American History · Civil War

from the mouths of brilliant young people….swag

Horace King, 1855
Horace King, bridge designer of African descent and Georgia native, helped usher the south into a modern moment.

My husband always said “Limbs are made for climbing out on.” So, it was with pleasure I told students enrolled in my “Antebellum America Swagger,” a capstone research and writing class at the University of Alabama, these same words.

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The Oxford English Dictionary’s official assessment of the use of the word “swagger.” My students rightly saw the uptick in its use in a globalizing world through which goods and people moved.

I was not sure if they would understand how the word “swagger,” which has been in use since the early nineteenth century even though the University of Miami football program gave new meaning to it in the eighties, has currency with people who lived long ago.

Among the people to whom they were attentive as they digested this idea was one pictured in the photograph above. His name is Horace King. He was a bridge designer who worked closely with Alabama Senator Robert Jemison Jr.

Alabama Senator Robert Jemison Jr. reluctantly signed the paper announcing Alabama’s departure from the Union. This slaveholder who worked closely with Horace King was well aware of the coming hard times in a region that needed to make social and political adjustments.


Imagine that! Letters were sent between a man of color and a soon-to-be Confederate politician and slaveholder whose Tuscaloosa mansion still stands (we will visit it soon). Jemison and other white southerners relied greatly on King’s design skills.unnamed

King relied greatly on Jemison’s power during escalating sectional conflict, which, in many cases, required free people of color to leave the South. Given his skill and his careful maneuvering, King received privileges denied to other people who looked like him.

Wrote one student about her attempts to decipher King’s penmanship in one letter written to Jemison with the Civil War raging in the background:

“I was trying to figure out a logical flow of words, while trying to remember that not all of the language used will seem familiar to me. Also, I felt Horace King’s swagger leap off the paper when I read ‘Give me all the information’ It was powerful.”

I was happy to see this student boldly sharing her impressions of tensions between the antebellum period and our present day. Here is what else she had to say:

“These documents reveal a ‘swag’ that I have never seen before. Horace King knew what he wanted and knew how to get it as well. Even though the letter was written long ago, it reveal a country similar to the one we have today. King’s letter shows confusion in Congress and in the government, which still exists today. Citizens do not know what is going on in Washington D.C. so I can understand where King is coming from.”

Essentially, this brilliant student and her brilliant classmate were doing what professional historians do. In order to find meaning in our shared and difficult past, they had to “take it to the archive.” Wrote one student about the work involved in deciphering the letters of historical actors,

“I now have a new appreciation for men and women who make it their job to transcribe and understand these documents as I cannot understand [the] majority of even the smallest [writing].”

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A Power Point used in class so the students could see the hard to read penmanship from the nineteenth century.

For proof that this country has long been filled with people who put on display a certain level of confidence, drive, ambition or swag (even if they are absolutely terrified about their own future socially, economically or politically), the students had to look at historical documents, or letters that survive in UA’s Hoole Special Collections Library and decipher the handwriting and often formal way of speaking without any assistance from me.

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A Mathew Brady photograph that reveals some of the more than half million men who died during the Civil War.

While an edited volume existed for one particular archive, the students had to focus on a photocopied page of a diary in that archive.

I smiled and smiled as I graded transcriptions and their impressions of the antebellum period as a fractious and as one student said, “strange” era. Said another student,

“If someone did something that was terrible, it was written down because someone was watching whatever was happening and then writing it down.”

Wrote another,

“I think [these letters] show a country [is having] meaningful discussions on [a] controversial topic…It’s a country that has a lot going on and is still getting its bearings.”

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This course often uses Quentin Tarantino’s  2012 film Django Unchained as a primary source that reveals the contradictions in our shared past (and the swagger unveiled in that past, too).
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The students were invited to see “swag” in these men who also fought in the war.
My alma mater, or the school that gave new meaning to the idea of swag by the 1980s.
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The students are also being encouraged to consider how swag shows up in revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic – especially by the mid-nineteenth century.


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French judge Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the United States, in 1831 to see up close the driven ways of people in a still young country.



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