2023 Samantha Payne (Harvard University), "The Last Atlantic Revolution: Reconstruction and the Struggle for Democracy in the Americas, 1861-1912" (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming)

Payne’s dissertation is an extraordinary historical provocation. Embracing the challenges and reaping the rewards of transnational and comparative history, Payne has written a transformative study of the end of slavery in United States, Cuba, and Brazil, the last 3 slaveholding societies in the Atlantic world.

She asks how the abolition of slavery and the promises of emancipation ended in a new international order grounded on the principle of Black exclusion from democratic politics. Contrary to earlier scholarship, she argues, the United States was not alone in using race to exclude the formerly enslaved from the franchise. Race-based discrimination and the structures of white supremacy emerged across the hemisphere as formerly slaveholding elites and their allies in business and politics destroyed experiments in interracial, rural democracy and brought an end to the promises of an “Atlantic Reconstruction.”

The jury was impressed by Payne’s intellectual ambition, by her use of sources from diplomatic correspondence to the Black press, by her ability to embody abstract ideas in the language and actions of human actors, and by the clarity and grace of her prose. Reading Payne reminds us that discoveries by historians can break your heart, but in the hands of a scholar with humane commitments, those discoveries can sometimes help us imagine routes to a better future.                                 

Payne, who earned her Ph.D. at Harvard University under the direction of Professor Sven Beckert, is an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston.