Professor Ronald A. Johnson is the American Philosophical Society Fellow at IASH from June to August 2021. He is Ralph and Bessie Mae Lynn Chair of History at Baylor University in Texas.
My IASH project, “A Checkered History of Black Freedom & Atlantic Slavery,” traces the life and achievements of U.S. diplomat Edward Stevens across three Atlantic world regions from the 1750s to the 1830s to examine the role of peer groups and academic institutions on decision-making around the Atlantic slave trade.
Stevens grew up as a white, non-slaveholding inhabitant of the Danish West Indies, went to college in New York and Edinburgh, practiced medicine on St. Croix and in Philadelphia, and served as U.S. consul general to Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution. To this point in his life, he was a non-slaveholder and worked extraordinarily closely with the revolutionary Black administration of Toussaint Louverture. Upon Stevens’s return to St. Croix, at the age of 48, he acquired several estates and enslaved Black residents of the island till his death there three decades later. Historians have produced one biography (Stacey Day, Edward Stevens, 1969) and made references to Stevens in other works (Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 2004) to highlight primarily Philadelphia’s Yellow Fever epidemic and Alexander Hamilton’s childhood.
My IASH research supports a current book project, Shades of Color: Racialized Diplomacy and the Haitian Diaspora in Early America, which will feature Edward Stevens’s professional engagements with free Black people and his later embrace of slavery. The study seeks to employ the history of Stevens as a lens through which to analyze the complexities around emancipation and enslavement in the Atlantic world. I hope to show that the enslavement of Black people and the abolition of culturally and legally sanctioned human bondage stemmed, at some level, from personal decisions based upon influences of family expectations, geographical ideologies, peer groupings, and individual ambitions.