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Processes of Spatialization in the Americas

Configurations and Narratives


Edited By Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez and Hannes Warnecke-Berger

Where do the Americas begin, and where do they end? What is the relationship between the spatial constructions of «area» and «continent»? How were the Americas imagined by different actors in different historical periods, and how were these imaginations – as continent, nation, region – guided by changing agendas and priorities? This interdisciplinary volume addresses competing and conflicting configurations and narratives of spatialization in the context of globalization processes from the 19th century to the present.

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Bordering through the Lens of Slavery and Abolition in the United States

Megan Maruschke

Bordering through the Lens of Slavery and Abolition in the United States

Abstract: Political geographers refer to historical research on Europe’s borderlands as informing the emergence of “the border,” a spatial strategy associated with the rise of territoriality and the nation-state since the mid-19th century. Research on North American borderlands in the 18th and 19th century, however, has not been taken up as readily by political geographers. This chapter discusses the implications of this gap and, referencing research on the “geopolitics of freedom,” considers the emergence side-by-side of spaces of slavery and spaces of emancipation in North America to be one avenue for understanding the development of bordering practices in the United States. Observing internal border production in the United States, a union made up of individual states, may be instructive for understanding the border’s functionality beyond delimiting state sovereignty. By looking at the boundaries of slavery, this chapter argues that bordering can be understood not only as a container of state sovereignty but also as a tool in processes of state territorialization.


On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress declared thirteen of the twenty-six British colonies in the Americas independent from the British Empire, which, following a war that consumed the major powers of the day—the French, Spanish, British empires, and many Native American nations—culminated in the creation of the United States of America, a confederated patchwork of states. The boundaries of the new American republic were defined in Versailles on September 3, 1783. According to Marie-Jeanne Rossignol, external border practices emerged as a strategy to begin to control United States (US) state space depicted in this treaty (see 3–24).

This chapter arises out of tensions in the historiography on US independence when read from a spatial turn perspective. Historians shift their spatial terminology when discussing an independent United States: the term “boundary” to describe the edge of an imperial claim quite abruptly becomes a “border” following independence. These authors are not concerned with understanding the emergence of the United States through a spatial lens but rather the birth of an independent nation.1 However, my own research concerns itself with processes ←175 | 176→of respatialization in the Americas at the time of the Atlantic revolutionary cycle (1770s–1830s) (for Atlantic Revolutions, see Palmer and Godechot; for recent approaches, see Albertone and de Francesco; Geggus; Klooster); this research is a synthesis and therefore relies on secondary literature. The question is whether to read the shift in terminology from “boundary” to “border” as a term used by contemporaries to refer to a new spatial format guiding the organization of societies post-independence. Rather, I suspect that this shift has to do with historians retroactively applying current ideas of how states are spatially organized—the border being a key component of contemporary state territoriality—onto the past when studying what is thought of as the emergence of today’s state system in the late 18th and early 19th century.

Spatial terminology in historiography is developed in conversation with categorizations and typologies derived from the social sciences. Likewise, geographers and political scientists have looked to history to inform their understanding of the emergence of contemporary states’ forms of spatial organization. For example, in opening a paper on borders, political geographer John Agnew cites historian Peter Sahlins’ well-known study, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees. In this work, Sahlins recounts centuries of activity along what had appeared to most historians to be a stable border between today’s Spain and France. Instead, Sahlins shows the active construction of boundary practices through to the Napoleonic period, including the “nationalization” of the boundary during the course of the French Revolution (c. 1789–1800). Sahlins begins his book by noting the importance of studying the emergence of this border: nation-states are characterized by territoriality—states’ “exclusive jurisdiction over a delimited territory; and the boundaries of territorial competence define the sovereignty of a state” (Sahlins 2–3). In geography and history disciplines, the nation-state, epitomized by post-revolutionary France, appears to be a specific spatial format, one that must be markedly different from standard understandings of empires out of which independent states in the Americas emerged. Borders are, therefore, an essential component of territoriality as they define the limits of state sovereignty. This state spatiality contrasts with ideal type empires defined by hierarchies, composite places, and buffer zones along which imperial control fades.

Another body of scholarship where tensions emerge between the western European and the North American contexts is the study of “borderlands.” Rarely are European borderlands brought together conceptually with those in America (an exception is Rossignol 5–6). The research on American borderlands, which I will discuss subsequently, seems divorced from the research on European borderlands that in historical narratives, in reference to political geography, are ←176 | 177→understood as the precursors to today’s borders. In contrast, in the case of North America, the boundaries between empires and the US “nation-state” would eventually be subsumed by a single state stretching from one coast to the other. Rather than harden over the course of the 19th century, the US western “border” at independence is constantly extended. Furthermore, external border creation between the United States and British Canada unfolded along a parallel, a practice not widely used in western Europe. Authorities faced difficulty in identifying US citizens from Canadian British subjects (Hatter). How do we, therefore, begin to understand American bordering and border-transcending experiences in light of research on Europe’s emerging “national” borders in the same period, which political geographers understand to be historical research on the border? That is, what do history and geography miss by not examining North American experiences with borders in the production of ideal types?

This chapter examines bordering in the early US republic through the lens of slavery and abolition. The goal is to question some narratives in history and political geography about the emergence of borders with nationalism that have focused largely on European experiences, keeping in mind Benedict Anderson’s reminder that independent “nations” emerged first in the Americas before being taken up as a model for organizing societies in Europe and thereafter in subsequent periods of decolonization (47–65). As such, border-making processes in Europe are entangled in the American experience, which remains underemphasized in geography and history disciplines. The geopolitics of US slavery has not been integrated into the literature on borders and/or borderlands in the broader American or European context. This chapter argues that understanding how slavery became a bounded institution in the Americas—examined here through the lens of the United States—should also inform the historicization of the border as a component of the contemporary nation-state. Doing so underpins the different social tensions in North America, in contrast to Europe, that led to the employment of what we now consider a similar form of spatial organization, the border, on both sides of the Atlantic during the 19th century. Incorporating the US context into the study of borders in political geography can emphasize how the emergence of borders in the 19th century are not only national but part of ongoing imperial practices that enforced social hierarchies, racial exclusion, and forced labor both between states and within them.

2Borderlands and the Geopolitics of Freedom

The Americas have been considered key in informing a shift in spatial thinking among European sovereigns, such that we cannot speak of an exclusively ←177 | 178→comparative framework for understanding the emergence of borders; rather, the development of new understandings of organizing societies in Europe were intertwined with the American experience. Until the early 19th century, the open and uncharted spaces of the Americas (even through the early 19th century, the American Northwest remained underexplored by Europeans) were key in this shift. In western Europe, kingdoms were bound together through personal loyalties, that is, through the control of subjects; such a system produced a patchwork geography made up of places and parishes that could not be clearly bounded. In North American claims, the dearth of subjects who could be tied to particular places led Europeans to focus on land holdings. Maps became the most legitimate form of visualizing space in the Americas, such that treaties from the early 18th century onwards nearly always involved the production of maps with delineated boundary lines to indicate areas of control (Miquelon). In contrast to islands (Gillis), continents allowed for frontiers, buffer zones, and borderlands to emerge, which simultaneously served as spaces to shield imperial powers from one another, as spaces between empires that allowed for trade and exchange, and as opportunities for expansion and conquest (for a comparative look at frontiers, see Mikesel; for borderlands versus frontiers, see Adelman and Aron).

This practice of demarcating boundaries on maps, based on developments in cartography, shifted European sovereigns’ perspectives on how to organize their claims in both Europe and the Americas (Branch). Jordan Branch argues that map making gained importance first in the Americas before itself becoming the key way to visualize kingdoms in Europe. As European leaders became accustomed to visualizing their polities on maps, delineated by clear boundaries, this practice became the norm. Therefore, imperial practices in the Americas developed over time, informing a shift towards imagining imperial space, in Europe and America, in increasingly territorial terms. Territoriality is therefore not only found in the nation-state; rather, historians argue that territoriality emerged as a strategy to manage national and imperial space during the 19th century (Maier; for an overview of research on territory and borders, see Rutz). Imperial experiences in the Americas were central to that development, yet this remains underemphasized in global history narratives that position the European nation-state that emerges in the 19th century as a model that is later implemented by post-colonial societies.

The literature on borderlands in western Europe shows that the production of borders was connected to delineating polities based on language and culture. France, for example, was depicted as a territorial unit with clear borders to the east and south from the end of the 16th century. But only by the late 17th and 18th century did this view shift towards removing internal fortifications and ←178 | 179→militarizing France’s “borders” (Branch 142–64). Despite imagining a clear line that defined France’s internal and external space, its borders with Spain and what became Germany were still not solved into the 19th and even the 20th century. In the late 19th century, both Germany and France sent surveyors to try to map the language boundary between German and French speakers, without finding much of a solution, as is well known (recently, Dunlop).

Laura di Fiore shows that this method of border production is representative of the western European experience. In one of the few works that conceptually brings together the usually detailed studies of individual borders, she demonstrates that historians of various European border regions note the complex entanglement of the production of borders from above with the actions of social actors from below. These processes resulted in producing borderlands rather than a border that contained national territory. Based on how processes of visualizing state space emerged in the Americas, we may assume that border production took on a different form where independent states emerged prior to those in Europe and nations defined by language and culture did not exist (Anderson 47–65). Surely, without concepts of culture, nation, and language guiding state boundaries, different processes were at play than those in Europe over the course of the 19th century.

The bordering of slavery that this chapter discusses does not refer to its existing boundaries. Slavery could be found in some northern states right up to the civil war, and Andrés Reséndez shows that “the other slavery” of Native Americans in the American West acquired from Mexico maintained slavery even through the early 20th century as it was less obvious and culturally more pervasive than chattel slavery (see also Kiser). Furthermore, maroon settlements, though more often associated with French Caribbean and Spanish American slavery, endured in the bayous of the US South, allowing de facto freedom (Schoolman 161). Nevertheless, the contrasting narratives and actions of slaves, free blacks, abolitionists, and slave-owners sought to control the geographical scope of slavery in the new republic, which affected patterns of internal migration and settlement of planters/slave-owners, fugitives, and free blacks. This illustrates the perspective that territorialization emerges in the 19th century as a strategy to regain control over certain “flows” (Middell). Furthermore, narrating boundaries put abolitionist and pro-slavery policies into action in certain places. These spatial practices—which emerged through law, policy, flight, kidnapping, petitions, etc.—served to extend or limit slavery’s reach.

Literature on the geopolitics of freedom may refer to the “borderlands” of slavery. This term in an American context takes on a different function than the European usage discussed above. Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron ←179 | 180→stress the difference between the American frontier, a space where geographical and cultural distinctions were not clearly delineated, and borderlands, the “contested boundaries between colonial domains” (816). Such a definition already differentiates the term and the practice from the European context, a point the authors themselves acknowledge. These borderlands and frontiers persisted in wake of the creation of an independent state in North America but declined around the world over the course of the 19th century as trade rivalries rather than territorial claims drove national and imperial competition (816). For contemporaries, experiences on the edge of empire could both be characterized by fluidity (and therefore liberty) and violence (Jacoby). Kathleen DuVal’s Independence Lost is a thoughtful illustration of North American life beyond imperial powers’ full reach. Some of this flexibility is captured in DuVal’s portrayal of native communities (see also Richter), and Jane Landers tells the story of life in free black towns in Spanish imperial backcountry. Much of this borderlands research focuses on the cultural aspects of these “in-between” spaces. It looks at the day to day lives of its inhabitants—often Native Americans and free blacks, but also white creoles. Borderlands, in this context, takes on a wider range of imaginations than what we seen in the use of the term in Europe.

Within this American perspective on borderlands is an even sharper contrast: the borderlands of race, slavery, and freedom. Prior to the wave of independence that swept across the Americas, slavery was practiced in each American empire. There was some degree of fluidity between slavery and freedom. Runaways who escaped to other empires could be granted freedom, as this practice contributed to instability in rival empires. Borderlands, then, were important spaces in lending slaves an outlet to freedom. Other possibilities to gain freedom included self-purchase and religious conversion (for a variety of systems, see Tannenbaum). Children born to slaves and a white parent (usually the father, the slave master) would also be free in colonies such as Haiti, which by the time of the Haitian and French revolutions hosted a sizable population of free blacks, many of whom were slaveholders themselves. Maroon communities developed throughout the Americas, including in the US West and South, namely Florida, and in the mountain communities between French Saint-Domingue and Spanish Santo Domingo. The connections maintained between maroons and slaves blurred the distinctions between slavery and freedom (Fick 61). These practices began to shift following the opening of spaces of emancipation with Pennsylvania’s Emancipation Act of March 1, 1780.

In line with DuVal’s notion of “independence lost,” scholars who focus on slavery in North America see American independence as a shift in slavery and the “geopolitics of freedom” (Wong; see also Troutman). The remainder of this ←180 | 181→chapter traces some of these works, which have emerged in the American context, to understand the creation of a specific geography of freedom. They often focus on the practices near the boundary between freedom and slavery: the Mason-Dixon line, a demarcation separating Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia (Virginia until 1863). The purpose of these studies is to show how the actions of African Americans themselves gave this line meaning; how they imagined and practiced spaces of emancipation; and through these practices were agents in their own freedom (Newman “Transformation” 60–106). In the following, the chapter unravels how certain practices and narratives gave the boundary a meaning that we can begin to interpret as bordering.

3Narrating the Borders of Freedom and Slavery

Like other decolonized states in the Americas, the United States struggled with how to manage slavery, a practice seemingly incompatible with the ideals of the modern republic. The United States emerged out of the revolutionary cycle that swept across the Atlantic world from the 1770s through the 1830s, which was connected to transatlantic discussions regarding the slave trade, slavery, and abolition. In the United States, by the early 1800s, about 20 percent of the population were slaves; only in South Carolina was there a black majority. In contrast, the Caribbean was constituted by eight or nine black slaves per white planter (Rossignol 122). In the United States, the institution of slavery was maintained in a piecemeal system; in Haiti (1804), whites remaining on the island were massacred and slavery was abolished; from the 1820s, slaves were emancipated in a piecemeal system throughout newly independent Spanish America, though native slavery proved resilient in Mexico and the southwestern US (Reséndez). Pennsylvania became the first state in the western hemisphere to enact the “free-soil” principle (Peabody),2 “the belief among enslaved people and their allies that certain geographies and territorial domains abetted black freedom claims,” through the Emancipation Act of March 1, 1780 (Newman “Lucky to be Born” 414). The southern border of Pennsylvania, the Mason-Dixon line, gave meaning to the boundaries of freedom and slavery following American independence.←181 | 182→

This line, however, emerged much earlier and had not previously been associated with the boundaries of slavery and freedom. Pennsylvania and its southern neighbor, Delaware, had a long history of territorial disputes—a story to do with inaccurate maps. As settlements further west increased, so did unrest as additional parties like Maryland and Virginia (today’s West Virginia) disputed claims, as well. War broke out in the 1730s, known as Cresap’s War; part of Pennsylvania had been invaded and occupied by other colonies. When he learned of the war, the king had a temporary boundary drawn between the colonies and later sent Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to survey this line between 1763 and 1767 as part of the resolution among the various parties. Their role was to establish a “permanent line” to divide the colonies (Mason qtd. in Spero 2). During this same period, another line was established: the proclamation line.

The proclamation line was planned following the treaty negotiations of the Seven Years’ War (Edelson). This line sought to set a boundary at the Appalachians, which would mark the furthest point of settlement for British North America, establishing a “middle ground” for Native American communities between the Spanish and the British (White). Native Americans would therefore provide a buffer between European imperial powers in North America. British officials had indicated a boundary for Pennsylvania, as well as other colonies. Some fortifications in the frontier zone—perceived by colonists as a militarized zone often in-between powers or on the fringes of settlements—were removed following the war’s conclusion. The new spatial framework that followed enforced boundaries rather than frontier zones, thus reducing the use of “internal” fortifications. However, settlers continued to perceive their location as a frontier. They demanded imperial fortifications and additional support, which were not granted. Seizing on instability, which itself emerged from the widening gap between how the British board of trade ordered American colonial space and the experiences of colonists, Virginia and Connecticut seized sections of Pennsylvania (for a detailed history, see Spero).The Mason-Dixon line was extended in 1779 as a resolution to these border incursions.

Following independence, as the United States sought to solidify its external borders with the British Empire to the north and the Spanish Empire to the west (see Rossignol 3–24), an internal boundary began to emerge. Several states such as Pennsylvania in 1780 and New Jersey in 1804 began the process of abolishing slavery through acts of emancipation. “Territories”3 that had since joined the ←182 | 183→union as states such as Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana followed suit. These states shared a commonality: they were located north of Pennsylvania’s state border. The Mason-Dixon line took on a new meaning as a symbol of the threshold to freedom. In his work on slavery and the Mason-Dixon line, Stanley Harrold describes the clashes between the “lower north” and the “border south.” These states pursued interstate diplomacy to deal with the fact that different legal structures made both slave ownership and abolition precarious in this region. As Harrold describes, conflict began along the Mason-Dixon line, which charged it with new meaning after 1780. The banks of the Ohio River faced conflict by the early 1800s as did the banks of the Mississippi River by the 1820s (Harrold 10). In 1808, congress banned the slave trade, increasing the economic value of slaves. As emancipation progressed in the north, many slaves from the southern border region were sold further south; slaves and free blacks in the border region fled northwards; and kidnappers prowled the lower north to capture free blacks to sell in the south. Harrold describes how a border region emerged out of these differing legal and economic systems that produced instability and violence.

But slaves, free blacks, and abolitionists, too, charged the line and Pennsylvania’s landscape with meaning. Along with the violence and devastation, the Mason-Dixon line became a symbol of the “free-soil” principle in Pennsylvania through their actions (Newman “Lucky to be Born”). Disregarding the technicalities of Pennsylvania’s Emancipation Act, which did not abolish slavery outright but liberated slaves gradually and did not apply to fugitives, free and enslaved blacks gave Pennsylvania and its borders a moral meaning. As Richard Newman (“Lucky to be Born”) argues, Pennsylvania was hardly the Eden slaves were looking for, but they also willfully misinterpreted the narrow protections offered through the Emancipation Act to expand the scope and scale of the act. Through their actions, they sought to extend and enhance the law’s protections. Slaves, even in the deep south, filed petitions and lawsuits for their freedom by claiming ties to the state. Escaped slaves made use of the free-soil principle to argue for their residency in Pennsylvania. Emancipated slaves in Pennsylvania as well as other states fought hard to maintain and expand legal protections from slavery and the scope of emancipation and abolition laws.

According to Manisha Sinha, freedom petitions were part of a critical engagement of blacks, free and enslaved, with revolutionary ideology; their engagement sought to challenge the omnipresent and persistent threat of slavery to all blacks in America and, moreover, to secure black citizenship in the American republic (as opposed to colonization). Once free, former slaves sought to expand the scope of emancipation and to ensure through the court system that a free status once gained could not be revoked. Establishing the free-soil principle in Pennsylvania ←183 | 184→was key among these efforts to widen the freedoms promised by an independent America. The most striking example is Massachusetts, where two slaves sued for their freedom, which led the supreme judicial court of Massachusetts to abolish slavery in 1783. African Americans themselves were a central driving force behind the initiation and expansion of emancipation acts (Sinha). Their actions from independence onwards defined the acts’ scope and the boundaries of slavery.

The range of practices that began to define what some authors have called borderlands—referring to the violence and insecurity on both sides of the border—and what other authors have termed a border region or border/boundary—indicating the diverging legal structures that contrasted one “territory” from another “territory,”—sit uneasily with the aforementioned European literature on borderlands and the eventual production of borders as a strategy to deal with state space and define the limits of state sovereignty. To begin with, the borders of slavery were not produced exclusively at the state’s limits, although that surely becomes relevant if we extend the scope of this chapter to Canada or Haiti. Examining the boundaries of slavery and abolition in the 19th-century United States contributes to an understanding of the concept border by highlighting its use in internal demarcations of state space.

Therefore, observing internal border production in the United States, a union made up of individual states, may be instructive for understanding the border’s functionality beyond delimiting state sovereignty. Southern states sent diplomatic envoys to northern states to seek to pass legislation to return fugitives; when that strategy failed, the federal government finally stepped in with the fugitive slave act of 1850, which only increased tensions along the border region. Individual northern states had considered initiating war on individual southern states for their incursions and threats to state sovereignty. Therefore, in the history of border production and the rise of the nation-state, historians and geographers can also look at how subnational states and regions may have articulated their own sovereignty and legal regimes through the production of borders. This story appears to diverge from the European context where culture and language helped to define state borders. However, it does point to a common understanding that a variety of actors—such as abolitionist societies and slaves themselves—were involved in producing the border through their spatial imaginations and narrations of freedom.

4Mapping the Expansion of Slavery

The first part of this chapter discusses how intrinsic mapping and cartography were to rethinking concepts of political space and the eventual production of ←184 | 185→boundary lines as tools in demarcating areas of state control. These practices became especially important for depicting space in North America. Likewise, an expanding United States was triumphantly visualized cartographically from the days of the early republic; meanwhile, this expansion produced tensions regarding what adding new states to the union would mean for the institution of slavery. Though slaves were included in the US census, they were not represented cartographically until 1861, which we can read as a disinterest in including slaves in the national story of an expanding nation that unfolded in atlases and other popular visual representations.

Mapping first became relevant in America for colonists leading up to and following independence. Prior to the revolution, most news articles were either local or related to events taken from London’s newspapers. They referenced the metropole. But leading up to the revolution, newspapers began to depict events that occurred elsewhere in the colonies and provided maps of locations so that colonists could visualize where these events occurred (Parkinson, ch. 1). Following revolution, maps showed the development, and notably the spread, of the new nation and became increasingly important for making the state legible to statesmen (on making the state legible, see Scott). In pedagogy, too, maps allowed pupils to imagine their national affiliation and better retain information. One example is Emma Willard’s understanding of US history as a history that was both spatially and chronologically unfolding through the expansion of US territory (Schulten).

Along with mapping, census statistics became an increasingly salient way for the state to track its growth and measure local populations (Cohen). Fundamentally, statistics on population were used to measure proportional representation at the state and federal level of government following the compromise at the constitutional convention, which sought to balance the representation of states with fewer residents along with those with many residents through Article 1, Section 2 of the constitution. On top of this was the question of whether slaves, who were considered property after all, should be accounted for in states’ representation in congress. The agreed to 3/5 rule, whereby a slave was calculated as 3/5 a resident, opened the door to the statistical calculation of slaves in America. Slaves, therefore, were included from the first official census in 1790 onwards (Cohen 45, 48). As Susan Schulten notes in her monograph on history and cartography in 19th century America, these statistics on slave population density were used from the 1830s onwards by abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates to prove their respective cases. These statistics could be combined with other information to show that, for example, crime was higher in areas with more free blacks or, on the other hand, that northern states that had abolished slavery ←185 | 186→saw higher rates of education. Despite these attempts to manipulate statistics to objectively argue for or against slavery, slavery nationwide was not mapped until just before the Civil War (1861–1865). The US Coast Survey, a federal scientific agency, used data from the census of 1860 to render the distribution and density of slavery in the US South cartographically, the first such map to do so. The map was published in September 1861 and was used by President Abraham Lincoln to understand the extent of slavery and to coordinate the war effort, which would be a force towards emancipation (Schulten, ch. 4). This map illustrated where slavery was densest, and therefore, where slaveholders in the south would most dearly feel the emancipation of slaves.

Though slavery had not been depicted cartographically by the federal government until the 1860s, the geography of the new nation was very much based on questions of slavery. The emergence of new states into the union and new western territories had produced tensions over the issue of slavery. Topographical features such as rivers like the Mississippi and the Ohio had become for a short while natural boundaries for this “unnatural” institution when in 1804 congress needed to decide whether the Mississippi would indeed be a boundary for slavery or accommodate the wishes of the white settlers the United States acquired along with the Louisiana purchase (1803), a question that by 1805 was resolved by allowing certain regulations on slavery and the slave trade to lapse (Hammond). Internal boundary making of US slavery therefore upheld several centuries of European geographic tradition, whereby natural features such as mountain ranges and rivers served as boundaries. This coincided with the “manmade” lines like the Mason-Dixon line that were given meaning by the actions of slaves, abolitionists, and the reactions of slaveholders. In this case, boundaries served as signifiers in the struggle over slavery and emancipation.

But more than a signifier, as I argued in the previous section, bordering became an active territorialization strategy that allowed abolitionists and their sympathizers in congress to try to control the persistence and the spread of slavery. The literature on territorialization generally sees the border as an external demarcation of sovereignty while territorialization is characterized as the project/process by which society forms a more cohesive whole (the creation of institutions, implementing nationwide education, and the use of communications and transport technologies such as canals, railways, and roads) (Maier; Middell 163–66; for canals and territoriality, see Mukerji). However, internal bordering also became a practice of balancing state space. Abolitionists could use bordering as a negotiation tool to construct slavery as an institution that was not limitless but could be controlled. On the other side of the coin, slaveholders also sought to extend the practice beyond the south. As in the case of upper and lower French Louisiana ←186 | 187→residents, they played on old loyalties to other imperial powers to stoke fear into congress to allow slavery to continue unhindered; these residents required allowing slavery in exchange for joining the union willingly rather than requiring force. Resident groups threatened reunification with France—though it is hard to say if such reunification would have been probable let alone possible. As Francois Furstenberg shows, connecting the trans-Appalachian region to the American republic was a delicate project and meant that the divisions in the early republic ran east and west rather than north and south.

In the context of slavery, northern and southern politicians were divided on the terms and conditions of the acceptance of new territories as states. Americans created a pathway to statehood for newly acquired territories. This is a deviation from previous imperial hierarchies of loyalties and dependencies (DuVal 344); US “imperialism” did, however, rely extensively on expansion. While the thirteen original colonies played out negotiations over emancipation and abolition at the state level, the newly acquired territories required federal level negotiations on the make-up of each new territory and its future as a state, bringing the question of slavery to a national scale in each case. Slavery was only one problem as the diverse racial configurations of western territories, including Louisiana, threatened the white, national order (Frymer). In response, congress began to encourage migration from the original colonies to the newly acquired territories to increase national sentiment and ensure that the public understood the benefits the US state system could offer. But the question remained open whether slave-owners should be encouraged to settle there (Hammond). The ambiguity about the future of slavery in the region was a deciding factor for some slave-owners who were not willing to risk slave manumission.

Narrating the historical development of the new nation was closely tied to watching it expand. While mapping slavery was not a priority until just before the Civil War, the persistence of slavery evoked questions about the conditions for the expansion of the US territory to include additional states in the union, a process that was mapped with vigor. Bordering and accepting new subnational states, therefore, became a political act imposed from politicians at the federal level to try to control the spread of slavery. Internal bordering through the lens of slavery and abolition in the United States was integral to state territorialization, that is, a project of balancing national state space with slave states and free states. This internal bordering appears not only to diverge from external border production in Europe but also from internal demarcations arising out of, most notably, French departmentalization, which involved new boundaries between districts but simultaneously removed internal barriers to mobility and trade (Ozouf-Marignier).←187 | 188→


This chapter discussed how maintaining slavery alongside the emergence of abolition challenged existing patterns of spatial organization in North America. Recent literature from geography, history, and political science have shown how central imagining the Americas were to rethinking the spatial organization of European societies during the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. This shift could occur precisely because the social environment and physical geography of the Americas required different modes of visualizing imperial forms of power. Once again, in the early 19th century, in contrast to the production of national borders in western Europe, experiences in North Americas offer a different pathway to understanding the emergence of state spatiality in the late 18th and early 19th century. Slavery and abolition impacted practices of state territorialization so that borders began to emerge at the edges of the independent United States as well as between slave states and non-slave states. Slaves, abolitionists, and slave-owners were key actors in this process. They gave meaning to lines drawn on maps by their narrations of spaces of abolition, by their flight, by their violence, and by their legal appeals. In turn, politicians reacted to the results of these actions and sought to balance slavery and abolition in the young republic. I do not seek to examine this struggle to bound spaces of slavery and abolition in order to establish another US exceptionalism. Rather, as European societies in the 19th century struggled to redefine themselves nationally in a new age of empire, that is to establish nation-states in Europe while maintaining or gaining colonial holdings, they did so with knowledge of the US experience in managing state space.

While it is critical from a global history perspective to focus on the shift towards the emergence of territoriality in the mid to late 19th century focused on Europe and its empires, the period following independence in the United States does not point to a clear transition between imperial and nation-state spatial orders (Kumar) whereby the state is demarcated by external borders and an empire is characterized by buffer or boundary zones. Rather, incorporating these contingent border practices helps to demonstrate the instability of this transition as borders, boundaries, and frontiers simultaneously characterized imaginations and experiences of state spatiality (for the co-existence of frontiers and boundaries, see Sahlins). Bordering and “borderlands” research from the American hemispheric context should be taken as seriously as the western European case studies that explicitly or implicitly see borderlands as precursors to state borders. The practices in the Americas, shown in this chapter through the context of slavery in the United States, show how bordering allowed a variety ←188 | 189→of actors to control the boundaries of citizenship, human rights, and property rights (for human rights, see Hunt). This project was not driven by cultural and linguistic considerations as might be seen in the European context. Bounding slavery was key to both delimiting and expanding this institution; furthermore, rather than simply containing state sovereignty, bordering was a tool in state territorialization itself.


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1“Nation” is a term used by contemporaries. It was an evolving concept at the time. The US “founding fathers” used the term “nation” as well as “republic” and sometimes “empire” to describe the United States.

2The free-soil principle derives from British and French law, whereby slaves, once in the metropole, could gain their freedom. In practice, loopholes allowed slave owners from the colonies traveling with slaves to maintain their slaves even upon arrival in the metropole. Following independence, Haiti, too, enacted the free-soil principle and expanded its scope to include Haitian citizenship (see Ferrer).

3“Territories” in this sense does not refer to the concept territoriality. Rather, it was a status for US claims driven by settlers. Once “territories” reached a certain number of inhabitants, they could be granted statehood and receive proportional representation in congress.←192 | 193→