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Annette Gordon-Reed

  • ‘Sedition’: A Complicated History

    January 8, 2021

    As a shocked nation reacted to the storming of the United States Capitol on Wednesday by a pro-Trump mob trying to disrupt the certification of the presidential election, one word describing the chaos quickly rose to the top. “It borders on sedition,” President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in his remarks to the nation. “This is sedition,” the National Association of Manufacturers said in a statement that accused President Trump of having “incited violence in an attempt to retain power.” ... The Alien and Sedition Acts, passed by the Adams administration in 1798, were intended to clamp down on the political enemies of the Federalists, Adams’s party, and weaken Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. The broader backdrop was a brewing conflict with post-Revolutionary France, and Federalists’ belief that Democratic-Republican criticism of their policies undermined national stability, and their fear that foreigners and immigrants, who leaned Democratic-Republican, would support France in a war. Under the law, journalists who criticized the administration were thrown in jail, immigrant voting rights were tightened and foreigners deemed “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” could be deported. “That took place in the context of an infant republic that was unsure of its place in the world,” Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law at Harvard, said. “This was all new: How do you protest? What effect does protesting have on government?” But “we’ve had almost 250 years now,” she continued. “We know the mechanisms for legitimate criticism, and they do not involve sabotaging the operations of government when those operations have been arrived at by lawful means.”

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    ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for change’

    November 19, 2020

    HLS faculty on COVID-19 and the pressing questions of racism, racial injustice, and abuse of power that have driven this difficult year—and that are the focus of three new lecture series at the school.

  • Alexander Hamilton, Enslaver? New Research Says Yes

    November 10, 2020

    The question has lingered around the edges of the pop-culture ascendancy of Alexander Hamilton: Did the 10-dollar founding father, celebrated in the musical “Hamilton” as a “revolutionary manumission abolitionist,” actually own slaves? Some biographers have gingerly addressed the matter over the years, often in footnotes or passing references. But a new research paper released by the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany, N.Y., offers the most ringing case yet. In the paper, titled “‘As Odious and Immoral a Thing’: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver,” Jessie Serfilippi, a historical interpreter at the mansion, examines letters, account books and other documents. Her conclusion — about Hamilton, and what she suggests is wishful thinking on the part of many of his modern-day admirers — is blunt...The evidence cited in the paper, which was quietly published online last month, is not entirely new. But Ms. Serfilippi’s forceful case has caught the eye of historians, particularly those who have questioned what they see as his inflated antislavery credentials. Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law at Harvard and the author of “The Hemingses of Monticello,” called the paper “fascinating” and the argument plausible. “It just shows that the founders were nearly all implicated in slavery in some way,” she said.

  • Black Lives Matter march

    Expansive racial justice movements ‘make other worlds possible’

    September 30, 2020

    “Racial Equality?,” a new year-long lecture series organized by Professors Randall Kennedy and Annette Gordon-Reed ’84, aims to address some of these acute issues with a wider lens that investigates both the paths to—and potential manifestations of—racial equality.

  • Annette Gordon-Reed named University Professor

    July 29, 2020

    Annette Gordon-Reed, the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard Law School and professor of history in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, has been named a University Professor, Harvard’s highest faculty honor. One of the nation’s most accomplished historians and legal scholars, Gordon-Reed is admired throughout academia for the cross-disciplinary lens through which she studies American history. Her scholarship has reframed the historical dialogue about slavery and enslaved peoples in the United States by enhancing America’s understanding of race in the Colonial era, and her biographies of key figures in American history, including the Hemings family of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Johnson, have brought a new light to the contemporary interpretations of their lives and work. “Annette Gordon-Reed has changed how people think about America,” said Harvard President Larry Bacow. “Through her extraordinarily incisive scholarship, she carefully reveals truth and, in the process, urges all of us to confront our past and present so that we might imagine a better future. Her voice has never been more important to our national conversation, and I am thrilled that she will join the ranks of the University’s most celebrated faculty members.” John F. Manning, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and professor of law at Harvard Law School, said, “I am delighted that the University has recognized my colleague Annette Gordon-Reed with the honor of serving as the Carl M. Loeb University Professor. Professor Gordon-Reed is a superb historian who has fundamentally remade our understanding of family and domestic relations in the history of enslaved people in the United States and prompted a profound reckoning with contradictions in the life of Thomas Jefferson. Professor Gordon-Reed is also an exceptional and tireless contributor to the Harvard community, willing time and time again to bring her tremendous skill, wisdom, and integrity to critical assignments on behalf of both the Law School and the University.”

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    Distance Learning Up Close

    July 23, 2020

    Teaching and learning at Harvard Law School in the first months of the pandemic

  • Robert E. Lee statue surrounded by protesters

    Must We Allow Symbols of Racism on Public Land?

    July 23, 2020

    A legal historian who has focused on the history of U.S. slavery puts the push to remove Confederate statues in context.

  • Cast of ‘Hamilton’ discusses show’s enormous popularity and impact

    July 9, 2020

    Robin Roberts chats with creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, and members of the cast for "Hamilton: History Has Its Eyes on You," which will premiere on Disney+.

  • Honoring the past without overlooking racism

    July 6, 2020

    Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed, historian Tim Naftali and Fareed on reconsidering honors and monuments to historical figures with racist legacies.

  • How Could a Slaveholder Write “All Men Are Created Equal?”

    June 29, 2020

    Could a slaveholder also be an advocate for equality for all? That is the riddle left behind by one of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Pulitzer Prize-winning historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Jon Meacham join Walter Isaacson to discuss Jefferson's monuments and whether or not they should come down.

  • Growing Up with Juneteenth

    June 22, 2020

    An article by Annette Gordon-ReedWhen I was a little girl, in Texas, I thought Juneteenth belonged to us, meaning to the state of Texas generally and to black Texans specifically. In my small town, the story of Gordon Granger, the U.S. Army general who announced, in Galveston, on June 19, 1865, that slavery was over, was told with seriousness and bits of gallows humor. The older people joked that the Emancipation Proclamation had actually been signed two years before, but “the white people” wanted to get a few extra harvest seasons in before they told “the Negroes” about it. My father would say, with a sardonic smile and a short laugh, that it was worse than that: “the slaves have never really been freed.” The jokes played upon several basic truths. The Emancipation Proclamation had, in fact, been signed more than two years before, but its provisions could only be applied in areas controlled by the U.S. Army. Confederate forces in Texas did not surrender until June 2, 1865. Even after Granger’s announcement, many whites in Texas continued to enslave people who had not heard the news. Those who had heard were often forcibly prevented from acting as if any material change had taken place. Freedom had come in legal terms, but the story was not so clear on the ground as it was on paper. Former enslavers unleashed violence upon the people whom they had claimed as property, and others threatened to do so in order to make people work. Amid joy and hope was great malevolence and power. As my father’s jibe suggested, the legacies of slavery still lingered, putting true freedom out of reach. I don’t recall white Texans celebrating Juneteenth. Then again, I wouldn’t know; the holiday was part of the summer, and summer took kids in my home town out of the schools and back into our racially separated communities.

  • Must we allow symbols of racism on public land?

    June 22, 2020

    The police killing of George Floyd sparked widespread protests and reignited efforts across the U.S. to remove Confederate and other statues viewed as symbols of slavery and racism. In several cities, these tributes have been vandalized or torn down by protestors or removed by public officials. A high-profile decision to tear down a famous bronze figure of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va., was halted by a court challenge, which was extended indefinitely on Thursday. A 2018 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found there are more than 1,700 monuments to the Confederacy still in public spaces. Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian of U.S. slavery, legal scholar, and member of the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, spoke with the Gazette about the issue. Gordon-Reed is a professor of history and the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School. She won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for her explosive 2008 work, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.”

  • Emancipation Day celebration June 19, 1900

    ‘Juneteenth is a day of reflection of how we as a country and as individuals continue to reckon with slavery’

    June 18, 2020

    Tomiko Brown-Nagin spoke with Harvard Law Today about the history of Juneteenth and its particular relevance more than 150 years later.

  • The Problem of Police Powers for People Living While Black

    June 15, 2020

    An article by Annette Gordon-Reed: A few years back, I was on my way to an appearance at the Brattleboro Literary Festival, in Vermont. My coauthor, Peter S. Onuf, and I had decided to rent a car and drive up from New York, taking the scenic route. The weather was great, and it would be an adventure. Night fell as we drove through Massachusetts, and we were in the middle of a conversation when I noticed lights flashing behind us. Peter saw them too, and immediately pulled over to the shoulder of the road. Perhaps because we were on the highway, and it was dark, the officer came to the passenger side of the car, where I was sitting. He motioned for me to open my window. I complied. He asked if we knew why we had been pulled over, and we were at a total loss. He said Peter had veered over the center line on the road. The problem with that explanation was that there was no line on that stretch of road. There had been some construction, and workers were in the process of putting a new lines down, as we could see looking farther ahead. He asked our names, which we gave. He asked Peter for his license. And then he asked me for my ID. I was sitting there calmly, wearing my seat belt; I doubt seriously that the officer would have asked Peter’s wife, who is white, for her identification under these circumstances. The thing that was unusual about the two of us—and which, I believe, made the officer “suspicious” of us—was that Peter is white and I am black. We were an incongruous couple and had no reason to be together unless we were up to no good. Aside from writing works of history, I teach Criminal Procedure at Harvard Law School. But the intricacies of the law at that moment in the car were the furthest thing from my mind. What mattered was my deep awareness of the raw power of the person who had a gun and who had pulled us over for crossing a line that did not exist.

  • The Coronavirus and the Rise of the States

    May 27, 2020

    In early April, after the Trump administration brushed aside New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s appeals for ventilators, Kate Brown, the governor of Oregon, shipped 140 of the breathing devices to help New York blunt COVID-19. China chipped in with another 1,000. Weeks later, Cuomo sent 400 ventilators to Massachusetts after its governor, Charlie Baker, came close to a public meltdown over federal interference with his efforts to buy medical supplies...In a complete reversal of what has long been the normal crisis or wartime dynamic, action and authority have devolved from the White House to the governor’s mansions during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the states that have emerged as the counterweight to Trumpian dysfunction, a development that has led Trump to rage against the very people confronting the daily doses of death and despair—and the fallout from his incompetence and indifference...In the absence of sane federal policy, moreover, these and other governors have begun working with their neighbors...The hardest-hit Northeastern states, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Delaware, followed suit, as did the Midwestern states of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. States have established compacts before, on issues ranging from criminal justice to the environment and transportation. But there is likely no historical precedent for states “banding together in the face of inaction by the federal government,” according to constitutional law professor Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard Law. “This situation is not like the drivers of the typical interstate compacts,” Gordon-Reed says. “This is different, as an acute health crisis in which time is of the essence and could have been ameliorated with a coordinated effort.”

  • I. Glenn Cohen

    Professor Glenn Cohen discusses how Harvard Law course can help prepare incoming law students across America

    May 20, 2020

    Harvard Law Today recently spoke by email with Zero-L’s faculty director, Professor I. Glenn Cohen, about the program, the decision to make it available for free to interested American law schools this year, and how he expects it can help them and their students prepare for the fall semester.

  • Preparing to Move On in a Time of Losses

    May 4, 2020

    An article by Annette Gordon-ReedFirst, I want to say how deeply sorry I am about the circumstances that make this type of commencement address necessary. Students in their final year are special. They are on the cusp of finishing a multiyear journey that has inevitably helped transform them in ways anticipated and not. From my own experiences at college and law school, and as a parent of college graduates, I know that senior year can be a time of mixed emotions. I recall being excited about graduating but also slightly alarmed. “They’re going to make us leave!” I joked to my friends as we sat outside on a perfect spring day. Those final weeks of getting ready for graduation—wrapping up classes and making plans for my family to come up for the ceremony—helped ease the tension by forcing me to remember what those years had been about: preparation to move on in life. There is no way to hide from the stark fact that you have been deprived of that preparation. You have missed out on some things that I’m sure most of you were looking forward to greatly: having your parents—for the first time for some of you—get to see the place where you lived and learned, meet your friends and their families in person, and share the pomp and circumstance as you were sent on your way. But the sense of loss is, I suspect, about more than the graduation ceremony.

  • Four black men (Harvard Law's first black graduates)

    Celebrating Black History Month: A look back at historic firsts

    February 24, 2020

    Professors Annette Gordon-Reed, Kenneth Mack and David Wilkins discuss the Harvard Law School's first black graduates and the legacy of African Americans at HLS throughout the years.

  • Thomas Jefferson’s Vision of Equality Was Not All-Inclusive. But It Was Transformative

    February 20, 2020

    An article by Annette Gordon-Reed: Thomas Jefferson began life in a monarchy, under the reign of George II, in one of Britain’s North American colonies—Virginia. In this monarchical system everyone knew his or her place, with little expectation of being able to move very far outside of it. Though the American provincials were not on a par with the aristocrats in the mother country, they had developed their own version of hierarchy. Jefferson, by dint of his family ties, was born at the top, and there would have been no reason to suspect that he would ever come to be associated with the idea of equality. This is especially so given that he was born into a slave society, and his family fully participated in the institution of slavery. From an early age, he would have understood what unequal status meant, with his lifelong involvement in the most extreme version of it as a slave owner. The equality of humankind was simply not an expectation in his world.

  • For hundreds of years, enslaved people were bought and sold in America. Today most of the sites of this trade are forgotten.

    February 18, 2020

    Sarah Elizabeth Adams was around 5 when her mother was sold to a slave dealer in Lynchburg, Va. The auction took place in the mid-1840s, in the town of Marion, Va. Sallie, as she was called, was herself sold that day, but not with her mother: A man named Thomas Thurman purchased Sallie to take care of his sick wife. Sallie and her family were among the 1.2 million enslaved men, women and children sold in the United States between approximately 1760 and 1860, according to the historian Michael Tadman. After the American Revolution, cotton production grew rapidly, and demand for enslaved workers on the vast plantations of the Deep South intensified...Even well-known sites of slave labor look different when seen through the lens of the auction. When Thomas Jefferson died, on July 4, 1826, the enslaved people he owned at Monticello suddenly faced a perilous future...Spurred on by the pioneering research of Annette Gordon-Reed, Lucia Stanton, Niya Bates and others, Monticello has more fully acknowledged Thomas Jefferson’s legacy as not just the writer of the Declaration of Independence but also an enslaver. At his plantation, the auctions are described in an exhibit, but in downtown Charlottesville, where the second occurred, there is no specific mention of the auction.

  • On GPS: Trump’s impeachment through the lens of history

    December 23, 2019

    Historian Jon Meacham, Harvard Law School Professor Annette Gordon-Reed and CNN Presidential Historian Tim Naftali discuss with Fareed what makes President Trump's impeachment unique to past presidents. Naftali tells Fareed the House withholding the articles of impeachment from the Senate has never happened before in an impeachment crisis because this is the first time control of Congress has been split during an impeachment.