Book Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs

This book was written (and published in 1861) to inoculate northerners against southern sugar-coating of slavery. This passage exemplifies its purpose:

One day I saw a slave pass our gate, muttering, ‘It’s his own, and he can kill it if he will.’ My grandmother told me that woman’s history. Her mistress had that day seen her baby for the first time, and in the lineaments of its fair face she saw a likeness to her husband. She turned the bondwoman and her child out of doors, and forbade her ever to return. The slave went to her master, and told him what had happened. He promised to talk with her mistress, and make it all right. The next day she and her baby were sold to a Georgia trader.

Another time I saw a woman rush wildly by, pursued by two men. She was a slave, the wet nurse of her mistress’s children. For some trifling offense her mistress ordered her to be stripped and whipped. To escape the degradation and the torture, she rushed to the river, jumped in, and ended her wrongs in death.

Senator Brown, of Mississippi, could not be ignorant of such facts as these, for they are of frequent occurrence in every Southern State. Yet he stood up in the Congress of the United States, and declared that slavery was ‘a great moral, social, and political blessing; a blessing to the master, and a blessing to the slave!’ (pp. 135-136)

So attuned to hypocrisy, Jacobs takes special aim at the church, as in the following scene:

I well remember one occasion when I attended a Methodist class meeting. I went with a burdened spirit, and happened to sit next to a poor, bereaved mother, whose heart was still heavier than mine. The class leader was the town constable – a man who bought and sold slaves, who whipped his brethren and sisters of the church at the public whipping post, in jail or out of jail. He was ready to perform the Christian office any where for fifty cents. This white-faced, black-hearted brother came near us, and said to the stricken woman, ‘Sister, can’t you tell us how the Lord deals with your soul? Do you love him as you did formerly?’

She rose to her feet, and said, in piteous tones, ‘My Lord and Master, help me! My load is more than I can bear. God has hid himself from me, and I am left in darkness and misery.’ Then, striking her breast, she continued, ‘I can’t tell you what is in here! They’ve got all my children. Last week they took the last one. God only knows where they’ve sold her. They let me have her sixteen years, and then – O! O! Prey for her brothers and sisters! I’ve got nothing to live for now. God make my time short!’

She sat down, quivering in every limb. I saw that constable class leader become crimson in the face with suppressed laughter, while he held up his handkerchief, that those who were weeping for the poor woman’s calamity might not see his merriment. Then, with assumed gravity, he said to the bereaved mother, ‘Sister, pray to the Lord that every dispensation of his divine will may be sanctified to the good of your poor needy soul!’ (pp. 78-79)

“No wonder,” Jacobs writes, “the slaves sing, –

‘Ole Satan’s church is here below;
Up to God’s free church I hope to go.’ (p. 84)

The founding principles of our republic fall under the charge of hypocrisy too; yet despite their authorship by slave-mongers, they inspire. When Jacobs slips away from her tormentors, she resolves that, “come what would, there should be no turning back. ‘Give me liberty, or give me death,’ was my motto.” (p. 111) If Patrick Henry hadn’t meant for his declaration to be echoed by everyone, then he shouldn’t have blared it.

Instrumental as she no doubt was in helping to crystalize public opinion against actual slavery, Jacobs would not join in the mounting mid-century chorus against “wage slavery,” or bourgeois society, that was first voiced experimentally by Thoreau (“It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one”), developed heroically by Gandhi (“Formerly, men worked in the open air only as much as they liked….Now…their condition is worse than that of beasts….They are enslaved by the temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy”), and finally reprised in satire by Orwell (“Freedom is slavery”). On a trip to England after her escape, she observes:

I had heard much about the oppression of the poor in Europe. The people I saw around me were, many of them, among the poorest poor. But when I visited them in their little thatched cottages, I felt that the condition of even the meanest and most ignorant among them was vastly superior to the condition of the most favored slaves in America. They labored hard; but they were not ordered out to toil while the stars were in the sky; and driven and slashed by an overseer, through heat and cold, till the stars shone out again. Their homes were very humble; but they were protected by law. No insolent patrols could come, in the dead of night, and flog them at their pleasure. The father, when he closed his cottage door, felt safe with his family around him. No master or overseer could come and take from him his wife, or his daughter. They must separate to earn a living; but the parents knew where their children were going, and could communicate with them by letters….There was no law forbidding them to learn to read or write; and if they helped each other in spelling out the Bible, they were in no danger of thirty-nine lashes, as was the case with myself and poor, pious, old uncle Fred. I repeat that the most ignorant and the most destitute of these peasants was a thousand times better off than the most pampered American slave. (pp. 205-206)

This edition comes with a narrative by Harriet’s brother, John, which includes this pithy farewell note to his “master”:

Sir – I have left you, not to return; when I have got settled, I will give you further satisfaction. No longer yours, John S. Jacob. (p. 248)

Book Review: Northwood, or Life North and South, by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale

Written in open anticipation of the Civil War, Northwood, or Life North and South (1852) posits basic differences in character between Yankees and Southrons. Some character traits are caused by geography and climate, as in:

The universal necessity for constant labor or application to business, which yet happily exists in the New England States, contributes, perhaps more than any other cause, to preserve the purity of morals which distinguishes the inhabitants of that section of our country. Had the Puritans and their descendants been fed with manna and fattened with quails in their wilderness, they would, doubtless, long before this, have spurned the hand that bestowed the unsought favors. (p. 240)

In some cases, the climatic factor gives way to the social:

‘Your cool climate keeps your temperament cool; and the perfect equality subsisting in your society makes the controlling of the passions more indispensable than with us, where the overflowings of wrath may be poured out on the heads, and bodies too, of unresisting menials.’ (pp. 205-206)

The novel’s protagonist, Sidney Romilly, shifts back and forth between New Hampshire and South Carolina and thus tries both halves of the experiment on himself. The results he relates in a letter to an English friend:

‘As a fair parallel I will mention Napoleon the Great. Like him I was taken from humble life, to be the heir of a sovereignty; make what exceptions you please to my use of the term sovereignty, the southern slaveholder is as absolute in his dominions, or plantation rather, as the grand seignior, and when I had become accustomed to command, and my mind was weakened by indolence and enervated by dissipation, I was suddenly thrown back to my former insignificance, and compelled to dig for my daily bread. “O, what a falling off was there!”…. [However,] the activity which we are compelled by our situation to exert…operates to dispel the gloom of grief. Employment is an excellent comforter, and fatigue the best opiate in the world. I never slept so soundly since my childhood, and my slumbers are most refreshing. I awaken in the morning without any solicitude save just the business of the farm. I have no appointments to keep or engagements to escape, no punctilios of honor or intrigues of love. In short, could I fairly forget the last dozen years of my life, I think I might now enjoy the best felicity of which mortal men can, on earth, be partakers.’ (pp. 324-326)

Northwood’s author, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, directly addresses the problem of slavery only toward the end of the book. While against the institution – as something that is bad for white people – she is equally against its violent overthrow and rather dreams, somewhat like Gandhi, of a swelling of (Christian) soul force that will compel slave-owners of their own accord to manumit their menials, educate and evangelize them, and then allow them to colonize and Christianize Africa. She holds no belief in racial equality (or amalgamation) and supposes black and white coexistence in America to be impossible.

Otherwise, Northwood is chock-full of little bits of wisdom I’m more prepared to accept. For example, it rebukes me for excessive romanticism by commenting favorably that a certain love-letter “was not an unmeaning rhapsody – alternately fire and frost; now breathing out his affections and now lamenting his destiny”… but rather addressed to the lady “as his friend and therefore entitled to his confidence – as a reasoning being and therefore able to understand his situation and assist him with her counsel.” (p. 207) It chides me too for my regrettable Machiavellian conception of respect, when it quotes Sidney’s report that “‘I am more respected and less feared; better, far better beloved, yet less flattered; have fewer followers and firmer friends.’” (p. 340)

In refutation both of Machiavelli and of the Chinese philosopher Han Fei, it supplies the Christian argument that love is superior to law: “Even God, reverently speaking, could not, by force, compel His rational creatures to be, in heart and soul, obedient to His law. Therefore, He sent His beloved Son to die for us, and thus, by His love, to move us to love, which includes obedience in return.” (p. 394)

Finally, the book has a few things to say about the general struggle between equality and aristocracy. On the one hand, it heralds the bitter reaction of the latter against the former that, in my humble opinion, has given rise to all totalitarian doctrine from Marxism to Nazism and that has constituted the chief driving force of history since the mid-nineteenth century:

‘Neither is it strange that the aristocratical spirit of the old world should be alarmed and revolt at the democratical influence which the new is so rapidly obtaining. We cannot expect those who pride themselves on an ancestry, whose pure blood has flowed through proud veins for many hundred years, will forget at once this fancied superiority, and look on what they call our plebian origin, without feelings of contempt.’

On the other hand – or perhaps on the same hand – these pages also note the development of a pseudo-aristocracy, arising among the plebians, that may, in spite of its origins, exemplify the reaction of the aristocratical spirit against the democratical one:

‘I do think the real English gentleman has more of dignity, and less of arrogance, than our purse-bound citizens. The Englishman is more proud, perhaps, but is free from that puffing consequence which is the most offensive part of the folly in our own countrymen. This may arise from the superiority of the former being established and acknowledged, whereas our own gentlemen are continually striving to maintain their precarious honors, and seem determined, by making the most of what they happen to possess, to indemnify themselves for the transientness of its continuance.’ (pp. 244-245)

It is ultimately the totalitarian, in his twentieth-century guise, who seeks to “maintain precarious honors” and indemnify himself against the transientness of democratical society by reimposing upon it a fixed hierarchial order, with himself at its apex.

In the meantime, the pseudo-aristocrats of Northwood, are described by Hale consistently as people of fashion. Examples of her use of the term are almost beyond counting:

His appearance, rank, and fortune, made his alliance a prize not lightly to be rejected by people of fashion. (p. 182)

Thus gently and almost imperceptibly, Stuart was loosening the chains which fashion had twined around our hero and restoring him to the freedom of that rational enjoyment which his soul was formed to appreciate but for which the Circean cup of luxury had nearly destroyed his relish. (p. 237)

Now he must put forth his own strength and depend on his own exertions. Yet strange as it may seem to those who connect felicity only with wealth, splendor, and distinction, he was never, in the proudest moment of his prosperity, when he was the star of fashion and minion of fortune, so cheerfully and equally happy as now, while confined to labor and living in obscurity. (p. 323)

He whispered to Sidney in great confidence that he fancied Miss Redington’s accession of wealth had already begun to make her dissatisfied with a residence in that unfashionable place and that he presumed she would soon depart for Boston. (p. 332)

I’ve always found fashion to be imposingly hierarchial, a ready means by which even Americans, who lack a true aristocracy, strive to concoct a false one. It’s therefore confirming to see how often Hale presents fashion as the antithesis of New England’s virtuous, egalitarian simplicity.

Book Review: Iola Leroy, by Frances E.W. Harper

Frances E.W. Harper’s Iola Leroy is a portrait of slavery and its aftermath in mid-19th century America. It focuses on two protagonists of mixed race, the mother and daughter Marie and Iola Leroy, to illustrate the absurdity of American slavery: One moment, the two light-skinned women are paragons of gentility – with Iola going so far as to defend slavery at her Northern girls’ school – the next moment, they are slaves.

Covering the Civil War and emancipation, Iola Leroy is an inspiring story of liberation. As Harper narrates, “The lost cause went down in blood and tears, and on the brows of a ransomed people God poured the chrism of a new era, and they stood a race newly anointed with freedom.” (p. 138)

As one of Harper’s characters recounts:

‘When de war war ober an’ de sogers war still stopping’ yere, I made pies an’ cakes, sole em to de sogers, an’ jist made money han’ ober fist. An’ I kep’ on a workin’ an’ a savin’ till my ole man got back from de war wid his wages and his bounty money. I felt right set up an’ mighty big wen we counted all dat money. We had neber seen so much money in our lives befo’, let alone hab it fer ourselbes. An’ I sez, “John, you take dis money an’ git a nice place wid it.”’

(In fact, Aunt Linda and husband John do manage to buy a plot of land from some friendly Jews.) (pp. 154-155)

A third observer is “delighted at the thrift and industry” well in evidence in the postbellum South, as its people taste their first draft of freedom. (p. 153)

However, even as the freedmen adapt to liberty with manifest “thrift and industry,” Harper’s more elite protagonists remain convinced of their need for shepherding. At a meeting of self-appointed black leaders, described in the chapter called “Friends in Council,” one speaker laments “‘the fearful grinding and friction which comes in the course of an adjustment of the new machinery of freedom in the old ruts of slavery.’” (p. 255) Another poetizes, “‘Oh, children of the tropics, / Amid our pain and wrong / Have you no other mission / Than music, dance, and song? / When through the weary ages / Our dripping tears still fall, / Is this a time to dally / With pleasure’s silken thrall?’” (pp. 251-252) Discussing the possibility of freedmen emigration, yet another speaker warns against “‘emptying on the shores of Africa a horde of ignorant, poverty-stricken people.’” (pp. 246-247) More than one participant at the meeting voices alarm at the freedmen’s susceptibility to drink, an ironic echo of the argument against black enfranchisement then being made by the unreconstructed.

Naturally, these intellectuals see themselves as the rectifiers of their people’s supposed defects. “‘I do not think,’” says one, “‘that we can begin too early to teach our boys to be manly and self-respecting, and our girls to be useful and self-reliant.’” Iola agrees: “‘We must instill into our young people that the true strength of a race means purity in women and uprightness in men.’” (pp. 253-254) Another concerned person characterizes this civilizing we as “‘a union of women with the warmest hearts and clearest brains to help in the moral education of the race.’” (p. 254) This note of paternalism (or maternalism) is sounded with breathtaking self-confidence and presumption, in ways that harken (again, ironically) to the old paternalism of the planters.

It is the opinion of the reviewer that the new birth of freedom in the mid-19th century, which affected not only America but also such places as Russia (where serfs were emancipated in 1861), inspired great panic on the part of the elite. On the one hand, deposed masters such as the gentry of the American South contrived to recover their position. On the other hand, intellectuals, often the same people who had welcomed servile emancipation, now regarded the newly liberated masses (or newly enfranchised masses like Irish immigrants) as unfit for self-rule. They either looked the other way when the aristos returned to power or, more adventurously, sought to take the aristos’ places under the guise of enlightened (or even revolutionary) leadership.

Iola Leroy is a case study of this latter approach. Civil War liberation epic that it is, Harper’s novel actually becomes rather preoccupied with the reimposition of hierarchy; it is more representative of the thermidorian reaction of the postbellum Reconstruction or Gilded Age years, when new elites sought to supplant old. The book was published in 1892. Significantly, one of its characters, during the above-mentioned friendly council, takes stock of the recent years’ broken chains in a somewhat dispirited way (““Millions of slaves and serfs have been liberated during this century, but not even in semi-barbaric Russia, heathen Japan, or Catholic Spain has slavery been abolished through such a fearful conflict as it was in the United States.’”) before turning his attention to alcohol (“‘The liquor traffic still sends its floods of ruin and shame to the habitations of men.’”), implying that the freedman remains in a degraded state, from which only a redoubled effort, no doubt by those with the warmest hearts and clearest brains, can redeem him (for as yet “‘no political party has been found with enough moral power and numerical strength to stay the tide of death.’”). (p. 250) The reader will have noted that ordinary freedmen are shown by Harper to speak in dialect, while their aspiring redeemers orate in formal English, as though the author were suggesting almost-organic differences between them, justifying the need for guidance.

Even before the friendly council, Harper’s heroine aspires to fill the need. She hopes, in plain language, to become a teacher, but she spreads her enthusiasm a bit thick:

‘To be,’ continued Iola, ‘the leader of a race to higher planes of thought and action, to teach men clearer views of life and duty, and to inspire their souls with loftier aims, is a far greater privilege than it is to open the gates of material prosperity and fill every home with sensuous enjoyment.’ (p. 219)

In fact, Iola feels well qualified for the role. “‘I should be very glad to have an opportunity to teach,’ said Iola. ‘I used to be a great favorite among the colored children on my father’s plantation.’” (p. 145)

Thus does yesterday’s mistress become today’s missionary, retaining her seat at the head of her constituency, with the relation of superior to subordinate preserved.

Book Review: Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, by William Grimes

This book makes it clear, for anyone who needed to be convinced in the early 1800s, that slavery was cruel and violent, for Mr Grimes is repeatedly beaten, mostly for offences he didn’t commit, as his word is routinely disbelieved by his oppressors. It also proves that slavery was a poor way to maintain the purity of the races, were that an object, because Grimes himself was born of a slave mother and a white father.

A few other things stand out. First, whenever wages are mentioned, they often seem to have been higher in the unfree South than in the free North — but then again, it is unclear how much Grimes’s masters deduct for letting him out to work for wages. After escaping to the North, it seems that Grimes is scrambling to work for less money — but then again, he is able to amass a four-figure savings. Second, although he changes masters at least ten times while a slave, the white people involved usually ask his approval for each transaction; I can’t recall if he ever withholds it. On one occasion, he asks to be sold, and his master is offended and angry but complies. Third, after reaching the North, Grimes seems constantly to be in court, to claim wages, to clear himself of libel, and otherwise to gain redress against people who misuse him. The litigiousness of life in Connecticut, and Grimes’s ability to avail himself of the courts, is striking.

The writing is pithy. In a preamble addressed “To the Public,” Grimes asserts that “The condition of the slave…is painful and unfortunate and will excite the sympathy of all who have any.” (29) Toward the end, Grimes attempts to deal with slavery in the abstract, starting with the question of comfort in bondage vs. desperation in freedom: “To say that a man is better off in one situation than another, if in the one he is better clothed and better fed, and has less care than in the other, is false. It is true, if you regard him as a brute, as destitute of the feeling of human nature.” (101) A few lines later, his position becomes ambiguous: He advises slaves against escaping, for the danger and for the apprehension of recapture (Grimes was finally relieved of the latter, when his last master manumitted him in exchange for most of his accumulated money and property); but he then states that, in spite of being “cheated, insulted, abused, and injured” in the North, he has been able to “get along here as well as anyone who is poor and in a situation to be imposed on.” (101-102)

The integrity of the family seems to fare as badly in freedom as under slavery, for Grimes mentions that his wife joined the gold rush in California, leaving him in Connecticut.

Book Review: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

This book is very powerfully and economically written, with poignant understatement sufficing very well. As is known, its main conceit is to take the underground railroad literally, as a subterranean locomotive, as it conveys the runaway Cora through a variety of states of freedom, each with hopes, mysteries, and dangers and each stressing a usually sinister aspect of race relations, involving, to name two examples, medical experimentation and violent segregation.

One splendid sentence is a line of dialogue: “Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth” (p. 285). A few lines later, America is named as the grandest delusion of all, hopefully a useful one; and since the ending of the story doesn’t involve total genocide, perhaps it might count as a (very relatively) hopeful one.

Book Review: The Mighty Revolution, by Charles Lewis Wagandt

My purpose in reading this book was to learn more about the revolution of popular opinion against slavery that took place before and during the Civil War. The abolition of slavery by the adoption of a new state constitution in Maryland would count as a critical example of this shifting in opinion, presumably an inspiring one.

The Mighty Revolution certainly provides many of the facts attendant to this shift, but the presentation of them falls somewhat short of inspiring. Wagandt’s focus is the political realm of electoral hustings, factions, and patronage. The idealism is largely left out. There is more information here about schemes to capture the comptroller’s office than there are meditations on the meaning of freedom. Of course, idealism often depends upon pragmatism for its advancement, and The Mighty Revolution offers a detailed illustration of how ideas become reality in this country. We Americans should probably be grateful that we are able to alter our destiny by means of backroom deals and ambiguously-worded ballot initiatives, without recourse to the guillotine.

The narrative of The Mighty Revolution hinges upon three turning points. The latter two are elections: the November 4, 1863 election for state legislature and other offices that was marred by army interference; and the October 12-13, 1864 vote on the new constitution, abolishing slavery, that carried only after soldiers’ absentee votes were counted. Again, it’s not a very rousing story. The fact that the emancipationist effort succeeded in the 1863 election in part because of the lack of a secret ballot (the emancipationist party ballots were yellow, permitting the army to discard others) does not exactly inspire one to plan an additional Thanksgiving dinner — although it does say a lot about the commitment of the boys in blue.

The earlier and perhaps most important turning point is the April 20, 1863 mass meeting of the Union League at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, which does indeed herald the popular shift against slavery. “Never before in the war,” Wagandt writes, “had emancipation sentiments been advanced at a public meeting.” (p. 99) The Union League was “a civilian organization of obscure origins” that swelled as the war progressed. By 1863,

the Union Leagues extended their spheres of operations into the political arena….Preservation of the nation involved the fierce debate over slavery, a debate which found no sympathy in the conservative leadership of the Union Party [Maryland’s version of the Republican Party]. This created a need for some organized expression of aims among those who wished to move with, rather than against, the revolutionary times….Then there were politicians within the organization who tried to capitalize upon the League to further their ambitions.” (pp. 97-98)

The balance of Wagandt’s narrative describes the machinations of these ambitious politicians. As they “capitalized” upon the emancipationist sentiment of the League, they crystalized it and made it a reality. Such is the ugly beauty of our system.

Both in Maryland’s Civil War history and in Wagandt’s recounting of it, the focus on pragmatism over idealism affords only scattered suggestions that the white Marylander’s hatred of slavery translated into affection or even sympathy for the slave. In the early 1864 debate in the Maryland General Assembly that led to the constitutional convention, Henry S. Stockbridge, citing a letter from a former slave-owner’s son, asserted that abolition should be pursued because “it is right. Right between man and man – right before God.” (p. 194) A subsequent newspaper editorial called slavery “a great moral wrong, injurious to both master and slave.” (p. 203) A delegate to the constitutional convention named Frederick Schley voted in favor of the abolition article for reasons of “patriotism, justice, and humanity,” as well as for Maryland “honor” and popular “welfare.” (p. 225) Often it seems that Wagandt may be glossing over Marylanders’ anti-slavery arguments, perhaps in the belief that they are obvious and well-known, and perhaps because he’s more interested in the political maneuverings anyway.

For the most part, as emerges in these pages, the rationale behind Marylanders’ overthrow of slavery is couched in terms of class warfare and political jealousy. At their April 20, 1863 meeting, Union League members denounced slavery as “an instrument in the hands of traitors to build an oligarchy…on the ruins of republican liberty;” and they resolved “That the safety and interest of…Maryland, and especially of her white laboring people, require that Slavery should cease to be recognized by the law of Maryland.” (p. 99)

This refrain, that abolition was advanced as something that was good for certain white people, rings constantly throughout the book. No egalitarian sentiments are shown here to have been expressed, except in one ironic case:  Radical candidates from Allegany County in the vote on the constitutional convention on April 6, 1864 were said to have been “the real friends of the colored people” – by their opponents, and they subsequently spent much energy to deny the slander. (p. 217)

Still, for all the denial of common humanity that seems to have been necessary for its success, the overthrow of slavery was a success, and thus The Mighty Revolution should be counted as a valuable case study of the working reality of freedom.