Friday, November 7, 2014

Wills Research Fellow Melissa Gismondi reflects upon "Rachel Jackson and American Femininity"

Melissa Gismondi is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Virginia, specializing in colonial and early North American social and cultural history. Her dissertation, "The Character of a Wife: Gender, Power, and Prestige in Rachel Jackson’s Early America, 1760s-1820s" uses the life and constructed image of Andrew Jackson's wife, Rachel, to analyze gender and class formation on the frontier in the early republican and Jacksonian eras.

Gismondi recently visited the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA), and spoke with us in August about her research. She conducted research of our collections through the Wills Research Fellowship awarded on an annual basis by the Tennessee Historical Society. The purpose of the fellowship is to promote the interpretation of Tennessee history and the scholarly use of the Society's collections. The fellowship is provided through the Society's Jesse E. Wills Memorial Fund. The collections of the Society are especially strong in the frontier, Jacksonian, antebellum, and Civil War eras.

Q: Describe your research project for us.

MG: My project uses the life and experiences of Rachel Jackson and her extended kin in the Donelson and Jackson families to consider how gender shaped elite and class formation on the southeastern frontier (modern-day Tennessee and Kentucky) during the early republican period of the 1760s-1820s. Because of the very large shadow that the Civil War casts over American history, I think we often envision early America as divided into northern and southern districts. But my project reveals a deep division in the early republican-era between the regions east and west of the Appalachians. My project shows how ideas about gender—or social and cultural ideas on how men and women ought to behave—determined class formation among Tennessee families like the Jacksons, who occupied considerable influence in the early republican period. Through their wealth, and attempts to refashion themselves as social elites, I show how Rachel and her extended family achieved political and cultural influence in the early republican period, despite the fact that eastern elites harbored prejudice against westerners as morally incapable to lead the new nation.

Q: What initially interested you in this topic?

MG: The southeastern frontier always fascinated me because the two phenomenon that I think defined early America—the extension of African slavery and relations with Native Americans—converged in this region. As an undergraduate, I learned more about early Tennessee and knew I wanted to explore the period in greater depth. I became interested in Rachel Jackson because I always felt that historians seemed to treat her as an aside to Jackson. While my project explores Jackson in considerable depth, I do so because I think that the best way to look at gender includes considering masculinity and femininity together, since early Americans often defined one against the other. I hope that my project will flesh Rachel out as a real historical character and actor. But I also hope that by focusing on her life and experiences I can shed light on broader issues prevalent during the period, which touched the lives of many early Americans including slaveholding, kinship with Native Americans, marriage and divorce, evangelicalism, and the Jacksonian period’s rigid gender ideals.

Q: What collections have you examined at the Tennessee State Library and Archives?

MG: My current research for my project is very much rooted in traditional social history methods, so I spent a long time going through Davidson County wills and county court records from the earliest period of settlement through the 1820s. With these, I tallied the division of property based on gender. I conducted a similar survey on an earlier visit that traced patterns in early Tennessee divorces. This research reflects my larger goal: putting Rachel’s life in a broader context to consider how her life reflected or diverged from other Tennesseans. Every time I visit the TSLA, I also spend a lot of time going through Tennessee’s earliest newspapers to capture cultural attitudes towards whatever topic I’m working at that moment. For this, the TSLA’s newspaper database for Nashville newspapers after 1815 is always tremendously useful.

Portrait of Rachel Jackson (1767-1828) reading "Mrs. Rachel Jackson, late Consort to Andrew Jackson, President of the U. States."
Library Collection. Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Q: Have you found any surprises during your research here?

MG: I learned that much to my surprise—and other historians who I subsequently spoke with—Rachel’s oldest brother, Alexander, who never married or had children, sternly ordered that all his slaves—expect for one—be freed upon his death. He even provided instructions in his will for their transportation out of the state to be freed in another state if Tennessee outlawed manumission. I have no idea why he refused to free one slave but found his entire will fascinating and evidence there emerged radically different ideas about slavery within the Donelson family. I also uncovered very interesting research about public representations of Rachel following her death.

Q: What conclusions have you drawn from your research?

MG: So far I have been surprised to learn that early Tennessee families—such as the Donelsons and Jacksons—often adopted flexible attitudes to gender roles to attain or maintain elite status. While cultural expectations undoubtedly influenced how men and women should behave, I find that the frontier produced conditions which made the perpetuation of eastern-rooted gender ideals almost impossible. Often, non-white actors, especially the neighboring Creek and Cherokee, influenced these conditions and restricted the options available to Tennesseans who wanted to portray themselves as elite men or women, rather than frontier folk.

Q: Where else are you conducting dissertation research?

MG: Currently, I’m researching locally in Virginia, where Rachel’s family originated from. In the past, I have done research as a fellow at the Kentucky Historical Society, and I will also research this year as a fellow at the Filson Historical Society. I will undoubtedly return to Nashville many times to research at the Metro Archives and TSLA again. I will also research at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and the American Antiquarian Society (for the later portions of my project which consider the 1820s), as well as at the North Carolina State Archives and the Southern Historical Collections at UNC Chapel Hill, since Tennessee was under North Carolinian jurisdiction until it became a federal territory in 1790.

Q: What first sparked your interest in early American cultural history?

MG: I grew up in Canada, so my exposure to American cultural history was somewhat limited until I went to college. In my first year as an undergraduate, we read about the role of the frontier in defining ideas about America and American identity. From there, I became fascinated by how early Americans perceived themselves in relation to other groups: for instance, how women defined themselves in relation to men, how the Puritans defined themselves in relation to the Wampanoag and other Native American tribes that they interacted with in the seventeenth-century, or how early nineteenth-century Tennesseans saw themselves in relation to their slaves. People manifest ideas about themselves through their culture and popular culture remains, I think, one of the best ways to understand a particular time period.

Q: How has your research at TSLA influenced your scholarship?

MG: Since my project is so rooted in Tennessee and Nashville history, the TSLA and its collections are an invaluable component to my project. But the collections are only one part of the TSLA and every time I return to the TSLA, I’m always so grateful for the conversations I have with the staff and other researchers. In this way, the TSLA and THS feels like a very supportive community of scholars, archivists and librarians who make my project and research infinitely better.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

No comments:

Post a Comment