Sebastian Page is a historian of the 19th century United States and the Atlantic world. This interview is based on his new book, Black Resettlement and the American Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2021). For those who wish to purchase Page’s book, the code PAGE2021 will give customers 20% off from Cambridge University Press.
JF: What led you to write Black Resettlement?
SP: As an undergraduate at the University of Oxford, I wondered what primary sources might be close to hand for an original thesis on U.S. history. My advisor told me that the library had just bought microfilm copies of the records of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which I consulted to write about its activity during the Civil War. For my doctoral project, I intended to do nothing more than keep going through those microfilms to study the colonization movement’s antebellum revival. That all changed when Phillip Magness, a peer unconvinced by the then-dominant account of the supposedly ephemeral nature of Abraham Lincoln’s involvement in colonization, contacted me to suggest checking the holdings of the British National Archives on Belize. That research became our Colonization after Emancipation (University of Missouri Press, 2011)—and its implication, that I should investigate locations and organizations other than Liberia and the ACS, sounded a clarion call for many years’ more work.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Resettlement?
SP: From the Revolution through the Civil War, white Americans deluded themselves that they need not integrate black compatriots bound to migrate to some distant land. Such separatist thinking encompassed more than the program they called “colonization,” and more destinations than the best-known Liberia, Haiti, and Canada.
JF: Why do we need to read Black Resettlement?
SP: To redress the complacency of half a century of scholarship that, in its admirable (but misguided) attempt to co-opt the memory of the Civil War to a vindication of the modern civil rights movement, has downplayed the equal pedigree of the expulsive impetus. In recent years, the latter has re-emerged as “self-deportation” (the idea that the state can press certain immigrant groups to leave, short of full-blown coercion), and as the chants of “send her back” that President Trump’s supporters directed at four congresswomen of color, three of whom were born in the United States.
You should also read Black Resettlement to appreciate how you cannot separate the history of the United States from that of the world in which it found itself—even at the state level, and even for the nineteenth century, the last redoubt of the “nationalist” paradigm. But above all, read Black Resettlement to help me put a stake through the heart of the most damaging myth to stalk our discipline: that “all the original research has been done,” and that producing new scholarship is a mere matter of offering a fresh angle on previously known facts.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
SP: In that I am a Briton with no familial connection to America, and who had never even visited the United States until I was twenty-five, that is an excellent question. When I was fourteen, a teacher who did have American kin introduced us to the Civil War, which fascinated me—though looked likely to remain a point of purely personal interest, since I had no further opportunity to study American history until my second year at university. Even then, I drew a bad place in the ballot for Oxford’s course on the American Revolution, and was set to specialize in nineteenth-century Europe instead, when one of the successful applicants for the former withdrew, freeing up a space. (I then changed two of my other options, to extend my newfound focus on U.S. history through the Civil War.) Great oaks from contingent acorns grow!
JF: What is your next project?
SP: I have already done much research on an incongruous “spinoff” project: the self-exile of former Confederates after the Civil War. But I am researching it in the narrow sense of identifying and photographing archival material, then handing it over to other U.K.-based Americanists, who are free to make of it what they will. That allows me to devote most of my time to the topic I have always wanted to research: the end of capital punishment in Britain.
JF: Thanks, Sebastian!