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Taylor Swift performing
Disney

Taylor Swift has got the 1830s all wrong

Taylor Swift has become incredibly popular as a documenter of her dating history. But in her new album, The Tortured Poet’s Department, she tries her hand at writing about actual history.

In the second verse of “I Hate it Here” (track 23 on the mammoth 31-track anthology version of the album), Swift sings about playing a game that involves selecting a past decade to live in instead of the present.

I’d say the 1830s but without all the racists
And getting married off for the highest bid

The internet was quick to criticise the line, arguing that Swift’s vague reference to “all the racists” suggests a lack of reflection on the historical injustices experienced by people of colour throughout history. Many saw it as a minimisation of the atrocities of the era of slavery. They also pointed out that it would be impossible to remove “all the racists” from the 1830s as if it were a case of removing a few bad apples from a barrel.

Racism was enmeshed into the fabric of 19th-century society in Britain and the US. The 1830s without racism is what some might call a blank slate. Those seeking to redress the balance pointed out that Swift does say it’s a silly game and she’d actually hate it in the 19th century in the song itself.

I think Swift’s intentions were good, but as a legal historian, I can’t overlook the lyric because it’s not just controversial, it’s historically inaccurate. The line about women “getting married off for the highest bid” scrambles the realities experienced by two distinct groups of people in a way that amplifies the curtailed legal status of women and minimises the lack of rights of people of colour during the 1830s.

First of all, women were never married off for the highest bid.

Bidding suggests a proprietary exchange, but despite the popular perception, married women in Britain and the US have never been considered the property of their husbands. A doctrine called coverture ensured that when a woman got married, her real estate became her husband’s forever and her moveable property (money, livestock, debts, for instance) was passed to her husband during his lifetime.

Coverture also prevented a married woman from forming a contract, running a business, becoming bankrupt, and suing in a common law court without her husband. Coverture endured until the Married Women’s Property Acts were passed in the late-19th century in Britain. In the US, reform was piecemeal, with laws passed at the state level across the 19th century. In short, women’s rights were reduced upon marriage in the 1830s, but a wife was never considered property herself.

Perhaps I have taken Swift’s lyrics too literally. If the line is a metaphor, however, it is an unfortunate one, because you know who was considered property in the 1830s? Enslaved people.

Most pre-abolition case law involving enslaved people revolved around contracts made for their purchase. Somerset’s case (1772) in Britain concerned the personhood of James Somerset, an enslaved African, and confirmed the status of enslaved people as property.

In referencing generic “racism” but specifically (and falsely) mentioning “getting married off for the highest bid”, Swift foregoes any specificity as to the plight of people of colour in the 1830s. She also references something that very much happened, but in the context of the wrong people.

It wasn’t (relatively) privileged white women who were auctioned off, but enslaved Africans. By conflating the two distinct legal positions of married women and enslaved people – the two groups implicitly referenced in her lyrics – Swift skips over the worst parts of slavery and overemphasises the worst parts of coverture.

To give Swift some credit, she does pick the decade in which slavery was abolished in Britain. The Slave Trade Act 1807 abolished the trade in enslaved people. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 then replaced slavery with unpaid apprenticeships (that were gradually phased out) and provided a generous compensation scheme for slavers. Slavery in the US, however, continued until the 13th amendment to the constitution was ratified in 1865.

Some do, however, think Swift should dip her toe into history. Holly Genovese, a doctoral student in American Studies at the University of Texas, reckons Swift should be considered an activist public historian, while social historian Jonathan Healy forwards a conspiracy that the album 1989 is, in fact, a concept album about Henry VIII. Ultimately, if Swift wishes to pursue an alternative career in public history she might want to check her lyrics a little more closely.

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