The Final Century of Slavery in the United States
The Final Century of Slavery in the United States
ADAPTED FROM ESSAYS BY ROB FORBES,
GILDER LEHRMAN CENTER
As a legal institution in the Western Hemisphere, slavery survived the American War of Independence by less than a century. If the military operations of the revolution damaged slavery significantly, the revolution's ideals of liberty and equality wounded the institution far more deeply, though the wounds would not prove fatal until the Civil War.
SLAVERY IN THE ERA OF THE REVOLUTION
At the time of the revolution, more than one out of every five Americans was a slave—a higher proportion than at any other time in the country's history. Slavery was legal, and practiced, in all thirteen states.
Throughout New England, the well-to-do employed slaves as badges of wealth and status. Prince, a slave from New Hampshire, served as the body servant of Captain William Whipple (1730-1785), a former slave trader who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The slave Frank belonged to the Reverend William Emerson (1769-1811) of Concord, Massachusetts, pastor to the minutemen and grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
But the North had more than a token investment in slavery. The flourishing valleys of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the fertile farms of Long Island and Connecticut, and the stock-breeding regions of Rhode Island all supported substantial slave-produced agriculture. The North had fewer slaves than the South, not because of any moral objections to slavery, but because slaves commanded a much higher price in the highly productive southern regions. Profits from their sale were often pocketed by the New Englanders who dominated the American branch of the slave trade.
In the southern colonies, slaves made up 40 percent of the population. As tensions with Britain grew in the 1760s and early 1770s, many southern legislatures grew concerned that the large numbers of recently imported Africans posed a threat to the colonies' security. Parliament routinely vetoed colonial laws to halt or slow the slave trade, leading Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), in his initial draft of the Declaration of Independence, to denounce George III for "waging cruel war against human nature itself … to keep open a market where Men should be bought and sold. "The Continental Congress prudently deleted this passage, since it was the Americans who were doing the buying and much of the selling.
Inevitably, slaves played a key strategic role in the revolution. As Jefferson's censored passage from the Declaration of Independence shows, white Americans well understood that they were owed no loyalty by people they had subjugated and exploited. The British understood this too. One of Washington's first acts after taking command of the Continental troops was to bar the recruitment of black soldiers (although those already enrolled were not expelled). Washington reversed himself, however, after Britain's Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation promising freedom to slaves who joined the British cause. Thousands of African Americans streamed across the British lines. One was Thomas Peters (b. circa. 1750), an ex-slave from North Carolina, who rose to the rank of sergeant in a British regiment and later led a band of black loyalists to Nova Scotia and then to the African settlement of Sierra Leone. A smaller number lent their services to the patriots, including "Captain" Starlins and Caesar Tarrant, who served with great heroism as pilots in the Virginia navy.
In practice, however, neither side proved willing to take significant steps against slavery, and many brave recruits were sent back into bondage at the end of the war. Although the revolution severely disrupted slavery, natural increase and a postwar slave-buying spree soon raised the number of slaves to above its prewar high.
SLAVERY IN THE EARLY NATIONAL ERA
"Would anyone believe," the patriot leader Patrick Henry (1736-1799) wrote to an acquaintance after the revolution,"that I am master of Slave[s] of my own purchase: I am drawn along by the general inconveniency of living without them, I will not, I cannot justify it. "While the material effects of the revolution on slavery were short-lived, the impact of revolutionary ideals ultimately proved decisive.
Most Americans recognized the clear contradiction between their freedom-loving pronouncements and their slave-holding practices. Many masters were willing to suffer the "inconveniency" of living without slaves rather than betray their principles. When Captain Whipple's slave Prince pointedly stated,"Master, you are going to fight for your liberty, but I have none to fight for," the chastened former slave trader freed him on the spot.
Private manumissions reached an all-time high in the decade after the revolution. People in the North, where the cost of emancipation was lowest, took the most substantial steps against slavery. The General Assembly of Vermont wrote a prohibition against slavery into its 1777 constitution, and Pennsylvania lawmakers passed a measure for gradual emancipation in 1780, becoming the first legislative body to end slavery anywhere in the world. Massachusetts abolished slavery by judicial decree in the same year. One by one, the rest of the northern states followed suit, so that by 1804 slavery was on the road to extinction throughout the region. Of even greater importance, the Northwest Ordinance (1787) blocked the expansion of slavery into the territory north of the Ohio River.
Even so, the end of northern slavery came achingly slowly. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), abolitionist and feminist, received her freedom only in 1827, when New York's Emancipation Act took effect. Slavery lasted in Connecticut until 1848, and at least a few slaves remained in New Jersey when Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) became president in 1861.SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT Sojourner Truth's Address Before the Convention on Women's Rights
Climate and economics affected the outcome of slavery at least as much as laws did. In the eastern border states, for example, slavery seemed likely to die out by itself without much legislative assistance. Maryland's free black population grew at a much higher rate than its slave population throughout the nineteenth century. Delaware, which consistently identified itself as a northern state, had just 1,798 slaves in 1860, only 8.3 percent of its black population. Closely tied to northern commerce and industry, these small states also had no "back country" into which slave agriculture could expand. Hence, slavery increasingly seemed a thing of the past, not the future.
In Virginia, the situation was less clear. Tobacco, the state's chief crop, had declined in importance from colonial times, and its cultivation had depleted the soil. More than half of the nation's approximately five hundred thousand slaves still lived in Virginia, but in many parts of the state planters did not have sufficient work to occupy them, making manumission a wise economic as well as philanthropic decision. Some innovative slaveholders, such as Thomas Jefferson, turned to diversified agriculture and small-scale manufacturing; in addition to cash crops, Monticello's slaves tended orchards, wheat fields, and vegetable gardens and produced barrels, nails, and horseshoes. Jefferson chose not to free his slaves, although he permitted those who were less than one-sixteenth black (and hence white, according to Virginia law) to "run away" without pursuing them.
Conditions for slaves in North Carolina were more complex still. Although slaves outnumbered whites in the wealthy agricultural counties of the tidewater, where they chiefly tended tobacco, the state as a whole—due largely to poor soil and minimal transportation facilities—had a smaller proportion of slaves than any other low-country state. Some western counties in North Carolina had few slaves or no slaves at all. No other state had a greater range in the conditions of slavery, with some slaves earning wages, others actually owning property, and still others seemingly slaves in name alone. Until 1835, free black property owners in North Carolina could—and did—vote.
In South Carolina and Georgia, rice continued to be the principal cash crop, with indigo and tobacco falling behind. Increasingly profitable, however, was cotton. Innovations in Britain in cotton textile technology opened a seemingly limitless demand for the versatile fiber. But the long-staple variety, with its easily removable seeds, could only be grown successfully on the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands, while the stubborn seeds of the easy-to-grow short-staple cotton drastically limited its usefulness.
Several southern states offered prizes for the invention of an efficient seed-removing machine, or cotton gin. So it was not completely unexpected when, in 1793, the Connecticut inventor Eli Whitney (1765-1825) developed such a device. Still, the impact of Whitney's cotton gin was astonishing. A trained slave using an early hand gin could sort about five pounds of cotton from seeds a week. With Whitney's earliest machine, the same slave could clean about fifty pounds a day. When a horse was harnessed to it, a modified gin could process as much cotton in one day as a skilled laborer could produce by hand in a year.
Cotton exports skyrocketed (from about 3,000 bales in 1790 to 178,000 bales in 1810), as did the value of slaves. Because cotton was a staple that could be cultivated profitably on a small scale, cotton planting became the ticket to riches for thousands of whites, and slavery became more deeply entrenched than ever in American society.
SLAVERY IN THE ERA OF REBELLIONS
Ironically, the same year that saw the creation of the cotton gin—1793—also witnessed the most successful slave revolt in history. Inflamed by revolutionary events in France, slaves in the Caribbean colony of St. Domingue rose in rebellion.
The independent nation of Haiti, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture (1743-1803), became an inspiration to slaves throughout the Americas, and a terror to slaveholders. Thousands of French planter refugees flooded into southern ports, bringing their slaves, some of whom had connections to the successful revolutionaries. American slaveholders feared that their own slaves would be "contaminated" by contact with Haitian blacks and passed laws banning the importation of new slaves. Such fears proved justified, for now the United States entered a long period of slave revolts, inspired by Haiti's example and in some cases led by former Haitian slaves.
One American who was greatly influenced by Haiti was a tall Virginia slave named Gabriel, known as "a fellow of courage and intellect above his rank in life. "In the summer of 1800, he orchestrated what may have been the most extensive slave conspiracy in U.S. history. Gabriel's plot called for an armed force of several hundred slaves to march to Richmond, Virginia, burn the warehouses, capture the armory, and take the governor hostage. Other conspirators would strike at Norfolk and Petersburg. A heavy rainstorm prevented the march, and two frightened plotters revealed the plan to their masters. Gabriel and twenty-six others were hanged, and many more were transported or sold farther south. According to Governor James Monroe (1758-1831), the plot "embraced most of the slaves in this city and neighborhood," and knowledge of it probably "pervaded other parts, if not the whole state. "Gabriel's conspiracy clearly demonstrated the revolutionary potential of slave insurrection in the United States.
In 1803, the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France nearly doubled the size of the United States and stimulated a huge increase in the demand for slaves to cultivate the fertile new lands. In response, South Carolina reopened the legal slave trade. This horrified officials of other states, who opposed the move partly for humanitarian reasons but more pointedly because of the danger of insurrection posed by the newly enslaved Africans.
In 1807, Congress voted to outlaw the Atlantic slave trade, a move that drastically changed the face of U.S. slavery, in contradictory ways. On the one hand, since slaveholders could no longer obtain replacements from Africa, they had an incentive to treat their slaves with greater care. On the other hand, the closing of the Atlantic slave trade signaled the opening of the domestic trade—the large-scale forced migration of slaves from Maryland and Virginia to the expanding cotton lands of the Southwest, the sugar plantations of Louisiana and Florida, and the rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia. Slave coffles—lines of men and women chained together—dotted the countryside, and cities such as New Orleans, Charleston, and Richmond became major regional slave markets, as did Washington, D.C., where slave auctions took place within sight of the Capitol.
The 1810s and 1820s witnessed a firestorm of revolts, scares, and small-scale acts of resistance such as arson, sabotage, and poisoning. It is impossible to determine the number and size of slave revolts, since slaveholders suppressed news of them, fearing that publicity would spread rebellion. Little is known, for instance, about an 1811 uprising near New Orleans led by a Haitian slave named Charles, except that it was probably the largest slave revolt on U.S. soil. A contemporary described the incident, involving between 150 and 500 rebels, as a "miniature representation of the horrors of St. Domingo."
Nor do historians have a clear picture of the scope of "maroonage," the establishment of communities of runaway slaves, or "outliers. "The most important maroon community was outside the nation's southern border in West Florida, where escaped blacks and Choctaw Indians established a formidable military garrison and launched raids into Georgia, until their fort was destroyed in 1816 by a shot from an American gunboat.
Few events in U.S. history had greater significance for slavery, both immediate and long-term, than the Missouri statehood debates of 1819-1821. Most Northerners wanted to keep slavery out of new states, while southerners opposed such restrictions. Ultimately, Congress adopted the Missouri Compromise, which allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state but barred slavery from the rest of the Louisiana Territory above the line of 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. In practice, this limited the South to just two more slave states, Arkansas and Florida. That meant the United States would have to acquire more land, either peacefully or by conquest, for the slave states to keep up with the North.
A year after the Missouri crisis was resolved, Charleston slaveholders were rocked by the Denmark Vesey (c. 1767-1822) conspiracy. The former slave of a slave trader, Vesey had traveled widely throughout the Atlantic world and knew and detested every facet of the slave system. Although he had purchased his freedom with a lottery jackpot, Vesey, like many free blacks, had family members still in slavery.
Newspaper accounts of the Missouri debates convinced Vesey that the government in Washington would never send troops to suppress a slave insurrection, and he began in earnest to develop his plan. Citing the biblical story of Exodus, the Declaration of Independence, and the Missouri speeches, Vesey sought to persuade his fellows that slavery was wrong. Appealing to their Christian faith, to the power of traditional African religions, and to the example of the Haitian Revolution, he sought to convince them that a revolt against slavery could succeed. When the Charleston authorities took steps in 1821 to suppress the African Church, one of the few institutions blacks controlled, Vesey converted many bitter church members to his cause, including "Gullah Jack" Pritchard, an Angolan-born conjuror; Ned and Rolla Bennett, favored slaves of the governor; and Monday Gell, described by a white official as "firm, resolute, discreet, and intelligent."
Vesey's plan called for his men to sweep into the city at seven separate points after midnight on a Saturday, seize weapons from the armory, burn the town, and call on the region's slaves to rise in mass revolt. Most threatening to white Charlestonians, the rebels also planned to poison the city's water supply. Like Gabriel's revolt, Denmark Vesey's rebellion was betrayed by reluctant slaves who informed their masters. Vesey and at least thirty-five followers met death by hanging, but their story lived on to inspire others.
A still greater turning point in the course of American slavery occurred in Southampton County, Virginia, in the summer of 1831, when a charismatic, religiously inspired slave named Nat Turner (1800-1831) led the bloodiest slave uprising of the antebellum era. Guided by visions, dreams, and strange celestial events, Turner became convinced that the day of judgment for slaveholders was near, and that he was to be their executioner.
He first planned his attack for July 4, but postponed it when he became sick. Finally, on the night of August 22, Turner and six followers, armed with a broadsword and an axe, began the work of destruction. Starting with the family of Turner's owners, the rebels systematically slaughtered the white men, women, and children they encountered on their passage to the county seat of Jerusalem. This time, no wary slaves betrayed the plot; indeed, more than sixty others rallied to the rebels' cause. By the next night, fifty-seven whites were dead, and the slave-holding South was plunged into a state of panic from which it never really recovered. Although most of his army was rounded up and captured within days, Turner himself eluded capture until October, while rumors and false reports of new attacks swirled through the state.
The first effect of Nat Turner's revolt was to trigger frenzied assaults by Virginia's whites on slaves in which perhaps hundreds of innocent blacks were killed. Yet it also forced the serious debate over slavery that the South had until then avoided. In meetings throughout Virginia, citizens called for action on slavery, ranging from simply sending free blacks out of the state to immediate and total abolition. Led by a nephew of Thomas Jefferson, antislavery members of the Virginia legislature proposed a gradual emancipation act for the state. For a short time, the act appeared likely to pass, but defenders of slavery, led by Professor Thomas R. Dew (1802-1846), successfully defended the status quo, and the last great chance for the peaceful end of slavery was lost.SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT Nat Turner's Revolt and the Subsequent "Bill Concerning Slaves, Free Negroes and Mulattoes"
The Virginia emancipation debates of 1831-1832 marked the close of the southern antislavery debate. They appear to have ended the era of rebellions as well, although it is unclear whether the decline in reports of unrest reflected a real decline in incidents or simply a stronger resolve by slaveholders to keep silent about such events in the aftermath of Nat Turner's uprising. In either case, the period of rebellion now gave way to an era of constructive political activity, with the rise of abolitionism in the North, increased antislavery activism on the part of free blacks, and even multiracial coalitions against slavery.
SLAVERY IN THE "OLD" SOUTH, 1831-1861
The years from 1831 to 1861, representing the high point of cotton plantation culture, have been enshrined by history books and Hollywood as the classic era of the "Old South. "However, they constituted only a small fraction of the period of slavery in America and can hardly be regarded as typical. In large part, the focus on this period stems from the central and overwhelming importance of the slavery issue in national politics at this time.
It was not until the 1830s that slaveholders fully embraced the defense of slavery as a "positive good. "Pressed by growing antislavery sentiment at home and abroad (the British abolished slavery in their colonies in 1833), they began to paint an idealized portrait of plantation life, stressing gentle masters and happy, contented slaves. After the destruction of the Civil War, many Americans viewed the plantation legend with nostalgia, and later generations accepted it largely as fact.
Although atypical, these years were nonetheless critical ones for African Americans. While regional variations in slavery remained important, as they had been in the colonial era, the three decades before the Civil War saw the emergence of a distinct, semiautonomous African American culture, transcending boundaries of geography and even of slave or free status. In part, this cultural cohesion developed as a response to the false racial justifications of slavery. The hardening of racial attitudes during this period tied the destinies of free blacks and slaves together and made black solidarity an urgent necessity.
The overwhelming fact of slave life was work. Most slaves worked every day except Sunday and received a few days off at Christmas. In the Chesapeake Bay region, work took a wide variety of forms. Many slaves still labored in large gangs on plantations producing tobacco or wheat, but others worked in small groups of five or even fewer. Many slaves were hired out to a variety of employers—working in the fields during planting and harvest season and in town during the winter, as their owners shifted them to the most profitable employment at any given time. While in town, the slaves would be paid by their temporary "bosses" in cash, which they would give to their owners, keeping a portion for themselves to pay for food and other expenses.
"Hiring-out" was often a thankless experience for the slave, who might be mistreated or cheated by his employer and then punished by his owner for not tendering the expected fees. Nonetheless, the greater independence and contact with free blacks offered by the hiring-out arrangement helped to loosen the bonds of slavery, and has been described as a "halfway house" to free labor. The increasing urbanization of the upper Chesapeake, together with failing soil fertility throughout the region, put pressure on slaveholders either to emancipate their slaves or to sell them farther south.
Much of this southward migration was directed to the booming cotton lands of the Southwest. Mississippi, with a slave population of only 32,000 in 1820, had more than 436,000 slaves on the eve of the Civil War. The growth of slavery in Arkansas over the same period was even more dramatic, from just 1,617 slaves to 111,115. The kind of work slaves performed in these newer regions changed over time. It began with the backbreaking work of clearing the land of trees and carving out new fields, and progressed to the more manageable labor required to operate a mature cotton plantation.
Because most people know that slaves in the upper South dreaded being sold to plantations in the Deep South, cotton has a reputation as the most oppressive crop to produce. In fact, slaves chiefly feared being sold because of the rupture of family ties, not the harshness of the cotton regime. Cotton growing required huge bursts of labor during the fall harvest, when the bolls had to be picked before the onset of rains, ginned, pressed into bales, and loaded for shipment. But this meant that planters could grow only as much cotton as their slaves could harvest—not as much as their land could produce. To ensure that slaves would not be idle during the growing season, slaveholders often planted food crops (usually corn or wheat) to keep their "hands" busy and to reap extra profit. While this second crop meant increased work for slaves, they were compensated by the improved diet it offered.
By the 1830s, many large planters had adopted the "task system" of management developed on the tidewater rice plantations. Under this system, slaves would be assigned a particular task to complete for the day, and the rest of the time would be their own. Slaves worked in "gangs" under black "drivers," who in turn came under the direction of a white overseer who reported to the master. While slave drivers could be as oppressive as whites—one former slave described his driver as "de meanest devil dat ever lived on de Lord's green earth"—others mediated between the field hands and the overseer, conveying grievances to the owner and tempering harsh punishments. In some instances, the most senior drivers had as much say in particular decisions as the overseer, who could be fired at will. The task system of agriculture with its organization into gangs proved enormously efficient and brought reliable profits for slaveholders. At the same time, it promoted cohesion and a sense of camaraderie among the slaves that, in many cases, persisted after emancipation.
In contrast to the hard but manageable life on the cotton plantations, work on the sugar plantations of Louisiana, Texas, and Florida was hardly bearable. Cane planting was backbreaking stoop labor. The growing stalk required delicate and almost constant hoeing to keep back weeds. The crop required two harvests—of the seed cane in September, and of the mature stalks in October. Performed with razor-sharp machetes, this task was among the most dangerous, as well as the hardest, of the slave economy. Finally came the boiling of the sugar, a complex, hot, labor-intensive operation requiring all hands and proceeding night and day without pause until nearly Christmas.
The sugar industry was the nation's most voracious consumer of bondsmen, who were supplied by the sprawling New Orleans slave mart. It was said that the planters had computed the ideal working life of a slave, for maximum profit, at seven years. Slaves in the upper South considered being "sold down the river"—that is, sold down the Mississippi to the Louisiana sugar plantations—to be virtually a sentence of death. Yet even in this brutal environment, ties of family and faith gave meaning to slaves' lives.
Nowhere was the "plantation legend" more stridently affirmed than in the antebellum low country of Georgia and the Carolinas. During the 1840s and 1850s, as South Carolina and Georgia slaveholders more and more vigorously asserted the "natural" fitness of African Americans for slavery, the conditions of slaves in this region actually appear to have improved. In part, this was because planters sought to convince outsiders—and themselves—of the truth of their claims. It also stemmed from increasing concentrations of slaves and a consequent increase in African American autonomy in the most heavily black districts.
Even in regions where they outnumbered whites by five to one or as much as ten to one, however, African Americans found it wiser to seek accommodation with the slave system than to try to overthrow or escape it. Such regions were hundreds or even thousands of miles from the "free" states, where federal laws could still send them back to slavery. Of the thousands of slaves who successfully fled to freedom in the North or in Canada, most came from the upper South.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT Excerpt from The Fugitive Blacksmith by James Pennington
Yet even on the remotest plantations, slaves employed day-to-day resistance in order to carve out a margin of control. Bondsmen used the force of custom and tradition to defend themselves from their masters' efforts to impose new burdens or withdraw privileges. When that failed, planters might discover that a barn had been burned, equipment sabotaged, or a cotton crop picked too slowly to save it from rain. In these ways, masters learned not to make unreasonable demands upon their "hands."
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT "Reception and Treatment of Kidnappers"
THE DREAM OF FREEDOM
It would be a mistake to romanticize slave life, as has sometimes been done both by apologists for slavery and by sympathetic historians. Slavery unquestionably broke the will of many of its victims and left others injured physically as well as psychologically.
Those who, against tremendous odds, survived with their humanity intact were sustained by the conviction that slavery was wrong and that it did not define who they were. Although they worked for long hours, slaves often felt that their true lives did not begin until their laboring day was done. Ignoring fatigue, husbands would often walk miles to visit wives on distant plantations and return to work again at daybreak. The music of banjos or fiddles frequently filled the slave quarters until well after midnight. Funerals, too, took place at night, and they retained more of African practice than almost any other activity of slave culture.
African Americans were sustained as well by the faith that slavery would not last forever. In this faith, they strongly identified with the children of Israel, whom Moses freed from Egyptian bondage. They also believed in the ultimate fulfillment of the revolutionary promise that "all men are created equal"—as witnessed by the slave revolts, including Nat Turner's, planned to begin on the Fourth of July.
Moreover, just as slaveholders had feared, the free black class contributed significantly to the slaves' struggle for freedom. Simply by existing as free people and not slaves, free blacks undermined the racial justification for slavery. But they promoted freedom in active ways as well. In most other slave societies, manumitted slaves have identified closely with their former masters, in order to distance themselves from the slave status they have left behind. In America, where race was used to justify slavery, free blacks could not escape from its stigma, and most recognized that their destinies were directly tied to the destinies of the slaves. This led to an unprecedented sense of community between slaves and former slaves.
It seems almost a contradiction in terms to speak of chattel slaves as having a "culture," since slavery by its nature would seem designed to prevent those in its grasp from ever developing one. Yet African American slaves did indeed develop a culture, one that contributed essential elements to American society—including a deepened understanding of the meaning, and the value, of freedom.
Boles, John B. Black Southerners 1619-1869. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983.
Campbell, Edward D.C., and Kym S. Rice, eds. Before Freedom Came: African American Life in the Antebellum South. Richmond and Charlottesville: Museum of the Confederacy and the University Press of Virginia, 1992.
Davis, David B. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.
Egerton, Douglas R. Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Elkins, Stanley M. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Frey, Sylvia. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Gutman, Herbert G. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Black Odyssey: Afro-American Ordeal in Slavery. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.
Joyner, Charles W. Remember Me: Slave Life in Coastal Georgia. Atlanta: Georgia Humanities Council, 1989.
Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619-1877. New York:Hill and Wang, 1993.
Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. 12 vols. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Co., 1977.
Wright, Donald. African Americans in the Early Republic, 1789-1813. Arlington Heights: Harlan Davidson, 1993.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Sojourner Truth's Address Before the Convention on Women's Rights
Sojourner Truth was an unforgettable orator.
A religious mystic, six feet tall and with a mighty voice that commanded her audience's attention, she was the most prominent woman orator in the abolitionist movement, and she devoted most of her life to traveling and speaking in the cause of abolition and women's rights. In 1851, she united those two themes in a powerful address before the Convention on Women's Rights in Akron, Ohio. Frances Gage, the president of the Convention, recorded the event in writing, offering Sojourner Truth's speech in its entirety.
"Sojourner Truth,"by Frances D. Gage
The leaders of the movement trembled on seeing a tall, gaunt black woman in a gray dress and white turban, surmounted with an uncouth sun-bonnet, march deliberately into the church, walk with the air of a queen up the aisle, and take her seat upon the pulpit steps. A buzz of disapprobation was heard all over the house, and there fell on the listening ear,"An abolition affair!""Woman's rights and niggers!""I told you so!""Go it, darkey!"
I chanced on that occasion to wear my first laurels in public life as president of the meeting. At my request order was restored, and the business of the Convention went on. Morning, afternoon, and evening exercises came and went. Through all these sessions old Sojourner, quiet and reticent as the "Lybian Statue," sat crouched against the wall on the corner of the pulpit stairs, her sun-bonnet shading her eyes, her elbows on her knees, her chin resting upon her broad, hard palms. At intermission she was busy selling the "Life of Sojourner Truth," a narrative of her own strange and adventurous life. Again and again, timorous and trembling ones came to me and said, with earnestness, "Don't let her speak, Mrs. Gage, it will ruin us. Every newspaper in the land will have our cause mixed up with abolition and niggers, and we shall be utterly denounced. "My only answer was, "We shall see when the time comes."
The second day the work waxed warm. Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Universalist ministers came in to hear and discuss the resolutions presented. One claimed superior rights and privileges for man, on the ground of "superior intellect"; another, because of the "manhood of Christ; if God had desired the equality of woman, He would have given some token of His will through the birth, life, and death of the Saviour. "Another gave us a theological view of the "sin of our first mother."
There were very few women in those days who dared to "speak in meeting"; and the august teachers of the people were seemingly getting the better of us, while the boys in the galleries, and the sneerers among the pews, were hugely enjoying the discomfiture, as they supposed, of the "strong-minded. "Some of the tender-skinned friends were on the point of losing dignity, and the atmosphere betokened a storm. When, slowly from her seat in the corner rose Sojourner Truth, who, till now, had scarcely lifted her head."Don't let her speak!" gasped half a dozen in my ear. She moved slowly and solemnly to the front, laid her old bonnet at her feet, and turned her great speaking eyes to me. There was a hissing sound of disapprobation above and below. I rose and announced "Sojourner Truth," and begged the audience to keep silence for a few moments.
The tumult subsided at once, and every eye was fixed on this almost Amazon form, which stood nearly six feet high, head erect, and eyes piercing the upper air like one in a dream. At her first word there was a profound hush. She spoke in deep tones, which, though not loud, reached every ear in the house, and away through the throng at the doors and windows.
"Wall, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin' out o' kilter. I tink dat 'twixt de niggers of de Souf and de womin at de Norf, all talkin' 'bout rights, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all dis here talkin' 'bout?
"Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place!" And raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she asked, "And a'n't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! (and she bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power). I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a'n't I a woman! I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And a'n't I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen 'em mos' all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a'n't I a woman?
"Den dey talks 'bout dis ting in de head; what dis dey call it?" ("Intellect," whispered some one near.) "Dat's it, honey. What's dat got to do wid womin's rights or nigger's rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yourn holds a quart, wouldn't ye be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?"And she pointed her significant finger, and sent a keen glance at the minister who had made the argument. The cheering was long and loud.
"Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wan't a woman! Whar did your Christ come from?" Rolling thunder couldn't have stilled that crowd, as did those deep, wonderful tones, as she stood there with outstretched arms and eyes of fire. Raising her voice still louder, she repeated,"Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothin' to do wid Him. "Oh, what a rebuke that was to that little man.
Turning again to another objector, she took up the defense of Mother Eve. I can not follow her through it all. It was pointed, and witty, and solemn; eliciting at almost every sentence deafening applause; and she ended by asserting: "If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone, dese women togedder (and she glanced her eye over the platform) ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now dey is asking to do it, de men better let 'em. "Long-continued cheering greeted this. "'Bleeged to ye for hearin' on me, and now ole Sojourner han't got nothin' more to say."
Amid roars of applause, she returned to her corner, leaving more than one of us with streaming eyes, and hearts beating with gratitude. She had taken us up in her strong arms and carried us safely over the slough of difficulty turning the whole tide in our favor. I have never in my life seen anything like the magical influence that subdued the mobbish spirit of the day, and turned the sneers and jeers of an excited crowd into notes of respect and admiration. Hundreds rushed up to shake hands with her, and congratulate the glorious old mother, and bid her God-speed on her mission of "testifyin' agin concerning the wickedness of this 'ere people."
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Nat Turner's Revolt and the Subsequent "Bill Concerning Slaves, Free Negroes and Mulattoes"
The Nat Turner revolt caused veritable panic among white landowners, lawmakers, and the population at large. This bill drafted by the Virginia House of Delegates in the wake of the insurrection, drastically curtailed the rights of free blacks and mulattoes, reducing them to a status only slightly above slaves and at the same time diminishing the few protections that slaves held as property of tax-paying white citizens.
Perhaps more interesting is the way the law was used not only to prohibit the freedoms of slaves and freed blacks, but also as an instrument to deliver freed blacks back into slavery. In reaction to the perception that Turner's revolt had been inspired by religious fanaticism, the first provision of the bill prohibited all preaching and "exhorting" by slaves and free blacks, prescribing enslavement and transportation as punishment for a second offense by a freeman. Free blacks were also prohibited from traveling without a pass, owning land or firearms, or selling "any thing whatever" without a certificate of ownership signed by two whites.
Aftermath of Turner Revolt: Draft of a Bill Concerning Slaves, Free Negroes and Mulattoes
A Bill To amend an act, entitled "an act reducing into one, the several acts concerning slaves, free negroes and mulattoes," and for other purposes.
1. Be it enacted by the general assembly, That no slave, free negro, or mulatto, whether he shall have been ordained, or licensed, or otherwise, shall hereafter undertake to preach, exhort, or conduct, or hold any assembly, or meeting, for religious or other purposes, either in the day time, or at night; and any slave, free negro, or mulatto, so offending, shall for the first offence be punished with stripes, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding lashes; and any person desiring so to do, shall have authority, without any previous written precept or otherwise, to apprehend any such offender, and carry him before such justice. And any such slave, free negro, or mulatto, so offending a second time, shall be held guilty of felony, and prosecuted as slaves are now tried for felony, and on conviction, shall, if a slave, and if a free person of colour, shall be sold as a slave, and transported beyond the limits of the United States, in the manner prescribed by law for the sale and transportation of slaves under sentence of death.
2. Any slave, free negro, or mulatto, who shall hereafter attend any preaching, meeting, or other assembly, held, or pretended to be held, for religious purposes, or other instruction, in the night time, although conducted by a white minister, ordained or otherwise; and if a slave, although he or she shall have a written permission from his or her owner, shall be punished by stripes at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding lashes, and may for that purpose be apprehended by any person, as above authorized: Provided, That nothing herein contained shall be so construed as to prevent the masters or owners of slaves, or any white person to whom any free negro or mulatto is bound, or in whose employment, or on whose plantation or lot, such free negro or mulatto lives, from carrying, or permitting any such slave, free negro or mulatto, to go with him, her, or them, or with any part of his, her, or their white family to any place of religious worship, conducted by a white minister, in the night time: And provided also, That nothing in this, or any former law, shall be so construed as to prevent any ordained, or licensed white minister of the gospel, or any layman licensed for that purpose by the denomination to which he may belong, from preaching, or giving religious instruction to slaves, free negroes and mulattoes, in the day time; nor to deprive any masters, or owners of slaves of the right to engage, or employ any free white person whom they may think proper, to give religious instruction to their slaves; nor to prevent the assembling of the slaves of any one owner or master together, at any time for religious devotion.
3. It shall not be lawful hereafter for any free negro or mulatto to go out of the county or corporation in which he or she resides and is registered, without a certificate in writing signed by some justice of the peace of the said county, stating to what other county or corporation, and for what time, the bearer desired to go. Nor shall it be lawful for any free negro or mulatto, who shall have thus gone from the county or corporation in which he had therefore resided, into any other, to remain in the latter more than one month, without having obtained permission to that effect, from the county or corporation court, where he shall have gone, entered on record; which order of permission may at any time be revoked by the court, within one year next after it shall have been granted. And any free negro or mulatto, found out of the county or corporation of his proper residence, otherwise than as aforesaid, shall be punished by stripes, at the discretion of a justice of the peace, not exceeding lashes, and may for that purpose, be apprehended by any person as above authorized, and shall be liable to the same punishment once in every week he or she shall continue to remain in such county or corporation, contrary to law, unless it shall manifestly appear, that he or she had been prevented from removing by sickness or other physical inability. It shall not be lawful for any free negro or mulatto, whether he or she shall have previously emigrated from this state or not, to migrate into this commonwealth, or to come into it, whether with a view to permanent residence, or temporary sojourn, or for any object or purpose whatsoever; and every free negro or mulatto, who shall come into this commonwealth by land or by water, contrary to this act, shall and may be apprehended, and carried by any citizen before some justice of the peace of the county where he shall be taken; which justice is hereby authorized to examine, send and remove, every such free negro or mulatto out of this commonwealth, into that state, or country, or island, from whence it shall appear, he or she last came; and for this purpose, the sheriff or other officer, or any other person or persons, may by such justice be employed within this state, upon the same terms as are by law directed in the removal of criminals from one county to another; and the expenses and charges of such removal, to be audited and paid out of the treasury, as other public charges. And every free negro or mulatto, who shall have come, or been brought into this commonwealth by water, from any country, state, or island, may and shall be exported to the place from whence he or she came or was brought, and the charges attending the same shall be paid by the importer; to be recovered by motion in the name of the commonwealth, upon ten days previous notice thereof, in any court of record; and any such free negro or mulatto, may, by the order of the justice taking cognizance of the case, at his discretion, be punished by stripes in the first instance, if it shall appear to him to have been an intentional and known violation of this act, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes; and every free negro or mulatto, so removed or exported, and thereafter returning into this commonwealth, (unless it be in consequence of shipwreck or other unavoidable necessity,) shall be deemed guilty of felony, and shall be prosecuted therefor, as slaves are now tried for felonies, and on conviction, shall be sold as a slave, and transported beyond the limits of the United States, in the manner prescribed by law, for the sale and transportation of slaves under sentence of death. And so much of the sixty-sixth section of the before recited act, as authorizes masters of vessels to bring into this state, any free negro or mulatto, employed on board, and belonging to such vessel, and who shall therewith depart, shall be and the same is hereby repealed. And it shall not be lawful for any master or owner of any vessel about to sail from any Atlantic port in this commonwealth, to any other port in the United States, north thereof, to employ on board such vessel, any slave, free negro or mulatto; and any master or owner of such vessel, as shall offend herein, shall forfeit and pay one thousand dollars, to be recovered in the same manner and to the same uses as aforesaid.
4. No free negro or mulatto, shall hereafter be capable of purchasing, or otherwise acquiring title to any real estate of any description, in fee, for life, or for a longer term than year: or of purchasing, or hiring, or otherwise acquiring title or ownership, permanent or temporary, to any slave; and all contracts, for any such purchase, hire, or other acquisition, are hereby declared to be null and void.
5. It shall not hereafter be lawful for any free negro, or mulatto, to sell, or transfer otherwise, to any person, any thing whatever, without having procured, and exhibiting at the time of such sale, or transfer, a written certificate of two freeholders of the county or corporation, in which he, or she resides, enumerating the commodities to be sold, and the quantity or number, and stating that the article, if of agricultural production, stock, or fowls, was in the belief of the certifiers, raised, and then owned by such free negro, or mulatto; and if any other article, their belief that he or she had honestly acquired it. And if any person shall purchase, or receive, of any free negro, or mulatto, any vendible commodity whatever, without the production of such certificate, he shall be held guilty of a misdemeanor, and forfeit and pay the sum of ____ dollars, to be recovered by information, or indictment, in any court of record, one half to the informer, and the other half to the use of the commonwealth.
6. No free negro or mulatto, shall be suffered to keep or carry any firelock of any kind, any military weapon, or any powder or lead; and any free negro or mulatto, who shall so offend, shall, on conviction before a justice of the peace, forfeit all such arms and ammunition, to the use of the informer, and shall, moreover, be punished with stripes, at the discretion of the justice, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes. And the proviso, to the seventh section, of the act entitled "an act reducing into one the several acts concerning slaves, free negroes and mulattoes," passed the second day of March, one thousand eight hundred and nineteen, authorizing justices of the peace, in certain cases, to permit slaves to keep and use guns or other weapons, powder and shot; and so much of the eighth section of the said recited act, as authorizes the county and corporation courts, to grant licenses to free negroes and mulattoes, to keep or carry any firelock of any kind, any military weapon, or any powder or lead, shall be, and the same are hereby repealed.
7. No free negro or mulatto, tradesman or mechanic, shall, after an opportunity has been presented to him, on public means, or means other than his own, of removing from the state of Virginia to Liberia, or any other place without the limits of the United States, at which free persons of colour from Virginia may be colonized, be permitted to work at, or carry on his trade, or handicraft, in this commonwealth, except by special permission of the court of the county or corporation, in which he may reside, entered of record, and which license may be revoked, or again renewed, by the courts at pleasure. And no such free negro, or mulatto tradesman, or mechanic, shall, under any circumstances, be hereafter allowed to take apprentices, or to teach their trade, or art, to any other person, except that coloured barbers may take apprentices. Nor shall any slave, free negro, or mulatto, hereafter be employed, or act, as a musician to any military company in this commonwealth. And any free negro or mulatto, who shall violate any of the provisions of this act, shall pay a fine not exceeding dollars, to be adjudged of by any justice of the peace to whom the information is given, one half to the informer, and the other half to the commonwealth, and moreover shall be punished by stripes, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes, at the discretion of the justice of the peace.
8. No white person, free negro, or mulatto, shall buy, sell, or receive of, to, or from a slave, any commodity whatsoever, without the written consent of the master, owner, or overseer of such slave, specifying what articles and quantity or number the slave is allowed to sell, or what amount of money to expend; and if any person shall presume to deal with any slave without such written consent, he or she so offending, shall forfeit and pay to the master or owner of such slave, four times the value of the thing so bought, sold, or received, to be recovered with costs, by warrant, without regard to the amount, before a justice of the peace, in the same manner as other debts, not exceeding twenty dollars, are recovered; and shall also forfeit and pay the further sum of twenty dollars, recoverable with costs, in like manner, to any person who will warrant for the same, or receive on his or her bare back thirty-nine lashes, well laid on; and shall, nevertheless, be liable to pay the costs of such warrant. And if any white person shall sell any ardent spirit to a slave, without such written permission as aforesaid, specifying also the quantity of spirituous liquor, which the slave is authorized to purchase, he or she so offending, in addition to the penalties above imposed, shall also forfeit the sum of one hundred dollars, to be recovered to the use of the commonwealth, by presentment, information, or indictment, in any court of record.
9. No slave, free negro, or mulatto, shall hereafter be permitted to sell, give, or otherwise dispose of any ardent or spirituous liquor, at, or within one mile of any muster, preaching, or other public assembly, of black or white persons; and any slave, free negro, or mulatto so offending shall be punished by stripes, at the discretion of a justice of the peace, not exceeding thirty-nine; and if the offender be a slave, the master, or owner of such slave, whether consenting to such violation of law or not, shall forfeit and pay the sum of dollars, to be recovered with costs, by any person who will sue for the same, by warrant before a justice of the peace, in the same manner as other debts, not exceeding twenty dollars.
10. If it shall be proved to the satisfaction of any court of record, or justice of the peace, that any person hath been guilty of buying, selling, or receiving, to or from any slave, free negro or mulatto, without such license, permission, or certificate, as is by this act required, and contrary to the true intent and meaning of this act, it shall be lawful for such court or justice, to rule such person to give security for his or her good behaviour, for one year or longer, at the discretion of such court or justice; and on failure of such person to give the security required, he or she shall be committed to jail, there to remain until the security be given, or he or she be otherwise discharged by due course of law.
11. If any slave, free negro, or mulatto, shall hereafter, wilfully and maliciously assault and beat any white person, with intention in so doing to kill such white person; every such slave, free negro, or mulatto, so offending, and being thereof lawfully convicted, shall be adjudged and deemed guilty of felony, and shall suffer death, without benefit of clergy.
12. If any person, shall hereafter write, print, or cause to be written, or printed, any book, pamphlet or other writing, advising, or inciting persons of colour within this state, to make insurrection, or to rebel, or shall knowingly circulate, or cause to be circulated, any book, pamphlet, or other writing, written or printed, advising, or inciting persons of colour in this commonwealth, to commit insurrection or rebellion; such person, if a slave, free negro, or mulatto, shall on conviction before any justice of the peace, be punished for the first offence with stripes, at the discretion of the said justice, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes, and for the second offence shall be deemed guilty of felony, and on due conviction shall be punished with death, without benefit of clergy; and if the person so offending be a white person, he or she shall be punished on conviction
13. Riots, routs, unlawful assemblies, trespasses and seditious speeches, by free negroes, or mulattoes, shall hereafter be punished with stripes, in the same mode, and to the same extent, as slaves are directed to be punished by the twelfth section of the before recited act. If any free negro, or mulatto, shall hereafter commit simple larceny, of any money, bank note, goods, chattels, or other thing, of the value of twenty dollars, or less, he or she for every such offence shall be tried and punished in the same manner as slaves are directed to be tried and punished by the fifth section of the act, entitled "an act concerning the trial and punishment of slaves, free negroes, and mulattoes, in certain cases," passed the twelfth day of February, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-eight.
14. The fourth section of the last recited act, repealing so much of several previous acts as provided that for certain offences, free negroes and mulattoes should be punished with stripes, transportation, and sale, shall be, and the same is hereby repealed, and the said several acts, repealed by the said fourth clause, are hereby revived, and declared valid.
15. All persons, whether white, free negroes, or mulattoes, who shall hereafter receive any stolen goods, knowing the said goods to have been stolen, shall be adjudged guilty of larceny of the said goods, and punished in the same manner, and to the same extent, as if the receiver had actually stolen the said goods; but nothing herein contained shall be so construed as to prevent the prosecution, conviction, and punishment of the person who actually shall have stolen them, as heretofore.
16. Free negroes and mulattoes, shall hereafter be prosecuted, tried, convicted, and punished for any felony, by justices of oyer and terminer, in the same manner as slaves are now prosecuted, tried, convicted and punished, and any court summoned or adjourned for such trial, shall have and exercise all the powers and incidents of a court summoned or adjourned, for the trial of a slave; and the governor shall have the same power and authority to effect the sale and transportation of any free negro or mulatto, who may be under sentence of death, as if the person so convicted, were a slave, and in all cases, the money thus received, shall be accounted for to the commonwealth.
17. Hereafter, no court or other authority shall grant any license to any person whatever, to keep a tavern, or to retail groceries, unless the party applying for such license will make oath before the court, a copy of which is to be entered on record, that he or she had not sold or delivered any spirituous liquor, to any slave, contrary to the provisions of this act, since its passage, and that he or she would not do so during the continuance of the license so applied for.
18. Nothing in this act contained, shall be so construed, as to bar or conclude any prosecution for any offence committed previously to this act going into operation, but the same shall be so conducted, decided and executed, as if this act had never passed.
19. It shall be the duty of the several judges of this commonwealth, and presiding justices of the county and corporation courts, constantly to give this act in charge to the grand juries; and it is moreover made the duty of all attorneys prosecuting for the commonwealth in any court therein, who may know of, or have good reason to suspect any violation of this act, to lodge information thereof before the proper court or grand jury, and to institute forthwith the proper prosecution for his or her conviction.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Excerpt from The Fugitive Blacksmith by James Pennington
James W. C. Pennington was born into slavery in Maryland in 1807. There were many children in his family, and they were lucky enough to remain together when James was growing up. But even though they were not separated, the Pennington family had its sufferings. Remembering those years in his 1849 abolitionist narrative The Fugitive Blacksmith, Pennington stressed the anguish he felt as a child seeing his parents repeatedly mistreated and humiliated by their owners.
In 1828, Pennington decided he had had enough and fled north, becoming in time an ordained minister and abolitionist leader. In this opening section from The Fugitive Blacksmith, Pennington describes his birth and family and the event that led to his decision.
Chapter 1. My Birth and Parentage—The Treatment of Slaves Generally in Maryland
I was born in the state of Maryland, which is one of the smallest and most northern of the slaveholding states; the products of this state are wheat, rye, Indian corn, tobacco, with some hemp, flax, &c. By looking at the map, it will be seen that Maryland, like Virginia her neighbor, is divided by the Chesapeake Bay into eastern and western shores. My birth-place was on the eastern shore, where there are seven or eight small counties; the farms are small, and tobacco is mostly raised.
At an early period in the history of Maryland, her lands began to be exhausted by the bad cultivation peculiar to slave states; and hence she soon commenced the business of breeding slaves for the more southern states. This has given an enormity to slavery, in Maryland, differing from that which attaches to the system in Louisiana, and equalled by none of the kind, except Virginia and Kentucky, and not by either of these in extent.
My parents did not both belong to the same owner: my father belonged to a man named ___; my mother belonged to a man named ___. This not only made me a slave, but made me the slave of him to whom my mother belonged; as the primary law of slavery is, that the child shall follow the condition of the mother.
When I was about four years of age, my mother, an older brother, and myself were given to a son of my master, who had studied for the medical profession, but who had now married wealthy, and was about to settle as a wheat planter in Washington County, on the western shore. This began the first of our family troubles that I knew anything about, as it occasioned a separation between my mother and the only two children she then had, and my father, to a distance of about two hundred miles. But this separation did not continue long; my father being a valuable slave, my master was glad to purchase him.
About this time, I began to feel another evil of slavery—I mean the want of parental care and attention. My parents were not able to give any attention to their children during the day. I often suffered much from hunger and other similar causes. To estimate the sad state of a slave child, you must look at it as a helpless human being thrown upon the world without the benefit of its natural guardians. It is thrown into the world without a social circle to flee to for hope, shelter, comfort, or instruction. The social circle, with all its heaven-ordained blessings, is of the utmost importance to the tender child; but of this, the slave child, however tender and delicate, is robbed.
There is another source of evil to slave children, which I cannot forbear to mention here, as one which early embittered my life; I mean the tyranny of the master's children. My master had two sons, about the ages and sizes of my older brother and myself. We were not only required to recognize these young sirs as our young masters, but they felt themselves to be such; and, in consequence of this feeling, they sought to treat us with the same air of authority that their father did the older slaves.
Another evil of slavery that I felt severely about this time was the tyranny and abuse of the overseers. These men seem to look with an evil eye upon children. I was once visiting a menagerie, and being struck with the fact, that the lion was comparatively indifferent to everyone around his cage, while he eyed with peculiar keenness a little boy I had; the keeper informed me that such was always the case. Such is true of those human beings in the slave states, called overseers. They seem to take pleasure in torturing the children of slaves, long before they are large enough to be put at the hoe, and consequently under the whip.
We had an overseer named Blackstone; he was an extremely cruel man to the working hands. He always carried a long hickory whip—a kind of pole. He kept three or four of these, in order that he might not at any time be without one.
I once found one of these hickories lying in the yard, and supposing that he had thrown it away, I picked it up, and boy-like, was using it for a horse; he came along from the field, and seeing me with it, fell upon me with the one he then had in his hand, and flogged me most cruelly. From that, I lived in constant dread of that man; and he would show how much he delighted in cruelty by chasing me from my play with threats and imprecations. I have lain for hours in a wood, or behind a fence, to hide from his eye.
At this time my days were extremely dreary. When I was nine years of age, myself and my brother were hired out from home; my brother was placed with a pumpmaker, and I was placed with a stonemason. We were both in a town some six miles from home. As the men with whom we lived were not slaveholders, we enjoyed some relief from the peculiar evils of slavery. Each of us lived in a family where there was no other Negro.
The slaveholders in that state often hire the children of their slaves out to non-slaveholders, not only because they save themselves the expense of taking care of them, but in this way they get among their slaves useful trades. They put a bright slave boy with a tradesman, until he gets such a knowledge of the trade as to be able to do his own work, and then he takes him home. I remained with the stonemason until I was eleven years of age; at this time I was taken home. This was another serious period in my childhood; I was separated from my older brother, to whom I was much attached; he continued at his place, and not only learned the trade to great perfection, but finally became the property of the man with whom he lived, so that our separation was permanent, as we never lived nearer, after, than six miles. My master owned an excellent blacksmith, who had obtained his trade in the way I have mentioned above. When I returned home at the age of eleven, I was set about assisting to do the mason work of a new smith's shop. This being done, I was placed at the business, which I soon learned, so as to be called a "first-rate blacksmith. "I continued to work at this business for nine years, or until I was twenty-one, with the exception of the last seven months.
In the spring of 1828, my master sold me to a Methodist man, named _______, for the sum of seven hundred dollars. It soon proved that he had not work enough to keep me employed as a smith, and he offered me for sale again. On hearing of this, my old master repurchased me, and proposed to me to undertake the carpentering business. I had been working at this trade six months with a white workman, who was building a large barn when I left. I will now relate the abuses which occasioned me to fly.
Three or four of our farm hands had their wives and families on other plantations. In such cases, it is the custom in Maryland to allow the men to go on Saturday evening to see their families, stay over the Sabbath, and return on Monday morning, not later than "half-an-hour by sun. "To overstay their time is a grave fault, for which, especially at busy seasons, they are punished.
"One Monday morning, two of these men had not been so fortunate as to get home at the required time; one of them was an uncle of mine. Besides these, two young men who had no families, and for whom no such provision of time was made, having gone somewhere to spend the Sabbath, were absent. My master was greatly irritated, and had resolved to have," as he said,"a general whipping-match among them."
Preparatory to this, he had a rope in his pocket, and a cowhide in his hand, walking about the premises, and speaking to everyone he met in a very insolent manner, and finding fault with some without just cause. My father, among other numerous and responsible duties, discharged that of shepherd to a large and valuable flock of Merino sheep. This morning he was engaged in the tenderest of a shepherd's duties: a little lamb, not able to go alone, lost its mother; he was feeding it by hand. He had been keeping it in the house for several days. As he stooped over it in the yard, with a vessel of new milk he had obtained, with which to feed it, my master came along, and without the least provocation, began by asking,"Bazil, have you fed the flock?"
"Were you away yesterday?"
"Do you know why these boys have not got home this morning yet?"
"No, sir, I have not seen any of them since Saturday night."
"By the Eternal, I'll make them know their hour. The fact is, I have too many of you; my people are getting to be the most careless, lazy, and worthless in the country."
"Master," said my father, "I am always at my post; Monday morning never finds me off the plantation."
"Hush Bazil! I shall have to sell some of you; and then the rest will have enough to do; I have not work enough to keep you all tightly employed; I have too many of you."
All this was said in an angry, threatening, and exceedingly insulting tone. My father was a high-spirited man, and feeling deeply the insult, replied to the last expression,"If I am one too many, sir, give me a chance to get a purchaser, and I am willing to be sold when it may suit you."
"Bazil, I told you to hush!" and suiting the action to the word, he drew forth the cowhide from under his arm, fell upon him with most savage cruelty, and inflicted fifteen or twenty severe stripes with all his strength, over his shoulders and the small of his back. As he raised himself upon his toes, and gave the last stripe, he said, "By the * * * I will make you know that I am master of your tongue as well as of your time!"
Being a tradesman, and just at that time getting my breakfast, I was near enough to hear the insolent words that were spoken to my father, and to hear, see, and even count the savage stripes inflicted upon him.
Let me ask any one of Anglo-Saxon blood and spirit, how would you expect a son to feel at such a sight?
This act created an open rupture with our family—each member felt the deep insult that had been inflicted upon our head; the spirit of the whole family was roused; we talked of it in our nightly gatherings, and showed it in our daily melancholy aspect. The oppressor saw this, and with the heartlessness that was in perfect keeping with the first insult, commenced a series of tauntings, threatenings, and insinuations, with a view to crush the spirit of the whole family.
Although it was some time after this event before I took the decisive step, yet in my mind and spirit, I never was a Slave after it.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
"Reception and Treatment of Kidnappers"
In the January 31, 1851, issue of the Liberator appeared the following instructions for the "Reception and Treatment of Kidnappers. "It cites the famous case of William and Ellen Craft, who escaped from Macon, Georgia, disguised as servant and master, and reminds readers of how the slave hunters sent to capture them were defeated by public attention and harassment. Charles King Whipple, the author of this piece, was a young associate of William Lloyd Garrison from Newburyport, Massachusetts.
"The Liberator 's Rules on the Reception and Treatment of Kidnappers,"by Charles King Whipple
It will be remembered that the slave-hunters Hughes and Knight, agents of the pretended owner of William and Ellen Crafts, fled from Boston so secretly that for some time the mode of their departure could not be traced. When they were asked, on the morning of that day, by members of the Vigilance Committee, why they had not fulfilled their promise of going in the earliest train, they replied—"Do you think we wanted to be followed all the way to the cars by a crowd of people calling out Slave-hunter, Slave-hunter?"
This speech must not be forgotten. It is most convincing testimony of the efficacy of a plan for the treatment of those kidnappers, which was debated before the Vigilance Committee, but never fully matured, nor thoroughly put in practice. The following brief outline of it is published for the benefit of friends of the slave, in those towns to which such blood-hounds in human shape may hereafter come.
As soon as the arrival of one or more slave-hunters is known, let the Vigilance Committee appoint a subcommittee of the most active and devoted friends of liberty, sufficiently numerous for the thorough accomplishment of the following purposes, namely:
To keep themselves informed, by active, open, personal supervision, of every step the kidnappers take, every act they do, and every person they visit, as long as they remain in the place:
By personal interference, and calling aloud upon the citizens for rescue, to prevent them from seizing any man or woman as a slave:
To point them out to the people, wherever they go, as Slave-hunters: and, finally,
When they leave the town, to go with them and point them out to members of the Vigilance Committee or other friends of freedom in the first place in which they stop, that similar attention may be paid them there.
Every part of this course of action is important; and if all be faithfully put in operation, it will be hardly possible for them to kidnap a resident in any town of New England; not even in Marshfield or Andover.
As soon as the kidnappers arrive in any town, large handbills should be posted in all the public places, containing their names, with a description of their persons and the business on which they come.
An attempt should be made to induce the landlord of any hotel or boarding-house to which they may go, to refuse them entertainment, on the ground of their being persons infamous by profession, like pickpockets, gamblers, or horse-stealers.
If this proves unsuccessful, some of the committee of attendance should take lodgings in the same house with the kidnappers, and take, if possible, sleeping rooms and seats at table directly opposite to them.
The doors of the house should be watched carefully, day and night, and whenever they go out, two resolute, unarmed men should follow each of them wherever he goes, pointing him out from time to time with the word Slave-Hunter. They should follow him into every shop, office, or place of public business into which he may go, and if he enters a private dwelling, wait outside, watching all the avenues, and ready to renew the attendance when he comes out. If he takes a coach, they should follow in another; if he drives out of town, they should follow; if he takes a seat in a railroad car, they should go with him, and make him known as a Slave-hunter to the passengers in the car, and to the people of the town where he stops. He should have not one moment's relief from the feeling that his object is understood, that he cannot act in secret, that he is surrounded by men who loathe his person and detest his purpose, and who have means always at hand to prevent the possibility of success.
The efficient treatment of the first cases that arise is all-important. Let a few kidnappers be passed through New England in this way, and we are freed from the pestilent brood forever. Even the hardened and brutal wretches who usually perform this office cannot stand before such treatment. Even the moderate degree of it which was practised towards Hughes and Knight so disconcerted and annoyed them, that they not only felt unable to stay in Boston, but dared not go openly. If members of the Vigilance Committee, relieving each other as often as necessary, had kept them constantly in sight, followed their coach to the out-of-town railroad station, taken seats with them in the cars, and pointed them out as Slave-hunters to the passengers there, and the people of every town they stopped at, as far as New York, the example would have been far more thorough and effectual.
Let us do full justice to the next opportunity.
C. K. W.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
Like many former slaves, Sojourner Truth remained illiterate. She told her life's story to her biographer Olive Gilbert, whose name appeared as writer on later editions of the Narrative. Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in 1797 in upstate New York, the daughter of enslaved parents belonging to a wealthy Dutch settler. Christened Isabella, she was sold away from her family at a young age, and during the course of her enslavement she bore five children, three of whom were also sold away.
In 1827, as New York State's statutory emancipation was about to take effect, Isabella escaped with the help of a Quaker family, the van Wageners. She moved to New York City, where, as Isabella van Wagener, she worked as a domestic servant and took vigorous part in the Evangelical movement of her time. Then, in 1843, she renamed herself Sojourner Truth, and commenced her unique life of travel and public speaking.
ABOVE: Born a slave in upstate New York, Sojourner Truth later became a traveling preacher, adding abolition and women's rights to religion to her speaking points. ARCHIVE PHOTOS, INC.