past.
Aside from the lack of footnotes, and a few potentially controversial statements impossible to eradicate from a book dealing with race, Wright’s African Americans in the Early Republic should find its way onto the bookshelves of many students and scholars.———Robert E. Wright