It’s been over 14 months since I first started writing my honors prospectus in February 2019, sketching out a preliminary research proposal and identifying key caches of source material. Come mid-April 2020, I submitted the final draft of my honors thesis to the History Department. In this post, I will reflect back on everything that has transpired over the preceding year-plus of research and writing, and offer some lessons learned along the way.
- Embrace the challenges. This borders on cliché, I know, but it’s worth keeping this maxim constantly in mind, as the honors process is rigorous for a reason. I approached my senior thesis already having an authorial background in the trade press world, which certainly helped, but I still found the task of writing this thesis to be a tall order. Approaching it humbly, as an intellectual challenge only to be accomplished by countless hours of hard work, helped immensely. No matter your experience level or background, writing original historical scholarship requires ferreting out and grappling with innumerable primary sources, and attempting to situate your findings within troves of extant scholarship written by accomplished academics. Simply put, this is a daunting process, but a rewarding one if you put in the hard work and accomplish something you haven’t done before.
- Welcome criticism. At its core, the most important part of this rigorous honors process is criticism. Towards the beginning of this project, I might have been more inclined to shy away from, or simply shrug off, critiques of my work. By mid-way through, however, I was practically soliciting criticism. Through pursuing honors, you are attempting to add original insights to reams of existing scholarly literature on a given topic. No matter how versed you are in the historiography (or perhaps because you are so immersed in it), it’s deceptively easy to get lost in the weeds. Receiving comments from my thesis supervisor, Professor Pinsker, helped me see the broader significance of my work. His criticism and our discussions during weekly meetings aided me in conceptualizing just what this thesis was trying to say, and perhaps even importantly, why that was important. The entire History Department, moreover, was an invaluable resource, and their critiques following my December 2019 presentation were incredibly illuminating, pointing out many avenues and angles which I had neglected to explore. All considered, their criticism made the final product of this thesis immeasurably better.
- Plan your research trips. Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, the Department generously funded a research trip to Philadelphia as part of this Honors Thesis. I went into this process with archival experience, but when researching a topic national in scope, I found that it was absolutely essential to plan out my research trips with meticulous attention to detail. When you have limited time, and especially when you’re on Dickinson’s dime, it is crucial that you have a good sense of what you’re looking for in a particular archive. Be sure to familiarize yourself with various archives’ procedures well in advance, so as not to waste the precious hours you have on site. Over two days in Philadelphia, I managed to squeeze in visits to three major archives, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the National Archives (Philadelphia branch). My efficient research was largely due to the fact that I had compiled Word documents with convenient checklists of the resources I was looking for (to ensure I didn’t miss anything), in addition to corresponding with archivists weeks in advance, who kindly pulled needed materials beforehand.
- Spreadsheets. Use them. I’ll admit, at the beginning of this process I was a spreadsheet-doubter, but the experience of writing about the enforcement of a national law across many states converted me into a devout believer. Especially when you’re dealing with hundreds of diverse primary sources, using a spreadsheet not only proves vital to organizing your research, but also enables you to see larger patterns that might otherwise have escaped notice. For instance, I compiled a spreadsheet of the 81 arrests under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law between September 1850 to December 1854, which revealed the prevalence of “special” temporary deputies, who participated in roughly three-quarters of all arrests under the law. This, alongside other insights, led me to shift the focus of chapter 2. I devoted an entire section to examining these “special” deputies, after the spreadsheet revealed how ubiquitous they were. Beyond this particular example, the spreadsheets I created yielded heaps of important statistics that demonstrated how the law actually functioned on the ground throughout the north.
- Embrace the surprises. Perhaps the most rewarding part of this entire experience has been the surprising turns where over a year-plus of research has taken this thesis. Looking back at my prospectus, one can see that I clearly embarked upon this project with a general sense of what I expected to find: draconian, ruthless U.S. commissioners enacting a controversial law. This was, after all, grounded in what was for all intents and purposes the existing scholarly consensus: that from 1850-1854, the Fugitive Slave Law was effectively enforced by U.S. officers. However, as I got deeper and deeper into the research, my archival findings increasingly complicated this familiar narrative. I did not expect to write a thesis with the title of “Embattled Enforcement: U.S. Commissioners and the Failures of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1854,” but that is where the research led me. Chapter 3, which examines rendition hearings under the law, serves as a case in point. I expected to write about federal commissioners, working hand-in-hand with slaveholders to condemn accused runaways to a lifetime of bondage. Instead, I unearthed a much more protracted struggle that was taking place in federal hearing rooms, between slaveholders, northern lawyers, black anti-slavery vigilance operatives and federal commissioners. To help bring my own sense of surprise home to readers, I opened my thesis with a narrative vignette of a Missouri slaveholder swearing at a U.S. marshal in Chicago–the exact opposite of the cabal-like atmosphere I had expected to find in U.S. commissioners’ hearing rooms. Little did I expect to find the well-known black abolitionist Martin Delany testify at a federal rendition hearing in May 1853–and even more startling, Delany’s testimony ultimately freed an accused freedom seeker, over the word of three white Tennesseans! These surprising archival discoveries ultimately became crucial to my overall argument, which itself would have been a surprise to me when I was writing my prospectus: that the law was never a viable national instrument to re-enslave freedom-bound men, women and children.