William Wells Brown gets his name


Image of author/historian/social activist William Wells Brown from his book, Three Years in Europe: Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met.
SOURCE: Wikipedia

William Wells Brown, as noted in Wikipedia, “was a prominent African-American abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian in the United States. Born into slavery in Kentucky, he escaped to Ohio in 1834 at the age of 20. He settled in Boston, Massachusetts, where he worked for abolitionist causes and became a prolific writer. While working for abolition, Brown also supported causes including: temperance, women’s suffrage, pacifism, prison reform, and an anti-tobacco movement. His novel Clotel (1853), considered the first novel written by an African American, was published in London, England, where he resided at the time; it was later published in the United States.”

Brown wrote many books, including the autobiographical Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written By Himself. The website DocSouth summarizes the book here, saying in part:

Embarking on a career as a lecturing agent for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society in 1843, Brown eventually moved to Boston in 1847, where he began his impressive literary career. In that same year, he wrote and published his autobiography, the Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself. With its four American and five British editions appearing before 1850, Brown’s Narrative, second in popularity only to Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, brought him international celebrity.

As William Wells Brown’s first published work and his most widely read autobiography, the 1847 Narrative occupies an important place within not only his oeuvre but also the broader African American literary tradition.

In Narrative, Wells says that after he escaped from bondage in Kentucky, he took the route to freedom through Ohio. Among his many concerns as a freeman, interestingly enough, was his name. As a boy, he had been ordered to change his name, from William to Sandford; he found this “one of the most cruel acts that could be committed upon my rights.”

But as a free man, he could reclaim his name, which he did; this is from Narrative:

My escape to a land of freedom now appeared certain, and the prospects of the future occupied a great part of my thoughts. What should be my occupation, was a subject of much anxiety to me; and the next thing what should be my name? I have before stated that my old master, Dr. Young, had no children of his own, but had with him a nephew, the son of his brother, Benjamin Young. When this boy was brought to Doctor Young, his name being William, the same as mine, my mother was ordered to change mine to something else.

This, at the time, I thought to be one of the most cruel acts that could be committed upon my rights; and I received several very severe whippings for telling people that my name was William, after orders were given to change it. Though young, I was old enough to place a high appreciation upon my name. It was decided, however, to call me “Sandford,” and this name I was known by, not only upon my master’s plantation, but up to the time that I made my escape. I was sold under the name of Sandford.

But as soon as the subject came to my mind, I resolved on adopting my old name of William, and let Sandford go by the board, for I always hated it. Not because there was anything peculiar in the name; but because it had been forced upon me. It is sometimes common at the south, for slaves to take the name of their masters. Some have a legitimate right to do so. But I always detested the idea of being called by the name of either of my masters. And as for my father, I would rather have adopted the name of “Friday,” and been known as the servant of some Robinson Crusoe, than to have taken his name. (Editor’s note: William Wells Brown’s father was a white man.)
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The Joy of Being a Black Confederate

A young slave is brought to a Confederate army camp during the Civil War. He meets an older slave who’s been there a while.

Young Person: “How you doin’ old timer?”

Older Person: “Just trying to stay alive, son.”

YP: “What you mean, old man. We’re Black Confederates. I’m excited! Can’t wait to whip them Yankees!”

OP: “What you mean, boy? You’re a cook. Fighting Yankees, that’s what white Confederates do.”

YP: “Well, at least I don’t have to worry about my family being sold down the river, right?”

OP: “No no no, that’s white Confederates that got family rights, not you. You’re a Black Confederate. You can still go to the auction block if you don’t act right.”

YP: “Well maybe I can vote? Serve on a jury? I’m a Confederate citizen, right?”

OP: “Are you crazy? White Confederates are Confederate citizens. You’re a Black Confederate.”

YP: “Well, I’m gonna be free right? They gonna free all of us right?”

OP: “I’m gonna stop talking to you, you ain’t listening. Freedom is for white Confederates. You’re black. Instead of doing n****** work on massa’s plantation, you’re doing it for his army. And being a Black Confederate, they calls that your reward. Don’t seem like much of a prize to me, though.”

YP: “Darn, is that it? What good is that?”

OP: “Look here, son. My advice is, treat your massa good. Talk about how great the Confederacy is. Do whatever you’re told, and then some. When you get older, massa will remember. Might treat you better for your loyalty. Maybe they even make a statue for you. You know, them people can be very sentimental.”

YP: “Well… I guess that’s better than nothing.”

OP: “And watch out for them damn Yankees. Yankee bullet don’t care what color you are. Some of them even think we’re soldiers and shoot at us. Watch your back, son.”

YP: “You know, all of sudden, I don’t think I like this Black Confederate stuff.”

OP: “Don’t be down, son. I got this camp song for you. Ah ah ah ah, staying alive, staying alive. Ah ah ah ah…”

YP: “Oh my, that’s catchy. Ah ah ah ah…”

OP: “Oh yeah, you’re finally starting to get it. Sing boy!”

YP: “Oh yeah! Ah ah ah ah…”

Freedom from Shame: “A Christian and civilized city… should not be subjected… to the humiliating spectacle of a woman chained and pinioned and driven along the streets”


Slaves in chains: a not uncommon sight in the Antebellum South
Image: A slave-coffle passing the Capitol; Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-2574

Shame freed two black women from bondage in Tennessee during the Civil War.

The state of Tennessee was not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation. At the time the EP was issued (1/1/1863), most of the state was under US military control. As such, Tennessee was no longer considered to be in rebellion against the United States; and only  states that were controlled by Confederate rebels were covered by the Proclamation.

As such, slaveholders in Tennessee still had a legal right to chattel property. However, in March 1862, “the US Congress adopted an additional article of war forbidding members of the army and navy to return fugitive slaves to their owners.” In addition, Union Provost Marshal organizations had some leeway to enforce the law as they deemed appropriate and necessary. The Provost Marshal were Union military authorities who acted as a local police force in areas that were reclaimed from the Confederates. This would give the enslaved opportunities for freedom even in a Union slave state.

In February 1864, Major John W Horner, a Provost Marshal in Nashville, TN, was disturbed to see a young woman “with her arms securely tied behind her” walking behind a buggy on the streets of the city. He found the scene a “brutal and revolting act” that “subject(ed) a civilized and Christian city to the humiliating spectacle of a women chained and pinioned and driven along the streets.”

He details the scene and his response to it in this correspondence to the Provost Marshal of the District of Nashville, dated February 27, 1864:
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Slavery: Inhumane… or Definitively Human?


Theodore Parker, 19th Century Abolitionist and Religious Leader: ‘I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways… But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.’

How many times have you seen or heard the expression that slavery is an example of “man’s inhumanity to man?” A lot, I would bet.

Well, Walter Johnson, a history scholar who specializes in the subject of American slavery, is not having it. In an essay in the Boston Review he writes:

Historians sometimes argue that some aspects of slavery were so violent, so obscene, so “inhuman” that, in order to live with themselves, the perpetrators had to somehow “dehumanize” their victims…

The apparent right-mindedness of such arguments notwithstanding, this language of “dehumanization” is misleading because slavery depended upon the human capacities of enslaved people. It depended upon their reproduction. It depended upon their labor. And it depended upon their sentience. Enslaved people could be taught: their intelligence made them valuable. They could be manipulated: their desires could make them pliable. They could be terrorized: their fears could make them controllable. And they could be tortured: beaten, starved, raped, humiliated, degraded.

It is these last that are conventionally understood to be the most “inhuman” of slaveholders’ actions and those that most “dehumanized” enslaved people. And yet these actions epitomize the failure of this set of terms to capture what was at stake in slaveholding violence: the extent to which slaveholders depended upon violated slaves to bear witness, to provide satisfaction, to provide a living, human register of slaveholders’ power.

Johnson says “by terming these actions “inhuman” and suggesting that they either relied upon or accomplished the “dehumanization” of enslaved people, however, we are participating in a sort of ideological exchange that is no less baleful for being so familiar. We are separating a normative and aspirational notion of humanity from the sorts of exploitation and violence that history suggests may well be definitive of human beings: we are separating ourselves from our own histories of perpetration.”

As stated by Johnson, slavery is not an example of inhumanity; it is a definitive example of how humans treat other humans. That’s a profound thought.

I have made the point that, the thing that separates us humans from non-sentient creatures is our intellect. Humans are subject to many ‘base’ impulses: we are materialistic, selfish, violent, tribalistic, and illogical. But our intellect enables us to create morals and ethics and values by which we can conquer, or aspire to conquer, our base instincts.

Theodore Parker, the clergyman and abolitionist who died in 1860, said ‘I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.’ But Parker did not believe that the arc would bend, inevitably, on its own; he believed it was up to humans to engage in acts that would force the arc to bend.

I do think it is dangerous to assume that the values we have today, such as the notion that all men are created equal and deserving of rights, are set in stone and will never change. I think we need to constantly reinforce those values. And I do think we need to look to the past to understand what mistakes were made, moral or otherwise, so that we don’t repeat them.

And part of that reinforcement is the acknowledgement that, despite our exquisite American beliefs in liberty, equality, and justice for all, we Americans have been all too human in our dealings with each other.

Ragged Freedom in Louisiana: “No White men in Louisiana could have done more or better than these Negroes”

Cutting Sugar Cane
Cutting sugar cane in Louisiana [between 1880 and 1897]
By William Henry Jackson, 1843-1942, photographer; Detroit Publishing Co., publisher
Source: Library of Congress; Call Number/Physical Location LC-D418-8133 [P&P]; Reproduction Number LC-DIG-det-4a27003

During the period of 1861-1865, there were two significant over-arching events in the South: first, a war between the United States and the Confederate States; and second, the ongoing destruction of slavery.

When the Civil War began, 90% of all African Americans were enslaved. Enslavement was the default, common condition of a black man, woman, or child. Among all the states (including Border States that remained loyal to the Union), almost 4 million people were held in bondage. The war gave enslaved people the opportunity to be free. But opportunity did not knock on every door, nor did it knock at the same time for all. The “freedom” experience varied over space and time, as scholars like to say.

We sometimes think or imagine that gaining freedom was a glorious event. But in fact, freedom could be ugly. This is one story of ugly freedom.

H. Styles was an Inspector of Plantations in the US Treasury Department. In August of 1863, he visited a sugar plantation that was “situated 82 miles above this City (New Orleans) on the Grand Cailloux, Parish Terrebonne.” This was part of a United States effort to inventory the assets (such as plantations) in former Confederate territory that had been recovered by the US (with an eye to taxing or otherwise using plantation resources for the benefit of the Union).

Inspector Styles discovered that the plantation owner, Dick Robinson, had fled the area in fear of approaching Union forces, taking his able-bodied slaves with him. The remaining slaves, in Styles’ opinion, were “old and crippled” and had been left to starve.

But they didn’t starve. Styles reported:

On the 14th of August, I visited the plantation evacuated by the rebel, Dick Robinson; Some of the hovels are occupied by five or six Negroes in a destitute condition — The dwelling house is abandoned and stripped of the little furniture it contained, one fine piano is in the possession of Mrs. Baker in the town of Houmas —

The old Negroes up here to share the old house of their Master, it is open to the weather and is in a very filthy condition; the miserable hovels occupied by the Negroes are fast going to decay; the Sugarhouse also is in very miserable Condition

The Negroes remaining on the plantation have cultivated small parcels of ground, and made Sufficient Corn and vegetables to supply them; they have Some Cane, I have given them written permission to grind it for their own use —

The Negroes have succeeded beyond rebel Expectations in living without the assistance of white men—

Robinson took all his good or able Negroes to Texas, and left these old and crippled ones to starve— No White men in Louisiana could I have done more or better than these Negroes & day well deserved the reward of their labor (the Crop) and the Encouragement of the Government — one old wagon, two condemned mules — two old ploughs and Six old hoes Comprise the inventory of this joint Stock Company —

The condition of the Negro Cabins, no floors, no chimneys, built of pickets without regard to Comfort or Convenience, and their venerable appearance Confirms the Stories of cruelty related by the old Negroes of Dick Robinson the planter who may annually 600 Hhds (hogs heads) Sugar —​

Styles was so impressed that he suggested the farmers be allowed to keep the proceeds from the sale of their crop, some of which could have been taken as a tax by the government.

For these men and women, this was a ragged freedom. They had not been so much freed, as abandoned and left to perish. But they survived nonetheless, giving testimony to their grit and resourcefulness. They did not wait for a savior; they were the saviors that they had hoped for. This was their corner of the “emancipation” landscape.

Black Bodies as Bait: Another Example of Black Confederates?

Social scientists, writers, and others sometimes employ the term “black body” to refer to the “objectification” of people of African descent. “Black bodies” are “things” as opposed to persons or humans that are worthy of sympathy or empathy. Objects can be broken, but not hurt; they do not experience pain, and can be used without concern for how they suffer or otherwise feel.

Can I provide an example of this? Consider this incident, which occurred in North Carolina during the Civil War. In early 1862, US General Ambrose Burnside writes about an encounter between Union and Confederate forces (this is from the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Sers I, Vol IX, Chap XX, p 193-194):

Negro-woman-killed-in-NC

In this report, Gen. Burnside talks about a “negro woman” who was used by the Confederates to lure and ambush a group of United States soldiers. The Union men are in a gunboat when they see a negro woman approaching on a boat. They probably thought the woman was a runaway from bondage, until the Confederates sprang their trap. The Union men release a “volley” at the woman. Not being a soldier, her death will not be counted as a casualty of war; her loss is invisible. She becomes a military expediency.

By this way, the Confederacy used the resistance of enslaved people during the Civil War to its advantage. During the war many thousands of black Southerners fled to Union lines seeking refuge from bondage. The United States responded with evolving polices that included the Emancipation Proclamation and the post-war 13th Amendment that abolished slavery.

The exodus of enslaved Southerners to Union lines infuriated the Confederates. In a letter dated August 1862, a group of concerned citizens in Liberty County, GA, near Savannah, wrote this letter to Confederate Brigadier-General MERCER, Commanding Military District of Georgia, Savannah (this is from the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Congressional Edition, Volume 3968, p 36-38):

GENERAL: The… citizens of Liberty County… respectfully present for your consideration a subject of grave moment… We allude to the escape of our slaves across the border lines landward, and out to the vessels of the enemy seaward, and to their being also enticed off by those who, having made their escape, return for that purpose… The injury inflicted upon the interests of the citizens of the Confederate States by this now constant drain is immense.

Independent of the forcible seizure of slaves by the enemy whenever it lies in his power, and to which we now make no allusion, as the indemnity for this loss will in due time occupy the attention of our Government from ascertained losses on certain parts of our coast, we may set down as a low estimate the number of slaves absconded and enticed off from our sea-board (from Virginia to Texas) at 20,000, and their value at from $12,000,000 to $15,000,000, to which loss may be added the insecurity of the property along our borders and the demoralization of the negroes that remain, which increases with the continuance of the evil, and may finally result in perfect disorganization and rebellion.

The absconding negroes hold the position of traitors, since they go over to the enemy and afford him aid and comfort by revealing the condition of the districts and cities from which they come, and aiding him in erecting fortifications and raising provisions for his support, and now that the United States have allowed their introduction into their Army and Navy, aiding the enemy by enlisting under his banners, and increasing his resources in men for our annoyance and destruction.

It is, indeed, a monstrous evil that we suffer…  Surely some remedy should be applied, and that speedily, for the protection of the country aside from all other considerations. A few executions of leading transgressors among them by hanging or shooting would dissipate the ignorance which may be supposed to possess their minds, and which may be pleaded in arrest of judgment.

The Confederates saw that enslaved people were liberating themselves, in droves, and going to the Union side. Knowing that, they could conceive a trap for Union men that employed a black woman as live bait. The Confederates surely knew that this ambush might cost the woman her life. But the potential loss of a black body did not seem to trouble them.

I wonder: would this woman be considered a Black Confederate? …an example of an African American who “gave his/her life for the Confederate cause?” How would her memory as a Confederate be claimed today, given how she was used as a disposable object by Confederates in the past?

Some quick thoughts on Colson Whitehead’s recent novel “Underground Railroad”

I just finished reading Colson Whitehead’s recent novel Underground Railroad. This is from the book review on Amazon.com

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the #1 New York Times bestseller from Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

The book is a very inventive and ingenious blend of fact and fantasy. Crafted based on historical events that informed readers will recognize, part of the “fun” of the book is seeing how the author takes disparate elements of the past and creates an imagined whole that is at once odd and eerily familiar.

Underground Railroad is both a hard read, due to the subject matter, and a fast read, because it’s so easy to become invested in the main character that readers really really really want to see how her journey finally ends. For the most part, the story is relentlessly bleak and sad. So many bad things happen that I wanted and almost needed the main character Cora to have a happy ending. And I don’t know if she has one, although the author has called the ending “hopeful.”

For me, the only relief is knowing that, there but for the grace of God, go I. That, and the knowledge that things do get better, and we should be thankful that they do.

– Alan

Reminiscences of the Proclamation of Emancipation: “the thunderbolt… smelted in the furnace of fair play, justice and eternal equity”


Henry McNeal Turner, writer, editor, army chaplain, religious leader, and political leader in the second half of the 19th century.
Source: African Letters by Bishop H M Turner, 1983; picture is from the Electronic Version of the book at the DocSouth site of the University of North Carolina.

Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915) was one of the most important African Americans of the 19th century. Born free in South Carolina, he was a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, served as a United States army chaplain during the Civil War, was a Georgia state legislator during the Reconstruction era, and was also a writer and editor.

In the January 1913 issue of the A. M. E. Church Review, Turner wrote about his memory of the release of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. “We are now upon the verge of the fiftieth anniversary, since the Immortal Abraham Lincoln, then President of the United States, by the grace of God hurled against the institution of American slavery the thunderbolt which had been smelted in the furnace of fair play, justice and eternal equity,” he wrote. “Well do I remember the circumstances and incidents connected with my surroundings and experience on that occasion.”

He continued with poignant and pointed memories of that “thunderbolt,” which offer us a view into how African Americans, and many white Americans, felt on that momentous occasion:

In 1862, on the 22d day of September, Mr. Lincoln issued a proclamation (the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation) that in a hundred days, unless the rebel army disbanded, and the several Southern states resumed their relation to the general government, he would declare the slaves in all the states free with a few local exceptions. The newspapers of the country were prolific and unsparing in their laudations of Mr. Lincoln. Every orator after reviewing in their richest eloquence, concluded their speeches and orations by saying, “God save Abraham Lincoln,” or “God bless our President.” Mass-meetings were held in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis, San Francisco and hundreds of minor towns, and such a time I never expect to witness on earth in the future. I may witness such a time again in heaven, but not in the flesh.

In the great Union Cooper Hall in New York City, a colored man leaped and jumped with so much agility when the proclamation was read that he drew the attention of every man and woman, till Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation was scarcely listened to. New songs were sung and new poems were composed, and the people shouted to such an extent that horses became frightened, and many ran away and smashed carriages into kindling wood. Whites and blacks realized no racial discriminations.

On the first day of January, 1863, odd and unique conditions attended every mass-meeting, and the papers of the following day were not able to give them in anything like detail. Long before sunset Israel Church and its yard were crowded with people. The writer was vociferously cheered in every direction he went because in a sermon I tried to deliver I had said that Richmond, the headquarters of the Southern Confederacy, would never fall till black men led the army against this great slave-mart, nor did it fall and succumb to the general government till black men went in first. This was only a popular prediction, and delivered under a general excitement, but strange to say, it was fully realized.

Seeing such a multitude of people in and around my church, I hurriedly went up to the office of the first paper in which the proclamation of freedom (the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation) could be printed, known as the “Evening Star,” and squeezed myself through the dense crowd that was waiting for the paper. The first sheet run off with the proclamation in it was grabbed for by three of us, but some active young man got possession of it and fled. The next sheet was grabbed for by several, and was torn into tatters. The third sheet from the press was grabbed for by several, but I succeeded in procuring so much of it as contained the proclamation, and off I went for life and death.

Down Pennsylvania Avenue (in Washington, DC) I ran as for my life, and when the people saw me coming with the paper in my hand they raised a shouting cheer that was almost deafening. As many as could get around me lifted me to a great platform, and I started to read the proclamation. I had run the best end of a mile, I was out of breath, and could not read. Mr. Hinton, to whom I handed the paper, read it with great force and clearness. While he was reading every kind of demonstration and gesticulation was going on.  Men squealed, women fainted, dogs barked, white and colored people shook hands, songs were sung, and by this time cannons began to fire at the navy-yard, and follow in the wake of the roar that had for some time been going on behind the White House. Every face had a smile, and even the dumb animals seemed to realize that some extraordinary event had taken place.

Great processions of colored and white men marched to and fro and passed in front of the White House and congratulated President Lincoln on his proclamation. The President came to the window and made responsive bows, and thousands told him, if he would come out of that palace, they would hug him to death. Mr. Lincoln, however, kept at a safe distance from the multitude, who were frenzied to distraction over his proclamation.

I do not know the extent that the excitement in Russia led to, when the humane Emperor proclaimed the freedom of twenty-two million serfs, I think in 1862, but the jubilation that attended the proclamation of freedom by His Excellency Abraham Lincoln, I am sure has never been surpassed, if it has ever been equaled. Nor do I believe it will ever be duplicated again.

Rumor said that in several instances the very thought of being set at liberty and having no more auction blocks, no more Negro-traders, no more forced parting of man and wife, no more separation of parents and children, no more horrors of slavery, was so elative and heart gladdening that scores of colored people literally fell dead with joy. It was indeed a time of times, and a half time, nothing like it will ever be seen again in this life. Our entrance into Heaven itself will only form a counterpart. January 1st, 1913, will be fifty years since Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation stirred the world and avalanched America with joy, and the first day of next January, 1913, our race should fill every Church, every hall, and every preacher regardless of denomination should deliver a speech on the results of the proclamation.

No doubt, many of his fellow church people read this and exclaimed, “Amen, my brother, Amen.”

Musings on the 4th of July and the end of slavery

02881.23.crop_
Fighting for Freedom and Union: The Gallant Charge of the Fifty Fourth Massachusestts (Colored) Regiment, by Currier & Ives, New York, 1863.
Image Source: Gilder Lehrman Collection

The 4th of July is one of the important dates in US history. We Americans celebrate the clarion call to liberty and equality as stated by the American Patriots in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

But I am reminded that, throughout our history, this ideal of liberty and equality was not universally held. During the American Civil War, that portion of the Declaration was explicitly rejected by the Confederate States of America, the breakaway nation formed by secessionist slaveholding states. Consider the words of Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America, in his famous “Corner Stone Speech”:

The new (Confederate) constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongs us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.

(Former President Thomas) Jefferson… had anticipated this as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day.

Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new (Confederate) government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Many people say this clash between the competing visions of a free society and a slave society led to an irresistible conflict within the body politic of the United States, a conflict that Confederates hoped to resolve by simply breaking away from the Union. But they did not reckon with the desire of Union men to preserve the United States in the face of the secessionist threat.

In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln said during his second Inaugural Address:

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago… One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict (i.e., slavery) might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

It is certainly true that much wealth was gotten by “two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil” from the bondsmen. But I don’t know if the Civil War was a providential judgment, a cosmic/karmic phenomenon in which “the offenses of the North and South” resulted in “every drop of blood (that was) drawn with the lash (being) paid by another drawn with the sword.”

I have noticed that some people find discomfort or even fault with the way that slavery finally ended in the United States. They correctly note that the United States went to war to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. The downfall of slavery was an unanticipated outcome that came only because a long and bloody war forced the Union to offer freedom to the enslaved, so they would join the fight to destroy the Confederacy. For some folks, the demise of slavery is tainted by the lack of original intent on the Union’s part to end bondage at the outset of the war.

And maybe it was serendipity. Perhaps it was mere luck that a Confederate nation-state founded on principles “opposite” to those of the Declaration of Independence would fall, with the “fundamental and astounding” results that the conflict between slavery and liberty would be resolved in favor of liberty, and that the wealth piled by the bondmen’s toil would be lost to the slaveholders.

What we can say is that the ante-bellum conflict between the ideal of liberty and equality for all men and the race-based privilege of holding property in man came to a sudden end with the defeat of the Confederacy. We can say that almost 4 million people gained their freedom out of the carnage of war, just as the American patriots gained their independence from the carnage of war many decades earlier. Perhaps the United States did stumble, unintentionally, into ending human bondage. I like to tell people that, it’s something that could only happen in America… the United States of America. If the USA can continue to hold to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, maybe we won’t need this kind of luck ever again.