OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Patrick Rael

Portrait of Patrick Rael

A professor of history at Bowdoin College, Patrick Rael is a specialist in African American history. His most recent book, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865 (2015), was a finalist for the Harriet Tubman Prize, awarded by the New York Library’s Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His other works include Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (2002), African American Activism before the Civil War: The Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North (2008), and Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature (2001). He has written extensively about teaching, has contributed to the development of African American history curricula, and for over a decade has led seminars and workshops on teaching American history in primary and secondary schools.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

In Southampton County, Virginia in August 1831, an enslaved African American led one of the bloodiest slave rebellions in American history, slaughtering some five dozen whites, children and women included. Local militia quickly responded, in the process executing or punishing hundreds of African Americans, many completely unconnected to the rebellion. Most of what we know about the rebellion comes from the “confession” Turner narrated to Thomas Gray, a slaveholding attorney in the county who published the document in an effort to satisfy widespread curiosity. Generations have wrestled with this complicated work. Some have found in it nothing more than a violent religious fanatic, others a prototypical black nationalist. Rael will explore the Turner rebellion in history and in memory: What was Turner’s intent, and how did it fit with other instances of slave rebellion in the Atlantic world? Why did he save himself, and why relate his story? Rael will offer a new interpretation of the Turner’s purpose, and assess the significance of the rebellion for the national argument over slavery then underway. Ultimately, he argues, one of the least overtly “political” of all slave rebellions had political consequences that led to the breakdown of the union, and the civil war that set African Americans free.
Why did it take so long to end slavery in the United States, and what did it mean that the nation existed eighty-eight years as a “house divided against itself,” as Abraham Lincoln put it? The decline of slavery throughout the Atlantic world was a protracted affair, but no other nation endured anything like the United States. Here the process took from 1777, when Vermont wrote slavery out of its state constitution, to 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery nationwide. In this talk, Rael shows how African Americans played the central role in ending slavery in the United States. Fueled by new Revolutionary ideals of self-rule and universal equality—and on their own or alongside abolitionists—both slaves and free blacks slowly turned American opinion against the slave interests in the South. Secession followed, and then began the national bloodbath that would demand slavery’s complete destruction.
This presentation explores the prospects for reconstructing the Union after the Civil War. In surveying various approaches to the problem of national reunification, it explores a question increasingly of concern to historians: did the war actually end in April of 1865?
This lecture uses one relatively discrete event in time -- the actions of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg -- to illustrate some ways that historians think of the past. With the audience, Prof. Rael works through the key primary documents that tell us what happened. Our collective investigation will suggest that while historians often seek to present seamless visions of the past, their real work lies in the work of interpreting the meaning of differences in primary accounts.
This talk was first presented at the 2016 Symposium for History Undergraduate Research. Rael explores the problems and nuggets of truth found in three big clichés about History: (1) We learn lessons from the past to avoid repeating mistakes; (2) History is written by the winners; and (3) History is lies agreed upon. While largely untrue, these aphorisms permit us to think critically about historians' roles in the conduct of constructive public discourse.