Honor Sachs is Assistant Professor of History at Western Carolina University. This interview is based on her new book, Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier (Yale University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Home Rule?
HS: I went to grad school planning to study women and migration into the Deep South during the nineteenth century. But when I got to Wisconsin, everybody was talking about The Middle Ground and my interest in the West began to shift to an earlier time period. As I started poking around, it seemed like all roads led to Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley. The eighteenth-century backcountry was having a historiographic “moment” but, for the most part, it was a scholarship of men – of land speculators, lawyers, hunters, soldiers, and statesmen. The experiences of women in early national expansion were largely invisible. One of the most important things that my advisor, the late Jeanne Boydston, taught me was to look critically at these places of invisibility. She taught me to question things that seemed natural or organic and to understand how they got that way. I wrote Home Rule as a way to figure out how manhood became naturalized into the early western landscape.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Home Rule?
HS: I can even do that in two words: Families matter. Or, perhaps: Patriarchy matters. In the eighteenth century, it is hard to differentiate between the two.
In two sentences? Home Rule argues that myths of western bounty, prosperity, and self-sufficiency emerged against a backdrop of political instability, social unrest, and economic hardship. In the volatile context of early national expansion, political leaders achieved regional stability by incorporating ordinary men into a political culture that celebrated household order, patriarchal authority, and white supremacy.
JF: Why do we need to read Home Rule?
HS: Historiographically, Home Rule sheds new light on the experiences of ordinary women, slaves, children, and other marginalized populations in the early West and shows how gender and manhood became central to the project of national expansion. In a larger sense, I also think this book can help us better understand the present. Throughout my lifetime, I have watched the ways that ideas and myths about families and households have infused American politics. From the “family values” politics of the 1980s to current debates about same-sex marriage, our nation has placed debates about family structure and legitimacy at the heart of an ongoing conversation about national identity. Home Rule explains how such debates have been part of the American experience since the very beginning.
JF: When and why did you decide to become a historian?
HS: Arguably, I have been a historian since I was ten. In fifth grade, my class took a trip to Washington D.C. (which was quite a feat coming from California!) and one of our stops was at the National Archives. I distinctly remember being mesmerized by the Declaration of Independence. It was this sacred text that we learned about in school, but when I saw it in person, I realized it was really just piece of paper. Real people wrote on that paper with real ink. Something about seeing an actual document gave me such a strong sense of connection with the past; it collapsed time. Real people before me did normal things like write stuff down on paper, just like I did in school. Something about seeing an actual document changed me. I appreciated the past on an emotional level, and when I thought about all the people who lived before me, I never felt alone. That was comforting. By the time I got to college, I had decided to go into journalism and study politics, but I always felt like something was lacking and wanted to understand the deeper roots of modern issues. I turned to history and began studying personal narratives. Again, I felt that same experience of emotional connection that I had when I was a kid. At that point, it became very clear that I had found my calling.
JF: What is your next project?
HS: I am currently writing a collective biography of a Virginia slave family. This family, named the Colemans, descended from an Apalachee Indian woman who was captured during the English raids on Spanish Florida in 1704. In 1772, some members of the Coleman family sued for freedom in Virginia claiming Indian ancestry and won. It was the first case to link maternal Indian ancestry with freedom and it ushered in a new wave of slave litigation in revolutionary and early national Virginia. For several generations, the Colemans sued for freedom in multiple Virginia jurisdictions, and they continued to do so even as they were bought, sold, and transported across state lines into Kentucky and Tennessee. Over the course of fifty years, Coleman plaintiffs became savvy about the law and worked with some of the new nation’s top lawyers, including Thomson Mason, Henry Clay, and John Marshall. Many of the Coleman suits are well known to historians of race and slavery, but until now, nobody has ever uncovered the family connections between them. Through careful genealogical research, I have been able to link Coleman plaintiffs to some of the most significant litigation on slavery and race in the early republic. Ultimately, the book will examine issues of race, slavery, family, ancestry, and law, throughout the eighteenth century and antebellum America.
JF: Thanks, Honor!