The Debate over Slavery in the United States
The Debate over Slavery in the United States
EARLY CONDEMNATIONS OF SLAVERY
The first formal protests against slavery in the colonies of North America were heard in the late seventeenth century, at the same time that the system was taking root along the continent's eastern seaboard. In 1688, a handful of German Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, published a petition condemning the trading and owning of black slaves. They characterized enslavement as unlawful kidnapping and defended the seized Africans' right to armed rebellion. They asserted further that slavery was contrary to the golden rule of treating others as one would wish to be treated. In 1693, another Pennsylvania Quaker named George Keith (1639-1716) published an exhortation to his co-religionists urging them to cleanse themselves of the sin of slave holding. In making these arguments, Quakers in Pennsylvania echoed their fellow members of the Society of Friends in England and the Caribbean.
At about the same time, a Massachusetts Puritan also published a tract critical of slavery. In 1700, the eminent colonial jurist Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) published The Selling of Joseph. The title referred to the biblical Joseph, whose brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. Sewall, who had been a member of the court presiding over the Salem witch trials, argued that all humans are equal under God's love. Meshing biblical concepts with natural law, Sewall contended that all men are entitled to life and liberty.
These isolated protests made little impact. Quaker leaders failed to act on the Germantown protest or on Keith's exhortation. According to Samuel Sewall, his thoughts about slavery met only with hostility. A fellow Puritan judge, John Saffin (1632-1710), published a rebuttal to Sewall that argued that the Bible explicitly sanctioned slavery. Saffin argued further that humans exist in a hierarchy that puts some in positions of power over others; slavery is simply the lowest rung on this ladder.
QUAKER REFORM AND THE GROWTH OF ANTISLAVERY SENTIMENT
After a half century in which the public debate among whites waned, Pennsylvania Quakers launched a concerted attack on slavery. Led by John Woolman (1720-1772), Anthony Benezet (1713-1784), and others, the Quakers' protest was the first in the colonies to mobilize a group of individuals against the institution.
Since the formation of the Society of Friends in the seventeenth century, Quakers had owned slaves and participated in the slave trade. In the mid-eighteenth century, members of the Society of Friends in the New World and in England were in the process of reforming their community. An important part of this purification was the abolition of slavery within the society. Decisive action came slowly, but in 1776, amid the fervor of the American Revolution, Quaker leaders decided officially and conclusively that slave trading and slaveholding were incompatible with their religious beliefs. Quakers who persisted in either activity were to be excommunicated.
In the wake of the revolution, Americans were generally optimistic that slavery would die of its own accord. By 1808, the year that the slave trade was declared illegal, several northern states either had abolished slavery or had passed laws providing for the gradual emancipation of slaves. In general, Americans assumed that this represented a trend. Although some trafficking in slaves continued, most Americans were confident that slavery was in a state of decline and that little action was needed to hasten that decline.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT Pennsylvania Quakers Protest Slavery
ATTITUDES TOWARD SLAVERY IN A YOUNG NATION
Despite an antipathy to slavery and a hopeful assumption that slavery would soon fade away, popular attitudes and actions in the young nation implicitly sanctioned slavery. Those in positions of power felt little or no responsibility to improve the well-being of slaves. Furthermore, most in Congress contended that, because of provisions in the federal Constitution, they were legally unable to influence individual states in regard to their "domestic" institutions, such as slavery. Political leaders frequently defended their inaction by blaming the British for introducing slave labor two centuries earlier. This disingenuous excuse for slavery became a mainstay of the defense of the institution up to and during the Civil War.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT An Account of the Amistad Revolt
At the same time, plantation slavery proved increasingly profitable and showed few signs of imminent death. By the late eighteenth century, the United States was beginning to acquire wealth from an international cotton boom brought about in part by the introduction of the cotton gin. Both South and North benefited economically from the expansion of cotton production. Southern planters grew cotton for commercial production, and northern industrialists processed the raw material in factories. Thus both regions profited from and became dependent on slave labor.
As southern planters devoted more and more acreage to cotton, their demand for slave labor and land increased. This push to expand slavery into new territories led to some of the most important political battles in U.S. history. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, the political debate over slavery was becoming increasingly divisive and contentious. Congress heatedly debated whether or not slavery should be extended into the territories. In 1820, it attempted to settle the issue with the Missouri Compromise, which permitted slavery below the 36 degree, 30 minute latitude line and prohibited it above the line with the exception of Missouri. Many within and outside Congress proclaimed the compromise a final settlement of the issue.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT The Louisiana Purchase and the Missouri Compromise
THE EMERGENCE OF RADICAL ABOLITIONISM
The period in U.S. history from 1820 to 1860 is often referred to as the antebellum period, coming from the Latin words for "before the war. "During this time, arguments for and against slavery, which were previously isolated and sporadic, developed into fully articulated belief systems and platforms for action. Historians have long debated which came first, agitation against slavery or proslavery defenses of the institution. What is certain is that both the attack on slavery and the defense of it have long histories and that they grew in tandem, each influencing the other over time.
The antebellum period was characterized by religious revival and a zeal for social reform among the nation's white population, particularly in the North. Men and women formed numerous societies to battle the nation's moral ills, and by 1830, organizations dedicated to goals such as temperance, Bible reading, and educational reform dotted the nation. During this same period, the number of slaves and free blacks also grew rapidly, pushing the issue of slavery to the foreground. Concern for the slaves and worries over the impact of slavery on the nation's moral well-being intensified. Just like the Quakers in the second half of the eighteenth century, a small number of Americans now became convinced that putting an end to slavery was necessary in order to cleanse the nation.
Prior to 1820, most Americans who called for an end to slavery advocated that slaves be emancipated gradually. In the 1820s, however, a small number of men and women began to demand that the slaves be emancipated at once. In 1826, a Quaker named Elizabeth Heyrick published a pamphlet demanding immediate emancipation. Three years later, the black abolitionist David Walker (1785-1830) published his widely read Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World.
A Boston clothes dealer, Walker forcefully and eloquently described the essential injustice of slavery. He condemned the hypocrisy of the established churches that condoned human bondage, and excoriated slave-holders and other whites who implicitly defended the institution. Walker also called on slaves to free themselves, using violence if necessary. Walker's Appeal created a tempest in the North, where many whites condemned his call for violence. In the South, slaveholders called for his arrest.
In 1831, on the heels of Walker's Appeal, a white abolitionist named William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) published the first issue of his abolitionist paper, the Liberator. Garrison's fiery rhetoric caught the attention of white audiences throughout the nation. Unlike Walker, he did not condone violence. Instead, Garrison advocated a strategy of "moral suasion" by which abolitionists, occupying the moral high ground, would persuade others that slavery ought to be abolished. At the beginning, few whites supported Garrison, and subscriptions to the Liberator came primarily from blacks.
Soon after he founded the Liberator, Garrison also established the New England Anti-Slavery Society, which was the first of many antislavery societies in the North. These societies, like the other reform organizations of the period, distributed literature, sponsored traveling lecturers, and held mass meetings to build support and to raise money for their cause. In print, from the pulpit, and from the podium, the abolitionists denounced slavery, using the same biblical and natural law arguments of previous centuries. In addition, they drew on the nation's revolutionary heritage to point out the essential contradiction of holding slaves in a nation ostensibly dedicated to freedom. Drawing on the Declaration of Independence and the biblical command to love one's neighbor as oneself, abolitionists contended that in a nation claiming to be both Christian and democratic, slavery was national hypocrisy. It was nothing short of a national sin.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT "A Short Catechism: Adapted to All Parts of the United States" by William Lloyd Garrison
Antebellum abolitionists also tried to persuade the nation to abolish slavery on the ground that it was cruel and inhumane. In his 1839 tract Slavery As It Is the white abolitionist Theodore D. Weld (1803-1895) described in painful detail the misery and humiliation that slaves endured. He focused on slavery's impact on the family, describing horrendous scenes where slave families were torn apart on the auction block. Weld also graphically described how masters and overseers viciously beat and whipped their slaves. Weld's account of the life of slaves was widely circulated in the North and had a strong impact on public opinion. Even more influential, however, were the numerous former slaves who told their personal stories. Towering figures such as Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) and Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) traveled throughout the North giving eyewitness accounts of their bondage and answering questions from predominantly white audiences. Douglass also traveled to England, where he was warmly received. Douglass, Truth, and others also published their personal histories, and these narratives were widely distributed.
Northern blacks were involved in the movement to end slavery throughout the antebellum period. In 1827, two free blacks, John Russwurm (1799-1851) and Samuel E. Cornish (1795-1859), started the nation's first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal. The paper highlighted the evils of slavery and sought to improve the condition of blacks in the North.
In the 1830s, blacks were highly involved in the abolitionist movement and were members of the mostly white antislavery societies. However, the societies' white leaders only rarely allowed blacks to serve in positions of authority. Aware of the profound racism embedded in northern society, white abolitionists often feared that socializing with blacks or giving them authority would alienate potential white supporters. White leaders such as Garrison encouraged black abolitionists to remain in the role of spokespersons, touring the country and educating the population about slavery's ills.
By the late 1830s, black abolitionists who had filled the roles assigned to them became increasingly dissatisfied with their white colleagues' expectations and actions. White abolitionists, although ahead of their white peers, suffered from their own racial prejudices and exerted little effort to improve the lot of free blacks in the North. Black abolitionists, in contrast, had always pursued a single goal: the elevation of blacks in the United States. In the South, that meant emancipation, and in the North, economic opportunity and political equality.
Black abolitionists also grew impatient with white abolitionists' tactics. The Garrisonians believed that they should distance themselves from the political process and seek abolition only through moral suasion. They also favored the disbandment of the Union as a means of cleansing the nation of the sin of slavery and refused to countenance violence for any purpose. As the years wore on and moral suasion failed to convince many Americans of slavery's evil nature, many black abolitionists (and some white abolitionists as well) concluded that these methods were ineffectual and that new strategies were necessary.
To that end, black abolitionists helped to establish two antislavery political parties, the Liberty party, which ran the white abolitionist James G. Birney (1792-1857) for president in 1840, and the Free-Soil party, formed in 1848. Neither party presented a serious challenge to the Democrats or the Whigs, the major parties, but their presence did give abolitionists a political organization.
Among the black abolitionists who slowly drifted away from Garrison was Frederick Douglass. For years Douglass had lectured throughout the United States. An extraordinarily intelligent and eloquent man, Douglass wanted to speak both about slavery and about the plight of black people in the North. White abolitionists, however, wanted him to speak only about his experiences as a slave. They also wanted him to speak in a less sophisticated manner, fearing that his oratorical skills would undermine his credibility.
Frustrated by the attitudes of white abolitionists and by their consistent failure to seek the improvement of blacks' condition in the North, Douglass began to act independently. In 1847, he founded a newspaper called the North Star. At an antislavery convention in 1851, Douglass officially separated himself from the Garrisonian position. He announced that he no longer favored the dissolution of the Union because it would abandon the slave, and that he favored political action and resistance as a means of obtaining emancipation.
In the last thirty years of slavery, there was an insatiable taste among the American reading public for tales of slavery and escape, those told by fugitive slaves as well as fictional works, like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. The great demand for such tales did not always spring from sympathy for the enslaved. The more horrific stories, especially those containing scenes of violence against women and children, pandered to the public's taste for thrills as well.
Tales of the cruelties of slavery and hairbreadth escapes sold well, but they were not always wisely conceived. In particular, the publication of details having to do with escape—Underground Railroad routes, disguises and other strategems fugitive slaves practiced, the names of those who assisted them—could seriously compromise the escape plans of other slaves, a point Frederick Douglass made time and again in his public speaking and writing.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENTS Letters Between H.C. Wright and Frederick Douglass on the Purchase of Douglass's Freedom and "A Fugitive's Necessary Silence" by Frederick Douglass
To most Americans, north and south, the abolitionists were idealists at best and frightening revolutionaries at worst. Most northerners did not favor emancipation of the slaves, and the few who did wanted a gradual process, not immediate freedom for slaves. This hostility often led to threats of violence against both black and white abolitionists.
A major reason most northerners did not favor emancipation was that they did not want former slaves to settle in the North. The majority of northerners considered people of African origin and descent to be their physical, intellectual, and moral inferiors and refused to accept the idea of a biracial society. In sermons, speeches, newspapers, magazines, and novels, they predicted that terrible consequences would follow an influx of free blacks into northern society.
Senator Henry Clay (1777-1852), who did not favor the extension of slavery, shared these racist fears. Convinced that dark-and light-skinned people could never live together peacefully and prosperously, he concluded with many others that the freed slaves should be returned to Africa. Along with a number of other men, Clay helped to found the American Colonization Society in 1817. The society's goal was to relocate freed slaves in Africa, where the freedmen would bring the blessings of liberty and Christianity to other members of their race. The society raised enough money to establish a colony on the western coast of Africa, naming the new country Liberia and calling the capital Monrovia in honor of President James Monroe (1758-1831).
Colonization had wide appeal among whites who wanted to abolish slavery gradually and avoid integrating free blacks into their communities. However, the American Colonization Society was never able to raise enough money to transport more than a few hundred free blacks out of the United States. It repeatedly petitioned Congress to fund the project, but to no avail. In the end, colonization failed for lack of financial support and because few blacks wished to emigrate.
Black and white abolitionists severely condemned colonization and demanded that slaves be freed and allowed to live and thrive in the country of their birth, the United States of America. They saw colonization as a capitulation to whites' prejudices against blacks. However, some blacks, such as Martin Delany (1812-1885) and Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882), supported the idea of colonization. While they in no way condoned the North's virulent racism, they believed that only in another country could blacks fulfill their potential. During the Civil War, Delany and Garnet worked to settle blacks in Haiti.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT "Memorial Discourse" by Henry Highland Garnet
A POSITIVE GOOD
In response to the attack on slavery, southerners and some northerners launched a defense of the South's "peculiar institution. "Apologists for slavery argued that it was constitutional, moral, and beneficial to both blacks and whites. The constitutional defense of slavery was predicated on the existence of slavery in the southern states when the Constitution was adopted. The Constitution, slavery's defenders argued, sanctioned slavery and deprived Congress of the power to influence the states' domestic policies. Furthermore, proponents of slavery argued, the South had a constitutional right to share in the nation's expansion. Slavery therefore should be allowed in the territories and in the new states as they joined the Union.
To establish the morality of slavery, proslavery theorists turned to the Bible. They pointed out that the Old Testament patriarchs owned slaves and that Christ and his apostles never uttered a word in condemnation of slavery. Quite on the contrary, they observed, New Testament figures encouraged slaves to be humble and obedient. Proslavery exegetes also repeated the centuries-old argument that the curse of Canaan, recorded in Genesis, condemned the descendants of Ham to slavery. Africans, they reasoned, were those descendants, and so their bondage was prophetically sealed.
Slavery's defenders also argued that it was beneficial to the slaves. When enslaved, Africans were brought from a heathen society into the light of a Christian democracy. Furthermore, the argument continued, Africans were inherently inferior and unable to care for themselves. Slavery was therefore a blessing to them, because through it they received care and guidance.
Over the course of the antebellum period, the defense of slavery turned into an expression of unqualified approval. Increasingly, southern religious, political, social, and economic apologists characterized slavery not only as acceptable and beneficial, but as a positive good. Armed with the notion that slavery was preferable to free labor, southerners became more and more strident in their demands for the extension of slavery.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
THE NATION HEADS TOWARD WAR
In the 1850s, both anti-and proslavery proponents hardened in their positions. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown's raid rallied northerners to the abolitionists' cause. The Fugitive Slave Act prompted increasing numbers of abolitionists to advocate forcible resistance to law. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and the Dred Scott decision, which denied blacks the rights of national citizenship, reinforced their commitment to use any means available to secure the emancipation of slaves.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT The Final Moments of John Brown
Southerners observed the growth of antislavery sentiment in the North with fear. By the decade's end, they were convinced that the North meant to prevent the expansion of slavery into the territories and to abolish slavery where it existed. Determined to prevent this outcome, southern states began to secede in late 1860, and with their secession, the war that freed the slaves began.
Barnes, Gilbert H. The Antislavery Impulse, 1830-1844. New York:Appleton-Century, 1933.
Davis, David. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966.
——. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.
Fredrickson, George. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
Jenkins, William S. Pro-Slavery Thought in the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935.
Litwack, Leon. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States 1790-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Pease, Jane H., and William H. Pease. They Who Would Be Free: Blacks' Search for Freedom 1830-1861. New York: Atheneum, 1974.
Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Stewart, James B. Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery. New York: Hill and Wang, 1976.
Tise, Larry. Proslavery. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.
Walters, Ronald G. The Antislavery Appeal: American Abolitionism after 1830. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Pennsylvania Quakers Protest Slavery
The following is a pamphlet composed in 1783 by a Quaker farmer named David Cooper. The pamphlet was entitled "A Serious Address to the Rulers of America, on the Inconsistency of Their Conduct Respecting Slavery. "The Quakers' various protests constituted an important part of the white abolitionist movement, pointing out the fundamental contradiction in the young nation based on principles of equality and a respect for God condoning the institution of slavery.
"Ye pretended votaries for freedom! ye trifling patriots!" exclaimed the New England Baptist minister John Allen in 1774,"continuing this lawless, cruel, inhuman, and abominable practice of enslaving your fellow creatures. "Allen's attack on the gross contradiction between waging a revolution based on inherent human rights while continuing to hold one-fifth of the population in bondage continued through the war years and into the early years of peace after 1783. David Cooper, a New Jersey Quaker, took up the antislavery cudgels and held back nothing in assaulting the hypocrisy of his fellow Americans in committing what he called "treason" against the natural rights of man and in making a mockery of the noble words of the Declaration of Independence. Anthony Benezet, only a year from his death, made sure that every member of the Congress received a copy of Cooper's biting pamphlet, printed here. (The copy of Cooper's pamphlet in the Boston Athenaeum is signed by George Washington, indicating that he had read this antislavery tract.)
A Sound mind in a sound body, is said to be a state of the highest human happiness individually; when these blessings are separate, a sound mind, wise and prudent conduct, tend much to support and preserve an unsound body: On the other hand, where the body is sound, the constitution strong and healthy, if the mind is unsound, the governing principle weak and feeble, the body feels the injuries which ensue, the health and constitution often become enfeebled and sickly, and untimely death closes the scene. This reasoning holds good politically, being sometimes realized in bodies politick, and perhaps never more so than in the conduct lately exhibited to mankind by Great-Britain. Her constitution was sound, strong and firm, in a degree that drew admiration from the whole world; but, for want of a sound mind, her directing and governing powers being imprudent and unwise, to such a debilitated and sickly state is this fine constitution reduced, that, without a change of regimen, her decease may not be very remote. America is a child of this parent, who long since, with many severe pangs, struggled into birth, and is now arrived to the state of manhood, and thrown off the restraints of an unwise parent, is become master of his own will, and, like a lovely youth, hath stepped upon the stage of action. State physicians pronounce his constitution strong and sound: the eyes of the world are singularly attentive to his conduct, in order to determine with certainty on the soundness of his mind. It is the general Congress, as the head, that must give the colouring, and stamp wisdom or folly on the counsels of America. May they demonstrate to the world, that these blessings, a sound mind in a sound body, are in America politically united!
It was a claim of freedom unfettered from the arbitrary control of others, so essential to free agents, and equally the gift of our beneficent Creator to all his rational children, which put fleets and armies into motion, covered earth and seas with rapine and carnage, disturbed the repose of Europe, and exhausted the treasure of nations. Now is the time to demonstrate to Europe, to the whole world, that America was in earnest, and meant what she said, when, with peculiar energy, and unanswerable reasoning, she plead the cause of human nature, and with undaunted firmness insisted, that all mankind came from the hand of their Creator equally free. Let not the world have an opportunity to charge her conduct with a contradiction to her solemn and often repeated declarations; or to say that her sons are not real friends to freedom; that they have been actuated in this awful contest by no higher motive than selfishness and interest, like the wicked servant in the gospel, who, after his Lord had forgiven his debt which he was utterly unable to pay, shewed the most cruel severity to a fellow servant for a trifling demand, and thereby brought on himself a punishment which his conduct justly merited. Ye rulers of America beware: Let it appear to future ages, from the records of this day, that you not only professed to be advocates for freedom, but really were inspired by the love of mankind, and wished to secure the invaluable blessing to all; that, as you disdained to submit to the unlimited control of others, you equally abhorred the crying crime of holding your fellow men, as much entitled to freedom as yourselves, the subjects of your undisputed will and pleasure.
However habit and custom may have rendered familiar the degrading and ignominious distinctions, which are made between people with a black skin and ourselves, I am not ashamed to declare myself an advocate for the rights of that highly injured and abused people; and were I master of all the resistless persuasion of Tully and Demosthenes, could not employ it better, than in vindicating their rights as men, and forcing a blush on every American slaveholder, who has complained of the treatment we have received from Britain, which is no more to be equalled, with ours to negroes, than a barley corn is to the globe we inhabit. Must not every generous foreigner feel a secret indignation rise in his breast when he hears the language of Americans upon any of their own rights as freemen, being in the least infringed, and reflects that these very people are holding thousands and tens of thousands of their innocent fellow men in the most debasing and abject slavery, deprived of every right of freemen, except light and air? How similar to an atrocious pirate, setting in all the solemn pomp of a judge, passing sentence of death on a petty thief. Let us try the likeness by the standard of facts.
The first settlers of these colonies emigrated from England, under the sanction of royal charters, held all their lands under the crown, and were protected and defended by the parent state, who claimed and exercised a control over their internal police, and at length attempted to levy taxes upon them, and, by statute, declared the colonies to be under their jurisdiction, and that they had, and ought to have, a right to make laws to bind them in all cases whatsoever.
The American Congress in their declaration, July 1775, say,
If it were possible for men who exercise their reason to believe that the divine Author of our existence intended a part of the human race to hold an absolute property in, and an unbounded power over others, marked out by infinite goodness and wisdom, as the objects of a legal denomination never rightly resistible, however severe and oppressive; the inhabitants of these colonies might at least require from the parliament of Great-Britain some evidence, that this dreadful authority over them has been granted to that body. But a reverence for our great Creator, principles of humanity, and the dictates of common sense, must convince all those who reflect upon the subject, that government was instituted to promote the welfare of mankind, and ought to be administered for the attainment of that end.
Again they say,
By this perfidy (Howe's conduct in Boston) wives are separated from their husbands, children from their parents, the aged and sick from their relations and friends, who wish to attend and comfort them.
We most solemnly before God and the world declare, that exerting the utmost energy of those powers which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will in defiance of every hazard, with unabated firmness and perseverance, employ for the preservation of our liberties, being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than live slaves.
We exhibit to mankind the remarkable spectacle of a people attacked by unprovoked enemies, without any imputation, or even suspicion, of offence.—They boast of their privileges and civilization, and yet proffer no milder conditions than servitude or death.
In our own native land, in defence of the freedom that is our birthright, and which we ever enjoyed till the late violation of it; for the protection of our property acquired solely by the honest industry of our forefathers and ourselves; against violence actually offered, we have taken up arms.
In a resolve of Congress, October 1774, they say,
That the Inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature, are entitled to life, liberty and property; and they have never ceded to any sovereign power whatever a right to dispose of either without their consent.
To the people of Great-Britain.
Know then that we consider ourselves, and do insist, that we are and ought to be, as free as our fellow-subjects in Britain, and that no power on earth has a right to take our property from us without our consent.
Are the proprietors of the soil of America less lords of their property than you are of yours? &c.—Reason looks with indignation on such distinctions, and freemen can never perceive their propriety; and yet, however, chimerical and unjust such discriminations are; the Parliament assert, that they have a right to bind us in all cases without exception, whether we consent or not; that they may take and use our property when and in what manner they please; that we are pensioners on their bounty for all we possess, and can hold it no longer than they vouchsafe to permit.
If neither the voice of justice, the dictates of the law, the principles of the constitution, or the suggestions of humanity, can restrain your hands from shedding human blood in such an impious cause: we must then tell you, that we never will submit to be hewers of wood or drawers of water for any ministry or nation on earth. And in future, let justice and humanity cease to be the boast of your nation.
To the inhabitants of the colonies.
Weigh in the opposite balance, the endless miseries you and your descendants must endure, from an established arbitrary power.
Declaration of independence in Congress, 4th July, 1776.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Declaration of rights of Pennsylvania, July 15, 1776.
That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural inherent, and unalienable rights, among which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
Declaration of rights of Massachusetts, Sep. 1, 1779.
All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural essential and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing and protecting property; in fine, of seeking and obtaining safety and happiness.
Africa lies many thousand miles distant, its inhabitants as independent of us, as we are of them; we sail there, and foment wars among them in order that we may purchase the prisoner, and encourage the stealing one another to sell them to us; we bring them to America, and consider them and their posterity forever, our slaves, subject to our arbitrary will and pleasure; and if they imitate our example, and offer by force to assert their native freedom, they are condemned as traitors, and a hasty gibbet strikes terror on their survivors, and rivets their chains more secure.
Does not this forcible reasoning apply equally to Africans? Have we a better right to enslave them and their posterity, than Great-Britain had to demand Three-pence per pound for an article of luxury we could do very well without? And Oh! America, will not a reverence for our great Creator, principles of humanity, nor the dictates of common sense, awaken thee to reflect, how far thy government falls short of impartially promoting the welfare of mankind, when its laws suffer, yea justify men in murdering, torturing and abusing their fellow men, in a manner shocking to humanity?
How abundantly more aggravated is our conduct in these respects to Africans, in bringing them from their own country, and separating by sale these near connections, never more to see each other, or afford the least comfort of tender endearment of social life. But they are black, and ought to obey; we are white, and ought to rule.—Can a better reason be given for the distinction, that Howe's conduct is perfidy, and ours innocent and blameless, and justified by our laws?
Thou wicked servant, out of thine own mouth shalt thou be judged.—Is a claim to take thy property without thy consent so galling, that thou wilt defy every hazard rather than submit to it? And at the same time hold untold numbers of thy fellow men in slavery, (which robs them of every thing valuable in life) as firmly riveted by thee, as thou art resolved to use the utmost energy of thy power, to preserve thy own freedom?
Have the Africans offered us the least provocation to make us their enemies?—Have their infants committed, or are they even suspected of any offence? And yet we leave them no alternative but servitude or death.
The unenlightened Africans, in their own native land, enjoyed freedom which was their birthright, until the more savage christians transported them by thousands, and sold them for slaves in the wilds of America, to cultivate it for their lordly oppressors.
With equal justice may negroes say, By the immutable laws of nature, we are equally entitled to life, liberty and property with our lordly masters, and have never ceded to any power whatever, a right to deprive us thereof.
Does this reasoning apply more forcibly in favour of a white skin than a black one? Why ought a negro to be less free than the subjects of Britain, or a white face in America? "Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother?" Mal. ii. 10.
Do Americans reprobate this doctrine when applied to themselves? And at the same time enforce it with ten-fold rigor upon others, who are indeed pensioners on their bounty for all they possess, nor can they hold a single enjoyment of life longer than they vouch-safe to permit?
You who have read a description of the inhuman scenes occasioned by the slave-trade, in obtaining, branding, transporting, selling, and keeping in subjection millions of human creatures; reflect a moment, and then determine which is the most impious cause: and after this, if neither the voice of justice nor suggestions of humanity, can restrain your hands from being contaminated with the practice; cease to boast the christian name from him who commanded his followers "to do unto others as they would others should do unto them."
Who would believe the same persons whose feelings are so exquisitely sensible respecting themselves, could be so callous toward negroes, and the miseries which, by their arbitrary power, they wantonly inflict.
If these solemn truths, uttered at such an awful crisis, are self-evident: unless we can shew that the African race are not men, words can hardly express the amazement which naturally arises on reflecting, that the very people who make these pompous declarations are slave-holders, and, by their legislative conduct, tell us, that these blessings were only meant to be the rights of whitemen not of all men: and would seem to verify the observation of an eminent writer; "When men talk of liberty, they mean their own liberty, and seldom suffer their thoughts on that point to stray to their neighbours."
This was the voice, the language of the supreme council of America, in vindication of their rights as men, against imposition and unjust control:—Yes, it was the voice of all America, through her representatives in solemn Congress uttered. How clear, full and conclusive! "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ""By the immutable laws of nature all men are entitled to life and liberty. "We need not now turn over the libraries of Europe for authorities to prove that blacks are born equally free with whites; it is declared and recorded as the sense of America: Cease then ye cruel taskmasters, ye petty tyrants, from attempting to vindicate your having the same interest in your fellow men as in your cattle, and let blushing and confusion of face strike every American, who henceforth shall behold advertisements offering their brethren to sale, on a footing with brute beasts.
But what shall I say! Forgive it, Oh Heaven, but give ear, Oh earth! while we are execrating our parent state with all the bitterness of invective, for attempting to abridge our freedom, and invade our property; we are holding our brethren in the most servile bondage, cast out from the benefit of our laws, and subjected to the cruel treatment of the most imperious and savage tempers, without redress, without advocate or friend.
Our rulers have appointed days for humiliation, and offering up of prayer to our common Father to deliver us from our oppressors, when sighs and groans are piercing his holy ears from oppressions which we commit a thousand fold more grievous: pouring forth blood and treasure year after year in defence of our own rights; exerting the most assiduous attention and care to secure them by laws and sanctions, while the poor Africans are continued in chains of slavery as creatures unworthy of notice in these high concerns, and left subject to laws disgraceful to humanity, and opposite to every precept of christianity. One of these in effect gives Fifteen Pounds for the murder of a slave; that is, after a slave has absconded a certain time, Twenty Pounds is given to any one who shall bring his head, and but Five Pounds if he is brought alive. Another, which empowers certain officers to seize negroes set free, and sell them for the benefit of government: And, even during the present contest, negroes have been seized with the estates of persons who had gone over to the British, and sold by publick auction into perpetual slavery, and the proceeds cast into stock for the defence of American liberty. Of the same complexion is an instance in New-Jersey: A female Quaker, about seven years since, manumitted her negroes; the times having reduced her so as to be unable fully to discharge a debt for which she was only surety, the creditor, a great declaimer in behalf of American freedom, although he was offered his principal money, obtains a judgment, levies on these free negroes, who by the assistance of some real friends of freedom, procured a habeas corpus, and removed their case before the justices of the supreme court. How many such mock patriots hath this day discovered, whose flinty hearts are as impervious to the tender feelings of humanity and commiseration as the nether millstone; can sport with the rights of men; wallow and riot in the plunder, which their unhallowed hands have squeezed from others! But only touch their immaculate interests, and what an unceasing outcry invades every ear. A love for my country, a regard for the honour of America, raises an ardent wish, that this picture may never be realized in her rulers.
It may be objected that there are many difficulties to be guarded against in setting of negroes free, and that, were they all to be freed at once, they would be in a worse condition than at present. I admit that there is some weight in these objections; but are not these difficulties of our own creating? And must the innocent continue to suffer because we have involved ourselves in difficulties? Let us do justice as far as circumstances will admit, give such measure as we ask, if we expect Heaven to favour us with the continuance of our hard earned liberty. The work must be begun, or it can never be completed. "It is begun and many negroes are set free. "True, it is begun, but not in a manner likely to produce the desired end, the entire abolition of slavery. This is the business of the superintending authority, the main spring which gives motion to the whole political machine; which, were they to undertake in good earnest, I have no doubt but we should soon see a period fixed, when our land should no longer be polluted with slave-holders, nor give forth her increase to feed slaves: And indeed it hath been a matter of wonder to many, that that body, who have been so much employed in the study and defence of the rights of humanity, should suffer so many years to elapse without any effectual movement in this business. Had they, with the declaration of independence, recommended it to the different Legislatures to provide laws, declaring, that no person imported into, or born in America after that date, should be held in slavery; it would have been a step correspondent with our own claims, and in time, have completed the work, nor can I see any impropriety, but what the nature of the case will justify, to have it still take place.
To shew the necessity of this matter taking its rise at the head, if any thing effectual is done, I may instance the Quakers. Some among them, it is said, always bore a testimony against slavery from its first introduction, and the uneasiness increasing, advices were given forth cautioning their members against being concerned in importing slaves, to use those well whom they were possessed of, school their children, &c. but some of the foremost of that society having experienced the profits of their labour, no effectual stop could be put to the practice, tho' many became uneasy, and set their negroes free, until the difficulties attending the late French and Indian war, brought the rights of men into a more close inspection, when a rule was agreed upon, prohibiting their members from being concerned with importing, buying, or selling of slaves; and some years after a further rule was made, enjoining all those who held slaves to set them free, otherwise to be separated from religious membership.—The work was then soon accomplished, and they now say there are very few members belonging to the yearly meeting of Philadelphia who hold a slave.
When a grievance is general, it is but trifling to apply partial means; it is like attempting to destroy a great tree by nibbling at its branches. It is only the supreme power which pervades the whole that can take it up by the roots.—The disquisitions and reasonings of the present day on the rights of men, have opened the eyes of multitudes who clearly see, that, in advocating the rights of humanity, their slaves are equally included with themselves, and that the arguments which they advance to convict others, rebounds with re-doubled force back on themselves, so that few among us are now hardy enough to justify slavery, and yet will not release their slaves; like hardened sinners, acknowledge their guilt, but discover no inclination to reform. It is true these convictions have occasioned the release of many slaves, and two or three states to make some feeble efforts looking that way; but I fear, after the sunshine of peace takes place, we have little more to expect, unless the sovereign power is exerted to finish this sin, and put an end to this crying transgression.
Let me now address that August body, who are by their brethren clothed with sovereign power, to sit at the helm, and give a direction to the important concerns of the American union. You, gentlemen, have, in behalf of America, declared to Europe, to the world, "That all men are born equal, and, by the immutable laws of nature, are equally entitled to liberty. "We expect, mankind expects, you to demonstrate your faith by your works; the sincerity of your words by your actions, in giving the power, with which you are invested, its utmost energy in promoting equal and impartial liberty to all whose lots are cast within the reach of its influence—then will you be revered as the real friends of mankind, and escape the execrations which pursue human tyrants, who shew no remorse at sacrificing the ease and happiness of any number of their fellow-men to the increase and advancement of their own, are wholly regardless of others rights if theirs are but safe and secure. We are encouraged in this expectation by the second article of your nonimportation agreement in behalf of America, October 1774, viz. "That we will neither import nor purchase any slave imported after the first day of December next, after which time we will wholly discontinue the slave-trade, and will neither be concerned in it ourselves, nor will we hire our vessels nor sell our commodities or manufactures to those who are concerned in it."—And much would it have been for the honour of America, had it been added and confirmed by laws in each state (nor will we suffer such a stigma to remain on our land, as that it can produce slaves, therefore no child, born in any of the United States after this date, shall be held in slavery.)—But the children of slaves are private property, and cannot be taken from their masters without a compensation! What! After it hath so often been echoed from America, "All men are born equally free. ""No man or body of men can have a legitimate property in, or control over their fellow-men, but by their own consent expressed or implied. "Shall we now disown it in order to hold our slaves? Forbid it all honest men; it is treason against the rights of humanity, against the principles upon which the American revolution stands, and by which the present contest can only be justified; to deny it, is to justify Britain in her claims, and declare ourselves rebels. Wherefore our rulers undoubtedly ought to give these principles, these laws which themselves have declared immutable, a due force and efficacy. This every well-wisher to their country, either in a religious or political sense have a right to ask and expect. But we have laws that will maintain us in the possession of our slaves: "The fundamental law of nature being the good of mankind, no human sanctions can be good, or valid against it, but are of themselves void, and ought to be resisted," Lock[e]. Therefore none can have just cause of complaint, should so desirable an event take place, as that no person brought into, or born within any of the United States after the declaration of independence, shall be held a slave.
When I read the constitutions of the different states, they afford a mournful idea of the partiality and selfishness of man; the extraordinary care, and wise precautions they manifest to guard and secure our own rights and privileges, without the least notice of the injured Africans, or gleam of expectation afforded them, of being sharers of the golden fruitage, except in that of the Delaware state, who, to their lasting honour, while they were hedging in their own, provided against the invasion of the rights of others. By the twenty-sixth article of their constitution they resolve, that "No person hereafter imported into this state from Africa, ought to be held in slavery under any pretence whatever; and no negro, indian or mulatto slave, ought to be brought into this state for sale from any part of the world. "Had they went further and made provision by which slavery must at length have terminated within their jurisdiction, it would have been doing something to the purpose; and, as this is the only constitution in which posterity will see any regard paid to that abused people, I hope the same humane considerations which led them so far, will induce them to take the lead in doing their part toward putting an effectual end to this crying evil, which will ever remain a stain to the annals of America.
And you who in the several states are clothed with legislative authority, and have now an opportunity of displaying your wisdom and virtue by your laws freed from every foreign control, although this people were below notice, and their rights and interest thought unworthy of a sanction in your constitutions; let me beseech you, if you wish your country to escape the reproach and lasting infamy of denying to others what she hath so often, and in the most conclusive language, declared were the rights of all; if you wish to retain the name of christians, of friends to human nature, and of looking up acceptably in prayer to the common father of men to deal with you in the same tenderness and mercy as you deal with others; that you would even now regard the rigorous oppressions of his other children, and your brethren, which they suffer under laws which you only can abrogate. View your negro laws calculated not to protect and defend them, but to augment and heighten their calamitous situation! Cast out and rejected by the regulations formed for the defence and security of the rights and privileges, and to guard and improve the morals and virtue of the whites: Left open to the gratification of every passion and criminal commerce with one another, as though they were brutes and not men; fornication, adultery, and all the rights of marriage union among blacks, considered beneath the notice of those rules and sanctions formed to humanize and restrain corrupt nature, or the regard of those whose duty it is to enforce them. Yes, blush Americans! Ye have laws, with severe penalties annexed, against these crimes when committed between whites; but, if committed by blacks, or by white men with black women, with the aggravated circumstances of force and violence, they pass as subjects of mirth, not within the cognizance of law or magistrates inquiry, and lose the very name of crimes. Hence children often become familiar with these scenes of corruption and wickedness, before they are capable of distinguishing between the duties of christianity, and the appetites of unrestrained nature. No marvel then if slave-holders are often scourged by the vices of their own offspring, which their untutored slaves have been a means of inflicting—children who, instead of being educated in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, are too often nurtured in pride, idleness, lewdness, and the indulgence of every natural appetite; that, were there no other inducement, this singly is sufficient to cause every real christian to lift a hand against, and exert their utmost influence in, bringing this hydra mischief to a period. But when we consider the accumulated guilt, in other respects, abundantly set forth by other writers on this subject, brought on this land through the introduction of this infernal traffick, at a time when we were denied the privilege of making laws to check the mighty evil; and that near ten years have now elapsed since this restraint hath been removed, and no effectual advance yet made towards loosing the bands of wickedness, and letting the oppressed go free, or even of putting it in a train whereby it may at length come to an end; I say, it is matter of anxious sorrow, and affords a gloomy presage to the true friends of America. Have we reason to expect, or dare we ask of him whose ways are all equal, the continuance of his blessings to us, whilst our ways are so unequal.
I shall now conclude with the words of Congress to the people of England, a little varied to suit the present subject.
If neither the voice of justice, the dictates of humanity, the rights of human nature, and establishment of impartial liberty now in your power, the good of your country, nor the fear of an avenging God, can restrain your hands from this impious practice of holding your fellow-men in slavery; making traffick of, and advertising in your publick prints for sale as common merchandize, your brethren possessed of immortal souls equal with yourselves; then let justice, humanity, advocates for liberty, and the sacred name of christians, cease to be the boast of American rulers.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
An Account of the Amistad Revolt
The American Revolution was already a half century old when the Amistad appeared in the waters of Long Island Sound, most of its crew dead and its human cargo at the mercy of those who remained. The slave trade technically had been abolished in 1808, but it still delivered African slaves to out of the way ports in North America, while slavery itself was growing and expanding ever westward along the southern frontier. The following is an excerpt from the History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 by George W. Williams and gives a detailed portrait of the events as reported by various persons involved in the incident.
On the 28th of June, 1839, the "Amistad," a Spanish slaver (schooner), with Captain Ramon Ferrer in command, sailed from Havana, Cuba, for Porto Principe, a place in the island of Cuba, about 100 leagues distant. The passengers were Don Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz, with fifty-four Africans just from their native country, Lemboko, as slaves. Among the slaves was one man, called in Spanish, Joseph Cinquez, said to be the son of an African prince. He was possessed of wonderful natural abilities, and was endowed with all the elements of an intelligent and intrepid leader. The treatment these captives received was very cruel. They were chained down between the decks—space not more than four feet—by their wrists and ankles; forced to eat rice, sick or well, and whipped upon the slightest provocation. On the fifth night out, Cinquez chose a few trusty companions of his misfortunes, and made a successful attack upon the officers and crew. The captain and cook struck down, two sailors put ashore, the Negroes were in full possession of the vessel. Montes was compelled, under paid of death, to navigate the vessel to Africa. He steered eastwardly during the daytime, but at night put about hoping to touch the American shore. Thus the vessel wandered until it was cited off of the coast of the United States during the month of August. It was described as a "long, low, black schooner. "Notice was sent to all the collectors of the ports along the Atlantic Coast, and a steamer and several revenue cutters were dispatched after her. Finally, on the 26th of August, 1839, Lieut. Gedney, U. S. Navy, captured the "Amistad," and took her into New London, Connecticut.
The two Spaniards and a Creole cabin boy were examined before Judge Andrew T. Judson, of the United States Court, who, without examining the Negroes, bound them over to be tried as pirates. The poor Africans were cast into the prison at New London. Public curiosity was at a high pitch; and for a long time the "Amistad captives" occupied a large place in public attention. The Africans proved to be natives of the Mendi country, and quite intelligent. The romantic story of their sufferings and meanderings was given to the country through a competent interpreter; and many Christian hearts turned toward them in their lonely captivity in a strange land. The trial was continued several months. During this time the anti-slavery friends provided instruction for the Africans. Their minds were active and receptive. They soon learned to read, write, and do sums in arithmetic. They cultivated a garden of some fifteen acres, and proved themselves an intelligent and industrious people.
The final decision of the court was that the "Amistad captives" were not slaves, but freemen, and, as such, were entitled to their liberty. The good and liberal Lewis Tappan had taken a lively interest in these people from the first, and now that they were released from prison, felt that they should be sent back to their native shores and a mission started amongst their countrymen. Accordingly he took charge of them and appeared before the public in a number of cities of New England. An admission fee of fifty cents was required at the door, and the proceeds were devoted to leasing a vessel to take them home. Large audiences greeted them everywhere, and the impression they made was of the highest order. Mr. Tappan would state the desire of the people to return to their native land, appeal to the philanthropic to aid them, and then call upon the people to read the Scriptures, sing songs in their own language, and then in the English. Cinquez would then deliver an account of their capture, the horrors of the voyage, how he succeeded in getting his manacles off, how he aided his brethren to loose their fetters, how he invited them to follow him in an attempt to gain their liberty, the attack, and their rescue, etc., etc. He was a man of magnificent physique, commanding presence, graceful manners, and effective oratory. His speeches were delivered in Mendi, and translated into English by an interpreter.
"It is impossible," wrote Mr. Tappan from Boston,"to describe the novel and deeply interesting manner in which he acquitted himself. The subject of his speech was similar to that of his countrymen who had spoken in English; but he related more minutely and graphically the occurrences on board the 'Amistad.' The easy manner of Cinquez, his natural, graceful, and energetic action, the rapidity of his utterance, and the remarkable and various expressions of his countenance, excited admiration and applause. He was pronounced a powerful natural orator, and one born to sway the minds of his fellow-men. Should he be converted and become a preacher of the cross in Africa what delightful results may be anticipated!"
A little fellow called Kali, only eleven years of age, pleased the audience everywhere he went by his ability not only to spell any word in the Gospels, but sentences, without blundering. For example, he would spell out a sentence like the following sentence, naming each letter and syllable, and recapitulating as he went along, until he pronounced the whole sentence: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
Of their doings in Philadelphia, Mr. Joseph Sturge wrote:
On this occasion, a very crowded and miscellaneous assembly collected to see and hear the Mendians, although the admission had been fixed as high as half a dollar, with the view of raising a fund to carry them to their native country. Fifteen of them were present, including one little boy and three girls. Cinque, their chief, spoke with great fluency in his native language; and his action and manner were very animated and graceful. Not much of his speech was translated, yet he greatly interested his audience. The little boy could speak our language with facility; and each of them read, without hesitation, one or two verses in the New Testament. It was impossible for any one to go away with the impression, that in native intellect these people were inferior to the whites. The information which I privately received from their tutor, and others who had full opportunities of appreciating their capacities and attainments, fully confirmed my own very favorable impressions.
But all the while their sad hearts were turning toward their home and the dear ones so far away. One of them eloquently declared: "If Merica men offer me as much gold as fill this cap full up, and give me houses, land, and every ting, so dat I stay in this country, I say: 'No! no! I want to see my father, my mother, my brother, my sister.'" Nothing could have been more tender and expressive. They were willing to endure any hardships short of life that they might once more see their own, their native land. The religious instruction they had enjoyed made a wonderful impression on their minds. One of them said: "We owe every thing to God; he keeps us alive, and makes us free. When we go to home to Mendi we tell our brethren about God, Jesus Christ, and heaven. "Another one was asked: "What is faith?" and replied: "Believing in Jesus Christ, and trusting in him. "Reverting to the murder of the captain and cook of the "Amistad," one of the Africans said that if it were to be done over again he would pray for rather than kill them. Cinque, hearing this, smiled and shook his head. When asked if he would not pray for them, said: "Yes, I would pray for 'em, an' kill 'em too."
These captives were returned to their native country in the fall of 1841, accompanied by five missionaries. Their objective point was Sierra Leone, from which place the British Government assisted them to their homes. Their stay in the United States did the anti-slavery cause great good. Here were poor, naked, savage pagans, unable to speak English, in less than three years able to speak the English language and appreciate the blessings of a Christian civilization.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
The Louisiana Purchase and the Missouri Compromise
When the United States purchased the lands that would become known as the Louisiana Purchase from France, the stage was set for a fierce battle as to whether the incoming territories would become slave states or not. On the one side were the powerful lobbies of southern businessmen as well as adventurers and entrepreneurs who wished to develop the new land. On the other side were the abolitionists. Like so many battles regarding the rights of African Americans, the battle concerned more than just the slavery issue. It would set the tone for the growing nation. In the end the compromise effectively divided the nation down racial and political fault lines. The following is the original document as prepared by Henry Clay. Note section 8 in which slavery is prohibited in territories north of the 36 degrees, 30 minutes, line of latitude—with the exception of Missouri. This is the section that was repealed in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, effectively the final straw, propelling the nation into the Civil War.
Establishing Slave State Boundaries: The Missouri Compromise by Henry Clay, 1819-1821
The Territory of Missouri was part of the Louisiana Purchase; by the terms of this purchase the inhabitants of the Territory were guaranteed in their liberty, property, and religion. When in 1818 Missouri petitioned for admission to the Union as a State, the question arose whether this guaranty covered property in slaves of whom there were some two or three thousand in the Territory. In the course of the discussion of the enabling act, Representative Tallmadge of New York offered an amendment excluding slavery from the State. This amendment passed the House but failed in the Senate. That summer and fall the Missouri question was the chief political issue before the country; Congress was bombarded with petitions from State legislatures and other bodies on the slavery issue. In the new Congress the positions of the House and the Senate are indicated by the passage in the House of the Taylor Amendment, in the Senate of the Thomas Amendment. The application of Maine for admission as a State offered Congress a way out of the difficulty. A conference committee reported bills to admit Maine to Statehood, and to admit Missouri with the Thomas Amendment. An act authorizing Missouri to form a state government was approved March 6, but the constitution which the Missouri Convention drew up contained a clause obnoxious to the anti-slavery element, and probably unconstitutional, and Congress refused to admit the State under this constitution. A conference committee worked out a solution to the problem which was provided in the Resolutions for the admission of Missouri of March 2. The conditions laid down were accepted by the legislature of Missouri in June, and Missouri was admitted to Statehood by proclamation of August 10.
1. The Tallmadge Amendment February 13, 1819
(Journal of the House of Representatives, 15th Congress, 2nd. Sess. p. 272)
And provided also, That the further introduction of slavery or involuntary servitude be prohibited, except for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall be duly convicted; and that all children of slaves, born within the said state, after the admission thereof into the Union, shall be free but may be held to service until the age of twenty-five years.
2. The Taylor Amendment January 26, 1820
(Annals of the Congress of the United States, 16th Cong. 1st. Sess. Vol. I, p. 947)
The reading of the bill proceeded as far as the fourth section; when
Mr. Taylor, of New York, proposed to amend the bill by incorporating in that section the following provision:
Section 4, line 25, insert the following after the word "State"; "And shall ordain and establish, that there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said State, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any other State, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed, and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid: And provided, also, That the said provision shall not be construed to alter the condition or civil rights of any person now held to service or labor in the said Territory."
3. The Thomas Amendment February 17, 1820
(Annals of the Congress of the United States, 16th Cong. 1st Sess. Vol. I, p. 427)
And be it further enacted, That, in all that territory ceded by France to the United States, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes north latitude, excepting only such part thereof as is included within the limits of the State contemplated by this act, slavery and involuntary servitude, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall be and is hereby forever prohibited: Provided always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any State or Territory of the United States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed, and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service, as aforesaid.
4. Missouri Enabling Act March 6, 1820
(U.S. Statutes at Large, Vol. III, p. 545 ff.)
An Act to authorize the people of the Missouri territory to form a constitution and state government, and for the admission of such state into the Union on an equal footing with the original states, and to prohibit slavery in certain territories.
Be it enacted That the inhabitants of that portion of the Missouri territory included within the boundaries hereinafter designated, be, and they are hereby, authorized to form for themselves a constitution and state government, and to assume such name as they shall deem proper; and the said state, when formed, shall be admitted into the Union, upon an equal footing with the original states, in all respects whatsoever.
Sec. 2. That the said state shall consist of all the territory included within the following boundaries, to wit: Beginning in the middle of the Mississippi river, on the parallel of thirty-six degrees of north latitude; thence west, along that parallel of latitude, to the St. Francois river; thence up, and following the course of that river, in the middle of the main channel thereof, to the parallel of latitude of thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes; thence west, along the same, to a point where the said parallel is intersected by a meridian line passing through the middle of the month of the Kansas river, where the same empties into the Missouri river, thence, from the point aforesaid north, along the said meridian line, to the intersection of the parallel of latitude which passes through the rapids of the river Des Moines, making the said line to correspond with the Indian boundary line; thence east, from the point of intersection last aforesaid, along the said parallel of latitude, to the middle of the channel of the main fork of the said river Des Moines; thence down and along the middle of the main channel of the said river Des Moines, to the mouth of the same, where it empties into the Mississippi river; thence, due east, to the middle of the main channel of the Mississippi river; thence down, and following the course of the Mississippi river, in the middle of the main channel thereof, to the place of beginning: …
Sec. 3. That all free white male citizens of the United States, who shall have arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and have resided in said territory three months previous to the day of election, and all other persons qualified to vote for representatives to the general assembly of the said territory, shall be qualified to be elected, and they are hereby qualified and authorized to vote, and choose representatives to form a convention.…
Sec. 8. That in all that territory ceded by France to the United States, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes north latitude, not included within the limits of the state, contemplated by this act, slavery and involuntary servitude, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the parties shall have been duly convicted, shall be, and is hereby, forever prohibited: Provided always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labour or service is lawfully claimed, in any state or territory of the United States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labour or service as aforesaid.
5. The Constitution of Missouri July 19, 1820
(Poore, ed., Federal and State Constitutions, Vol. II, p. 1107-8)
Sec. 26. The general assembly shall not have power to pass laws—
1. For the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners; or without paying them, before such emancipation, a full equivalent for such slaves so emancipated; and,
2. To prevent bona-fide immigrants to this State, or actual settlers therein, from bringing from any of the United States, or from any of their Territories, such persons as may there be deemed to be slaves, so long as any persons of the same description are allowed to be held as slaves by the laws of this State.
They shall have power to pass laws—
1. To prevent bona-fide immigrants to this State of any slaves who may have committed any high crime in any other State or Territory;
2. To prohibit the introduction of any slave for the purpose of speculation, or as an article of trade or merchandise;
3. To prohibit the introduction of any slave, or the offspring of any slave, who heretofore may have been, or who hereafter may be, imported from any foreign country into the United States, or any Territory thereof, in contravention of any existing statute of the United States; and,
4. To permit the owners of slaves to emancipate them, saving the right of creditors, where the person so emancipating will give security that the slave so emancipated shall not become a public charge.
It shall be their duty, as soon as may be, to pass such laws as may be necessary—
1. To prevent free negroes end [and] mulattoes from coming to and settling in this State, under any pretext whatsoever; and,
2. To oblige the owners of slaves to treat them with humanity, and to abstain from all injuries to them extending to life or limb.
6. Resolution for the Admission of Missouri March 2, 1821
(U.S. Statutes at Large, Vol. III, p. 645)
Resolution providing for the admission of the State of Missouri into the Union, on a certain condition.
Resolved, That Missouri shall be admitted into this union on an equal footing with the original states, in all respects whatever, upon the fundamental condition, that the fourth clause of the twenty-sixth section of the third article of the constitution submitted on the part of said state to Congress, shall never be construed to authorize the passage of any law, and that no law shall be passed in conformity thereto, by which any citizen, of either of the states in this Union, shall be excluded from the enjoyment of any of the privileges and immunities to which such citizen is entitled under the constitution of the United States: Provided, That the legislature of the said state, by a solemn public act, shall declare the assent of the said state to the said fundamental condition, and shall transmit to the President of the United States, on or before the fourth Monday in November next, an authentic copy of the said act; upon the receipt whereof, the President, by proclamation, shall announce the fact; whereupon, and without any further proceeding on the part of Congress, the admission of the said state into this Union shall be considered as complete.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
"A Short Catechism: Adapted to All Parts of the United States" by William Lloyd Garrison
William Lloyd Garrison was one of the angriest, as well as one of the wittiest, of the abolitionist writers and speakers—and absolutely uncompromising in his call for immediate, unconditional, and universal emancipation. His antislavery approach of "moral suasion" was rooted in noncomformist religious belief. It demanded that abolitionists refrain from political activity, including voting, on the ground that such activity supported a manifestly corrupt government. It also demanded that abolitionists be entirely pacifist in their activities, refraining from any coercive physical action to bring down slavery. Moral suasion alone, by appealing to the public's higher faculties of reason and spiritual insight, was to win the day.
As the years wore on and slavery remained as entrenched as ever, many abolitionists departed from the Garrisonian view, calling for vigorous political action or the violent overthrow of slavery, or both. Garrison himself, however, never wavered in his commitment to changing minds and hearts. He understood that while slavery itself was the exercise of sheer power, proslavery arguments rested on a series of spurious rationales, appealing, or seeming to appeal, to human reason. Combining his anger and wit, Garrison often took aim at proslavery reasoning, exposing its logic as absurd, self-serving, or simply racist.
The racism of proslavery arguments is his target in "A Short Catechism," which appeared in the pages of the Liberator for November 17, 1837. Here, Garrison reduces every proslavery argument—and what he saw as the related arguments for gradual abolition and colonization—to a single racist formula: "because they are black. "As religious catechism forces respondents to recognize church doctrine, so Garrison's catechism forces them to recognize their own racism.
1. Why is American slaveholding in all cases not sinful? Because its victims are black. 2. Why is gradual emancipation right? Because the slaves are black. 3. Why is immediate emancipation wrong and dangerous? Because the slaves are black. 4. Why ought one-sixth portion of the American population to be exiled from their native soil? Because they are black. 5. Why would the slaves if emancipated, cut the throats of their masters? Because they are black. 6. Why are our slaves not fit for freedom? Because they are black. 7. Why are American slaveholders not thieves, tyrants and men-stealers? Because their victims are black. 8. Why does the Bible justify American slavery? Because its victims are black. 9. Why ought not the Priest and the Levite,'passing by on the other side,' to be sternly rebuked? Because the man who has fallen among thieves, and lies weltering in his blood, is black. 10. Why are abolitionists fanatics, madmen and incendiaries? Because those for whom they plead are black. 11. Why are they wrong in their principles and measures? Because the slaves are black. 12. Why is all the prudence, moderation, judiciousness, philanthropy and piety on the side of their opponents? Because the slaves are black. 13. Why ought not the free discussion of slavery to be tolerated? Because its victims are black. 14. Why is Lynch law, as applied to abolitionists, better than common law? Because the slaves, whom they seek to emancipate, are black. 15. Why are the slaves contented and happy? Because they are black! 16. Why don't they want to be free? Because they are black! 17. Why are they not created in the image of God? Because their skin is black. 18. Why are they not cruelly treated, but enjoy unusual comforts and privileges? Because they are black! 19. Why are they not our brethren and countrymen? Because they are black. 20. Why is it unconstitutional to pity and defend them? Because they are black. 21. Why is it a violation of the national compact to rebuke their masters? Because they are black. 22. Why will they be lazy, improvident, and worthless, if set free? Because their skin is black. 23. Why will the whites wish to amalgamate with them in a state of freedom? Because they are black!! 24. Why must the Union be dissolved, should Congress abolish slavery in the District of Columbia? Because the slaves in that District are black.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
"Memorial Discourse" by Henry Highland Garnet
In the year 1865, following the end of the Civil War, Henry Highland Garnet was asked to deliver his Memorial Discourse before the House of Representatives. Garnet went on to become president of Avery College and later pastor of New York's Shiloh Baptist Church. In 1881, Garnet was named consul general to the nation of Liberia, and there he died and was buried in 1882.
The discourse highlights the early debate among African American intellectual leaders on the course that should be taken for the advancement of black Americans. While Garnet was respected as a man of reason, his stance was hardly that of the accomodationists, later personified in Booker T. Washington.
A Call to Rebellion: An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America, by Henry Highland Garnet Preface
The following Address was first read at the National Convention held at Buffalo, N. Y., in 1843. Since that time it has been slightly modified, retaining, however, all of its original doctrine. The document elicited more discussion than any other paper that was ever brought before that, or any other deliberative body of colored persons, and their friends. Gentlemen who opposed the Address, based their objections on these grounds. 1. That the document was war-like, and encouraged insurrection; and 2. That if the Convention should adopt it, that those delegates who lived near the borders of the slave states, would not dare to return to their homes. The Address was rejected by a small majority; and now in compliance with the earnest request of many who heard it, and in conformity to the wishes of numerous friends who are anxious to see it, the author now gives it to the public, praying God that this little book may be borne on the four winds of heaven, until the principles it contains shall be understood and adopted by every slave in the Union.
H. H. G.
Troy, N.Y., April 15, 1848.
Address to the Slaves of the U.S.
Brethren and Fellow Citizens:
Your brethren of the north, east, and west have been accustomed to meet together in National Conventions, to sympathize with each other, and to weep over your unhappy condition. In these meetings we have addressed all classes of the free, but we have never until this time, sent a word of consolation and advice to you. We have been contented in sitting still and mourning over your sorrows, earnestly hoping that before this day, your sacred liberties would have been restored. But, we have hoped in vain. Years have rolled on, and tens of thousands have been borne on streams of blood, and tears, to the shores of eternity. While you have been oppressed, we have also been partakers with you; nor can we be free while you are enslaved. We therefore write to you as being bound with you.
Many of you are bound to us, not only by the ties of a common humanity, but we are connected by the more tender relations of parents, wives, husbands, children, brothers, and sisters, and friends. As such we most affectionately address you.
Slavery has fixed a deep gulf between you and us, and while it shuts out from you the relief and consolation which your friends would willingly render, it afflicts and persecutes you with a fierceness which we might not expect to see in the fiends of hell. But still the Almighty Father of Mercies has left to us a glimmering ray of hope, which shines out like a lone star in a cloudy sky. Mankind are becoming wiser, and better—the oppressor's power is fading, and you, every day, are becoming better informed, and more numerous. Your grievances, brethren, are many. We shall not attempt, in this short address, to present to the world, all the dark catalogue of this nation's sins, which have been committed upon an innocent people. Nor is it indeed, necessary, for you feel them from day to day, and all the civilized world look upon them with amazement.
Two hundred and twenty-seven years ago, the first of our injured race were brought to the shores of America. They came not with glad spirits to select their homes, in the New World. They came not with their own consent, to find an unmolested enjoyment of the blessings of this fruitful soil. The first dealings which they had with men calling themselves Christians, exhibited to them the worst features of corrupt and sordid hearts; and convinced them that no cruelty is too great, no villainy, and no robbery too abhorrent for even enlightened men to perform, when influenced by avarice, and lust. Neither did they come flying upon the wings of Liberty, to a land of freedom. But, they came with broken hearts, from their beloved native land, and were doomed to unrequited toil, and deep degradation. Nor did the evil of their bondage end at their emancipation by death. Succeeding generations inherited their chains, and millions have come from eternity into time, and have returned again to the world of spirits, cursed, and ruined by American Slavery.
The propagators of the system, or their immediate ancestors very soon discovered its growing evil, and its tremendous wickedness, and secret promises were made to destroy it. The gross inconsistency of a people holding slaves, who had themselves "ferried o'er the wave," for freedom's sake, was too apparent to be entirely overlooked. The voice of Freedom cried, "emancipate your Slaves. "Humanity supplicated with tears, for the deliverance of the children of Africa. Wisdom urged her solemn plea. The bleeding captive plead his innocence, and pointed to Christianity who stood weeping at the cross. Jehovah frowned upon the nefarious institution, and thunderbolts, red with vengeance, struggled to leap forth to blast the guilty wretches who maintained it. But all was vain. Slavery had stretched its dark wings of death over the land, the Church stood silently by—the priests prophesied falsely, and the people loved to have it so. Its throne is established, and now it reigns triumphantly.
Nearly three millions of your fellow citizens, are prohibited by law, and public opinion, (which in this country is stronger than law), from reading the Book of Life. Your intellect has been destroyed as much as possible, and every ray of light they have attempted to shut out from your minds. The oppressors themselves have become involved in the ruin. They have become weak, sensual, and rapacious. They have cursed you—they have cursed themselves—they have cursed the earth which they have trod. In the language of a southern statesman, we can truly say, "even the wolf, driven back long since by the approach of man, now returns after the lapse of a hundred years, and howls amid the desolations of slavery."
The colonists threw the blame upon England. They said that the mother country entailed the evil upon them, and that they would rid themselves of it if they could. The world thought they were sincere, and the philanthropic pitied them. But time soon tested their sincerity. In a few years, the colonists grew strong 2nd severed themselves from the British Government. Their Independence was declared, and they took their station among the sovereign powers of the earth. The declaration was a glorious document. Sages admired it, and the patriotic of every nation reverenced the Godlike sentiments which it contained. When the power of Government returned to their hands, did they emancipate the slaves? No; they rather added new links to our chains. Were they ignorant of the principles of Liberty? Certainly they were not. The sentiments of their revolutionary orators fell in burning eloquence upon their hearts, and with one voice they cried, Liberty or Death. O, what a sentence was that! It ran from soul to soul like electric fire, and nerved the arm of thousands to fight in the holy cause of Freedom. Among the diversity of opinions that are entertained in regard to physical resistance, there are but a few found to gainsay that stern declaration. We are among those who do not.
Slavery! How much misery is comprehended in that single word. What mind is there that does not shrink from its direful effects? Unless the image of God is obliterated from the soul, all men cherish the love of Liberty. The nice discerning political economist does not regard the sacred right, more than the untutored African who roams in the wilds of Congo. Nor has the one more right to the full enjoyment of his freedom than the other. In every man's mind the good seeds of liberty are planted, and he who brings his fellow down so low, as to make him contented with a condition of slavery, commits the highest crime against God and man. Brethren, your oppressors aim to do this. They endeavor to make you as much like brutes as possible. When they have blinded the eyes of your mind—when they have embittered the sweet waters of life—when they have shut out the light which shines from the word of God—then, and not till then has American slavery done its perfect work.
To such degradation it is sinful in the extreme for you to make voluntary submission. The divine commandments, you are in duty bound to reverence, and obey. If you do not obey them you will surely meet with the displeasure of the Almighty He requires you to love him supremely, and your neighbor as yourself—to keep the Sabbath day holy—to search the Scriptures—and bring up your children with respect for his laws, and to worship no other God but him. But slavery sets all these at naught and hurls defiance in the face of Jehovah. The forlorn condition in which you are placed does not destroy your moral obligation to God. You are not certain of Heaven, because you suffer yourselves to remain in a state of slavery, where you cannot obey the commandments of the Sovereign of the universe. If the ignorance of slavery is a passport to heaven, then it is a blessing, and no curse, and you should rather desire its perpetuity than its abolition. God will not receive slavery, nor ignorance, nor any other state of mind, for love, and obedience to him. Your condition does not absolve you from your moral obligation. The diabolical injustice by which your liberties are cloven down, neither God, nor angels, or just men, command you to suffer for a single moment. Therefore it is your solemn and imperative duty to use every means, both moral, intellectual, and physical, that promise success. If a band of heathen men should attempt to enslave a race of Christians, and to place their children under the influence of some false religion, surely, heaven would frown upon the men who would not resist such aggression, even to death. If, on the other hand, a band of Christians should attempt to enslave a race of heathen men and to entail slavery upon them, and to keep them in heathenism in the midst of Christianity, the God of heaven would smile upon every effort which the injured might make to disenthral themselves.
Brethren, it is as wrong for your lordly oppressors to keep you in slavery, as it was for the man thief to steal our ancestors from the coast of Africa. You should therefore now use the same manner of resistance, as would have been just in our ancestors, when the bloody foot prints of the first remorseless soul thief was placed upon the shores of our fatherland. The humblest peasant is as free in the sight of God, as the proudest monarch that ever swayed a sceptre. Liberty is a spirit sent out from God, and like its great Author, is no respector of persons.
Brethren, the time has come when you must act for yourselves. It is an old and true saying, that "if hereditary bondmen would be free, they must themselves strike the blow."You can plead your own cause, and do the work of emancipation better than any others. The nations of the old world are moving in the great cause of universal freedom, and some of them at least, will ere long, do you justice. The combined powers of Europe have placed their broad seal of disapprobation upon the African slave trade. But in the slave holding parts of the United States, the trade is as brisk as ever. They buy and sell you as though you were brute beasts. The North has done much—her opinion of slavery in the abstract is known. But in regard to the South, we adopt he opinion of the New York Evangelist—"We have advanced so far, that the cause apparently waits for a more effectual door to be thrown open than has been yet. "We are about to point you to that more effectual door. Look around you, and behold the bosoms of your loving wives, heaving with untold agonies! Hear the cries of your poor children! Remember the stripes your fathers bore. Think of the torture and disgrace of your noble mothers. Think of your wretched sisters, loving virtue and purity, as they are driven into concubinage, and are exposed to the unbridled lusts of incarnate devils. Think of the undying glory that hangs around the ancient name of Africa:—and forget not that you are native-born American citizens, and as such, you are justly entitled to all the rights that are granted to the freest. Think how many tears you have poured out upon the soil which you have cultivated with unrequited toil, and enriched with your blood; and then go to your lordly enslavers, and tell them plainly, that you are determined to be free. Appeal to their sense of justice, and tell them that they have no more right to oppress you, than you have to enslave them. Entreat them to remove the grievous burdens which they have imposed upon you, and to remunerate you for your labor. Promise them renewed diligence in the cultivation of the soil, if they will render to you an equivalent for your services. Point them to the increase of happiness and prosperity in the British West Indies, since the act of Emancipation. Tell them in language which they cannot misunderstand, of the exceeding sinfulness of slavery, and of a future judgment, and of the righteous retributions of an indignant God. Inform them that all you desire, is Freedom, and that nothing else will suffice. Do this, and for ever after cease to toil for the heartless tyrants, who give you no other reward but stripes and abuse. If they then commence the work of death, they, and not you, will be responsible for the consequences. You had far better all die—die immediately, than live slaves, and entail your wretchedness upon your posterity. If you would be free in this generation, here is your only hope. However much you and all of us may desire it, there is not much hope of Redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once—rather, die freemen, than live to be slaves. It is impossible, like the children of Israel, to make a grand Exodus from the land of bondage. The Pharaohs are on both sides of the bloodred waters! You cannot remove en masse, to the dominions of the British Queen—nor can you pass through Florida, and overrun Texas, and at last find peace in Mexico. The propagators of American slavery are spending their blood and treasure, that they may plant the black flag in the heart of Mexico, and riot in the halls of the Montezumas. In the language of the Rev. Robert Hall, when addressing the volunteers of Bristol, who were rushing forth to repel the invasion of Napoleon, who threatened to lay waste the fair homes of England, "Religion is too much interested in your behalf, not to shed over you her most gracious influences."
You will not be compelled to spend much time in order to become inured to hardships. From the first moment that you breathed the air of heaven, you have been accustomed to nothing else but hardships. The heroes of the American Revolution were never put upon harder fare, than a peck of corn, and a few herrings per week. You have not become enervated by the luxuries of life. Your sternest energies have been beaten out upon the anvil of severe trial. Slavery has done more this, to make you subservient to its own purposes; but it has done than this, it has prepared you for any emergency. If you receive good treatment, it is what you could hardly expect;ifyou meet with pain, sorrow, and even death, these are the common lot of the slaves.
Fellow-men! patient sufferers! behold your dearest rights crushed to the earth! See your sons murdered, and your wives, mothers, and sisters, doomed to prostitution! In the name of the merciful God! and by all that life is worth, let it no longer be a debateable question, whether it is better to choose Liberty or Death!
In 1822, Denmark Veazie, of South Carolina, formed a plan for the liberation of his fellow men. In the whole history of human efforts to overthrow slavery, a more complicated and tremendous plan was never formed. He was betrayed by the treachery of his own people, and died a martyr to freedom. Many a brave hero fell, but History, faithful to her high trust, will transcribe his name on the same monument with Moses, Hampden, Tell, Bruce, and Wallace, Touissaint L'Overteur, Lafayette and Washington. That tremendous movement shook the whole empire of slavery. The guilty soul thieves were overwhelmed with fear. It is a matter of fact, that at that time, and in consequence of the threatened revolution, the slave states talked strongly of emancipation. But they blew but one blast of the trumpet of freedom, and then laid it aside As these men became quiet, the slaveholders ceased to talk about emancipation: and now, behold your condition to-day! Angels sigh over it, and humanity has long since exhausted her tears in weeping on your account!
The patriotic Nathaniel Turner followed Denmark Veazie. He was goaded to desperation by wrong and injustice. By Despotism, his name has been recorded on the list of infamy, but future generations will number him among the noble and brave.
Next arose the immortal Joseph Cinque, the hero of the Amistad. He was a native African, and by the help of God he emancipated a whole ship-load of his fellow men on the high seas. And he now sings of liberty on the sunny hills of Africa, and beneath his native palm trees, where he hears the lion roar, and feels himself as free as that king of the forest. Next arose Madison Washington, that bright star of freedom, and took his station in the constellation of freedom. He was a slave on board the brig Creole, of Richmond, bound to New Orleans, that great slave mart, with a hundred and four others. Nineteen struck for liberty or death. But one life was taken, and the whole were emancipated, and the vessel was carried into Nassau, New Providence. Noble men! Those who have fallen in freedom's conflict, their memories will be cherished by the true hearted, and the God-fearing, in all future generations; those who are living, their names are surrounded by a halo of glory.
We do not advise you to attempt a revolution with the sword, because it would be inexpedient. Your numbers are too small, and moreover the rising spirit of the age, and the spirit of the gospel, are opposed to war and bloodshed. But from this moment cease to labor for tyrants who will not remunerate you. Let every slave throughout the land do this, and the days of slavery are numbered. You cannot be more oppressed than you have been—you cannot suffer greater cruelties than you have already. Rather die freemen, than live to be slaves. Remember that you are Three Millions.
It is in your power so to torment the God-cursed slaveholders, that they will be glad to let you go free. If the scale was turned and black men were the masters, and white men the slaves, every destructive agent and element would be employed to lay the oppressor low. Danger and death would hang over their heads day and night. Yes, the tyrants would meet with plagues more terrible than those of Pharaoh. But you are a patient people. You act as though you were made for the special use of these devils. You act as though your daughters were born to pamper the lusts of your masters and overseers. And worse than all, you tamely submit, while your lords tear your wives from your embraces, and defile them before your eyes. In the name of God we ask, are you men? Where is the blood of your fathers? Has it all run out of your veins? Awake, awake; millions of voices are calling you! Your dead fathers speak to you from their graves. Heaven, as with a voice of thunder, calls on you to arise from the dust.
Let your motto be resistance! resistance! resistance!—No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance. What kind of resistance you had better make, you must decide by the circumstances that surround you, and according to the suggestion of expediency. Brethren, adieu. Trust in the living God. Labor for the peace of the human race, and remember that you are three millions.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Letters Between H. C. Wright and Frederick Douglass on the Purchase of Douglass's Freedom
In 1846, while Frederick Douglass was touring the British Isles speaking to antislavery audiences, a group of British abolitionists raised the money to purchase his manumission from the Auld family of Maryland. The price paid for the freedom of this great American was 150 pounds sterling, or 711 dollars.
In December 1846, a fellow abolitionist, H. C. Wright, wrote to Douglass opposing the sale on moral grounds."I cannot think of the transaction without vexation," Wright told Douglass."I would see you free—you are free—you always were free, and the man is a villain who claims you as a slave."
Douglass replied a few days later, defending the purchase. He wished to return home, and the price of his return was to "allow Hugh Auld to rob me, or my friends, of 150 pounds. I must have a 'bit of paper, signed and sealed,' or my liberty must be taken from me and I must be torn from my family and friends. "At the same time, Douglass assured Wright, "I will hold up those papers before the world, in proof of the plundering character of the American government."
The exchange of letters between Wright and Douglass was published in the January 29, 1847, issue of the Liberator, under the heading "The Ransom."
Letter from H. C. Wright
Doncaster, Dec. 12th, 1846.
This is the first letter of advice I ever wrote to you—it is the last. I like to bear the responsibility of my own existence. I like to see others bear theirs. I say what I am about to say, because I think it is my right and duty to say it; at the same time, not wishing to interfere with your right to follow my advice, or not, as you shall see fit. That Certificate of your freedom, that Bill of Sale of your body and soul, from that villain, Auld, who dared to claim you as a chattel, and set a price on you as such, and to demand and take a price for you as such, I wish you would not touch it. I cannot bear to think of you as being a party to such a transaction, even by silence. If others will take that paper, and keep it as an evidence of your freedom, you cannot prevent them; but I wish you would see it to be your duty, publicly to disown the deed, and never to recognize that hateful Bill!—nor to refer to it, as of any authority to establish the fact that you are a Freeman, and not a Slave—a Man, and not a Chattel.
The moment you entered a non-slave State, your position ceased to be Frederick Douglass, versus Thomas Auld, and became Frederick Douglass, versus the United States. From that hour, you became the antagonist of that Republic.
As a nation, that confederacy, professing to be based upon the principle, that God made you free, and gave you an inalienable right to liberty, claims a right of property in your body and soul—to turn you into a chattel, a slave, again, at any moment. That claim you denied; the authority and power of the whole nation you spurned and defied, when, by running away, you spurned that miserable wretch, who held you as a slave. It was no longer a contest between you and that praying, psalm-singing slave-breeder, but a struggle between you and 17,000,000 of liberty-loving Republicans. By their laws and constitution, you are not a freeman, but a slave; you are not a man, but a chattel. You planted your foot upon their laws and constitution, and asserted your freedom and your manhood. You arraigned your antagonist—the slave-breeding Republic—before the tribunal of mankind, and of God. You have stated your case, and pleaded your cause, as none other could state and plead it. Your position, as the slave of that Republic, as the marketable commodity, the dehumanized, outraged man of a powerful nation, whose claim and power over you, you have dared to despise, invests you with influence among all to whom your appeal is made, and gathers around you their deep-felt, absorbing, and efficient sympathy. Your appeal to mankind is not against the grovelling thief, Thomas Auld, but against the more daring, more impudent and potent thief—the Republic of the United States of America. You will lose the advantages of this truly manly, and, to my view, sublime position; you will be shorn of your strength—you will sink in your own estimation, if you accept that detestable certificate of your freedom, that blasphemous forgery, that accursed Bill of Sale of your body and soul; or, even by silence, acknowledge its validity. So I think. I cannot think of the transaction without vexation. I would see you free—you are free—you always were free, and the man is a villain who claims you as a slave, and should be treated as such; and the nation is a blasphemous hypocrite, that claims power over you as a chattel. I would see your right to freedom, and to a standing on the platform of humanity, openly acknowledged by every human being—not on the testimony of a bit of paper, signed and sealed by an acknowledged thief, but by the declaration of a penitent nation, prostrate at your feet, in tears, suing to you and to God for forgiveness, for the outrages committed against God and man, in your person.
That slave-breeding nation has dared to claim you, and 3,000,000 of your fellow-men, as chattels—slaves—to be bought and sold; and has pledged all its power to crush you down, and to keep you from rising from ignorance to knowledge—from degradation to respectability—from misery to happiness—from slavery to freedom—from a Chattel to a Man. As an advocate for yourself, and your 3,000,000 brethren, you have joined issue with it—and, in the name of God and humanity, you will conquer! The nation must and shall be humbled before its victims,—not by a blasphemous bill of sale, alias Certificate of freedom, for which 150 pounds are paid, but by renouncing its claim, blotting out its slavery-sustaining constitution, acknowledge itself conquered, and seek forgiveness of the victims of its injustice and tyranny. The plea, that this is the same as a ransom paid for a capture of some Algerine pirate, or Bedouin Arab, is naught. You have already, by your own energy, escaped the grasp of the pirate Auld. He has no more power over you. The spell of his influence over you is forever broken. Why go to him? Why ask the sacrilegious villain to set a price upon your body and soul? Why give him his price? The mean, brutal slaveholder—daring to price your freedom, your soul, in dollars and cents, and with cool, consummate impudence, and villany unsurpassed, saying "I'll be satisfied with 750 dollars—I'll give up my right of property in your person, and acknowledge you to be a freeman, and not a slave—a man, and not a beast—for £150.' 'Satisfied' forsooth!"You cancelled his villanous claims, when you turned your back upon him, and walked away. But the nation claims you as a slave. It does! Let it dare to assert that claim, and attempt your re-enslavement! It is worth running some risk, for the sake of the conflict, and the certain result.
Your wife and children are there, it is true, and you must return to them; but the greater will be your power to grapple with the monster; the shorter and more glorious will be the conflict; the more sure and complete the victory, if you go as the antagonist of a nation that claims you as a slave, as a chattel, a man turned into an article of merchandise. You would be armed with an irresistible power, when, as a self-emancipated captive, you arraigned that piratical Republic before the world. You would be sheltered and sustained by the sympathies of millions. The advantages of your present position should not be sacrificed to a desire for greater security.
But I will go no further. You will think that what I have said has more of indignation than of reason in it. It may be so. Feeling is often a safer and a wiser guide than logic. Of all guilty men, the American slaveholder is the most guilty, and the meanest, the most impudent, most despicable, and most inexcusable in his guilt; except, it may be, those, who, in the non-slave States, and in Scotland and England, stand sponsors for his social respectability and personal Christianity, and who thus associate our Redeemer in loving fellowship with men who are the living embodiment of the sum of all villany.
Before concluding, I wish to add, that, in what I have said, I would not arraign the motives of those who have, as they believe, sought to befriend you in this matter. I believe Anna Richardson, and all who have taken part in this transaction, have been actuated by the purest motives of kindness to you and your family, and by a desire, through the purchase of your freedom, to benefit the American slaves. But they have erred in judgment, as it appears to me. Forgive this, if it needs forgiveness. I delight to see you loved and honored by all, and to see you made an instrument, by the God of the oppressed, of humbling in the dust, that gigantic liar and hypocrite, the American Republic, that stands with the Bible and Declaration of Independence in its hands, and its heel planted on the necks of 3,000,000 of slaves.
H. C. Wright.
Frederick Douglass's Reply
22, St. Ann's Square, Manchester, 22d Dec., 1846.
Henry C. Wright:
Dear Friend:—Your letter of the 12th December reached me at this place, yesterday. Please accept my heartfelt thanks for it. I am sorry that you deemed it necessary to assure me, that it would be the last letter of advice you would ever write me. It looked as if you were about to cast me off for ever! I do not, however, think you meant to convey any such meaning; and if you did, I am sure you will see cause to change your mind, and to receive me again into the fold of those, whom it should ever be your pleasure to advise and instruct.
The subject of your letter is one of deep importance, and upon which, I have thought and felt much; and, being the party of all others most deeply concerned, it is natural to suppose I have an opinion, and ought to be able to give it on all fitting occasions. I deem this a fitting occasion, and shall act accordingly.
You have given me your opinion: I am glad you have done so. You have given it to me direct, in your own emphatic way. You never speak insipidly, smoothly, or mincingly; you have strictly adhered to your custom, in the letter before me. I now take great pleasure in giving you my opinion, as plainly and unreservedly as you have given yours, and I trust with equal good feeling and purity of motive. I take it, that nearly all that can be said against my position is contained in your letter; for if any man in the wide world would be likely to find valid objections to such a transaction as the one under consideration, I regard you as that man. I must, however, tell you, that I have read your letter over, and over again, and have sought in vain to find anything like what I can regard a valid reason against the purchase of my body, or against my receiving the manumission papers, if they are ever presented to me.
Let me, in the first place, state the facts and circumstances of the transaction which you so strongly condemn. It is your right to do so, and God forbid that I should ever cherish the slightest desire to restrain you in the exercise of that right. I say to you at once, and in all the fulness of sincerity, speak out; speak freely; keep nothing back; let me know your whole mind.'Hew to the line, though the chips fly in my face.' Tell me, and tell me plainly, when you think I am deviating from the strict line of duty and principle; and when I become unwilling to hear, I shall have attained a character which I now despise, and from which I would hope to be preserved. But to the facts.
I am in England, my family are in the United States. My sphere of usefulness is in the United States; my public and domestic duties are there; and there it seems my duty to go. But I am legally the property of Thomas Auld, and if I go to the United States, (no matter to what part, for there is no City of Refuge there, no spot sacred to freedom there,) Thomas Auld, aided by the American Government, can seize, bind and fetter, and drag me from my family, feed his cruel revenge upon me, and doom me to unending slavery. In view of this simple statement of facts, a few friends, desirous of seeing me released from the terrible liability, and to relieve my wife and children from the painful trepidation, consequent upon the liability, and to place me on an equal footing of safety with all other anti-slavery lecturers in the United States, and to enhance my usefulness by enlarging the field of my labors in the United States, have nobly and generously paid Hugh Auld, the agent of Thomas Auld, 150 pounds—in consideration of which, Hugh Auld (acting as his agent) and the Government of the United States agree, that I shall be free from all further liability.
These, dear friend, are the facts of the whole transaction. The principle here acted on by my friends, and that upon which I shall act in receiving the manumission papers, I deem quite defensible.
First, as to those who acted as my friends, and their actions. The actuating motive was, to secure me from a liability full of horrible forebodings to myself and family. With this object, I will do you the justice to say, I believe you fully unite, although some parts of your letters would seem to justify a different belief.
Then, as to the measure adopted to secure this result. Does it violate a fundamental principle, or does it not? This is the question, and to my mind the only question of importance, involved in the discussion. I believe that, on our part, no just or holy principle has been violated.
Before entering upon the argument in support of this view, I will take the liberty (and I know you will pardon it) to say, I think you should have pointed out some principle violated in the transaction, before you proceeded to exhort me to repentance. You have given me any amount of indignation against 'Auld' and the United States, in all which I cordially unite, and felt refreshed by reading; but it has no bearing whatever upon the conduct of myself, or friends, in the matter under consideration. It does not prove that I have done wrong, nor does it demonstrate what is right, or the proper course to be pursued. Now that the matter has reached its present point, before entering upon the argument, let me say one other word; it is this—I do not think you have acted quite consistently with your character for promptness, in delaying your advice till the transaction was completed. You knew of the movement at its conception, and have known it through its progress, and have never, to my knowledge, uttered one syllable against it, in conversation or letter, till now that the deed is done. I regret this, not because I think your earlier advice would have altered the result, but because it would have left me more free than I can now be, since the thing is done. Of course, you will not think hard of my alluding to this circumstance. Now, then, to the main question.
The principle which you appear to regard as violated by the transaction in question, may be stated as follows:—Every man has a natural and inalienable right to himself. The inference from this is, 'that man cannot hold property in man'—and as man cannot hold property in man, neither can Hugh Auld nor the United States have any right of property in me—and having no right of property in me, they have no right to sell me—and, having no right to sell me, no one has a right to buy me. I think I have now stated the principle, and the inference from the principle, distinctly and fairly. Now, the question upon which the whole controversy turns is, simply, this: does the transaction, which you condemn, really violate this principle? I own that, to a superficial observer, it would seem to do so. But I think I am prepared to show, that, so far from being a violation of that principle, it is truly a noble vindication of it. Before going further, let me state here, briefly, what sort of a purchase would have been a violation of this principle, which, in common with yourself, I reverence, and am anxious to preserve inviolate.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
"A Fugitive's Necessary Silence" by Frederick Douglass
Called upon in abolitionist gatherings to tell the story of his life in slavery, Frederick Douglass consistently refused to divulge any details of his 1838 escape. In the final chapter of the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, he took up the subject.
I now come to that part of my life during which I planned, and finally succeeded in making, my escape from slavery. But before narrating any of the peculiar circumstances, I deem it proper to make known my intention not to state all the facts connected with the transaction. My reasons for pursuing this course may be understood from the following: First, were I to give a minute statement of all the facts, it is not only possible, but quite probable, that others would thereby be involved in the most embarrassing difficulties. Secondly, such a statement would most undoubtedly induce greater vigilance on the part of slaveholders than has existed heretofore among them; which would, of course, be the means of guarding a door whereby some dear brother bondman might escape his galling chains. I deeply regret the necessity that impels me to suppress any thing of importance connected with my experience in slavery. It would afford me great pleasure indeed, as well as materially add to the interest of my narrative, were I at liberty to gratify a curiosity, which I know exists in the minds of many, by an accurate statement of all the facts pertaining to my most fortunate escape. But I must deprive myself of this pleasure, and the curious of the gratification which such a statement would afford. I would allow myself to suffer under the greatest imputations which evil-minded men might suggest, rather than exculpate myself, and thereby run the hazard of closing the slightest avenue by which a brother slave might clear himself of the chains and fetters of slavery.
I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad, but which I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upperground railroad. I honor those good men and women for their noble daring, and applaud them for willingly subjecting themselves to bloody persecution, by openly avowing their participation in the escape of slaves. I, however, can see very little good resulting from such a course, either to themselves or the slaves escaping; while, upon the other hand, I see and feel assured that those open declarations are a positive evil to the slaves remaining, who are seeking to escape. They do nothing towards enlightening the slave, whilst they do much towards enlightening the master. They stimulate him to greater watchfulness, and enhance his power to capture his slave. We owe something to the slave south of the line as well as to those north of it; and in aiding the latter on their way to freedom, we should be careful to do nothing which would be likely to hinder the former from escaping from slavery. I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave. I would leave him to imagine himself surrounded by myriads of invisible tormentors, ever ready to snatch from his infernal grasp his trembling prey. Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him; and let him feel that at every step he takes, in pursuit of the flying bondman, he is running the frightful risk of having his hot brains dashed out by an invisible agency. Let us render the tyrant no aid; let us not hold the light by which he can trace the footprints of our flying brother. But enough of this. I will now proceed to the statement of those facts, connected with my escape, for which I am alone responsible, and for which no one can be made to suffer but myself.
In the early part of the year 1838, I became quite restless. I could see no reason why I should, at the end of each week, pour the reward of my toil into the purse of my master. When I carried to him my weekly wages, he would, after counting the money, look me in the face with a robber-like fierceness, and ask,"Is this all?" He was satisfied with nothing less than the last cent. He would, however, when I made him six dollars, sometimes give me six cents, to encourage me. It had the opposite effect. I regarded it as a sort of admission of my right to the whole. The fact that he gave me any part of my wages was proof, to my mind, that he believed me entitled to the whole of them. I always felt worse for having received any thing; for I feared that the giving me a few cents would ease his conscience, and make him feel himself to be a pretty honorable sort of robber. My discontent grew upon me. I was ever on the look-out for means of escape; and, finding no direct means, I determined to try to hire my time, with a view of getting money with which to make my escape. In the spring of 1838, when Master Thomas came to Baltimore to purchase his spring goods, I got an opportunity, and applied to him to allow me to hire my time. He unhesitatingly refused my request, and told me this was another stratagem by which to escape. He told me I could go nowhere but that he could get me; and that, in the event of my running away, he should spare no pains in his efforts to catch me. He exhorted me to content myself, and be obedient. He told me, if I would be happy, I must lay out no plans for the future. He said, if I behaved myself properly, he would take care of me. Indeed, he advised me to complete thoughtlessness of the future, and taught me to depend solely upon him for happiness. He seemed to see fully the pressing necessity of setting aside my intellectual nature, in order to contentment in slavery. But in spite of him, and even in spite of myself, I continued to think, and to think about the injustice of my enslavement, and the means of escape.
About two months after this, I applied to Master Hugh for the privilege of hiring my time. He was not acquainted with the fact that I had applied to Master Thomas, and had been refused. He too, at first, seemed disposed to refuse; but, after some reflection, he granted me the privilege, and proposed the following terms: I was to be allowed all my time, make all contracts with those for whom I worked, and find my own employment; and, in return for this liberty, I was to pay him three dollars at the end of each week; find myself in calking tools, and in board and clothing. My board was two dollars and a half per week. This, with the wear and tear of clothing and calking tools, made my regular expenses about six dollars per week. This amount I was compelled to make up, or relinquish the privilege of hiring my time. Rain or shine, work or no work, at the end of each week the money must be forthcoming, or I must give up my privilege. This arrangement, it will be perceived, was decidedly in my master's favor. It relieved him of all need of looking after me. His money was sure. He received all the benefits of slaveholding without its evils; while I endured all the evils of a slave, and suffered all the care and anxiety of a freeman. I found it a hard bargain. But, hard as it was, I thought it better than the old mode of getting along. It was a step towards freedom to be allowed to bear the responsibilities of a freeman, and I was determined to hold on upon it. I bent myself to the work of making money. I was ready to work at night as well as day, and by the most untiring perseverance and industry, I made enough to meet my expenses, and lay up a little money every week. I went on thus from May till August. Master Hugh then refused to allow me to hire my time longer. The ground for his refusal was a failure on my part, one Saturday night, to pay him for my week's time. This failure was occasioned by my attending a camp meeting about ten miles from Baltimore. During the week, I had entered into an engagement with a number of young friends to start from Baltimore to the camp ground early Saturday evening; and being detained by my employer, I was unable to get down to Master Hugh's without disappointing the company. I knew that Master Hugh was in no special need of the money that night. I therefore decided to go to camp meeting, and upon my return pay him the three dollars. I stayed at the camp meeting one day longer than I intended when I left. But as soon as I returned, I called upon him to pay him what he considered his due. I found him very angry; he could scarce restrain his wrath. He said he had a great mind to give me a severe whipping. He wished to know how I dared go out of the city without asking his permission. I told him I hired my time, and while I paid him the price which he asked for it, I did not know that I was bound to ask him when and where I should go. This reply troubled him; and, after reflecting a few moments; he turned to me, and said I should hire my time no longer; that the next thing he should know of, I would be running away. Upon the same plea, he told me to bring my tools and clothing home forthwith. I did so; but instead of seeking work, as I had been accustomed to do previously to hiring my time, I spent the whole week without the performance of a single stroke of work. I did this in retaliation. Saturday night, he called upon me as usual for my week's wages. I told him I had no wages; I had done no work that week. Here we were upon the point of coming to blows. He raved, and swore his determination to get hold of me. I did not allow myself a single word; but was resolved, if he laid the weight of his hand upon me, it should be blow for blow. He did not strike me, but told me that he would find me in constant employment in future. I thought the matter over during the next day, Sunday, and finally resolved upon the third day of September, as the day upon which I would make a second attempt to secure my freedom. I now had three weeks during which to prepare for my journey. Early on Monday morning, before Master Hugh had time to make any engagement for me, I went out and got employment of Mr. Butler, at his shipyard near the drawbridge, upon what is called the City Block, thus making it unnecessary for him to seek employment for me. At the end of the week, I brought him between and nine dollars. He seemed very well pleased, and asked why I did not do the same the week before. He little knew what my plans were. My object in working steadily was to remove any suspicion he might entertain of my intent to run away; and in this I succeeded admirably. I suppose he thought I was never better satisfied with my condition than at the very time during which I was planning my escape. The second week passed, and again I carried him my full wages; and so well pleased was he, that he gave me twenty-five cents, (quite a large sum for a slaveholder to give a slave,) and bade me to make a good use of it. I told him I would.
Things went on without very smoothly indeed, but within there was trouble. It is impossible for me to describe my feelings as the time of my contemplated start drew near. I had a number of warm-hearted friends in Baltimore,—friends that I loved almost as I did my life,—and the thought of being separated from them forever was painful beyond expression. It is my opinion that thousands would escape from slavery, who now remain, but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends. The thought of leaving my friends was decidedly the most painful thought with which I had to contend. The love of them was my tender point, and shook my decision more than all things else. Besides the pain of separation, the dread and apprehension of a failure exceeded what I had experienced at my first attempt. The appalling defeat I then sustained returned to torment me. I felt assured that, if I failed in this attempt, my case would be a hopeless one—it would seal my fate as a slave forever. I could not hope to get off with any thing less than the severest punishment, and being placed beyond the means of escape. It required no very vivid imagination to depict the most frightful scenes through which I should have to pass, in case I failed. The wretchedness of slavery, and the blessedness of freedom, were perpetually before me. It was life and death with me. But I remained firm, and, accordingly to my resolution, on the third day of September, 1838, I left my chains, and succeeded in reaching New York without the slightest interruption of any kind. How I did so,—what means I adopted,—what direction I travelled, and by what mode of conveyance,—I must leave unexplained, for the reasons before mentioned.
I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State. I have never been able to answer the question with any satisfaction to myself. It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate. In writing to a dear friend, immediately after my arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions. This state of mind, however, very soon subsided; and I was gain seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. I was yet liable to be taken back, and subjected to all the tortures of slavery. This in itself was enough to damp the ardor of my enthusiasm. But the loneliness overcame me. There I was in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger; without home and without friends, in the midst of thousands of my own brethren—children of a common Father, and yet I dared not to unfold to any of them my sad condition. I was afraid to speak to any one for fear of speaking to the wrong one, and thereby falling into the hands of money-loving kidnappers, whose business it was to lie in wait for the panting fugitive, as the ferocious beasts of the forest lie in wait for their prey. The motto which I adopted when I started from slavery was this—"Trust no man!" I saw in every white man an enemy, and in almost every colored man cause for distrust. It was a most painful situation; and, to understand it, one must needs experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances. Let him be a fugitive slave in a strange land—a land given up to be the hunting-ground for slaveholders—whose inhabitants are legalized kidnappers—where he is every moment subjected to the terrible liability of being seized upon by his fellowmen, as the hideous crocodile seizes upon his prey!—I say, let him place himself in my situation—without home or friends—without money or credit—wanting shelter, and no one to give it—wanting bread, and no money to buy it,—and at the same time let him feel that he is pursued by merciless men-hunters, and in total darkness as to what to do, where to go, or where to stay,—perfectly helpless both as to the means of defence and means of escape,—in the midst of plenty, yet suffering the terrible gnawings of hunger,—in the midst of houses, yet having no home,—among fellow-men, yet feeling as if in the midst of wild beasts, whose greediness to swallow up the trembling and half-famished fugitive is only equalled by that with which the monsters of the deep swallow up the helpless fish upon which they subsist,—I say, let him be placed in this most trying situation,—the situation in which I was placed,—then, and not till then, will he fully appreciate the hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the toil-worn and whip-scarred fugitive slave.
Thank Heaven, I remained but a short time in this distressed situation. I was relieved from it by the humane hand of Mr. David Ruggles, whose vigilance, kindness, and perseverance, I shall never forget. I am glad of an opportunity to express, as far as words can, the love and gratitude I bear him. Mr. Ruggles is now afflicted with blindness, and is himself in need of the same kind offices which he was once so forward in the performance of toward others. I had been in New York but a few days, when Mr. Ruggles sought me out, and very kindly took me to his boarding-house at the corner of Church and Lespenard Streets. Mr. Ruggles was then very deeply engaged in the memorable Darg case, as well as attending to a number of other fugitive slaves, devising ways and means for their successful escape; and, though watched and hemmed in on almost every side, he seemed to be more than a match for his enemies.
Very soon after I went to Mr. Ruggles, he wished to know of me where I wanted to go; as he deemed it unsafe for me to remain in New York. I told him I was a calker, and should like to go where I could get work. I thought of going to Canada; but he decided against it, and in favor of my going to New Bedford, thinking I should be able to get work there at my trade. At this time, Anna, my intended wife, came on; for I wrote to her immediately after my arrival at New York, (notwithstanding my homeless, houseless, and helpless condition,) informing her of my successful flight, and wishing her to come on forthwith. In a few days after her arrival, Mr. Ruggles called in the Rev. J. W. C. Pennington, who, in the presence of Mr. Ruggles, Mrs. Michaels, and two or three others, performed the marriage ceremony, and gave us a certificate, of which the following is an exact copy:—
"This may certify, that I joined together in holy matrimony Frederick Johnson and Anna Murray, as man and wife, in the presence of Mr. David Ruggles and Mrs. Michaels."
James W. C. Pennington
New York, Sept. 15, 1838.
Upon receiving this certificate, and a five-dollar bill from Mr. Ruggles, I shouldered one part of our baggage, and Anna took up the other, and we set out forthwith to take passage on board of the steamboat John W. Richmond for Newport, on our way to New Bedford. Mr. Ruggles gave me a letter to a Mr. Shaw in Newport, and told me, in case my money did not serve me to New Bedford, to stop in Newport and obtain further assistance, but upon our arrival at Newport, we were so anxious to get to a place of safety, that, notwithstanding we lacked the necessary money to pay our fare, we decided to take seats in the stage, and promise to pay when we got to New Bedford. We were encouraged to do this by two excellent gentlemen, residents of New Bedford, whose names I afterward ascertained to be Joseph Ricketson and William C. Taber. They seemed at once to understand our circumstances, and gave us such assurance of their friendliness as put us fully at ease in their presence. It was good indeed to meet with such friends, at such a time. Upon reaching New Bedford, we were directed to the house of Mr. Nathan Johnson, by whom we were kindly received, and hospitably provided for. Both Mr. and Mrs. Johnson took a deep and lively interest in our welfare. They proved themselves quite worthy of the name of abolitionists. When the stage-driver found us unable to pay our fare, he held on upon our baggage as security for the debt. I had but to mention the fact to Mr. Johnson, and he forthwith advanced the money.
We now began to feel a degree of safety, and to prepare ourselves for the duties and responsibilities of a life of freedom. On the morning after our arrival at New Bedford, while at the breakfast-table, the question arose as to what name I should be called by. The name given me by my mother was,"Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. "I, however, had dispensed with the two middle names long before I left Maryland so that I was generally known by the name of "Frederick Bailey. "I started from Baltimore bearing the name of "Stanley. "When I got to New York, I again changed my name to "Frederick Johnson," and thought that would be the last change. But when I got to New Bedford, I found it necessary again to change my name. The reason of this necessity was, that there were so many Johnsons in New Bedford, it was already quite difficult to distinguish between them. I gave Mr. Johnson the privilege of choosing me a name, but told him he must not take from me the name of "Frederick. "I must hold on to that, to preserve a sense of my identity. Mr. Johnson had just been reading the "Lady of the Lake," and at once suggested that my name be "Douglass. "From that time until now I have been called "Frederick Douglass;" and as I am more widely known by that name than by either of the others, I shall continue to use it as my own.
I was quite disappointed at the general appearance of things in New Bedford. The impression which I had received respecting the character and condition of the people of the north, I found to be singularly erroneous. I had very strangely supposed, while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and scarcely any of the luxuries, of life were enjoyed at the north, compared with what were enjoyed by the slaveholders of the south. I probably came to this conclusion from the fact that northern people owned no slaves. I supposed that they were about upon a level with the non-slaveholding population of the south. I knew they were exceedingly poor, and I had been accustomed to regard their poverty as the necessary consequence of their being non-slaveholders. I had somehow imbibed the opinion that, in the absence of slaves, there could be no wealth, and very little refinement. And upon coming to the north, I expected to meet with a rough, hard-handed, and uncultivated population, living in the most Spartan-like simplicity, knowing nothing of the ease, luxury, pomp, and grandeur of southern slaveholders. Such being my conjectures, any one acquainted with the appearance of New Bedford may very readily infer how palpably I must have seen my mistake.
In the afternoon of the day when I reached New Bedford, I visited the wharves, to take a view of the shipping. Here I found myself surrounded with the strongest proofs of wealth. Lying at the wharves, and riding in the stream, I saw many ships of the finest model, in the best order, and of the largest size. Upon the right and left, I was walled in by granite warehouses of the widest dimensions, stowed to their utmost capacity with the necessaries and comforts of life. Added to this, almost every body seemed to be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore. There were no loud songs heard from those engaged in loading and unloading ships. I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer. I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly on. Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man. To me this looked exceedingly strange. From the wharves I strolled around and over the town, gazing with wonder and admiration at the splendid churches, beautiful dwellings, and finely-cultivated gardens; evincing an amount of wealth, comfort, taste, and refinement, such as I had never seen in any part of slaveholding Maryland.
Every thing looked clean, new, and beautiful. I saw few or no dilapidated houses, with poverty-stricken inmates; no half-naked children and bare-footed women, such as I had been accustomed to see in Hillsborough, Easton, St. Michael's, and Baltimore. The people looked more able, stronger, healthier, and happier, than those of Maryland. I was for once made glad by a view of extreme wealth, without being saddened by seeing extreme poverty. But the most astonishing as well as the most interesting thing to me was the condition of the colored people, a great many of whom, like myself, had escaped thither as a refuge from the hunters of men. I found many, who had not been seven years out of their chains, living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, than the average of slave-holders in Maryland. I will venture to assert, that my friend Mr. Nathan Johnson (of whom I can say with a grateful hear,"I was hungry, and he gave me meat; I was thirsty, and he gave me drink; I was a stranger, and he took me in") lived in a neater house; dined at a better table; took, paid for, and read, more newspapers; better understood the moral, religious, and political character of the nation,—than nine tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot county Maryland. Yet Mr. Johnson was a working man. His hands were hardened by toil, and not his alone, but those also of Mrs. Johnson. I found the colored people much more spirited than I had supposed they would be. I found among them a determination to protect each other from the blood-thirsty kidnapper, at all hazards. Soon after my arrival, I was told of a circumstance which illustrated their spirit. A colored man and a fugitive slave were on unfriendly terms. The former was heard to threaten the latter with informing his master of his whereabouts. Straightway a meeting was called among the colored people, under the stereotyped notice,"Business of importance!" The betrayer was invited to attend. The people came at the appointed hour, and organized the meeting by appointing a very religious old gentleman as president, who, I believe, made a prayer, after which he addressed the meeting as follows: "Friends, we have got him here, and I would recommend that you young men just take him outside the door, and kill him!" With this, a number of them bolted at him; but they were intercepted by some more timid than themselves, and the betrayer escaped their vengeance, and has not been seen in New Bedford since. I believe there have been no more such threats, and should there be hereafter, I doubt not that death would be the consequence.
I found employment, the third day after my arrival, in stowing a sloop with a load of oil. It was new, dirty, and hard work for me; but I went at it with a glad heart and a willing hand. I was now my own master. It was a happy moment, the rapture of which can be understood only by those who have been slaves. It was the first work, the reward of which was to be entirely my own. There was no Master Hugh standing ready, the moment I earned the money, to rob me of it. I worked that day with a pleasure I had never before experienced. I was at work for myself and newly-married wife. It was to me the starting-point of a new existence. When I got through with that job, I went in pursuit of a job of calking; but such was the strength of prejudice against color, among the white calkers, that they refused to work with me, and of course I could get no employment. Finding my trade of no immediate benefit, I threw off my calking habiliments, and prepared myself to do any kind of work I could get to do. Mr. Johnson kindly let me have his woodhorse and saw, and I very soon found myself a plenty of work. There was no work too hard—none too dirty. I was ready to saw wood, shovel coal, carry wood, sweep the chimney, or roll oil casks,—all of which I did for nearly three years in New Bedford, before I became known to the anti-slavery world.
In about four months after I went to New Bedford, there came a young man to me, and inquired if I did not wish to take the "Liberator. "I told him I did; but, just having made my escape from slavery, I remarked that I was unable to pay for it then. I, however, finally became a subscriber to it. The paper came, and I read it from week to week with such feelings as it would be quite idle for me to attempt to describe. The paper became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for my brethren in bonds—its scathing denunciations of slaveholders—its faithful exposures of slavery—and its powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institution—sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before!
I had not long been a reader of the "Liberator," before I got a pretty correct idea of the principles, measures and spirit of the anti-slavery reform. I took right hold of the cause. I could do but little; but what I could, I did with a joyful heart, and never felt happier than when in an antislavery meeting. I seldom had much to say at the meetings, because what I wanted to say was said so much better by others. But, while attending an anti-slavery convention at Nantucket, on the 11th of August, 1841, I felt strongly moved to speak, and was at the same time much urged to do so by Mr. William C. Coffin, a gentleman who had heard me speak in the colored people's meeting at New Bedford. It was a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly. The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease. From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren—with what success, and with what devotion, I leave those acquainted with my labors to decide.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
Solomon Northup, born free but kidnapped into slavery in 1841, was finally rescued in 1853 and returned to his family. He then set about recording everything he had seen and everything that had happened to him. His Twelve Years a Slave provides a detailed picture of slavery on the western frontier. Although Northup and his supporters attempted to bring those responsible for his kidnapping to justice, the criminals were acquitted of any wrongdoing. In the chapter reprinted here, Northup recounts his kidnapping and sale.
One morning, towards the latter part of the month of March, 1841, having at that time no particular business to engage my attention, I was walking about the village of Saratoga Springs, thinking to myself where I might obtain some present employment, until the busy season should arrive. Anne, as was her usual custom, had gone over to Sandy Hill, a distance of some twenty miles, to take charge of the culinary department at Sherrill's Coffee House, during the session of the court. Elizabeth, I think, had accompanied her. Margaret and Alonzo were with their aunt at Saratoga.
On the corner of Congress street and Broadway, near the tavern, then, and for aught I know to the contrary, still kept by Mr. Moon, I was met by two gentlemen of respectable appearance, both of whom were entirely unknown to me. I have the impression that they were introduced to me by some one of my acquaintances, but who, I have in vain endeavored to recall, with the remark that I was an expert player on the violin.
At any rate, they immediately entered into conversation on that subject, making numerous inquiries touching my proficiency in that respect. My responses being to all appearances satisfactory, they proposed to engage my services for a short period, stating, at the same time, I was just such a person as their business required. Their names, as they afterwards gave them to me, were Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, though whether these were their true appellations, I have strong reasons to doubt. The former was a man apparently forty years of age, somewhat short and thick-set, with a countenance indicating shrewdness and intelligence. He wore a black frock coat and black hat, and said he resided either at Rochester or at Syracuse. The latter was a young man of fair complexion and light eyes, and, I should judge, had not passed the age of twenty-five. He was tall and slender, dressed in a snuff-colored coat, with glossy hat, and vest of elegant pattern. His whole apparel was in the extreme of fashion. His appearance was somewhat effeminate, but prepossessing, and there was about him an easy air, that showed he had mingled with the world. They were connected, as they informed me, with a circus company, then in the city of Washington; that they were on their way thither to rejoin it, having left it for a short time to make an excursion northward, for the purpose of seeing the country, and were paying their expenses by an occasional exhibition. They also remarked that they had found much difficulty in procuring music for their entertainments, and that if I would accompany them as far as New-York, they would give me one dollar for each day's services, and three dollars in addition for every night I played at their performances, besides sufficient to pay the expenses of my return from New-York to Saratoga.
I at once accepted the tempting offer, both for the reward it promised, and from a desire to visit the metropolis. They were anxious to leave immediately. Thinking my absence would be brief, I did not deem it necessary to write to Anne whither I had gone; in fact supposing that my return, perhaps, would be as soon as hers. So taking a change of linen and my violin, I was ready to depart. The carriage was brought round—a covered one, drawn by a pair of noble bays, altogether forming an elegant establishment. Their baggage, consisting of three large trunks, was fastened on the rack, and mounting to the driver's seat, while they took their places in the rear, I drove away from Saratoga on the road to Albany, elated with my new position, and happy as I had ever been, on any day in all my life.
We passed through Ballston, and striking the ridge road, as it is called, if my memory correctly serves me, followed it direct to Albany. We reached that city before dark, and stopped at a hotel southward from the Museum.
This night I had an opportunity of witnessing one of their performances—the only one, during the whole period I was with them. Hamilton was stationed at the door; I formed the orchestra, while Brown provided the entertainment. It consisted in throwing balls, dancing on the rope, frying pancakes in a hat, causing invisible pigs to squeal, and other like feats of ventriloquism and legerdemain. The audience was extraordinarily sparse, and not of the selectest character at that, and Hamilton's report of the proceeds presented but a "beggarly account of empty boxes."
Early next morning we renewed our journey. The burden of their conversation now was the expression of an anxiety to reach the circus without delay. They hurried forward, without again stopping to exhibit, and in due course of time, we reached New-York, taking lodgings at a house on the west side of the city, in a street running from Broadway to the river. I supposed my journey was at an end, and expected in a day or two at least, to return to my friends and family at Saratoga. Brown and Hamilton, however, began to importune me to continue with them to Washington. They alleged that immediately on their arrival, now that the summer season was approaching, the circus would set out for the north. They promised me a situation and high wages if I would accompany them. Largely did they expatiate on the advantages that would result to me, and such were the flattering representations they made, that I finally concluded to accept the offer.
The next morning they suggested that, inasmuch as we were about entering a slave State, it would be well, before leaving New-York, to procure free papers. The idea struck me as a prudent one, though I think it would scarcely have occurred to me, had they not proposed it. We proceeded at once to what I understood to be the Custom House. They made oath to certain facts showing I was a free man. A paper was drawn up and handed us, with the direction to take it to the clerk's office. We did so, and the clerk having added something to it, for which he was paid six shillings, we returned again to the Custom House. Some further formalities were gone through with before it was completed, when, paying the officer two dollars, I placed the papers in my pocket, and started with my two friends to our hotel. I thought at the time, I must confess, that the papers were scarcely worth the cost of obtaining them—the apprehension of danger to my personal safety never having suggested itself to me in the remotest manner. The clerk, to whom we were directed, I remember, made a memorandum in a large book, which, I presume, is in the office yet. A reference to the entries during the latter part of March, or first of April, 1841, I have no doubt will satisfy the incredulous, at least so far as this particular transaction is concerned.
With the evidence of freedom in my profession, the next day after our arrival in New-York, we crossed the ferry to Jersey City, and took the road to Philadelphia. Here we remained one night, continuing our journey towards Baltimore early in the morning. In due time, we arrived in the latter city, and stopped at a hotel near the railroad depot, either kept by a Mr. Rathbone, or known as the Rathbone House. All the way from New-York, their anxiety to reach the circus seemed to grow more and more intense. We left the carriage at Baltimore, and entering the cars, proceeded to Washington, at which place we arrived just at nightfall, the evening previous to the funeral of General Harrison, and stopped at Gadsby's Hotel, on Pennsylvania Avenue.
After supper they called me to their apartments, and paid me forty-three dollars, a sum greater than my wages amounted to, which act of generosity was in consequence, they said, of their not having exhibited as often as they had given me to anticipate, during our trip from Saratoga. They moreover informed me that it had been the intention of the circus company to leave Washington the next morning, but that on account of the funeral, they had concluded to remain another day. They were then, as they had been from the time of our first meeting, extremely kind. No opportunity was omitted of addressing me in the language of approbation; while, on the other hand, I was certainly much prepossessed in their favor. I gave them my confidence without reserve, and would freely have trusted them to almost any extent. Their constant conversation and manner towards me—their foresight in suggesting the idea of free papers, and a hundred other little acts, unnecessary to be repeated—all indicated that they were friends indeed, sincerely solicitous for my welfare. I know not but they were. I know not but they were innocent of the great wickedness of which I now believe them guilty. Whether they were accessory to my misfortunes—subtle and inhuman monsters in the shape of men—designedly luring me away from home and family, and liberty, for the sake of gold—those who read these pages will have the same means of determining as myself. If they were innocent, my sudden disappearance must have been unaccountable indeed; but revolving in my mind all the attending circumstances, I never yet could indulge, towards them, so charitable a supposition.
After receiving the money from them, of which they appeared to have an abundance, they advised me not to go into the streets that night, inasmuch as I was unacquainted with the customs of the city. Promising to remember their advice, I left them together, and soon after was shown by a colored servant to a sleeping room in the back part of the hotel, on the ground floor. I laid down to rest, thinking of home and wife, and children, and the long distance that stretched between us, until I fell asleep. But no good angel of pity came to my bedside, bidding me to fly—no voice of mercy forewarned me in my dreams of the trials that were just at hand.
The next day there was a great pageant in Washington. The roar of cannon and the tolling of bells filled the air, while many houses were shrouded with crape, and the streets were black with people. As the day advanced, the procession made its appearance, coming slowly through the Avenue, carriage after carriage, in long succession, while thousands upon thousands followed on foot—all moving to the sound of melancholy music. They were bearing the dead body of Harrison to the grave.
From early in the morning, I was constantly in the company of Hamilton and Brown. They were the only persons I knew in Washington. We stood together as the funeral pomp passed by. I remember distinctly how the window glass would break and rattle to the ground, after each report of the cannon they were firing in the burial ground. We went to the Capitol, and walked a long time about the grounds. In the afternoon, they strolled towards the President's House, all the time keeping me near to them, and pointing out various places of interest. As yet, I had seen nothing of the circus. In fact, I had thought of it but little, if at all, amidst the excitement of the day.
My friends, several times during the afternoon, entered drinking saloons, and called for liquor. They were by no means in the habit, however, so far as I knew them, of indulging to excess. On these occasions, after serving themselves, they would pour out a glass and hand it to me. I did not become intoxicated, as may be inferred from what subsequently occurred. Towards evening, and soon after partaking of one of these potations, I began to experience most unpleasant sensations. I felt extremely ill. My head commenced aching—a dull, heavy pain, inexpressibly disagreeable. At the supper table, I was without appetite; the sight and flavor of food was nauseous. About dark the same servant conducted me to the room I had occupied the previous night. Brown and Hamilton advised me to retire, commiserating me kindly, and expressing hopes that I would be better in the morning. Divesting myself of coat and boots merely, I threw myself upon the bed. It was impossible to sleep. The pain in my head continued to increase, until it became almost unbearable. In a short time I became thirsty. My lips were parched. I could think of nothing but water—of lakes and flowing rivers, of brooks where I had stopped to drink, and of the dripping bucket, rising with its cool and overflowing nectar, from the bottom of the well. Towards midnight, as near as I could judge, I arose, unable longer to bear such intensity of thirst. I was a stranger in the house, and knew nothing of its apartments. There was no one up, as I could observe. Groping about at random, I knew not where, I found the way at last to a kitchen in the basement. Two or three colored servants were moving through it, one of whom, a woman, gave me two glasses of water. It afforded momentary relief, but by the time I had reached my room again, the same burning desire of drink, the same tormenting thirst, had again returned. It was even more torturing than before, as was also the wild pain in my head, if such a thing could be. I was in sore distress—in most excruciating agony! I seemed to stand on the brink of madness! The memory of that night of horrible suffering will follow me to the grave.
In the course of an hour or more after my return from the kitchen, I was conscious of some one entering my room. There seemed to be several—a mingling of various voices,—but how many, or who they were, I cannot tell. Whether Brown and Hamilton were among them, is a mere matter of conjecture. I only remember, with any degree of distinctness, that I was told it was necessary to go to a physician and procure medicine, and that pulling on my boots, without coat or hat, I followed them through a long passage-way, or alley, into the open street. It ran out at right angles from Pennsylvania Avenue. On the opposite side there was a light burning in a window. My impression is there were then three persons with me, but it is altogether indefinite and vague, and like the memory of a painful dream. Going towards the light, which I imagined proceeded from a physician's office, and which seemed to recede as I advanced, is the last glimmering recollection I can now recall. From that moment I was insensible. How long I remained in that condition—whether only that night, or many days and nights—I do not know; but when consciousness returned, I found myself alone, in utter darkness, and in chains.
The pain in my head had subsided in a measure, but I was very faint and weak. I was sitting upon a low bench, made of rough boards, and without coat or hat. I was hand-cuffed. Around my ankles also were a pair of heavy fetters. One end of a chain was fastened to a large ring in the floor, the other to the fetters on my ankles. I tried in vain to stand upon my feet. Walking from such a painful trance, it was some time before I could collect my thoughts. Where was I? What was the meaning of these chains? Where were Brown and Hamilton? What had I done to deserve imprisonment in such a dungeon? I could not comprehend. There was a blank of some indefinite period, preceding my awakening in that lonely place, the events of which the utmost stretch of memory was unable to recall. I listened intently for some sign or sound of life, but nothing broke the oppressive silence, save the clinking of my chains, whenever I chanced to move. I spoke aloud, but the sound of my voice startled me. I felt of my pockets, so far as the fetters would allow—far enough, indeed, to ascertain that I had not only been robbed of liberty, but that my money and free papers were also gone! Then did the idea begin to break upon my mind, at first dim and confused, that I had been kidnapped. But that I thought was incredible. There must have been some misapprehension—some unfortunate mistake. It could not be that a free citizen of New-York, who had wronged no man, nor violated any law, should be dealt with thus inhumanly. The more I contemplated my situation, however, the more I became confirmed in my suspicions. It was a desolate thought, indeed. I felt there was no trust or mercy in unfeeling man; and commending myself to the God of the oppressed, bowed my head upon my fettered hands, and wept most bitterly.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
The Final Moments of John Brown
Thomas Hamilton devoted the December 1859 issue of the Anglo-African Magazine to the events in Virginia, including this account of the final moments of John Brown, who was convicted and sentenced to death for his involvement in slave uprisings earlier in the year.
The Execution of John Brown.
This execution, which took place Dec. 2, at 11.15 A.M., was in the highest degree imposing and solemn, and without disturbance of any kind. Lines of patrols and pickets encircled the field for ten miles around, and over five hundred troops were posted about the gallows. At 7 o'clock in the morning workmen began to erect the scaffold, the timber having been hauled the night previous. At 8 troops began to arrive. Troopers were posted around the field at fifty feet apart, and two lines of sentries further in. The troops did not form hollow around the gallows, but were so disposed as to command every approach. The sun shone brightly, and the picture presented to the eye was really splendid. As each company arrived, it took its allotted position. On the easterly side were the Cadets, with their right wing flanked by a detachment of men with howitzers; on the north-east, the Richmond Grays; on the south, Company F of Richmond; on the north, the Winchester Continentals, and, to preserve order in the crowd, the Alexandria Riflemen and Captain Gibson's Rockingham Company were stationed at the entrance gate, and on the outskirts.
On leaving the jail, John Brown had on his face an expression of calmness and serenity characteristic of the patriot who is about to die with a living consciousness that he is laying down his life for the good of his fellow creatures. His face was even joyous, and a forgiving smile rested upon his lips. His was the lightest heart, among friend or foe, in all Charlestown that day, and not a word was spoken that was not an intuitive appreciation of his manly courage. Firmly and with elastic step he moved forward. No flinching of a coward's heart there. He stood in the midst of that organized mob, from whose despotic hearts petty tyranny seemed for the nonce eleminated by the admiration they had in once beholding a man—for John Brown was there every inch a man.
As he stepped out of the door, a black woman, with her little child in arms, stood near his way. The twain were of the despised race for whose emancipation and elevation to the dignity of the children of God he was about to lay down his life. His thoughts at that moment none can know except as his acts interpret them. He stopped for a moment in his course, stooped over, and with the tenderness of one whose love is as broad as the brotherhood of man, kissed the child affectionately. That mother will be proud of that mark of distinction for her offspring, and some day, when over the ashes of John Brown the temple of Virginia liberty is reared, she may join in the joyful song of praise which on that soil will do justice to his memory.
The vehicle which was to convey Brown to the scaffold was a furniture wagon. On the front seat was the driver, a man named Hawks, said to be a native of Massachusetts, but for many years a resident of Virginia, and by his side was seated Mr. Sadler, the undertaker. In the box was placed the coffin, made of black walnut, inclosed in a poplar box with a flat lid, in which coffin and remains were to be transported from the county. John Brown mounted the wagon, and took his place in the seat with Capt. Avis, the jailor, whose admiration of his prisoner is of the profoundest nature. Mr. Sadler, too, was one of Brown's staunchest friends in his confinement, and pays a noble tribute to his manly qualities.
"What a beautiful country you have," said Capt. Brown to Capt. Avis.
"Yes," was the response.
"It seems the more beautiful to behold because I have been so long shut out from it."
"You are more cheerful than I am, Capt. Brown," said Mr. Sadler.
"Yes," said the Captain,"I ought to be."
He continued, "I see no citizens here—where are they?"
"The citizens are not allowed to be present—none but the soldiers," was the reply.
"That ought not to be," said the old man; "citizens should be allowed to be present as well as others."
The cortege passed half around the gallows to the east side, where it halted. The troops composing the escort took up their assigned position, but the Petersburg Grays, as the immediate body-Guard, remained as before, closely hemming in the prisoner. They finaliy opened ranks to let him pass out, when, with the assistance of two men, he desended from the wagon, bidding good-bye to those within it; and then, with firm step and erect form, he strode past jailor, sheriff, and officers, and was the first person to mount the scaffold steps.
There is no faltering in his step, but firmly and erect he stands amid the almost breathless lines of soldiery that surround him. With a graceful motion of his pinioned right arm, he takes the slouched hat from his head, and carelessly casts it upon the platform by his side. The cap is drawn over his eyes, and the rope adjusted about his neck. John Brown is ready to meet his God.
But what next? The military have yet to go through some senseless evolutions, and near ten minutes elapse before Gen. Taliaferro's chivalrous hosts are in their proper position, during which time John Brown stands with the cap drawn over his head, and the hangman's knot under his ear.
Each moment seems an hour, and some of the people, unable to restrain an expression of their sense of the outrage, murmur "Shame!""Shame!"
At last Virginia's troops are arranged a la mode.
"Captain Brown, you are not standing on the drop; will you come forward?" said the Sheriff.
"I can't see, gentlemen. "was the reply; "you must lead me."
The Sheriff led his prisoner forward to the centre of the drop.
"Shall I give you a hankerchief, and let you drop it as a signal?" inquired the Sheriff.
"No, I am ready at any time; but don't keep me waiting needlessly," was the reply.
A moment after, the Sheriff springs the latch, the drop falls, and the body of John Brown is suspended between heaven and earth. A few convulsive twitches of the arms are observed. These cease after a moment.
After the body had dangled in mid air for twenty minutes, it was examined by the surgeon for signs of life. First the Charlestown physicians went up and made their examination, and after them the military surgeons, the prisoner being executed by the civil power and with military assistance as well. To see them lifting up the arms, now powerless, that once were so strong, and placing their ears on the breast of the corpse, holding it steady by passing an arm around it, was revolting in the extreme.
And so the body dangled and swung by its neck, turning to this side or that when moved by the surgeons, and swinging, pendulem-like, from the force of the south wind that was blowing, until after thirty-eight minutes from the time of swinging off, it was ordered to be cut down, the authorities being quite satisfied that their dreaded enemy was dead. The body was lifted upon the scaffold, and fell into a heap as limp as a rag. It was then put into the black walnut coffin, the body-guard closed in about the wagon, the cavalry led the van, and the mournful procession moved off.
Throughout the whole sad proceedings the utmost order and decorum reigned. I think that when the prisoner was on the gallows, words in ordinary tones might have been heard all over the forty-acre field. In less than fifteen minutes the whole military force had left the field of execution, a dozen sentries alone, perhaps, remaining. The towns-people having been kept at a considerable distance, and none from the country about being allowed to approach nearer than a mile, there were not, I think, counting soldiers and civilians, more than a thousand spectators. A great feeling of exasperation prevails in consequence of this foolish stringency, and it is a wonder that conflicts have not arisen between the citizens and their protectors.
African American Intellectuals: Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)
Frederick Douglass was very likely the greatest African American intellectual leader of the nineteenth century and is one of the pivotal personalities of American history.
Born a slave, Douglass escaped bondage and traveled north to freedom, and became deeply involved in the abolitionist movement. There the similarities end, however. In addition to his brilliant talents as an orator, Douglass proved early in his life that he was a skilled writer as well. His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), was a bestseller in its day and remains one of the most compelling slave narratives ever written. Douglass created a name for himself as a newspaperman, editing and publishing such important periodicals as the North Star, Frederick Douglass's Paper, and the New National Era. More than any American before him, Douglass filled the role of public intellectual. He devoted his considerable capacities to explicitly political ends and, by so doing, paved the way for future generations of African American intellectuals who would do the same.
ABOVE: A photograph of Frederick Douglass, taken in his later years. Following the Civil War, Douglass edited the New National Era in Washington and served in several government posts. He died in Washington, D.C., on February 25, 1895, and was buried in Rochester, New York, his long-time home. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENTS Letters Between H. C. Wright and Frederick Douglass on the Purchase of Douglass's Freedom and "A Fugitive's Necessary Silence"
The Solomon Northup Kidnapping and the Rise of the Slave Narrative and Escape Tales as Bestselling Literature
Solomon Northup was born free in Minerva, New York, in 1808, the descendant of African Americans who had been in the Northeast since the beginning of colonial settlement. In addition to being literate, Northup had another valuable skill—from an early age he had played the violin.
In 1829, Northup married Anne Hampton, a free African American woman, and they began to raise a family. They lived and worked in Saratoga Springs, Anne as a cook and Solomon on a variety of jobs, including the repair of the Champlain Canal. He also earned money playing his violin at dances, weddings, and other various gatherings.
In 1841, well-established and with three growing children, Northup attracted the attention of two men who proposed that he accompany them to Washington, D.C., to perform in a circus to which they claimed a connection. The circus turned out to be slavery. First drugged and then chained and sold, Northup soon found himself laboring as a slave on the bayous of Louisiana. For twelve years he remained a slave, hiding the skills he had gained in freedom, resisting brutal treatment whenever he could, and above all, observing what went on around him.
Northup went on to publish an account of his ordeal to great success. The tales of slaves kidnapped, escaping, and surviving as fugitives constituted one of the literary trends of the century. Much like stories of adventure at sea gave rise to the literature of Robert Louis Stevenson and Herman Melville, slave narratives were perhaps one of the greatest influences to turn public opinion against the sordid business of owning people in the decades that preceded the Civil War.
A Plan for Thwarting Slave Hunters
Congress passed the nation's second fugitive slave law on September 18, 1850. It allowed for the punishment, by fine or imprisonment, of anyone who attempted to help escaping slaves and authorized federal marshals to search houses where they suspected runaways might be hiding. It also denied fugitives the right to a jury trial, as well as the right to testify on their own behalf. Judges were empowered to remand fugitives to slavery and were paid ten dollars for every fugitive they returned but only five for each fugitive they freed. Many northerners who had been indifferent to the antislavery cause saw the law as illegal federal interference with local governments, and they now joined with abolitionists to thwart enforcement of it.
African American Intellectuals: Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882)
Born into slavery in Maryland in 1815, Henry Highland Garnet escaped with his family to Pennsylvania when he was ten years old. They eventually moved to New York City, where they settled next to Alexander Crummell's family, and where Henry received an education, first at the Free African School and later at the newly founded Negro High School. In 1835, Garnet and Crummell traveled north together to attend Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire. When local farmers, infuriated by their presence, attacked the school, Garnet held them at bay with a shotgun.
Garnet was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian church in 1843, and that same year he delivered the address reprinted here. Garnet was a member of the New York school of abolitionists. Unlike the Bostonians, who were led by William Lloyd Garrison, Garnet and his fellow New York abolitionists took a pragmatic approach to the great issues facing African Americans, slave and free. They favored political action over acts of conscience and promoted all-black newspapers, schools, churches, and the like, wherever and whenever racial prejudice made integrated institutions an unlikely dream. Many, Garnet among them, supported the violent overthrow of slavery as the only course likely to bring about a change. Garnet made this theme public in his 1843 Address before a convention of African American men held in Buffalo. By a narrow vote of nineteen to eighteen, the convention refused to endorse Garnet's speech. Among those voting against it was Frederick Douglass, though he would later come to embrace its call to arms.
Like David Walker's Appeal, Garnet's Address called upon slaves to enter into open, mass rebellion against those who held them in bondage. His Address was printed together with Walker's Appeal under a single cover in 1848, the cost of the printing paid for, it is said, by John Brown.
John Brown's Attack on Harpers Ferry
Born in Torrington, Connecticut, in 1800, John Brown grew up in Ohio, a hotbed of sentiment on both sides of the slavery issue. A fierce foe of American slavery, Brown helped many slaves escape across Ohio and then, in 1855, moved to Kansas, where four of his sons had settled the year before. According to the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the question of whether the new territories would be slave or free was to be left to popular vote. Free-Soilers easily prevailed in the more northern territory of Nebraska, but the debate turned violent to the south, earning Kansas the epithet of "Bleeding Kansas."
John Brown and his sons took a vigorous role in the events, retaliating for an 1855 attack on the antislavery town of Lawrence by murdering proslavery settlers in their neighborhood of Osawatomie Creek. Voices calling for the violent overthrow of the slavocracy were being raised throughout the abolitionist ranks, and John Brown's actions in Kansas brought him not only national attention but a following among those who felt that the antislavery tactic of moral persuasion, urged by Garrison and others, was no longer effective.
In 1858, John Brown and others met in the free black community of Chatham, Ontario, to devise a plan for mass uprisings among the slaves of northern Virginia. The raid on Harpers Ferry was the first step in their plan, an action intended to establish a base to which Virginia slaves might escape and from which they could operate, in what was conceived as a widening war against slavery from within. On October 16, 1859, John Brown and his men attacked the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry and took brief possession of it, but were eventually defeated by Robert E. Lee's militia forces. Ten of Brown's men were killed in the attempt, and Brown himself was wounded, captured, found guilty of treason, and sentenced to be hanged.
"The Debate over Slavery in the United States." African-American Years: Chronologies of American History and Experience. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/debate-over-slavery-united-states
"The Debate over Slavery in the United States." African-American Years: Chronologies of American History and Experience. . Retrieved September 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/debate-over-slavery-united-states
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