John J. Cummings has created what he has called “America’s First Slavery Museum.” The museum is an anomaly for American plantation museums—it memorializes America’s enslaved in a style reminiscent of Holocaust memorials while also acting as a traditional (although reinterpreted) Southern plantation tour. Jackie Mead explains.

You can read Jackie’s previous article on Lewis Temple and the 19th century whaling industry here.

The Big House at the Whitney Plantation. Source: Bill Leiser, available  here .

The Big House at the Whitney Plantation. Source: Bill Leiser, available here.

In 1991, a crumbling former plantation 35 miles outside of New Orleans attracted the attention of a rayon manufacturer, Formosa. Locals commissioned an eight volume study as a way to slow the project until rayon went out of fashion. When the property went up for sale again, it was bought by eccentric trial lawyer John J. Cummings III. Unlike most people, when he is given an eight-volume study on a new purchased property, he reads it.[i]

For the next several years, John J. Cummings would spend eight million dollars of his personal fortune to create what he dubbed “America’s First Slavery Museum.” The museum is an anomaly for American plantation museums—it memorializes America’s enslaved in a style reminiscent of Holocaust memorials while also acting as a traditional (although reinterpreted) Southern plantation tour.


A Museum Anomaly

Plantation museums in the former Antebellum American South have fallen into a comfortable pattern over the years. The lives of the white landholders (and slave owners) were focused on exclusively. Tours were limited to the “Big House” and ignored the various “outbuildings” where slaves lived and worked.[ii]They stood as testaments to the conspicuous consumerism of the pre-Civil War South, a world in which manicured lawns held garden parties with mint juleps, and women in hoop skirts fanned themselves beside elegant picture windows. This myth of the South has made the plantations a popular site to hold weddings and sorority reunions, a trend that museums encourage because of the valuable revenue they bring in.[iii]This view eliminates the people who made such grandeur possible—African American slaves. 

Whitney plantation is entirely different. Today, the plantation includes at least twelve historic structures that are open to the public. The home is interpreted entirely from the enslaved point of view, discussing the domestic tasks performed there to support the Haydel family’s domestic needs.[iv]Slave quarters were moved from a nearby planation in order to properly represent the homes of the enslaved. A steel-barred cell in the style used to punish rebellious slaves has also been added to the property.[v]The final historic building exhibited on the plantation is the Antioch Baptist Church. All of these buildings are visited during the 90-minute walking tour included with the visitor ticket. 


Memorials to Slavery

Whitney Plantation also includes several memorials, springing directly from the mind of John Cummings. One of these is the Field of Angels, a circular courtyard listing the names of the almost 2,200 slave babies in St John Parish that died before their third birthday in the 40 years leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation. Surrounded by child-sized pink and blue benches, there is a statue of a black angel embracing a tiny baby tenderly in its arms, about to bring the child to heaven.[vi]The bronze was cast by Rod Moorhead, a Louisiana native who has worked on other African-American memorials. David Amsden of the New York Times called the statue “at once chastening and challenging, beautiful and haunting.”[vii]The memorial is meant to bring attention to the exceptionally high mortality rates among slave children, as well as to mourn their passing.

Whitney Plantation’s most recognizable memorial sits within Antioch Baptist Church. John Cummings commissioned well-known African American artist Woodrow Nash to cast forty life-size casts of slave children to stand and sit within the pews of the church. Affectionately called “The Children of Whitney” by the museum staff, they represent the lost childhoods of Whitney’s former residents.[viii]Cummings was inspired to create the exhibit by listening to the interviews of former slaves collected by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. “The best expression I have heard about slavery is: ‘Those who viewed cannot explain, only those who endure­d should be believed,’ he said to The Australian.[ix]Inspired by these words, Cummings has placed a great emphasis on the interviews collected by the WPA, and intends recordings to be played on a loop in both the church and in the slave cabins at a later date.[x]Many of the former slaves interviewed by the WPA were children at the time of emancipation, and therefore their interviews recall their lives as children and teenagers. The Children of Whitney depict these people as they were—children.[xi]

There are two memorials that feature names carved in stone: The Wall of Honor, which is dedicated to the more than 350 slaves that worked at Whitney Plantation, and the Allées Gwendolyn Mildo Hall Memorial, which is dedicated to the 107,000 slaves in Louisiana complied by its eponymous historian.[xii]Both of them were inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Because of issues with dating the various documents the names were drawn from, names have been placed on the plaques with no order at all, in order to convey the chaos of slavery. Many slaves lack family names, so the walls are dotted with repeating lines of Mary, Bob, Amelia, and Joseph with no way to distinguish individuals.[xiii]In continued dedication to firsthand accounts, Cummings requested that sections from the WPA’s interviews with former slaves be carved onto the memorial in order to give visitors an idea of what these individuals suffered. 


Grappling With The Past

John J. Cummings III believes it is important for America to follow the example of countries like Germany and South Africa in dealing with this national trauma. Both nations built museums and memorials to honor their unsavory past as a way of retroactively grappling with it. “In Germany today, there are hundreds of museums and memorials dedicated to the Holocaust, and the Germans are not proud of that history,” said Cummings to TheNew Yorker, “But they have studied it, they have embraced it, and they own it. We haven’t done that in America.”[xiv] 

In fact, the opposite has occurred. In an ethnographic study of 138 south-eastern plantation museums, two academics found the African-American presence to be “annihilated.”[xv]This is due to the fact that many of these plantation museums have white administrative staff, curators, and interpreters that cater to the white perspective.[xvi]As a result, museum tours focused almost exclusively on the privileged lives of the white landowners, reducing slaves to nameless laborers identified by the tasks they performed for the white family. Such museums were especially popular during the Civil Right Movement, when white Southerners yearned to remember a “simpler” time.[xvii]  

This is no longer the case. In the past twenty years, twenty-four museums in south Louisiana have opened slave exhibits. These exhibits have increased tourism for plantation museums, both private and public, with 1.9 million visitors to historic sites across the state.[xviii]School groups are especially popular visitors.[xix]Museum administrators have cited the growing interest in common people and a desire to show a more integrated version of American history as reasons for adding these kinds of exhibits.[xx]


Mourning Slavery

Whitney Plantation is a new approach to the plantation museum. Instead of offering additions to an already existing tour, Whitney is a plantation tour with slavery-based interpretation combined with a memorial museum. This is a far more effective way to convey the true tragedy of race-based slavery. According to Silke Arnold-de-Simine, a British expert on memory and author of Mediating Memory in the Museum,memorials are intended to make visitors identify with history’s victims. By establishing an environment that encourages visitors to imagine themselves experiencing these atrocities, visitors can empathize with the people of the past. Arnold-de-Simine refers to this as “prosthetic memory.”

This principle is important for memorial museums because they inspire feelings of guilt and grief rather than pride, and must channel those negative feelings into a personal commitment to pluralism and tolerance.[xxi]This is done through a combination of first-person testimonials, visual recreations of the conditions the individuals experienced, and memorials where collective grief can be expressed. All of these techniques were pioneered during the building of Holocaust memorials. This is what allows the plantation to have such a profound emotional effect on visitors. “Everything about the way the place came together says that it shouldn’t work,” says Laura Rosanne Adderley, a Tulane history professor, “And yet for the most part it does, superbly and even radically. Like Maya Lin’s memorial, the Whitney Plantation has figured out a way to mourn those we as a society are often reluctant to mourn.”[xxii]Although Whitney Plantation might seem mismatched, this combination of techniques is very effective.


Taking a Risk Pays Off

The plantation received 34,000 visitors in its first year—double the projected turnout. It is a respectable number for a new museum.[xxiii]Whitney Plantation has managed to attract African-American tourists at a rate unprecedented by other Louisiana plantation museums. Roughly half the people present at opening day were black.[xxiv]

Whitney plantation has also seen considerable tourism from school groups, especially secondary schools. The direct and unfiltered depiction of slavery, rarely seen in school curriculums, has a profound effect on students. One visitor left a comment card reading, “I learned more in an hour and a half than I have in any school.”[xxv]  

The inability of the American school system to adequately deal with slavery was one of John J. Cummings III’s many reasons for establishing Whitney plantation. “Without knowledge about how slavery worked and how crushing the experience was — not only for those who endured it, but also for their descendants — it’s impossible to lift the weight of the lingering repercussions of that institution. Every generation of Americans since 1865 has been burdened by the hangover of slavery,”[xxvi]he wrote in the Washington Post. Cummings believes that it is only when Americans are properly educated on the abuses and legacy of slavery, that can we hope to move forward. 

John J. Cummings III understands how unusual it is for a white former trial lawyer to be the person who establishes America’s first museum dedicated to slavery. In an attempt to explain, he said of his process of research “You start understanding that the wealth of this part of the world — wealth that has benefited me — was created by some half a million black people.”[xxvii]Whitney stands tribute to those black people, but it does far more than that. It memorializes them in a style reminiscent of the Holocaust, and uses the restored landscape and first-person narratives to create feelings of empathy with those who suffered slavery. It seeks to create an emotional response in its visitors so that America can finally remember its wounds openly—because it is only then, according to John. J. Cummings—that American can finally start to heal. 



What do you think of Whitney Plantation? Let us know below.

[i]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.” 

[ii]Julia Rose, “Collective Memories and the Changing Representations of American Slavery,” The Journal of Museum Education29, no. 2/3 (Spring/Summer 2004): 27. 

[iii]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.” 

[iv]Whitney Plantation, “The Big House and the Outbuildings,” 2015,

[v]Margaret Quilter, “Lest We Forget: Louisiana’s Slavery Museum,” The Australian, February 7, 2015,

[vi]Quilter, “Lest We Forget.”

[vii]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.”

[viii]Whitney Plantation, “The Children of Whitney,”

[ix]Quilter, “Lest We Forget.” 

[x]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.” 

[xi]Whitney Plantation, “The Children of Whitney.” 

[xii]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.” 

[xiii]Jared Keller, “Inside America’s Auschwitz: a new museum offers a rebuke—and an antidote—to our sanitized history of slavery,” Smithsonian Magazine,  April 4, 2016,

[xiv]Kalim Armstrong, “Telling the Story of Slavery,” The New Yorker,February 17, 2016,

[xv]Rose, “Collective Memories,” 27.

[xvi]Rose, “Collective Memories,” 27.

[xvii]Keller, “America’s Auschwitz.” 

[xviii]Keller, “America’s Auschwitz.”

[xix]Rose, “Collective Memories,” 26. 

[xx]Rose, “Collective Memories,” 28.

[xxi]Silke Arnold-de-Simine, “The ‘Moving’ Image: Empathy and Projection in the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool,” Journal of Educational Media, Memory & Society4 (Autumn 2012): 24.  

[xxii]Asmden, “First Slavery Museum.” 

[xxiii]Keller, “America’s Auschwitz.”

[xxiv]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.”

[xxv]Keller, “America’s Auschwitz.” 

[xxvi]Cummings, “35,000 Museums.” 

[xxvii]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.”

Slavery was sadly familiar during the early decades of an independent America. Here, Ian Craig discusses the failure of compromise during the years from 1789 until the US Civil War. In particular he considers the sectional divide between the North, South, and – later – Western American states.

You can also read Ian’s series on President James Buchanan and the US Civil War here.

The official White House portrait of President Zachary Taylor. Taylor played a key role in the Compromise of 1850.

The official White House portrait of President Zachary Taylor. Taylor played a key role in the Compromise of 1850.

In the history of the United States, the nation has long been divided along sectional lines, most notably North and South.  In 1789, when the Constitution became the law of the land, compromise had been used to get the states to agree on the new form of government.  The Three-Fifths Compromise was one such example.  Slavery was deeply rooted in the economy of the South, while the North began to rely heavily on its manufacturing industry. When it came time to decide representation in the new Congress, the Southern states demanded that their slave population be counted toward their population total.  Since the North did not support slave labor and had a growing abolitionist movement, it disagreed with the South’s proposal.  Instead, the authors of the Constitution, including James Madison, came up with a compromise.  The South’s total slave population would not count towards representation, only three-fifths of its slave population would be counted towards each southern states’ population.  This compromise managed to win support on both sides, but the debate and compromise over slavery did not end there.

When President Thomas Jefferson agreed to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, he had no idea that it would help spark further debates over slavery.  The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States with most of its territory lying northwest of the Mississippi River.  The acquisition of such a vast territory was seen by many Americans as progress for the young nation.  No one considered the idea that as more territory was added to the nation, that slavery’s expansion would take center stage.  In 1819, the first debate over slavery’s expansion into the western territories took place.  Missouri, which was relatively more north than south, wanted to enter the Union as a slave state.  However, this would upset the balance of power between slave and free states in the Senate.  The South needed to maintain this due to the fact that the North’s greater population often gave them more support in the House of Representatives.  In an attempt to put an end to the issue, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky came up with a compromise.  He called for slavery to be banned in the region northwest of Missouri and for Maine (formerly part of Massachusetts) to enter the Union as a free state.  This compromise was agreed to and attempted to hold the nation together for another thirty years.  However, when the compromise was passed in 1820, it merely put a temporary fix on the growing issue of slavery.  It did nothing to settle the growing sectional divide the nation was facing as well.


Sectionalism in the US

Sectionalism was deeply rooted in the United States.  When the nation was founded in 1776, many Americans had more loyalty to their individual states rather than the nation as a whole.  This was because many felt that their own state governments represented their best interests because they were their neighbors and friends in some cases. In conjunction with this, many did not trust the new federal or central government.  This goes back to the trade off between having a king thousands of miles away to having many “kings” a mere couple hundred miles away.  It was for this reason that the original government of the United States, under the Articles of Confederation, was made relatively weak.  Under the Articles, there was not one single leader, but many in a representative body or congress.  This Congress was led by a president, but this person was by no means the President of the United States.  In addition, the government had no power to collect taxes or to raise them nor could it regulate trade or create a standing army and navy to defend the nation.  In these terms, the States had all the power as it was intended to be.  Therefore, the Continental Congress had to ask the states to raise funds and relied on the states to provide their militias in times of war.  The Articles left the federal government extremely weak, the Founding Fathers did not want to have a repeat of the rule they had under King George III and Great Britain.   

The federal government would become much stronger when the Constitution was passed in 1789; however, the individual loyalty to one’s state remained.  Often America was referred to as “these United States” instead of a single nation “The United States.” It is this sentiment that began to take hold after 1820. In 1848, when the U.S.-Mexican War came to an end, more territory was added to the nation through the Mexican Cession.  This included land that would become the American southwest and California.  When gold was discovered in California in early 1848, prospectors and settlers flocked to the territory causing its population to rapidly increase.  By 1850, California was ready to enter the Union and become the thirty-first state. However, the majority of the population had come from areas that did not support slavery and as a result, California had wished to enter as a free state.


The Compromise of 1850

This concept had re-opened the door for slavery’s debate in the nation.  Although it had never gone away, it now became a topic for discussion for many. President Zachary Taylor wanted to see California admitted into the Union as soon as possible.  He recognized the sizzling debate of slavery which was growing over the nation, but he felt that a quick admission would solve the issue. In contrast, allowing California to enter the Union as a free state would upset the balance of power in the Senate. Something had to be given to the South for compensation.  This led to the Compromise of 1850 which began under Henry Clay but was resolved under Senator Stephen Douglas.  

In order to appease both sides, Douglas was able to come up with five resolutions that would require a vote. They included allowing California to enter as a free state, the ban of the slave trade in Washington D.C., the creation of a new Fugitive Slave Law, that popular sovereignty be allowed in the territories of Utah and New Mexico, and that Texas’ border dispute with New Mexico be resolved.[1]  President Taylor threatened to veto the legislation if it came to him because he did not want any chance of slavery entering the western territories.  This surprised those in the South who believed that Taylor, a Southerner himself, had betrayed them.  In July 1850, the president’s unwillingness to compromise seemed to be taking hold.  However, President Zachary Taylor died of presumed food poisoning after eating cherries and drinking a pitcher of milk.  His vice president, Millard Fillmore, had no issue signing the Compromise of 1850 as he believed he had once and for all settled the question of slavery’s expansion.  Instead, he only made the issue much worse. 


Disputes in the 1850s

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant that the North no longer became a safe haven for escaped slaves.  Instead, those in the northern states were required by law to aid slave catchers in their retrieval of runaway slaves.  Any violation of the law would result in fines and even jail time.  With this act in place, the federal government was essentially allowing slavery to continue while keeping it enforced.  In the eyes of the North, this was a betrayal by the federal government as it appeared to be helping the South continue slavery not end it.  By 1854, the debate which was thought to have ended with the Compromise of 1850 heated up again.  Under the Kansas-Nebraska Act, governments were formed for the territories of Kansas and Nebraska allowing for popular sovereignty.  At the same time, the Missouri Compromise, which had banned slavery in those territories for thirty years, was repealed.  This caused much concern for those in the North.

Although the Kansas-Nebraska Act which was also authored by Stephen Douglas, attempted to appease both sides, it ended up causing much violence in the region.  When Kansas wanted to enter the Union as a free state, pro-slavery settlers from neighboring Missouri crossed the border illegally.  This resulted in the election of a pro-slavery government.  In what would become known as “Bleeding Kansas,” pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces would battle for control of the territory.  This would continue until President James Buchanan sent the military to secure fare elections; however, it wasn’t until 1861 that Kansas was admitted as a free state.  

The sectional wound that the nation felt only became worse after the 1854 Act.  “Bleeding Kansas” was a snapshot of what would come during the US Civil War.  Compromise failed in many ways, but ultimately if failed because the sectional wound between the North, South, and eventually the West, was never resolved. Each compromise or act only put a temporary bandage on a wound that needed stitches to fully heal.  However, all sides refused to find that resolution because they all believed their point of view was correct.  They did not have any regard for the integrity of the nation, instead it was for their individual homes or states.  When the Civil War broke out and South Carolina seceded from the Union, a man who would go down in history was offered a much different path. President Lincoln authorized Francis P. Blair Sr., an advisor, to offer Robert E. Lee full command of the Union Army to put down the rebellion in the South.  Despite his loyalty to the United States, Lee refused because he could not help lead an invasion of his native home Virginia and the South.  Like Lee, many others felt the same way in taking up arms to either defend or fight against the United States.


What do you think of the article? Let us know below.      

[1]James McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction 3rded, (McGraw-Hill, 2001), 74. 

Phillis Wheatley was an amazing and intriguing woman who became a famous and noteworthy poetess in the latter eighteenth century. And what is most intriguing is that in an age of slavery and discrimination she was black. Here, Christopher Benedict tells her story…

The frontispiece to Phillis Wheatley's  Poems on Various Subjects .

The frontispiece to Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects.

On Being Brought from Africa to America

“Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too,

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

‘Their colour is a diabolical die.’

Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain,

May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train”


This eight line poem was written in 1768 by a young woman of fourteen named Phillis Wheatley. That it, and some 145 others she composed, would alternately subject her to the chaotic complexities of renown and acclaim, the attention of British nobility and America’s Founding Fathers, a tribunal before Boston’s most esteemed magistrates, ministers, and men of letters, not to mention the dismissive scorn of later, more enlightened and less subordinate generations can be best understood by taking the very nature of her blurred identity into consideration.

Her forename was gleaned from Timothy Finch’s schooner the Phillis, which deposited the seven year-old “slender, frail female child” on the Boston wharf at Beach Street on July 11, 1761 after plundering Guinea’s Isles de Los, Sierra Leone, and Senegal (where she is believed to have lived) of its inhabitants for use as human merchandise in America’s slave trade. The assignation of Phillis’ last name would result from her having been purchased, sickly and nearly naked but for a bit of soiled carpet, by Susanna Wheatley “for a trifle” (fewer than £10) to serve as housemaid.

The home, owned by affluent tailor and merchant John Wheatley, was located near Massachusetts’ original State House and within easy earshot, in years soon to come, of the Stamp Act riots and later the Boston Massacre, claiming the life of the Revolution’s first known black martyr Crispus Attucks, which Phillis would document in verse with On the Affray in King Street, on the Evening of the 5th of March, 1770.

Phillis achieved literacy through a combination of Susanna’s encouragement, the tutelage of the Wheatley’s teenaged children Nathaniel and Mary, and Phillis’ own natural desire for extracting sustenance from their English, Latin, Greek, and biblical lessons with an insatiable hunger for knowledge.

Such an impression did Phillis make on John Wheatley that he attested to her phenomenal scholarly advancement, noting that, “she, in sixteen months’ time from her arrival, attained the English language, to which she was an utter stranger before” and “as to her writing, her own curiosity led to it.”   

In 1765, she had already committed to paper her first poem, To the University of Cambridge in New England, and had another, On Messrs Hussey and Coffin, submitted by Susanna to the Newport Mercury, published only two years later, the first by a black woman in America.

Susanna, who by this time had excused Phillis from her previously appointed chores to perfect her chosen craft, would facilitate the collection of her early works into a proposed book containing 28 titles through advertisements that ran through the February to April 1772 editions of the Boston Censor, a Tory newspaper. Owing to the popular misapprehension that a simple slave girl could have been in no way responsible for these supposedly original creations, few offers for the requested 300 subscriptions to fund the project came forth.


On Virtue

“I cease to wonder, and no more attempt

Thine height t’ explore, or fathom thy profound

But, O my soul, sink not into despair,

Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand

Would now embrace thee, hovers o’er thine head”


It is impossible to imagine the emotional state of Phillis, not yet twenty years old, only a little more than half of which had been spent as a kidnapped stranger in a strange land and even fewer familiar with its linguistic peculiarities, being asked to appear before a committee of eighteen of the colony’s most prestigious citizens to verify the authenticity of her writings and, in essence, become a spokesperson (quite literally) of her entire race.

In October 1772, at the urging of John Wheatley, Phillis was interrogated at length (most likely at Boston’s Town Hall) by an assemblage which included among its celebrated quilled pens and powdered wigs, those of Governor Thomas Hutchinson, Lieutenant-Governor Andrew Oliver, John Hancock, James Bowdoin, Joseph Green, and the Reverends Charles Chauncy, Samuel Cooper, and Samuel Mather (son of Cotton Mather, who played a fringe role in the 1692 Salem Witch Trials).

Though there is no surviving transcript with which to flesh out the details of how they arrived at their conclusion, the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of all present, to the degree that when Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was finally published the following year, Phillis’ book was printed with the following testimonial, bearing the signatures of all eighteen of her questioners:

We whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that the Poems specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.


With skepticism rampant throughout the colonies, Susanna had gotten a copy of the manuscript in the hands of London publisher Archibald Bell by employing as a courier the captain of her husband John’s England-bound commercial trade ship. Phillis had already established a readership across the Atlantic thanks to the success of the widespread 1770 publication of On the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, her requiem for the recently deceased evangelical preacher, beloved both in the United Kingdom and its colonies. She would soon be accepted and treated as a celebrity, rubbing shoulders with royalty, having accolades and gifts heaped upon her by icons even in their own time and whose books today line our shelves and whose portraits adorn our currency. 


An Hymn to the Evening

“Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr’s wing,

Exhales the incense of the blooming spring.

Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes,

And through the air, their mingled music floats.”


So that she could personally supervise the publication of her book, Susanna sent Phillis, chaperoned by the Wheatley’s son Nathaniel, to London whereupon she was squired about town to see the sights, including a tour of the Tower of London with Granville Sharp, one of the first English abolitionists.

She was received by the Earl of Dartmouth, who gave her the five guineas necessary to purchase the collected works of Alexander Pope, and was presented with a folio edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost by one-day Lord Mayor Brook Watson.

Even Benjamin Franklin, who was in London grieving the case for peaceful independence on behalf of the American colonies before the classes of the British citizenry, from the highest to most humble, deviated from his schedule of oratory and article writing to spend time with Phillis. She thought highly enough of him that she intended to dedicate her next book to the bespectacled diplomat. 

A momentous meeting with King George III, for whom she had written To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty in 1766 following his repeal of the Stamp Act, unfortunately did not occur as Susanna Wheatley’s health suffered a sudden decline, necessitating the immediate return of Phillis and Nathaniel. Susanna improved physically (for the time being) and, though Phillis would continue to live with them, she and John emancipated her shortly after her abrupt homecoming. A shipment of her books arrived at the New Haven customs office from London which she solicited by subscription, even imploring local publishers not to use them as a template from which to print and distribute copies of their own and, thus, undercutting her independent endeavor.

As heady as 1773 was for Phillis, the following year would prove just as sobering, bringing as it did the British occupation of Boston, the death of Susanna, and the resulting grief-stricken flight of John to points unknown. Phillis left for a time as well, living with the Wheatley’s daughter Mary and her husband in Providence until just before the Redcoats had been driven out of Boston.

A handwritten letter was sent by Phillis in October 1775 to Continental Army headquarters in Cambridge, MA addressed to the subject of her poem His Excellency General Washington, a copy of which was enclosed, “though I am not insensible of its inaccuracies”.

Four months later arrived a personal reply wherein George Washington apologized for “the seeming but not real neglect” of his delayed response while self-deprecatingly worrying over “however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric”. His effusive praise is augmented by an invitation for Phillis to call upon him, adding that “I shall be so happy to see a person so favored by the Muses”.

She did, weeks later, journey to from Boston to Cambridge where the General and his officers lavished their attentions upon her and Washington pledged to reprint her poem, a promise he made good on when it appeared in the March 1776 Virginia Gazette. Thomas Paine followed suit, publishing her ode to General Washington in the April edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette


An Hymn to the Morning

“Ye shady groves, your verdant gloom display

To shield your poet from the burning day,

Calliope awake the sacred lyre,

While thy sisters fan the pleasing fire.”


Voltaire lent his endorsement to Phillis Wheatley’s work and she was sent a package from John Paul Jones, just prior to his embarking for Paris aboard the warship Ranger, containing praise of her writing along with hand selected copies of his own. 

Francois, the Marquis de Barbe-Marbois, whose request for statistical information on the American colonies inspired Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, had read Phillis’ verses, “in which there is imagination, poetry, and zeal”.

Jefferson, a slaveholding Francophile who would later be lionized by no less than Frederick Douglass, bristled at this praise being accorded the talents of an indentured servant (a black one, anyway-and heaven forbid, a woman - as he pointedly excused from the conversation former European slaves and prisoners Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus) who could never qualify as the white man’s cerebral equal.

Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry...Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Whatley (his spelling), but it could not produce a poet.


She is thereby reduced to a functional automaton capable of reading and, perhaps, comprehending Milton and Pope, the Athenians and Romans, but, creatively, of no better than their soulless mimicry.

Blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances,” supposed Jefferson’s vile but not unoriginal claim, “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.


It is noteworthy, illustrates Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard professor and author of The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, that “Wheatley’s freedom enslaved her to a life of hardship.” Fame brought no fortune to Phillis, who married John Peters, a free black man whom Gates describes as a “small-time grocer and sometime lawyer”, in 1778. Their years together were ones of financial and personal strife compounded by the deaths of two infants and the failures of Peters’ business ventures, landing him in debtor’s prison and stranding Phillis at home with another unwell child.

Although a handful of New England newspapers did publish some of her last poems, she was unable to gather subscriptions sufficient to cover the printing costs of her second book and, to add to her humiliation, was forced to take work as a scullery maid.

Phillis Wheatley, only thirty years old, died on December 5, 1784 and was followed a little over three hours later by her infant son. Her own widowed husband was the first to soil her literary legacy by selling the only copy of her manuscript, which to this day has never been found.

Her reputation was called severely into question by black radicals during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, when Wheatley was denigrated as “an early Boston Aunt Jemima”, “a colonial handkerchief head”, and reflective of “the nigger component of the Black Experience”.

The spark of this controversy ignited a contemporary reevaluation of her life, beliefs, and writings. Although her prestige is still open to debate and her physical remains are in an unmarked grave somewhere in Boston, Phillis Wheatley was selected in 1993 for inclusion in the Boston Women’s Memorial on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall along with Abigail Adams and Lucy Stone, whose bronze sculptures thoughtfully consider one another from a triangular formation.


“Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind,

At morn’ to wake more heav’nly refin’d,

So shall the labors of the day begin

More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.”


Did you find this article interesting? If so, tell the world. Tweet about it, share it, or like it by clicking on one of the buttons below…




  • The Trials of Phillis Wheatley by Henry Louis Gates (Basic Civitas Books, 2003)
  • Negro Poetry and Drama by Sterling Brown (Westphalia Press,1937)
  • A Shining Thread of Hope by Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson (Random House, 2009).
  • Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, Volume 1, edited by Yolanda Williams Page (Greenwood, 2007)
  • Benjamin Franklin Holds Up a Looking Glass to the British Empire (Schiller Institute, September 2012)

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 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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  • 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

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.

 The new issue of History is Now magazine is out now.

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You know, while undertaking the early edits of the magazine this month, I felt truly privileged at being the first person who was able to read such marvelous articles. I just hope that after reading this month’s magazine, you agree that the articles are extremely interesting. Here is what we have in the magazine…

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


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, 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 

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.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones