Clotel; or, the President's Daughter, Brown, William Wells

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Clotel; or, the President's Daughter, William Wells Brown

William Wells Brown's 1853 novel Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States was a tale of adventure and romance that followed the purported slave descendants of an American president. Brown was a self-taught fugitive slave who was active in the abolitionist movement, and his novel was the first ever written by an African American. It was published in England, but the text of its subsequent American edition excised all references to the distinguished forbear, Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

Born in 1815 in Lexington, Kentucky, Brown was the son of a slave woman who, local lore asserted, was the daughter of frontier explorer Daniel Boone. Brown's own father was his mother's master, and his too. As a teen, he was hired out to a Mississippi River steamboat captain, and managed to make his escape in 1834. He fled to Canada, and found work on the ships that plied the Great Lakes; he also took a new name in honor of a Quaker who helped him. After teaching himself how to read and write, he wrote his biography, The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. It was well received when it appeared in 1842, and led to an invitation from William Lloyd Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society to become a lecturer. His eloquence brought him overseas, and he spent several years in France studying medicine.

Clotel was published in London by Partridge Brown & Oakley in 1853, and begins with a slave auction at which two light-skinned daughters of a slave woman are on the auction block. They are sold for an unusually high price, based on rumors that their father had been Thomas Jefferson, the onetime owner of their mother. One of the women, Clotel, is bought by a man named Horatio Green, who falls in love with her. They have a daughter, Mary, then Green sets his sights on political career in his native Virginia and marries a woman from a well-connected family. The new bride is angered when she learns of Clotel and Mary's existence, and they are separated and sold off. Clotel, heartbroken over losing her daughter, winds up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where she teams with a fellow slave, William, who has saved some money from his side work as a mechanic. They escape together, with Clotel disguising herself as a white man and William as her slave accompanying her on her riverboat journey north. They avoid detection on the first leg of the trip, but learn at Louisville that Mr. Johnson, as Clotel is masquerading, must post a deposit for her slave. "The law upon this point is very stringent: all steamboats and other public conveyances are liable to a fine for every slave that escapes by them, besides paying the full value for the slave," Brown wrote in his novel (Brown 1853, p. 143). Mary/Johnson meets with the captain just before the scheduled departure, and "addressing the captain, said, 'I am informed that my boy can't go with me unless I give security that he belongs to me. 'Yes,' replied the captain, 'that is the law.' 'A very strange law indeed,' rejoined Mr. Johnson, 'that one can't take his property with him'" (Brown 1853, p. 144). They are permitted to board without the deposit, and make it to freedom in Ohio.

Here the pair separate: William flees to Canada, while Clotel goes to Virginia to search for Mary. She is captured in Washington, however, and jumps off a bridge over the Potomac River, choosing to die rather than return to bondage. Meanwhile, Mary grows up and falls in love with George, one of Horatio Green's slaves. Arrested for taking part in a slave revolt, George is sentenced to death. In court, he is permitted to speak on his own behalf, and makes a stirring speech. "I will tell you why I joined the revolted Negroes," the novel reads. "I have heard my master read in the Declaration of Independence 'that all men are created free and equal,' and this caused me to inquire of myself why I was a slave. I also heard him talking with some of his visitors about the war with England, and he said, all wars and fightings for freedom were just and right. If so, in what am I wrong? The grievances of which your fathers complained, and which caused the Revolutionary War, were trifling in comparison with the wrongs and sufferings of those who were engaged in the late revolt" (Brown 1853, p. 190).

George manages to flee his jail cell with Mary's help, and makes his way to Canada. She winds up in New Orleans, where a dashing French expatriate, Devenant, helps her escape bondage. They flee to France, marry, and have a son, but Devenant dies. The young widow visits his grave one day and is startled to see a vacationing George, who has wandered into the graveyard for a bit of quiet reading. The pair are happily reunited.

Brown's novel was one of many in the so-called "tragic mulatto" genre, in which a beautiful, accomplished woman is victimized by the circumstances of her ancestry. Brown made the courageous Clotel even more appealing to readers by positing that she was the daughter of Jefferson, one of the most esteemed figures in American history. "Had Clotel escaped from oppression in any other land, in the disguise in which she fled from the Mississippi to Richmond, and reached the United States, no honour within the gift of the American people would have been too good to have been heaped upon the heroic woman," Brown's novel reads. "But she was a slave, and therefore out of the pale of their sympathy" (Brown 1853, p. 185).

The 1864 U.S. edition of Clotel made no mention of Jefferson, and the names of nearly all the secondary characters were changed; even Mary is named "Clotelle" after her mother. The book caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic, for there had been decades-old rumors by then that Jefferson had indeed fathered children with his slave, Sally Hemings. They appear to have originated with Garrison, and endured for generations afterward. Finally, in 1998 DNA tests revealed that descendants of one of Hemings' sons did indeed have genetic ties to the Jefferson side, though there were still vociferous arguments on the matter that proposed another Jefferson family member may have been responsible.

Brown is credited with two other literary firsts: he was the first African American to publish a travel book, and his 1858 play The Escape, or a Leap for Freedom made him America's first published black playwright. He died on November 6, 1884, in Chelsea, Massachusetts.


Brown, William Wells. Clotel; Or, The President's Daughter. London: Partridge & Oakley, 1853.

Spencer, Suzette. "Historical Memory, Romantic Narrative, and Sally Hemings." African American Review 40, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 507-525.

                                 Carol Brennan