Portrait of Dr Erik Mathisen

Dr Erik Mathisen

Lecturer in US History

About

Dr Erik Mathisen studied as an undergraduate at Western University in Canada before moving to the United States to complete an MA at Northwestern University and a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. Since then, he has taught at several universities in the UK, most recently Queen Mary University of London. He joined the School of History at Kent as a Lecturer in 2018. 

Research interests

Erik is a historian of the United States, with broader interests in the history of slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic World, the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, and the global clash between labour and capitalism over the ‘long nineteenth century.’ His most recent research blends social, political, cultural and intellectual history and circles around the question of how the political ideas and practices of unlettered people changed over the course of the nineteenth century, particularly as the Civil War and its aftermath forged the materials of the modern United States. These interests and questions continue to provide a foundation for his research.  

In 2018, Erik’s first book, entitled The Loyal Republic: Traitors, Slaves and the Remaking of Citizenship in Civil War America, was published with the University of North Carolina Press. This book examines how the Civil War fused ideas about individual loyalties to warring nation-states, to emerging definitions of citizenship which took on added urgency in the war’s wake. In taking these questions as a subject of focus, The Loyal Republic shows how a variety of people, most notably African Americans, used their wartime loyalty to pry open the American body politic as the war ended. 

With a fellowship from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University, Erik has started work on a global history of the Reconstruction era. This project looks at how both the Civil War and its aftermath influenced American thinking about race, labour, capitalism and empire over the last decades of the nineteenth century. 

In connection with his interest in American Studies, Erik is also indulging a lifelong passion by beginning work on a history of the New Left and the rise of American ‘roots music’ in the 1960s and 70s. 

Teaching

Erik teaches on the history of the United States before 1880.

Supervision

Erik would be happy to field any questions that potential postgraduate students might have about projects pertaining to his areas of expertise. As an active member of the Centre for American Studies, he also welcomes questions from students who are interested in pursuing interdisciplinary projects.

Publications

Article

  • Mathisen, E. (2018). The Second Slavery, Capitalism. and Emancipation in Civil War America. Journal of the Civil War Era [Online] 8:677-699. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1353/cwe.2018.0074.
    The historiography of slavery in the nineteenth century has undergone a dramatic shift over the past few years. The “second slavery” as well as work on the relationship between American slavery and capitalism, have altered some of the basic paradigms which have propped up thinking about the institution in the history of the United States. This essay surveys the intellectual origins and development of both projects. It offers a critique of the assumptions which undergird this new work, while at the same time pointing up how these two projects might engage with and be challenged by the history and historiography of American emancipation. In particular, a history of coerced labor in the United States and around the world in the nineteenth century, counters the often insular way in which the story of emancipation and Reconstruction is traditionally cast.
  • Mathisen, E. (2013). “Know All Men By These Presents”: Bonds, Localism, and Politics in Early Republican Mississippi. Journal of the Early Republic [Online] 33:727-750. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1353/jer.2013.0092.
    This article examines local politics in Mississippi during the early to mid-nineteenth century, by examining the bonds that officeholders were required to post to hold their positions in county government. The article argues that while states like Mississippi remain at the forefront of the history of American mass democracy, the existence of this election ritual paints a complicated picture of political practice. By requiring officeholders to post hundreds and even thousands of dollars to hold office, and by requiring that political friends vouch for them with their money and their reputations, bonds dampened democratic elections at every turn. In so doing, bonds suggest just some of the ways in which Americans practiced a much more complex politics than current paradigms allow.

Book

  • Mathisen, E. (2018). The Loyal Republic: Traitors, Slaves, and the Remaking of Citizenship in Civil War America. [Online]. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. Available at: https://www.uncpress.org/book/9781469636320/the-loyal-republic/.
    This is the story of how Americans attempted to define what it meant to be a citizen of the United States, at a moment of fracture in the republic's history. As Erik Mathisen demonstrates, prior to the Civil War, American national citizenship amounted to little more than a vague bundle of rights. But during the conflict, citizenship was transformed. Ideas about loyalty emerged as a key to citizenship, and this change presented opportunities and profound challenges aplenty. Confederate citizens would be forced to explain away their act of treason, while African Americans would use their wartime loyalty to the Union as leverage to secure the status of citizens during Reconstruction.
    In The Loyal Republic, Mathisen sheds new light on the Civil War, American emancipation, and a process in which Americans came to a new relationship with the modern state. Using the Mississippi Valley as his primary focus and charting a history that traverses both sides of the battlefield, Mathisen offers a striking new history of the Civil War and its aftermath, one that ushered in nothing less than a revolution in the meaning of citizenship in the United States.

Book section

  • Mathisen, E. (2019). Emancipation in the Dock: The Problem of Freedom in the Reconstruction Courtroom. in: Sandy, L. and Molloy, M. eds. The Civil War and Slavery Reconsidered: Negotiating the Peripheries. New York: Routledge, pp. 169-182. Available at: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429059605.
    While historians have long been aware of the haphazard and chaotic nature of emancipation in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the machinations of the southern legal system has been understudied. Particularly at the county level–where precedent to say nothing of interwar cases on the docket, which were decided only after the Civil War ended–together make the southern courtroom an important site of contest. What this paper examines are the many ways in which wartime battles over the terms of emancipation carried on in southern courts: battles in which former slaves displayed a canny awareness of not only the politics but the minutiae of the legal system. This paper contributes to the work of historians like Christopher Waldrep and Laura Edwards, while at the same time staking out new ground by using the literature on the ‘second slavery’ to question the paradigm of freedom in the Reconstruction literature.
  • Mathisen, E. (2014). Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. in: Frantz, E. ed. A Companion to the Reconstruction Presidents, 1865-1881. Wiley, pp. 24-41. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118607879.ch2.
    Andrew Johnson's presidency remains the most controversial in American history. This essay seeks to place Johnson and his time in office into context, looking both to the circumstances of his Reconstruction policies and the often contentious historiography which has developed since his presidency. At the heart of the piece is the question of how Johnson, a man with impeccable Unionist credentials, could expend so much good will in such a short period of time, losing his party and his office in the process.
  • Mathisen, E. (2013). Freedpeople, Politics, and the State in Civil War America. in: Morgan, I. and Philip, D. eds. Reconfiguring the Union. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 59-76. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137336484_4.
    In early November 1863, Union Army officials gathered at Goodrich’s Landing, in northern Louisiana, to speak to an audience of soldiers and freedpeople. Since the war began, the small outpost on the Mississippi River had become a crucial base of operations for the Union, and a magnet for African Americans from all over the Mississippi Valley. The purpose of the event was, in many ways, to rectify the growing problem that freedpeople posed to Union operations. Officials sought to reaffirm the Lincoln government’s position regarding emancipation, while at the same time outlining the limits of what African Americans could expect from this. Before a colorfully dressed and overwhelmingly black audience—which included children from a local school, who were marched in front of the crowd, reciting sections of their grammar primer from memory—Union officials spoke with one voice about what the war would bring, and what emancipation demanded of African Americans. Bearing a message that would become all too familiar by the end of the Civil War, Lorenzo Thomas, Adjutant-General of the United States, asserted that emancipation had extended freedom to black slaves but nothing more: “You have none now on whom you can lay the burden of your cares. Your welfare depends solely on your own efforts. You have none who possess or assume the right to crush or oppress you. Your sorrows and trials will be the result of your own folly or incapacity.” After Thomas had finished speaking, a black preacher seemingly echoed his words on the challenges of freedom but gave them different meaning. The message he delivered was that emancipation had only replaced one authority with another because devotion to the rule of law was still necessary. “Everything must have a head,” he called out to the crowd, “the plantation, the house, the steamboat, the army, and to obey that head was to obey the law.”
  • Mathisen, E. (2013). “It Looks Much Like Abandoned Land”: Property and the Politics of Loyalty in Reconstruction Mississippi. in: Kelly, B. and Baker, B. eds. After Slavery: Race, Labor and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South. University of Florida Press, pp. 77-94. Available at: https://doi.org/10.5744/florida/9780813044774.003.0005.
    In post-Civil War Mississippi, loyalty—the measuring of an individual's faithful allegiance to government—became something of a political currency, used by whites to secure the property of those who had lost their land or possessions. In countless local battles over property, white Mississippians attempted to minimize their past transgressions as former Confederates and claim a renewed spirit of Unionism, often with checkered results. Understanding the impact of this process focuses attention on the opportunities afforded African Americans to both proclaim their loyalty and claim property. African Americans learned how to make use of their new relationship with the federal state, leveraging their loyalty in return for federal protection and civic rights. Claiming their loyalty to the Union as both more profound and trustworthy when compared to that of former Confederates, African Americans used the politics of loyalty to make a bid for citizenship and possessions they believed were rightfully theirs.

Review

  • Mathisen, E. (2018). Book Review. Journal of American Studies [Online] 52:1-2. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0021875818000221.
  • Mathisen, E. (2017). Book Review Forret, J. and Sears, C. E. eds. Slavery & Abolition [Online] 38:210-212. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/0144039x.2017.1284454.
  • Mathisen, E. (2013). Book Review. Slavery and Abolition [Online] 34:210-212. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/0144039X.2013.820399.
  • Mathisen, E. (2012). Book Review. Journal of American Studies [Online] 46:348-349. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0021875811001873.
  • Mathisen, E. (2012). Book Review. Journal of the Civil War Era [Online] 2:452-454. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1353/cwe.2012.0067.
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