Britain’s role in the abolition of slavery during the 19thcentury is a well-known and well-studied part of the historiography of slavery. While it is often said this was due to the British upholding their Christian moral duty, there were other, more sinister motives that led to the British abolishing slavery. Thomas Cripps explains.

William Wilberforce, perhaps the most famous campaigner in favor of abolishing slavery. Painting by John Rising.

William Wilberforce, perhaps the most famous campaigner in favor of abolishing slavery. Painting by John Rising.

How the British Abolished Slavery – And Ensured Many Others Did the Same

In 1765 Granville Sharp issued the first meaningful petition against Britain's role in the slave trade, and by 1783 there were significant protests outside of the British Parliament; in part due to the Zong Massacre of the same year where 130-150 slaves were massacred aboard a trading vessel. This in turn meant that by 1788-89 William Wilberforce, probably the most well known abolitionist, petitioned the government to end the Slave trade, yet this took 19 more years to happen. It was not until March 1807 and the Slave Trade Act that it would be illegal to trade in slaves, nevertheless slavery was still in place in much of the British Empire until the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which ended slavery in the British Empire.

That being said, this came with some caveats. The East India Company was exempt from the Act as was the colony of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the island of St Helena, although this did end in 1843 when the 1833 Act was enforced to its fullest extent. Furthermore, the slave owners received large compensation payments for their losses, the sum of which is estimated at around £20 million at the time. 

The trading of slaves in the British Empire was apparently now at an end, it was now their Christian duty of the British Empire to ensure that others partook in this humanitarian gesture and they set out to enforce this. 

Between c. 1833 and the end of the 19thcentury there was still a thriving illegal slave trade. Thousands of African slaves were being transported to the America’s, perhaps most notably to Cuba and Brazil. To combat this the British government increased the size of the Royal Navy’s West African Squadron that had been created in 1808 following the initial Slave Trade Act. By 1850 there were 50 ships in the region of West Africa. These ships aimed to deter would be slave traders, often stopping them forcefully in the process of transporting slaves who would then be returned to the African continent. This led to the expansion of societies such as Freetown in Sierra Leone where these ‘liberated’ slaves were delivered.

 

 

Ulterior Motives for the Abolition of Slavery

Whilst many of these actions may seem to be pointing the moral compass in the right direction, there were mostly certainly ulterior motives to the British enforcement of abolishing slavery and expanding the end of slavery globally.

The end of slavery cannot completely be seen as being motivated by the moral compass of Britain. And while there were certainly some who were driven by this, the powers that be were less certain and this can be seen as a large part of why the aforementioned legislation took so long to come to pass. Key wealthy individuals who had made significant monetary and political gains obviously objected to its end and funded serious campaigns against abolition. An apt example of this is William Beckford, who was a 22,000-acre plantation owner during the late 1700s and twice Mayor of London. In addition to this there were a large number of British Members of Parliament (MPs) who sided with the anti-abolition movement. It was not until later they came to the realization that it was no long conducive to profit. 

Excessive planting of crops, most notably tobacco, had lead to a large percentage of the soil in these areas becoming eroded meaning it was less profitable than it had been in the past to harvest these crops. Once the profitability of slavery was on the decline, it was not in the interest of the British Empire to continue with its previous policy on slavery. 

 

From Slavery to Colonialism

It is then, no coincidence that the number of British colonies in Africa significantly increased during the period following the abolition of slavery. In many ways their role in enforcing the end of slavery was a pretext for the expansion of imperialism into the African continent. 

Under the guise of a civilizing mission, to rid the ‘heathens’ of their inherent barbarism, the British among other European nations undertook a mission to ‘civilize’ the ‘dark continent’. The British abolition enforcers were then in a prime position to see that this goal was achieved.

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s the city of Lagos in modern day Nigeria was in a succession crisis. Kosako, one of the contenders for the city declared his loyalty to the Oba of Benin and repulsed a British force. The British reaction was to support the other contender who agreed to abolish slavery in support for their help in overthrowing Kosako. Following a British bombardment of the city in December 1851 he was replaced with his British-backed rival Akitoye. Again, this may seem like a noble and chivalric mission, yet within ten years Lagos was seized as a crown colony and by 1887 the remainder of the former Benin Empire was seized as part of this so-called civilizing mission. 

Then, in 1884, at the Berlin Conference European nations met to discuss the partition of Africa. Following this, the well-known ‘Scramble for Africa’ took place - Britain was in pole position due to its activities in abolishing slavery.

By the turn of the century Britain had the largest empire in Africa, including South Africa, Nigeria, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Kenya, the Gold Coast (Ghana), and Sierra Leone.

In 1833 only 10% of Africa was colonized, by 1914 this figure sat at 90%. Only Liberia and Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, managed to successfully navigate the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and even Ethiopia was colonized in 1935 by Italy.

Whilst, Britain did not colonize the whole continent or force other countries to engage in imperial practices, it did utilize its maritime dominance and the opportunity afforded by the ending of the slave trade to expand its own imperial possessions.

 

What do you think about the motives of the British in ending the slave trade?

There were incidents all over the divided United States in the years before the American Civil War. And a violent incident even took place in the US Congress as the battle lines between north and south, and those who opposed slavery and those who supported it were drawn…

On May 22, 1856, Republican Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts exited the Senate Chamber covered in his own blood. Unconscious and with his skull exposed, Sumner was carried away from the chamber. Standing in the middle of the chamber was the calm and collected Preston Brooks, a Democratic Representative from South Carolina. In his hand Brooks held a gutta-percha cane with a gold head and coated with the blood of Senator Sumner. Brenden Woldman explains.

A lithograph cartoon depicting the incident.

A lithograph cartoon depicting the incident.

An 1873 portrait of Charles Sumner.

An 1873 portrait of Charles Sumner.

Preston Brooks, circa 1857.

Preston Brooks, circa 1857.

The event[1],  which became known as “The Caning of Charles Sumner”, did not just represent the personal vendettas between two men who had contrasting political views. The assault became a symbol of the ever growing divide between the anti-slave North and the pro-slave South. Knowing this, the greatest representation of this pre-Civil War strain came from Preston Brooks’ actions on Charles Sumner.

 

A Personal and Political Vendetta

Senator Charles Sumner was elected to the Senate in 1851 and devoted his time in office as an anti-slave advocate and a fighter against “Slave Power”.[2] For Sumner, the idea of slave power was nothing more than a form of “tyranny” that had no place within the United States.[3] His anti-slave rhetoric did not wane throughout his years in office. The culmination of Sumner’s ideals came when he addressed the Senate on May 19-20, 1856.

In his speech entitled “The Crime Against Kansas”, Sumner criticized the Kansas-Nebraska Act (which allowed slavery to advance westward through popular vote) and argued for the immediate admission of Kansas as a free state. His reasoning was that the admittance of Kansas as a slave state was nothing more than, “the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery”.[4] The anti-slave ideals that came from Sumner’s speech did not shock or surprise any of the senators within the chamber that day. However, what did cause the controversy that ultimately led to Representative Brooks’ fury were the personal attacks against two of his fellow Democrats.

Sumner blamed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the subsequent violence to occur during “Bleeding Kansas” on two Democrats. The first to feel Sumner’s verbal wrath was Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In private, Sumner said Douglas was a “brutal, vulgar man without delicacy or scholarship [who] looks as if he needs clean linen and should be put under a shower bath”.[5] In public and on the chamber floor, Sumner looked directly into the eye of Senator Douglas and described him as a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal… not a proper model for an American senator”.[6]

Sumner then turned his attention to South Carolinian Senator Andrew Butler. Ironically, Butler was one of the few senators who was not present on the day of Sumner’s speech.[7] Sumner assaulted Butler’s claim that he was a southern gentlemen and a “chivalrous knight”, as the belief that Butler was chivalrous was hypocritical in the eyes of Sumner because an honorable man would not support the institution of slavery.[8] Sumner charged Butler of choosing “a mistress… who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, slavery”.[9] Sumner continued his accusations against the Senator from South Carolina as being one who supported “tyrannical sectionalism” and was “one of the maddest zealots”.[10] Furthermore, Sumner insulted Butler’s intelligence by stating, “[Butler] shows an incapacity of accuracy, whether in stating the Constitution or in stating the law, whether in the details of statistics or the diversions of scholarship. He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder”.[11] Sumner’s berating of both Douglas and Butler did not go unnoticed. For Preston Brooks, the actions of Charles Sumner crossed the gentlemanly lines on both a political and personal level.

Preston Brooks was elected to the House of Representatives in 1853 from South Carolina’s 4th District. Much like his fellow South Carolinians, Brooks was a Democrat who was also a passionate supporter of slavery and believed that any restriction on the expansion of slavery was an attack on southern society. Due to these beliefs, it would come to no surprise that Brooks was infuriated when he heard of Sumner’s “Crime Against Kansas” speech. For Brooks, Sumner had insulted both South Carolina, southern society, and the institution of slavery. On a personal level, however, Brooks had to defend Senator Butler, as they were both South Carolinians and second cousins.[12] By cause of his southern, political, and family pride, Preston Brooks demanded vengeance on Charles Sumner.

 

Slaughter in the Senate Hall

Brooks’ initial response was to challenge Sumner to a duel, the traditional form of combat between two gentlemen who had a disagreement. However, Sumner was no gentleman according to Brooks, as dueling was reserved for honorable gentlemen who held an equal social standing.[13] Due to Sumner’s foul and crude language, Brooks and fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt decided to treat the Senator from Massachusetts not as a gentlemen but instead like an animal. According to Brooks and Keitt, it was far more appropriate to publically humiliate Sumner by beating him with Brooks’ gold headed gutta-percha cane and treating him not as a man, but as a disobedient dog. [14]  

On May 22, 1856, three days after the “Crime Against Kansas” speech, Representative Preston Brooks awaited outside the Senate Chamber doors for Senator Charles Sumner. Shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day, Brooks entered the chamber, where he approached Senator Sumner, who at that moment was attaching his postal markings to copies of his now famous speech.[15] Brooks calmly spoke to Senator Sumner and said, “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine”.[16] As Sumner began to rise from his chair but before he could get a word out, Representative Preston Brooks from the 4th District of South Carolina took his gold-headed cane and struck Charles Sumner as hard as he could on the top of the Senator’s head.

The first strike left Sumner pinned to his senatorial desk and was beaten viciously until he was able to briefly break free and stumble up the aisle of the chamber floor.[17] Sumner recalled the force of that first blow years later, stating, “I no longer saw my assailant, nor any other person or object in the room… What I did afterwards was done almost unconsciously, acting under the instincts of self-defense”.[18] As he staggered his way toward the exit, Sumner, who was blinded by and choking on his own blood, collapsed due to his injuries only a few yards away from his desk.[19] It was there that Preston Brooks stood over Charles Sumner and repeatedly struck the Massachusetts Senator until his cane cracked in pieces and was covered in Sumner’s blood. Those who tried to defend Sumner were met by Representative Keitt, who held the crowd back at gunpoint and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to intervene.[20] Keitt was heard yelling, “Let them alone! Goddamn, let them alone”.[21] All in all, the “Caning of Charles Sumner” lasted only one minute, and by the recollection of Preston Brooks he struck Senator Sumner with, “about 30 first-rate stripes”.[22] However, the lasting legacy of the ordeal lived on in the American mindset.

 Covered in blood, Senator Sumner was carried away in an unconscious and unrecognizable state. Representative Brooks on the other hand coolly walked out of the chamber, his knuckles covered with Sumner’s blood and his face slightly cut due to the backlash caused by his cane. Due to the witnesses being stunned by the whole ordeal, Brooks calmly left the Senate chamber without being detained or charged with any crime. As Brooks saw it, he left the Senate chamber not as a criminal but as a defender of the southern way of life. On the other hand was the Senator from Massachusetts, who may have left the Senate chamber a bloodied, unconscious mess, but also left as a hero of the north and the anti-slave movement.

 

A Southern Defender and A Northern Martyr     

After the assault, Brooks did not walk away from it without being punished. Brooks was given a fine by the Baltimore district court and Senators demanded an investigation of the incident whilst members from the House demanded the removal of both Brooks and Keitt.[23] To avoid further prosecution, Preston Brooks resigned from his seat within the House. Fatefully, due to his soaring popularity within South Carolina and the South as a whole, Brooks was reelected to Congress during the special election that was supposed to replace his vacant seat.[24] After his first full term finished, Brooks was reelected in November of 1856, but suddenly died two months later on January 27, 1857, due to a respiratory infection.  

Sumner left the chamber on the brink of death but was proclaimed in the north as a martyr of the abolitionist cause. The serious nature of his injuries, which included head trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, caused Sumner to take leave from his Senate duties for three years.[25] His slow recovery led to a triumphant return to the Senate in 1859, where he continued to be a leading voice in the Republican Party and the abolitionist movement. Sumner remained in the Senate until his death on March 11, 1874.

 

A Country’s Point of No Return

There are moments in history that are so dramatic they seem as if they were written by a Hollywood screenwriter. In this instance, two relatively unknown members of the House and Senate became legendary figures due to a personal dispute. However, interpreting the “Caning of Charles Sumner” as simply an interesting and gruesome moment between two men is unfair to the historical significance of the event. One must not forget that this whole dispute was sparked due to “Bleeding Kansas” and the debate about slavery within the United States. Brooks’ assault on Sumner was more than the defense of “southern and personal honor”. It became a defining moment of a nation reaching its breaking point. This breakdown in reason within what was considered the “world’s greatest deliberative body” became known as a symbolized moment of discontent between the north and the south. It should come as no surprise that only five years after Brooks’ attack on Charles Sumner that the Confederate States of America attacked Fort Sumter, sparking the Civil War.

 

Let us know what you think of the article below…

 

[1] Manisha Sinha, "The Caning of Charles Sumner: Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War," University of Pennsylvania Press 23, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 233, doi: Journal of the Early Republic.

[2] Anne-Marie Taylor, Young Charles Sumner: and the Legacy of the American Enlightenment, 1811-1851 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 266.

[3] Ibid., 266.

[4] Charles Sumner, "The Crime Against Kansas. Speech of Hon. Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts. In the Senate of the United States, May 19, 1856," Archive.org, 2, accessed July 2017, https://archive.org/stream/crimeagainstkans00sumn#page/2/mode/2up/search/.

[5] ""The Crime Against Kansas"," U.S. Senate: "The Crime Against Kansas", April 17, 2017, 1, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Crime_Against_Kansas.htm.

[6] Ibid., 1

[7] Ibid., 1

[8] Sumner, “The Crime Against Kansas” 3.

[9] Ibid., 3

[10] Ibid., 4.

[11] Ibid., 29.

[12] Stephen Puleo, "The US Senate’s Darkest Moment," BostonGlobe.com, March 29, 2015, 1, https://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2015/03/28/the-senate-darkest-moment/sqXdd3HYKkMFEmGA4d24rM/story.html.

[13] Michael Daigh, John Brown in Memory and Myth (Jefferson City, NC: McFarland, 2015), 113.

[14] "The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner," U.S. Senate: The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner, April 17, 2017, 1, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Caning_of_Senator_Charles_Sumner.htm.

[15] Ibid., 113.

[16] Michael Daigh, John Brown in Memory and Myth, 113.

[17] Ibid., 113.

[18] Puleo, “The US Senate’s Darkest Moment”, 1.

[19] Michael Daigh, John Brown in Memory and Myth, 113.

[20] Ibid., 113.

[21] Puleo, “The US Senate’s Darkest Moment”, 1.

[22] Ibid., 1.

[23] "South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks's Attack on Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts," US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, 1, http://history.house.gov/HistoricalHighlight/Detail/35817.

[24] Ibid., 1.

[25] Ibid., 1.

Jupiter Hammon was born into slavery in the early eighteenth century in one of the Northern states. However, he came out better than most slaves as his owners thought well of him and gave him a good education. Ultimately this contributed to him being America’s first published black poet. Christopher Benedict tells the fascinating story of Jupiter Hammon.

A depiction of Jupiter Hammon.

A depiction of Jupiter Hammon.

He Being Thy Captive Slave

Sometimes history exists, like those who contribute mightily to it, right under your nose and yet hidden in plain sight.

I have lived on Long Island, with one brief exception, for my entire 44-year lifespan. However, it took until a few months ago for a good friend and fellow history buff to point out the fact that the first black poet published in America was born and buried on an estate a mere seven miles from where I now reside.

Jupiter Hammon was born into slavery on October 17, 1711, his father Obadiah and mother Rose both duty-bound in the indentured servitude of Henry and Rebecca Lloyd on the little peninsula called the Manor of Queens Village.

This title was rather more regal-sounding than the name which preceded it. Horse Neck, derived from the sixteenth century English equestrians from Huntington who stabled their steeds there, displaced the original designation bestowed upon it by the Matinecock Indians, Caumsett (translated as “place by sharp rock”), and would itself be later rechristened Lloyd Harbor as an ode to its 200 year-long residents.

The 1676 acquisition of Horse Neck by James Lloyd, an entrepreneurial Boston-based merchant, preceded its annexation to Oyster Bay of Queens County after he was officially granted its royal patent nine years later. Opting to stay in New England and look after business affairs firsthand, James instead leased this 300-acre plot to local farmers until gifting the neglected property to his son Henry, a 24-year-old shipper until then operating out of Newport, Rhode Island, who relocated and saw to the construction of his post-medieval Manor House (employing slave labor as well as hired hands paid with Bibles, needles, and other tradable commodities) in 1711, the year of Jupiter’s birth.

 

Firmly Fixed His Holy Word

While Jupiter still remains something resembling an enigma, next to nothing seems to be known regarding his parents, other than that Obadiah was literate and had made a number of unsuccessful escape attempts dating back to 1687 when he and Rose were among those comprising the first delivery of subjugated human cargo to the Lloyd estate.

As far as Jupiter is concerned, his warm feelings toward the Lloyd family were repaid in kind, as he was permitted not only personal living quarters within the Manor, but unfettered access to formal education. He attended classes alongside the Lloyd children and maintained a close enough relationship with the sons that he earned their affectionate nickname “Brother Jupiter”. 

Supplementing his fortune by continuing his father’s practice of renting parcels of land to be worked by tenant farmhands, Henry’s import/export business also flourished as never before. It often warranted unaccompanied journeys by the now fully grown Jupiter, working as a clerk when not tilling the fields surrounding the Manor House, into New York City to facilitate trade agreements, such was the unthinkable level of respect and trust established between master and servant.

How Jupiter’s Christian faith germinated is not clear, but it would be fed consistently and fervently throughout the decades, as would his general intellectual pursuits, cross-pollinating then blossoming into a historically significant 88-line poem, the first to be published in the yet-to-be liberated American Colonies by a person of African lineage.

An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries was printed and circulated as a one-sheet broadside in 1761 and contained the momentous byline, Composed by Jupiter Hammon, a Negro belonging to Mr. Lloyd, of Queen’s Village, on Long Island, the 25th of December, 1760.

As the title suggests, it reads like a hymn with the opening stanza:

Salvation comes by Jesus Christ alone,

The only Son of God,

Redemption now to every one,

That love his holy Word,

Dear Jesus, we would fly to Thee,

And leave off every Sin,

The Tender Mercy well agree,

Salvation from our King.

 

When you consider other passages, however, innocuous sounding lines such as:

Ho, every one that hunger hath,

Or pineth after me,

Salvation be thy leading Staff,

To set the Sinner free.

Dear Jesus unto Thee we fly,

Depart, depart from sin.”

 

trace the written origins of Hammon’s concept of slavery, which he will soon after fill in with explicit detail and later come under scathing attack for, as almost sacramental atonement for misdeeds perpetrated against the heavenly father, the penance for which was subservience to the slave driver.

 

From Every Sinful Wound

Henry Lloyd died in 1763 and Jupiter, never emancipated, would afterwards live with Henry’s son Joseph, who had a Manor House of his own built on the estate three years later.

Before the British occupation of Long Island, which was made possible by their victory over George Washington’s forces in August 1776, Joseph, a steadfast patriot, fled to Hartford, Connecticut with the other members of the Lloyd family (those who were not Tories) in addition to the Conklins of nearby Huntington.

Jupiter would remain in their company, and with them return once hostilities had ended and true independence won.

An Address to Phillis Wheatley appeared in 1778, in which one is left to wonder whether Hammon’s purpose is to flatter or chastise the “Ethiopian Poetess”.

“Come, dear Phillis, be advis’d

To drink Samaria’s flood,

There’s nothing that shall suffice

But Christ’s redeeming blood.

While thousands muse with earthly toys,

and range about the street,

Dear Phillis, seek for Heaven’s joys,

Where we do hope to meet.”

 

Wheatley herself wrote glowingly of a nearly evangelical deliverance from her native Africa, which she maligns as a “pagan land”, much as Jupiter’s imagery of “a dark abode” mirrors her sentiments here. Their thoughts of one another, whatever they may have been, are not known, and relegated to the oblique lines composed by Hammon.

 

The Blessing of Many Ready to Perish

Jupiter was invited to speak before a meeting of the African Society of New York City on September 24, 1786 and delivered an oration which was published the following year under the title An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York.

The pamphlet was prefaced by an editorial assurance “To the Public” from “The Printers” that the following words “wrote in a better Stile than could be expected from a slave” were indeed those of the author, whose hand-written manuscript, they vowed, was “in our possession”.

Though he begins by intertwining the plights of the slaves and the Jews with a quotation from the apostle Paul that “I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh,” he then turns an abrupt about-face.

“When I think of your ignorance and stupidity, and the great wickedness of the most of you, I am pained to the heart.”

It is shocking to read Jupiter’s assertion that, “for my own part I do not wish to be free”, and though he softens the blow with the following sentiment, “I should be glad if others, especially the young Negroes, were to be free”, he comes full circle by resigning to the fact that “many of us, who are grown up slaves, and have always had masters to take care of us, should hardly know how to take care of ourselves.”

Confessing that, “I have had such desires, a sense of my own ignorance, and unfitness to teach others,” Jupiter (at just shy of 75 years of age) nonetheless says that he feels obliged “to call upon you, with the tenderness of a father and friend, and to give you the last, and I may say dying advice, who wishes your best good in this world, and the world to come.”

In the 250 years since Hammon’s writings have been available for public consumption and examination, Jupiter’s accomplishments as an educated slave and published poet have been eclipsed, particularly in the eyes of contemporary critics, and dimmed considerably by the ignominious upbraiding of his fellow, far less fortunate, slaves during this address.

The first point belabored during his presentation is “Respecting obedience to masters,” elaborating that, “we cannot be happy unless we please them. This we cannot do without muttering or finding fault.”

The second “particular I would mention is honesty and faithfulness,” Hammon continued. “We have no right to stay when we are sent on errands any longer than to do the business we were sent upon. All time spent idly is spent wickedly, and is unfaithfulness to our masters.”

Refraining from profanity, specifically taking “God’s holy name in vain”, Jupiter insists will enable those overseen by slave drivers in this world to slip the chains of Satan in the next and “sit with God in his kingdom as Kings and Priests, and rejoice forever and ever.”  

Even sexual gratification occurs to Hammon as an evil deed, as “the carnal mind is not subject to the law of God.”

Jupiter submits that “If God has put us in bad circumstances, that is not our fault and he will not punish us for it. If any are wicked in keeping us so, we cannot help it, they must answer to God for it. The same God will judge both them and us.” That said, he also professes, “If God designs to set us free, he will do it in his own time and way.”

 

To Taste Things More Divine

Both Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley have been taken to task for their beliefs (some may say apologies) of slavery being exercised upon African Americans as a biblical trial, out of which only the most virtuous will arise to reap Heavenly reward. Linked together as colonial sell-outs, if Phillis Wheatley was castigated as the Civil Rights movement’s “Aunt Jemima”, Jupiter Hammon became their “Uncle Tom”.

It is important to bear in mind that their personal experiences were unusual, if not unique, and differed drastically from the common hell on earth shared by many (mostly Southern) bondsmen and women. Neither Phillis nor Jupiter, both slaves of the Northern colonies, knew the weighty burden of shackles and chains, the mistrust or disgust of their masters, the sight and perhaps taste of their own blood drawn by the fist or the whip. While these conditions surely did not erode their capacity for empathy, it was a compassion channeled through a heavy current of pity rather than a true sense of commiseration.

And, as far as Jupiter’s seemingly condescending address is concerned, you will recall that Frederick Douglass likewise cautioned against woeful and wasteful pastimes, writing in his Narrative of the Life, “instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.”

Not only is he buried in an unmarked grave on the Lloyd estate, but the year of Jupiter Hammon’s death was not recorded and, thus, open to historical speculation placing it most likely in 1806 (making him 85 at the time), but possibly as early as 1790. 

In February 2013, Julie McCown, a student of Cedrick May’s English class at the University of Texas Arlington’s College of Liberal Arts, was given an archival research assignment centered around Hammon’s Address to the Negroes in the State of New York, during which she and her professor would make a startling discovery.

McCown and May exhumed from the Yale University Manuscripts and Archives Library a never-published and thought-lost manuscript of An Essay on Slavery, written in Jupiter’s own hand. Dating to 1786, the 25-stanza poem is all the more remarkable for the somewhat more somberly defiant overtones not present in the address delivered that same year and conspicuously absent from his first published work a quarter of a century earlier. 

Our forefathers came from Africa

Tost over the raging main

To a Christian shore for to stay

And not return again.

Dark and dismal was the day

When slavery began

All humble thoughts were put away

Then slaves were made by man.

 

What do you think of the article and the views of Jupiter Hammon? Let us know by leaving a comment below…

Sources

  • An Evening thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries by Jupiter Hammon (December 25, 1760)
  • An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley by Jupiter Hammon (August 4, 1778)
  • An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York by Jupiter Hammon (Carroll and Patterson New York, 1787)
  • An Essay on Slavery, With Justification to Divine Providence, that God Rules Over All Things by Jupiter Hammon (1786, published in June 2013 Yale Alumni Magazine)
  • UT Arlington Professor, Graduate Student Discover Poem Written by 18th Century Slave from New York (UT Arlington News Release, February 5, 2013)
  • Jupiter Hammon: A New Appraisal by George Wallace (http://www.poetry.about.com)
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass (1960, Belknap Press)
  • http://lloydharborhistoricalsociety.org

 

Frederick Douglass was born a slave, but his life was to later move into a different world. He became an important figure in the US abolitionist movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Here, Christopher Benedict looks at Douglass’ views on the Fourth of July and whether slaves could really appreciate Independence Day when they were not free.

Frederick Douglass in 1856.

Frederick Douglass in 1856.

From Plantation to Platform

The Douglass family, which in 1848 consisted of Frederick and his wife Anna, not to mention their five children Rosetta, Lewis, Frederick Jr., Charles, and Annie, settled into their new nine room home at 4 Alexander Place in Rochester, New York.

From here, Douglass contributed to and edited the abolitionist newspaper North Star, embarked upon speaking engagements in New England, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, made the acquaintances of John Brown and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (whose suffrage movement benefitted from his being the sole public voice of assent), lobbied for the desegregation of Rochester’s learning institutions when Rosetta was forced to leave her private school, supported Free Soil candidates Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams, and sheltered numerous fugitive slaves while assisting them with safe passage to Canada.

These surroundings and circumstances may have been a far cry from the Maryland of his birth thirty years earlier, but his youth spent on Holme Hill Farm in Talbot County, and particularly his year as a rented resource to farm owner and brutal overseer Edward Covey, would never fade into distant memory. His mother was an indentured servant named Harriet Bailey and it was believed by fellow slaves, though never confirmed nor denied, that Frederick’s father was also his white master, Aaron Anthony, which would hardly have been an uncommon occurrence.

After escaping Baltimore for Wilmington, Delaware by train in 1838 using protection papers given to him by a merchant seaman, he first sets foot in free territory after reaching Philadelphia by steamer. A second locomotive journey lands Frederick in New York City where he is reunited with Anna after their engagement back in Maryland and abandons his birth name of Bailey in favor of the alias Johnson. It would be at the urging of the welcomed and securely protected black community in New Bedford, Massachusetts that he then dropped the all-too-common Johnson for Douglas, inspired by the character of the Scottish lord from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake (and adding the additional ‘s’).

Because he had become proficient at the trade of caulking at the Baltimore shipyards of his mostly benevolent former possessors Hugh and Sophia Auld, where he began as bookkeeper after Sophia had taught him to read and write (which was then frowned upon and discouraged, necessitating his own covert self-education), Douglass easily finds work in the storied whaling village, joins the congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and subscribes to William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator.

Invited to appear before an abolitionist fair in Concord, MA which was attended by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, he then began what would become his hugely successful autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written By Himself, published in 1845 (as an aside, this is still celebrated in New Bedford every February with a community read-a-thon sponsored by its Historical Society, which I proudly got to participate in while an unfortunately short-lived resident of the Bay State in 2011-12).

It begged reason for many to accept that an uncultured black man, one that the bulk of white society took on face value to be an exchangeable and disposable commodity rather than a human being with hopes and dreams and love and hurt in his heart, could compose without generous assistance such a thoughtful, highly articulate work of literature.

Nonetheless, the man born into bondage had not only endeavored toward his liberation, but was now embraced within the most illustrious intellectual circles, walking freely and proudly into their literary salons and halls of academia.

Now a distinguished citizen of Rochester, Douglass was asked to deliver a speech from the stage of Corinthian Hall on July 5, 1852 commemorating the anniversary of America’s independence. The irony, if it was not intentional or, for that matter, even at first apparent to some, would be manifested brilliantly and manipulated scorchingly.

 

As With Rivers, So With Nations

Treading lightly while wading toward troubled waters, Douglass begins on a misleadingly modest note, offering apologies for “my limited powers of speech” and “distrust of my ability”, professing to have thrown “my thoughts hastily and imperfectly together” owing to “little experience and less learning”.

Douglass compares the deliverance of the country’s political freedom to the Passover celebrated by the emancipated children of god, noting the buoyancy inherent to the Republic’s relatively youthful age, 76 years, which he remarks is “a good old age for a man, but a mere speck in the life of a nation.” Perhaps, Frederick suggests, “Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow.” 

Interestingly, Douglass refers to the free and independent states of America through the use of feminine pronouns, whether as a repudiation of their former British fatherland and/or the noble words and deeds of the nation’s Founding Fathers he feels are now being bastardized, or as an unspoken remembrance of his own birth-giver, the mother he last saw at the age of 7 or 8 when she presented him with a heart-shaped ginger cake and the pet name “Valentine”. 

“Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages,” says Douglass. “They might sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away on their angry waves the accumulated wealth of toil and hardship.”

While the river “may gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on serenely as ever,” Douglass begins the shift in his discourse with the warning that “it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory.”

 

Dastards, Brave Men, and Mad Men

Conceding that “the point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable”, the nation’s founders were, in Douglass’ estimation, “brave men” and “great men”, also “peace men” who nonetheless “preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage”, “quiet men” who “did not shrink from agitating against oppression”, and men who “believed in order, but not in the order of tyranny.”

Likewise, they had intentionally not framed within their Declaration and Constitution the idea of an infallible government, one which Douglass believed had since become fashionable, while falling out of repute was the deliberate action of “agitators and rebels...to side with the right against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor.”

Douglass’ assertion was that the natural clash of these contemporary ideologies culminated in the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which made legalized sport of hunting down and returning runaway slaves to their masters, and a grotesquely profitable one at that.

George Washington, Douglass pointed out, “could not die until till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men.”

He drives this point home by quoting from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”

 

Inhuman Mockery

Now comes Douglass’ direct confrontation of the question pertaining to why he was called upon to give this address on this occasion, the answer to which lay in the larger matter of whether the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” Thomas Jefferson bequeathed to America’s countrymen were rights that extended to him, as well as his kith and kin. If there remained any doubt about the reply, Douglass demolished it.

“The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

Unable to equivocate or excuse the great blasphemy of human slavery which made a mockery not only of the Constitution but of the Bible, Douglass declared to his “Fellow Americans” that “above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.”

He raises next the hypothetical argument of whether he and fellow abolitionists would be better served to “argue more and denounce less...persuade more and rebuke less.”

Again, his condemnation of these tactics arrives swift and decisive as a lightning strike.

“Am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters?”

To do so, Douglass insisted would “make myself ridiculous and to offer an insult to your understanding.”

 

Unholy License

If the “peculiar institution” of slavery was upheld by American religion in addition to American politics, was it to be viewed as somehow supernal?

That the church largely ignored the Fugitive Slave Act as “an act of war against religious liberty”, how else could its rituals be regarded, Douglass wonders, but as “simply a form of worship, an empty ceremony and not a vital principle requiring benevolence, justice, love, and good will towards man?”

To this says Douglass, “welcome infidelity, welcome atheism, welcome anything in preference to the gospel as preached by those Divines.”

Using the word of god against itself with incendiary righteousness, he recites from the book of Isaiah. “Your new moons, and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me, I am weary to bear them, and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood. Cease to do evil, learn to do well. Seek judgment, relieve the oppressed. Judge for the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

Among the exceptionally noble men that Douglass gives name to are Brooklyn’s abolitionist firebrand Henry Ward Beecher, Syracuse’s Samuel J. May, and Reverend R. R. Raymond who shared the platform with him that day. Douglass charges them with the task of continuing “to inspire our ranks with high religious faith and zeal, and to cheer us on in the great mission of the slave’s redemption from his chains.”

 

Penetrating the Darkness

The Constitution will always remain open to the interpretation of those whose will is to bend and stretch the wording of its amendments one way or another to the advancement of a specific agenda. Regardless, Frederick Douglass maintained that it is “a glorious liberty document” in which “there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing” that is slavery.

Similarly, he drew encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, “the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions.”

Knowledge and intelligence, time and space, were colliding in many wonderful ways which gave Douglass, ultimately, reason for hope and optimism.

“Notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented...I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport, or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”

And, despite the fact that they would shortly thereafter experience a bitter falling-out, Douglass ended on a conciliatory note, courtesy of a passage from William Lloyd Garrison:

In every clime be understood

The claims of human brotherhood

And each return for evil, good

Not blow for blow

That day will come all feuds to end

And change into a faithful friend

Each foe

 

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Sources

  • What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, speech delivered by Frederick Douglass July 5, 1852 in Rochester, NY
  • Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life, My Bondage and My Freedom, and Life and Times by Frederick Douglass, edited and with notes by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Library of America, 1994)

 

Slavery finally came to an end in the United States during the 1860s. But who should take credit for freeing the slaves? The slaves themselves or the Union Army that defeated the Confederacy in the US Civil War? Hannah McDermott tells us what she thinks…

Fugitive slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia. David Edward Cronin, 1888. Many fugitive slaves joined the Union Army in the US Civil War.

Fugitive slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia. David Edward Cronin, 1888. Many fugitive slaves joined the Union Army in the US Civil War.

In a letter to Horace Greeley in August 1862, President Abraham Lincoln declared that his ‘paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery’.[1] Yet by the end of the American Civil war the enslavement of blacks had been formally abolished thanks in part to legislation such as the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the post-war 13th Amendment to the Constitution. In popular memory, the man responsible for these great changes to American society is Lincoln; remembered as the ‘Great Emancipator’ and depicted as physically breaking the shackles binding African Americans to their masters. Though it is true enough that the inauguration of this Illinois statesman and his Republican administration provided Southern slave owners with an excuse to push for secession and defend their property from what they claimed to be an imminent threat, Lincoln was very clear in his presidential campaign and at the outset of his presidential term that his aim was not to touch slavery where it already existed, but simply to prevent its expansion. Was the President, therefore, as integral to the demise of black enslavement as has been suggested?

If the role of Lincoln as the driving force is to be questioned, it follows to ask what other influences were at play. More recently, some historians have done just this. In the wake of the social and political upheaval of the later 20th century, the American academy has produced a ‘new social history’, of which has led to a separate branch of Civil War historiography looking to the role of the slaves themselves in securing their own freedom. Historians such as Ira Berlin have emphasized the grass-roots movement of black slaves during the war, and their personal fight for freedom through escaping to Union territory and challenging the status quo. However, it is difficult to view these historical people and events in complete isolation. Thus, in this essay, I will examine the actions of slaves in conjunction with that of the Union army and also the administration in order to illustrate how the process was more complex and multi-layered than simply one person, or one group, as the harbinger of emancipation.

 

Slaves and the Escape to Union Lines

Slaves were far from the passive and docile creatures that some pro-slavery activists liked to suggest. A steady trickle made the passage North even before the Civil War began, where their presence shaped the anti-slavery activities of white northern men. Frederick Douglass, for example, was a former slave who had managed to escape from his southern house of bondage in 1838. Douglass brought a unique perspective that would influence the abolition movement since he was able to express the hardships of enslaved blacks, as well as demonstrate the intelligence and capabilities of African Americans to northern audiences.

It was during the Civil War, however, that the number of slaves running away from their masters reached its peak and was largely based on the knowledge that refuge could be sought within the lines of the Union army. Prior to the Fugitive Slave Act, those who escaped to ‘free soil’, non-slaveholding regions, were considered to have self-emancipated; during the war, proximity to free soil was increased as the Union lines crept further and further south.[2]

From the outset of war, thousands of African Americans flooded Union camps, sometimes in family units, and left army generals wondering how they should respond. After entering Kentucky in the fall of 1861, General Alexander McDowell McCook appealed for guidance from his superior, General William T. Sherman, on how he should respond to the arrival of fugitive slaves. McCook worriedly declared to Sherman that ‘ten have come into my camp within as many hours’ and ‘from what they say, there will be a general stampeed [sic] of slaves from the other side of Green River.’[3] General Ambrose E. Burnside faced a similar situation in March 1862, describing how the federally occupied city of New Bern, North Carolina, was ‘overrun with fugitives from surrounding towns and plantations’ and that the ‘negroes…seemed to be wild with excitement and delight.’[4] Such encounters would continue throughout the war as slaves made the decision to leave behind their life of enslavement for the hope of a better life with the advancing ‘Yankees’.

 

The Union Army: Active and Passive Advocates of Emancipation

Though it is clear that slaves made the personal decision to runaway, it was one that was facilitated by the context of war. While there were exceptions to this, including stories of slaves found hiding in swamps only 100 feet from their master’s homes, most had a destination in mind when they fled. Archy Vaughn’s escape is a case in point. One spring evening in 1864, Archy Vaughn, a slave from a small town in Tennessee, made a potentially life-changing decision. As the sun went down, Vaughn stole an old mare and travelled to the ferry across the nearby Wolf River, hoping that he would be able to reach the federal lines he had heard were positioned at Laffayette Depot. Unfortunately for the Tennessean slave, luck was not on his side. Caught near the ferry, he was returned to his angry master, Bartlet Ciles, who decided that an appropriate form of punishment for such misbehavior was to castrate Vaughn and to cut off a piece of his left ear. [5] In spite of the barbaric outcome, that Vaughn was hoping to ‘get into federal lines’ is demonstrative of how many slaves departed plantations on the basis that they would be able to seek refuge within the lines of the Union army.[6]

Indeed, the role of the Union army was crucial to the shaping of the future of fugitive slaves. Though this took various shapes and forms, it is a contribution that makes it impossible to view the road to freedom as one that slaves traversed alone and unaided. Some generals took a pragmatic approach to the situation they faced when entering slave-holding territory. General Benjamin Butler and his ‘contraband’ policy are noteworthy in this instance as examples of the army capitalizing on the events of the war. In July 1861, General Butler wrote a report to the Secretary of War detailing his view on how runaway slaves should be treated by the Union army which would become known as Butler’s ‘contraband’ theory. Here he made an emphatic resolution, decreeing that in rebel states, ‘I would confiscate that which was used to oppose my arms, and take all the property, which constituted the wealth of that state, and furnished the means by which the war is prosecuted.’[7]  Hinting at the two-fold benefit of adding to the workforce of Union troops and damaging the rebellion’s foundation simultaneously, Butler’s theory that fugitive slaves were ‘contraband’ was the first to explicitly express the potential gains to be made from legitimizing the harboring of ex-slaves.

Other generals were more vocal of their hatred towards slavery, and more aggressive in the tactics they employed. One incident was General John C. Frémont’s proclamation of August 30, 1861, which placed the state of Missouri under martial law, decreed that all property of those bearing arms in rebellion would be confiscated, including slaves, and that confiscated slaves would subsequently be declared free.[8] Frémont’s proclamation at this stage in the war was provocative and quite blatantly breached official federal policy; slaves could be emancipated under martial law when they came into contact with Union lines, and this had certainly not been the case here.[9] Lincoln ordered that the general rescind the proclamation, but its initial impact was not lost, for it had signaled the possible direction that the focus of the conflict could be turned toward, and substantiated southern beliefs that the northern war aims were centered around an impetus to rid the nation of the evils of slavery.

Frémont was not alone in pushing the legal and political boundaries set by the administration, and similar occurrences repeated themselves throughout the war. Even when blocked by Lincoln, as in the case above, abolitionist Union officers were essential in the changing direction of the war. Whilst not all Union troops were politically motivated, the combination of those realizing the value of slaves in bolstering the war effort and those of an anti-slavery persuasion like General Frémont was an effective tool in aiding and sustaining the freedom of slaves across the United States.

 

The Republican Administration and Emancipation

In studying the response of the Union military it is easy to come to the conclusion that the federal government often lagged behind or was slow to respond to what was already happening within the Union army, or even that they were less supportive of the plight of the slaves during the war. Indeed Lincoln and his administration are often criticized on their attitude towards making the Civil War a war to free the slaves, particularly by historians who place the responsibility of slave emancipation on the efforts of the slaves themselves. Berlin describes the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation as ‘a document whose grand title promised so much but whose bland words delivered so little’, and further states that it freed not a single slave that had not been freed under the legislation passed by Congress the previous year in the Second Confiscation Act.[10] First of all, that the First and Second Confiscation Acts were the products of the administration should be noted. The Second, as referenced by Berlin, declared that any person who thereafter aided the rebellion would have their slaves set free.[11] Secondly, the notion that the Emancipation Proclamation was in essence no more than a grandly worded document without any backbone is false when it is understood how the proclamation’s inclusion of black conscription had wider repercussions for the Union military effort and the attainment of black freedom. Though examples of blacks serving in the military are visible before Lincoln’s proclamation, for instance Jim Lane’s 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry formed in 1862, the new federal policy made this a much more frequent occurrence. This is also to say nothing of the emotional and moral impact such a document made on the psyche of the African American community.

Though it can be conceded that the Emancipation Proclamation positively contributed to emancipation efforts, it would be wrong to claim as James McPherson does that Lincoln played ‘the central role’ in ending the institution of bondage.[12] The same is true for evaluations of subsequent abolitionist legislation, notably the Thirteenth Amendment. Oakes’ emphatic declaration that the amendment, which formally prohibited slavery across the United States, ‘irreversibly destroyed’ slavery is correct in highlighting the importance of an anti-slavery constitutional amendment but simultaneously overshadows the role played by non-political actors in the fight for freedom.[13] The movement of slaves towards federal lines and the protection they were then given is surely comparable to the effects of the Thirteenth Amendment, despite being described by Carwardine as ‘the only means of guaranteeing that African Americans be “forever free”.’[14]

Instead, as this essay has demonstrated, the freeing of slaves during the Civil War is best understood as a multi-layered, interactive process. Slaves were not passive participators; they could and would act on the opportunities to leave behind a life of slavery for one of freedom. Though things might not always go to plan, as Archy Vaughn’s violent tale illustrates, the impetus to leave among enslaved African Americans was strong. Nevertheless, they did not free themselves. The action of slaves alone was not enough to ensure freedom, and the slaves themselves knew this. The decision to seek refuge with the federal army is indicative of how slaves predicated their choice to leave from the very beginning on the support of Union military power. Members of the federal forces were also not passive agents in the emancipation journey. While General Frémont, for example, may have identified the need to destroy slavery from the very beginning of the conflict, by the end of the war there was a shared sentiment among the Union forces that the use of ex-slaves in the fight against the South, menial tasks and armed battle included, was a vital component of the war effort. The federal administration realized this too; implementing policies that further aided and legitimized the support given by the army to slaves, as well as enhanced the contributions made by slaves to the achievement of Union victory. Slaves were freed, therefore, through the interaction of the mutually reinforcing interests of fugitive slaves and the Union war effort. It was this collaboration that enabled the mutually beneficial outcome in which the Confederacy was defeated at the hands of an emancipating Union vanguard.

 

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1. To Horace Greeley, 22 August 1862 in Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953-1955) v, 389

2. James Oakes, Freedom National: the Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (New York: London, 2013), pp. 194-96

3. Ira Berlin et al (eds.), Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War (New York, 1992), pp. 13-14

4. Ibid., pp. 35

5. Ibid., pp. 112-113

6. Ibid., pp. 113

7. General Butler’s “Contrabands”, 30 July 1861 in Henry Steele Commager and Milton Cantor (eds.), Documents of American History, 10th edn (New York, 1988) i, 396-97

8. Frémont’s Proclamation on Slaves, 30 August 1861 in Commager and Cantor (eds.), Documents of American History, i, 397-98

9. Oakes, Freedom National, pp. 215

10. Berlin, ‘Who Freed the Slaves?’, pp. 27-29

11. Second Confiscation Act, 17 July 1862 in United States, Statutes At Large (Boston, 1863) XII, pp. 589-92

12. James McPherson, ‘Who Freed the Slaves?’ in Drawn with the Sword (New York: Oxford, 1996), pp. 207

13. Oakes, Freedom National, pp. xiv

14. Carwardine, Lincoln, pp. 228

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Ronald Reagan is well known for being an arch anti-communist. Indeed, many consider his administration to be the most anti-communist of all Cold War American governments. In the new issue of History is Now Magazine we look at relations between Reagan and a regime that was also strongly anti-communist – but, in a fascinating twist, one that Reagan’s administration opposed.

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We start with an article on Ronald Reagan and right-wing Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet. It is often thought that Ronald Reagan, an arch anti-communist, would support any leader who opposed communism. But, as this article shows, Reagan did at times value other ideals above that of opposing communism. Secondly, we take a look at the topic of crime and insanity in Victorian Britain. An author of a recently published book about a dark crime in 1850s London tells us about how attitudes towards criminal insanity changed – or didn’t change – in conservative nineteenth century Britain. Thirdly, there is a piece on slavery in America. The article considers slave rebellions and Southern slaveholder paranoia, as well as how songs and poetry were important in the struggle for slaves to be freed – and in the postbellum years.

In what can only be described as our most varied issue yet, we then look at the story of Shap ’ng Tsai, a Chinese pirate who sailed on the high seas in the years after the British defeated China in the First Opium War. Following that is a piece on the Mississippi Bubble. Last month we set the scene for the Bubble, and this month we tell the dramatic story of how fortunes were made, before the whole of France came crashing back to earth with an all mighty thump. Finally, we’re going outside of our usual period of focus by taking a look at the history of castles in Scotland – and how changes in castle design evolved in to the modern age. And as ever, we have included videos and a podcast in the magazine. This month’s podcast is on the Spanish Civil War.

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George Levrier-Jones

Following the release of the film 12 Years a Slave, Jason McKenney reflects on the lessons that the whole of America can learn from slavery. He also argues that from the time of American independence, slavery was in demise in the USA and considers the importance of slavery in US history.

This article is provided by Jason McKenney from http://time-trip.blogspot.com

 

Simply a Shame?

With the recent release of the film 12 Years a Slave, there has been a gale of new commentary on slavery in the United States. The film is based on the autobiographical account of Solomon Northrup, a black man born free in New York State before being kidnapped and sold down the river where he was to live the life of enforced bondage in Louisiana until his escape.

Most of the reviews of the film are as much about slavery as they are about the movie itself. Based on several reviews posted at RottenTomatoes.com, slavery was a “tragedy of countless thousands of souls beaten down,” an “unrelenting horror” and “our national shame.” Thoughts like this aren’t a surprise when dealing with such an emotional and gut-wrenching subject. No sane person would disagree with these statements, but it almost feels like we’re tilling the same ground over and over here without planting any new seeds. Could there be a more positive lesson to pull out of the awe-inspiring struggle so many black slaves endured to make progress towards freedom? Is there a lesson that keeps the evil aspects of slavery in perspective while also giving us a better understanding why it was so important that black liberation succeeded?

A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves. Eastman Johnson, 1862.

A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves. Eastman Johnson, 1862.

Slavery and its relation to the black experience in the United States are frequently thought of in just those terms: the black experience. There are not many lessons that the white population currently take from the long struggle for emancipation beyond the fact that slavery was America’s so-called “national shame” and that whites should treat blacks as equals. Other groups such as Latinos and Asians may feel even further removed from this chapter in US national history. However, there is much more for all Americans to learn from the liberation of black slaves than it simply being the right thing to do.

 

Fueling the Fire of Liberation

The demise of slavery in the United States began almost the moment the nation declared its independence from Britain.

“But how can that be?” you ask. “Slavery still had decades of massive growth ahead of it after 1776.”

I will concede that point if you also concede that the broader principles, arguments and justifications for ending slavery were making unprecedented leaps and bounds in the 18th century. The philosophical movement known as “The Enlightenment” produced writers and thinkers who argued against slavery on humanitarian grounds because the treatment of slaves was growing more brutal by the moment. While valid in tone, the weakness to this argument is that it makes slavery more acceptable as long as the slave isn’t treated poorly. More complete arguments against human slavery claimed that it violated basic natural rights, including the right to liberty of person. These were ideas that had been virtually unheard of prior to The Enlightenment, and with the US Declaration of Independence, the birth of the first nation founded principally on Enlightenment Ideals was underway.

“But the Constitution made indirect allowances for slavery when it was first ratified!” you say.

“And many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves!” you say.

As the 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson put it, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” True and true, but as most writers will also say, perfection rarely arrives in the first couple of drafts. It can take years of delicate crafting to go from a small kernel of truth and stretch it out to a full-fledged cultural paradigm. In other words, who cares if Thomas Jefferson owned slaves? The principles of individual rights, human liberty and religious freedom which the agrarian redhead supported helped fertilize the soil out of which the fight for abolition grew.  This was because, at their heart, many of the Founding Fathers knew their ideal of personal freedom from tyranny was incompatible with chattel slavery. They believed it would only be a matter of time before the peculiar institution either phased itself out or resulted in a climactic and violent civil war.

During the eighty-nine years between the Declaration of Independence and the Surrender at Appomattox, many African-Americans, both free and slave, fought with as much heart, courage and fearlessness to free their people as any lieutenant in General Washington’s army. The fight took many forms. Frederick Douglass and William Still gave us words, stories and history. Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey gave us conspiracy and execution of violent slave revolts in the antebellum countryside. Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth showed us that even caught in the brambles of soul-crushing bondage, a woman’s spirit could rise above the situation and show others that a better life was possible.

Each of these people and thousands of others just like them, whether they knew it or not, were acting out natural human impulses codified in America’s Founding Documents. America was built on liberty and independence because the Founding Fathers believed that was the natural state of humankind; to be free and self-governing and not tied down to another power whether it be an English despot or some Southern plantation owner.

 

An Inspiration for Others

I think that too often, the black struggle for liberation is viewed as an ancillary offshoot of American history and not part of the main course. Most Americans think of US history between the 1770s and the 1860s as basically the Revolution, maybe the War of 1812, the growth of slavery, westward expansion, and then the Civil War where the slaves were freed (with a Second Great Awakening mixed in for good measure). When attention is paid to events like the Underground Railroad, Douglass’ North Star and the early 19th century slave rebellions, they are sometimes viewed as isolated or even minor events that played third fiddle to the larger strains of the American narrative. They will also tend to be viewed as sources of pride exclusively for the African-American population and less so for other ethnicities who claim this nation as home. Instead, these events should be viewed as a vindication of the ideals of the Enlightenment, justification in the founding of the United States and proof that the struggle for the abolishment of black slavery was a more tangible representation of the abstract models fought for by the Founding Fathers.

The examples given by people like Tubman, Still and Northrup to modern Americans of every stripe and color are just as powerful and just as meaningful to the blended DNA of freedom that underlies the United States as any treatise by Jefferson, maneuvers led by Washington or speeches given by Lincoln. These men and women of color fighting for their independence and inspired by the spirit of our Constitution serve as great examples of what it means to be American. Their actions will naturally carry deeper meaning for other African-Americans, but Americans of every ethnic background should take pride in living in a country that has produced such amazing leaders as these.

 

Jason McKenney was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, and now lives in the suburbs of Los Angeles. His education background is in technology and business, but he has a passion for history. His adventure series Time Trip is his attempt to introduce young adult readers to famous historical events in a new and exciting way.

 

Want to find out more about slavery in America? Download issue 2 of our digital magazine History is Now. Click here!

This week’s image of the week shows family life for slaves in 19th century Brazil.

20131115 Slavery Brazil.jpg

The Atlantic slave trade is part of a very dark past. Many died while being transported thousands of miles from Africa to the Americas. And those that survived faced a terrible life. Brazil was one of the principal countries to which slaves were exported – some four million arrived there. What’s more, it was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery - in 1888.

However, slaves had to live. And in the picture we see the life of a Brazilian slave family, as depicted by German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas. In the painting there is a small house with slaves going about their daily business. The daily routines of the people in the picture make the scene a lot more real and lifelike. We can but wonder what was going through their heads.

 

We have an article about what happened to slaves after they were liberated in the USA in issue 2 of our magazine, History is Now. Its out next week…

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George Levrier-Jones 

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

This article was originally previewed on the blog. You can find the full-length article in issue 2 of our magazine, History is Now, published in November 2013. 

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Meanwhile, here is the start of the article... 

 

In the era of modern electronic communications it is sometimes hard to appreciate the immense difficulty which previous generations had in passing messages over both large and not so large distances.  An era in which the written word was the sole means of correspondence with other communities, relations and business interests, made responses slow, with no guarantees of them being received.  This method was of course the preserve of the educated few and seems to those who enjoy instant world-wide correspondence as almost pre-historic.  It is harder to imagine the difficulties which the poor and illiterate had in conveying their message to friends and family outside of their locality.

 

African-American slaves dancing to music. Name: The Old Plantation, late 18th century, artist unknown.

African-American slaves dancing to music. Name: The Old Plantation, late 18th century, artist unknown.

The rural mid-nineteenth century Southern States of America was populated by millions of poor and illiterate black and white people. The black slave population, continuously denied the most basic of rights, were never going to be presented with a chance to better themselves educationally....

 

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The full-length article is by Barry Sheppard, a talented part-time blogger with a varied and growing list of historical interests.

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones