Research Programs: Fellowships for College Teachers and Independent Scholars

Period of Performance

1/1/2011 - 12/31/2011

Funding Totals

$50,400.00 (approved)
$50,400.00 (awarded)

A Colored Man's Constitution: Emancipation and the Act of Writing

FAIN: FB-54966-10

Christopher Hager
Trinity College (Hartford, CT 06106-3100)

My project examines the writings of marginally literate former slaves during the era of emancipation. It investigates how the acquisition and practice of written literacy shaped African Americans' self-conception during their transition from slavery to freedom. I analyze manuscript writings by ordinary African Americans during and shortly after the Civil War (many of which I identified through the NEH-funded Freedmen and Southern Society Project). These sources, though known to historians, have not been considered as literary texts. My book manuscript (a new project undertaken since my doctoral dissertation) introduces readers to this largely neglected moment in the history of African American writing and argues that, whereas Frederick Douglass's famous narrative associates literacy with an individualistic conception of freedom, ordinary African Americans' struggles to write led them to imagine freedom as a collective responsibility.

Associated Products

Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing (Book)
Title: Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing
Author: Christopher Hager
Abstract: One of the cruelest abuses of slavery in America was that slaves were forbidden to read and write. Consigned to illiteracy, they left no records of their thoughts and feelings apart from the few exceptional narratives of Frederick Douglass and others who escaped to the North—or so we have long believed. But as Christopher Hager reveals, a few enslaved African Americans managed to become literate in spite of all prohibitions, and during the halting years of emancipation, thousands more seized the chance to learn. The letters and diaries of these novice writers, unpolished and hesitant yet rich with voice, show ordinary black men and women across the South using pen and paper to make sense of their experiences. Through an unprecedented gathering of these forgotten writings—from letters by individuals sold away from their families, to petitions from freedmen in the army to their new leaders, to a New Orleans man’s transcription of the Constitution—Word by Word rewrites the history of emancipation. The idiosyncrasies of these untutored authors, Hager argues, reveal the enormous difficulty of straddling the border between slave and free. These unusual texts, composed by people with a unique perspective on the written word, force us to rethink the relationship between literacy and freedom. For African Americans at the end of slavery, learning to write could be liberating and empowering, but putting their hard-won skill to use often proved arduous and daunting—a portent of the tenuousness of the freedom to come.
Year: 2013
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: Worldcat listing
Secondary URL:
Secondary URL Description: publisher's catalog listing
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: 9780674059863


Frederick Douglass Book Prize
Date: 10/14/2014
Organization: Gilder Lehrman Center, Yale University
Abstract: The Douglass Prize was created jointly by Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. It is awarded annually by Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the best book written in English on slavery or abolition. $25,000 prize-

“if we Ever Expect to be a Pepple: the Epistolary Culture of African American Soldiers” (Book Section)
Title: “if we Ever Expect to be a Pepple: the Epistolary Culture of African American Soldiers”
Author: Christopher Hager
Editor: Timothy Sweet
Abstract: Addressing texts produced by writers who lived through the Civil War and wrote about it before the end of Reconstruction, this collection explores the literary cultures of that unsettled moment when memory of the war had yet to be overwritten by later impulses of reunion, reconciliation, or Lost Cause revisionism. The Civil War reshaped existing literary cultures or enabled new ones. Ensembles of discourses, conventions, and practices, these cultures offered fresh ways of engaging a host of givens about American character and values that the war called into question. The volume's contributors look at how literary cultures of the 1860s and 1870s engaged concepts of nation, violence, liberty, citizenship, community, and identity. At the same time, the essayists analyze the cultures themselves, which included Euroamerican and African American vernacular oral, manuscript (journals and letters), and print (newspapers, magazines, or books) cultures; overlapping discourses of politics, protest, domesticity, and sentiment; unsettled literary nationalism and emergent literary regionalism; and vernacular and elite aesthetic traditions.
Year: 2016
Primary URL: http://
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
Book Title: Literary Cultures of the Civil War
ISBN: 9-780-8203-496

“Everyday Literary Culture in the Nineteenth Century” (Book Section)
Title: “Everyday Literary Culture in the Nineteenth Century”
Author: Beth Barton Schweiger
Author: Christopher Hager
Editor: Harilaos Stecopoulos
Abstract: This essay surveys the literate culture of the antebellum and Civil War eras among marginal southerners – African Americans, both free and enslaved, and poor and middle-class whites – and explores examples of the ways reading and writing, though quite distinct in formal pedagogies, blended together in the literary lives of the self-educated. Focused especially on Basil Armstrong Thomasson, a yeoman farmer in North Carolina whose diary records his reading practices as well as original verse, and John M. Washington, a Virginia man who kept a diary while enslaved, the essay presents a study in the surprising complexity and variegation of the textual landscape such people inhabited and helped create. It also discusses the scarcer archival traces of the literacy practices of ordinary southern women.
Year: 2021
Primary URL:
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Book Title: A History of the Literature of the U.S. South
ISBN: 9781108666657

"A Colored Man’s Constitution" (Blog Post)
Title: "A Colored Man’s Constitution"
Author: Christopher Hager
Abstract: A rare glimpse into the mind of a former slave living through the Civil War, who reimagined the Constitution from an African-American perspective.
Date: 08/30/2013
Primary URL:
Blog Title: Disunion
Website: New York Times

"In the Wake of Emancipation" (Blog Post)
Title: "In the Wake of Emancipation"
Author: Christopher Hager
Abstract: Across the South, as the tide of emancipation rose, African Americans were finding that the authority of slave owners was being replaced by the authority of the United States government — military officers, politicians, agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau. White northerners did not always have freed people’s best interests at heart, to be sure, but they were at least supposed to take those interests seriously. So, from the pens of former slaves, whom many white people had presumed were illiterate, came reams of written grievances.
Date: 02/23/2013
Primary URL:
Blog Title: Disunion
Website: New York Times

“The Freedman and the Politician: Emancipation and the Letters of Garland H. White” (Article)
Title: “The Freedman and the Politician: Emancipation and the Letters of Garland H. White”
Author: Christopher Hager
Abstract: Overview of the life and letters of Garland H. White, who escaped from slavery and became a recruiter and chaplain for a Black army regiment during the Civil War
Year: 2010
Format: Magazine
Periodical Title: Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History
Publisher: Indiana Historical Society

"Writing Tools" (Book Section)
Title: "Writing Tools"
Author: Christopher Hager
Editor: Kym Rice
Editor: Martha Katz-Hyman
Abstract: Encyclopedia entry on enslaved people's writing practices
Year: 2010
Primary URL:
Publisher: Greenwood / ABC-CLIO
Book Title: The World of a Slave: Encyclopedia of Material Life of Slaves in the United States
ISBN: 978-0-313-3494

"Emancipation and the Act of Writing" (Public Lecture or Presentation)
Title: "Emancipation and the Act of Writing"
Abstract: John and Francie Pepper Freedom Lectures (speaker series also featuring Eric Foner and Marilynne Robinson), National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Author: Christopher Hager
Date: 01/13/2016
Location: Cincinnati, OH

"Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing" (Public Lecture or Presentation)
Title: "Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing"
Abstract: book talk, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
Author: Christopher Hager
Date: 09/11/2013
Location: Hartford, CT

"Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing" (Public Lecture or Presentation)
Title: "Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing"
Abstract: Black History Month Celebration lecture, Manchester Community College
Author: Christopher Hager
Date: 02/13/2019
Location: Manchester, CT