On February 24, 1844, the Liberator printed an admiring report on Frederick Douglass’s “masterly and impressive” speech in Concord, New Hampshire. The fugitive slave was the master of his audience. Douglass, the writer fantasized, was like “Toussaint among the plantations of Haiti. . . . He was an insurgent slave, taking hold of the right of speech, and charging on his tyrants the bondage of his race.”1 In the two decades before the Civil War, a new generation of black abolitionists, most of them fugitive slaves, came to dominate the movement.
The narratives of fugitive slaves, their firsthand indictment of slavery, was an effective rebuttal to the growing sophistication of the proslavery argument in the antebellum period. Small wonder that slavery ideologues challenged their veracity and dismissed them as abolitionist propaganda. Scholars have also been too quick to ascribe to white editors and amanuenses the abolitionist content of slave narratives.2 Fugitive slaves created an authentic, original, and independent critique of slaveholding, one which made their narratives potent antislavery material. No longer could slaveholders claim that their northern critics had no idea about the actual conditions of southern slaves. Their stories of family separations, torture, abuse of children and women, and the hypocrisy of slaveholders constituted the most compelling answer yet to proslavery ideology. Fugitive slaves were abolitionists in their own right. Their narratives and public careers as spokesmen and women against slavery shaped the abolition movement.
Slave narratives were the movement literature of abolition. Abolitionists did not simply use or co-opt insurgent slaves, a popular and racialist interpretation that portrays these extraordinary men and women as perpetual victims incapable of political and intellectual warfare against slavery. Fugitive slaves wrote themselves not just into being but also into history. They were engaged in a political struggle against slavery and racism, writing direct rebuttals of slaveholder paternalism, at times as letters to their erstwhile masters.3 Art and politics fused to making a compelling case for black freedom.
People of African descent wrote autobiographies from the early days of racial slavery. Fugitive slave narratives published under abolitionists’ auspices, however, constitute a distinct genre. In the 1820s former slaves such as Solomon Bayley and William Grimes published their narratives. Bayley’s narrative was published in London by Robert Hunard, who hoped it would lead to abolition in the West Indies and the United States. While Bayley’s narrative reads like a spiritual story reinforced by the tragic deaths of his children, he indicts slavery by retelling the story of his “Guinea” grandmother and mother, who were held by a cruel family and whose children were illegally sold. Even more than Bayley, Grimes showed slavery to be an unending catalogue of horrors. Published first in New York in 1825, the work, for which he obtained a copyright, was republished in 1855 with a new conclusion. Grimes describes his checkered life of freedom in Connecticut and his constant fear of being recaptured. In the conclusion he delivers a damning critique of slaveholding republicanism: “If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while a slave, I would in my will leave my skin as a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious, happy, and free America. Let the skin of an American slave bind the charter of American liberty!” Eager to represent the slave’s perspective, the abolitionist writer Richard Hildreth published a two-volume memoir of a fictitious slave, Archy Moore, in 1836. Republished in a longer version as The White Slave in 1852, the book, which painted a portrait of a heroic, rebellious slave, was not as popular as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Hildreth subverted the myth of the “tragic mulatto” in his story rather than reinforce racial stereotypes.4
Fugitive slaves themselves monopolized the genre, its tropes, and its politics. The amanuensis and editor of Charles Ball’s narrative of 1837, Isaac Fisher, inserted long, informative sections on the slave South and claimed to have deleted the author’s opinions on slavery. But Ball begins his narrative with a searing condemnation of southern slavery, in which the “entire white population is leagued together by a common bond of the most sordid interest, in the torture and oppression of the poor descendants of Africa.” In 1859 Ball republished his narrative anonymously and clearly made his own editorial decisions this time. He chose an epigraph from Whittier and deleted all of Fisher’s comments. His story “was merely a recital of my life as a slave in the Southern States of the Union—a description of negro slavery in the ‘model Republic.’” Contradicting assertions of slaveholding paternalism, Ball develops a systemic critique of the domestic slave trade that had resulted in his separation from his wife and children and the punitive, slave-driving regime of the new Cotton Kingdom. His story has no formulaic happy ending, for, having escaped slavery in Georgia and then been recaptured, he escapes again only to find that his wife and children have been sold.5
Whittier wrote the introduction to the fugitive slave narrative of James Williams, the first to be published, in 1838 by the AASS. As Williams’s amanuensis, Whittier wrote that he refrained from adding his own comments and adhered to Williams’s “precise language. THE SLAVE HAS SPOKEN FOR HIMSELF.” Williams exposed the empty paternalism of his master, to whom he complained about an abusive overseer whose atrocities dotted his narrative. His master “told him [the overseer] to give the hands food enough, and not over-work them, and, having, thus satisfied his conscience, left us to our fate.” Williams escaped to Philadelphia with the assistance of free blacks, who warned him to speak only to Quakers and abolitionists. Too scared to reunite with his wife and children, he set sail for England to escape his pursuers. While Garrison stood by the narrative when southerners challenged its authenticity, the AASS withdrew it from circulation.6 From the start, slaveholders worried about and challenged slave testimony.
Unlike Williams, Moses Roper wrote his own narrative, published first in London in 1837 and a year later in Philadelphia. Encouraged by the “recommendation of anti-slavery meetings” and “the suggestion of many warm friends of the cause of the oppressed,” Roper wanted to expose “the cruel system of slavery.” He gives many instances of slave torture, accompanied by a graphic illustration of his whipping while strung up from a machine used to pack cotton. He regretted that his enslaved mother and siblings lived in the “land of the free”: “This is a weight which hangs heavy on me.” His narrative was reprinted in many editions and in 1848 was republished with an appendix on his lecture tour in England. He married an Englishwoman before migrating to Canada West. The narratives of Ball, Williams, and Roper, Garrison wrote, did not contain extraordinary instances of suffering but showed “ordinary usage” in the slave South.7
Some narratives, like those of Moses Grandy and Lunsford Lane, both from North Carolina, were written to raise money to buy relatives from slavery with the active assistance of abolitionists. Lane, who bought his freedom and was warned out of the state, became popular on the lecture circuit in Massachusetts. He published his narrative in 1842. Lane was tarred and feathered when he returned to buy his family, but he continued to lecture before antislavery audiences in the North. George Thompson was the amanuensis of Grandy’s narrative, published in London in 1843. He was forced to buy himself three times over and had six children sold into slavery. In England, Scoble organized his successful lecture tour to raise money to buy the rest of his family. He succeeded even in buying a grandchild. Grandy’s identification with the abolition movement, “our untiring friends” who upheld the rights of fugitive slaves and “redeemed” runaway slaves, was complete. Both Roper and Grandy went to England armed with letters of introduction from Garrison, Phillips, Sewall, and Loring.8
In the 1840s, interviews and narratives of former slaves like Aaron graced abolitionist publications with increasing frequency. In his narrative, Andrew Jackson dwelt on his longing for freedom, to which he was legally entitled, as his mother was free. He appended abolitionist sermons, homilies, poems, a letter to his master, and a journal detailing his travels as an abolitionist lecturer. He argued that slaves had as much right to fight for their freedom as the “revolutionary patriots” and castigated the American Republic with its three million slaves as a “miserable farce.”9Fugitive slave narratives reinforced a black abolitionist tradition, exposing the crimes of the slaveholding democracy.
The title of Lewis Clarke’s narrative of 1845, dictated to Joseph C. Lovejoy, said it all: Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke, During a Captivity of More Than Twenty-Five Years, Among the Algerines of Kentucky, One of the So Called Christian States of America. Clarke, the son of a Scottish revolutionary soldier and a slave woman who was the daughter of her master, looked virtually white, like his siblings. In a series of questions and answers Clarke explicitly disproved the propositions of slaveholding paternalism. He calculated that after providing their minimal needs, masters still owed slaves eighty-eight dollars of every hundred they earned. Applying a labor theory of value, he justifies the actions of a slave woman who regularly stole livestock, as “she had a right to eat of the work of her own hands.” Loving their masters was the “hardest work” slaves were compelled to perform.
On learning that he might be sold in Louisiana, Clarke escaped to the North and continued on to Canada. He returned to meet his brother Milton, also a runaway, in Oberlin and went back to Kentucky to help his youngest brother, Cyrus, escape. Lewis and Milton became successful abolitionist lecturers, and a year later they published their joint narrative. Milton was briefly recaptured and rescued by an antislavery crowd. The “spirit of slaveholding,” he noted, was not confined to territory south of the Ohio River. Cyrus settled in Hamilton, New York, where a racist judge refused to let him vote without meeting the state’s property-holding qualification for black men. He used his nearly white appearance to get the better of the judge.10
An extraordinary group of fugitive slaves like the Clarkes, whose narratives comprised the best-selling literature of the day, became the most effective abolitionist lecturers, writers, and thinkers. Their narratives must be read not just as autobiographies but also as antislavery texts composed by fugitive slave abolitionists. The foremost among them was Douglass, and the trajectory of his triumphant abolitionist career illustrates how self-emancipated slaves came to lead the movement. Born in Maryland in 1818, Douglass was the son of a slave mother and an unknown white father, most probably his master, Aaron Anthony. Like many border state slaves, he experienced slavery in all its variety, urban and rural, as a house slave, an abused field hand, and as a slave for hire. Douglass’s escape in 1838 was facilitated by free blacks, by his fiancée, Anna Murray, and by black abolitionists such as Ruggles and Pennington in New York, who married them. He settled in New Bedford’s interracial abolitionist community. Garrison discovered him as an effective lecturer at an abolitionist meeting in Nantucket in 1841.
Along with Kelley and Phillips, Douglass emerged as one of the leading orators of Garrisonian abolition. Speaking from personal experience—“I am a slave”—Douglass gave speeches that were an abolitionist sensation. “My back is scarred by the lash—that I could show you. I would I could make visible the wounds of this system upon my soul,” he said in one of his early speeches. One of the most effective agents of the MASS, Douglass participated in the “one hundred conventions” held in Massachusetts and in the west in 1843–44. After his break with Garrison in the 1850s, Douglass remembered that he had been asked to simply tell his story, but he developed a wide-ranging repertoire that indicted southern slavery, northern racism, and the government, and he lampooned proslavery Christianity by mimicking the “Slaveholder’s Sermon.” Douglass resented abolitionist condescension but recalled that William White probably saved his life when he was assaulted by an anti-abolitionist mob in Indiana and that some had suffered with him in contesting segregated public transportation. Indeed, all was not accolades, as Douglass broke his right hand in the Indiana fracas, endured the abolitionist baptism of being pelted with stones and rotten eggs, and was subjected to racist aspersions that he could not possibly have been a slave. It was to answer these suspicions and to capitalize on the popularity of his lectures that Douglass published his best-selling narrative in 1845 in multiple editions and to rave reviews.
To Douglass’s iconic narrative belongs the credit for making the slave’s indictment of slavery the most effective weapon in the abolitionist arsenal and for popularizing the genre. The opening testimonials by Garrison and Phillips were common in abolitionist literature and not restricted to black authors. Chapman, in her introduction to Jonathan Walker’s narrative, had given a far more overt endorsement of his character and veracity and compared it to Douglass’s narrative. Walker, like other white abolitionists, quoted Douglass at length, ending his book with Douglass’s critique of slaveholding Christianity. The Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, with its riveting scenes of family separation and slave torture on the one hand and the brotherhood and resistance of slaves on the other, Douglass’s struggle for literacy, “the pathway from slavery to freedom,” and his violent showdown with the slave breaker Covey that “revived within me my own sense of manhood,” made it a classic first-person account of slavery. Yet, as he did in his speeches, Douglass was able to interweave a broader political, moral, and religious indictment of slavery that tied the cause of the slave to that of humanity and freedom. Its extraordinary success made Douglass an instant celebrity, and he capped his fame as a fugitive slave abolitionist with a triumphant lecture tour of the British Isles, where he said he was “an outlaw in the land of my birth.” Since he had revealed his identity and that of his erstwhile masters in his narrative, he was in danger of reenslavement.
Relying on financing from his British admirers, Douglass bought his freedom and started publishing the North Star in Rochester in 1847, dedicated to his “oppressed countrymen.” Its title was resonant of the short-lived Latimer paper and of fugitive slave abolitionism, the most dynamic wing of the movement. As he put it, “It has long been our anxious wish to see, in this slave-holding, slave-trading, and negro-hating land, a printing-press and paper, permanently established, under the complete control and direction of the immediate victims of slavery and oppression.” His list of agents included Nathan Johnson, Ruggles, McCune Smith, Delany, Rowland T. Robinson, McKim, James Buffum, and Sydney Howard Gay. Nell moved to Rochester to help him print the paper. Douglass appreciated Pennington and J. N. Gloucester, who “threw open” their churches, and Van Rensselaer, Downing, and Remond for their support. According to Whipper, it was as good an abolitionist newspaper as the Liberator or any “other Anti-Slavery periodical” and not just a “colored newspaper.” The paper became the voice of black abolitionism, and his autobiography, which he expanded in 1855 and 1892, the “great enabling text” of fugitive slave narratives.11
Douglass’s star turn in Britain made fugitive slave abolitionism an international sensation. His letters in the Liberator and the popularity of the British editions of his narrative documented his success. As Henry C. Wright, who was also abroad at this time, observed, British abolitionists had never failed to cheer these “crushed and wounded spirits of American republicanism and American Christianity.” While slaveholders sought to keep the reality of slavery hidden from the world’s view, Douglass noted, quoting Calhoun’s stricture to leave the South alone, black abolitionists sought to lift that veil. In one of his first speeches, in Dublin, he stated, “I am the representative of three million bleeding slaves.” He asked his audiences to tell slaveholders to “give up their vile practices, or continue to be held in contempt by the whole civilized world.” The title of one of his speeches, “International Moral Force can Destroy Slavery,” encapsulated his appeal. At the World Temperance Convention he called out the racial exclusion practiced by the American temperance movement. He lectured against accepting slaveholders’ contributions to the Free Church of Scotland—“send back the money”—and American slaveholding churches in the newly formed Evangelical Alliance in London. At events featuring other speakers, Garrison reported that Douglass was the lion of all occasions.
Douglass gave more speeches during his eighteen-month tour than any other American abolitionist. His topics ranged from the bloodthirsty nature of slave-holding Christianity to the connection between intemperance and slavery—“All great reforms go together”—Texas annexation, the heroism of abolitionists, “America’s Bastard Republicanism” against notions of racial inferiority, his own life story, to numerous calls to arms directed at the British public. In England he emerged as a bona fide leader of the movement. Douglass chafed when Webb sought to give him friendly advice, and he resented Chapman’s control of his finances. John Estlin wondered how he would resume a quiet family life after being feted by Englishwomen. Douglass encountered subtle and open racism alike, some imputing that he was an imposter, while the send-back-the-money campaign was met with large posters declaring, “Send back the Nigger.” Even admirers condescendingly called him the only “intelligent slave” they had met.12
Douglass’s fame put his freedom in jeopardy. In Britain the abolitionist Quaker Richardson sisters raised more than sufficient money to purchase his freedom. Loring retained lawyers in New York and Baltimore to mediate the transaction. Douglass followed in the footsteps of numerous American fugitive slaves who had purchased their freedom with British assistance. He, however, was no ordinary fugitive but a leading light of the movement, and his self-purchase aroused considerable controversy. When abolitionist newspapers expressed discomfort at a deal that seemed to recognize property in man, Garrison leapt to Douglass’s defense, calling it “The Ransom of Douglass.” Abolitionists, he wrote, were against compensating slaveholders as a “class” for emancipation, but they had always helped ransom individual slaves, conveying the illegitimacy of slave-holding as kidnapping. Garrison concluded that to be a victim of extortion was one thing but to sanction it was another. Few of Douglass’s critics, he continued, endangered their own freedom in the manner that they demanded of fugitive slave abolitionists. Douglass himself had been ambivalent about the issue since he had criticized Lane’s attempts to buy his family. When Wright worried that Douglass’s power as a “self-emancipated slave” was diminished, Douglass replied that his “sphere of usefulness” was in the United States, where he was at his master’s mercy.13
Douglass’s meteoric rise inspired a talented group of fugitive slave abolitionists to publish their narratives. William Wells Brown had escaped slavery in 1834 but published his narrative in 1847. It was reprinted in four editions and in five editions in England. The narrative begins with a moving dedication to the Quaker Wells Brown, who had helped him escape and whose name he adopted. A letter from Quincy addressed the racist aspersion that slave narratives were ghostwritten by white abolitionists. As he put it, “I should be a bold man, as well as a vain one, if I should attempt to improve your descriptions of what you have seen and suffered.” The son of a slave mother and a white man, Brown called his master “the man who stole me as soon as I was born.” Brown moved with him from Kentucky to Missouri, where he was hired out to a succession of cruel masters, including a “soul driver,” and separated from his mother and sister. Challenging the idea that the nasty business of the slave trade was somehow separate from the paternalistic dictates of slaveholding, he writes, “But though these men may cant about negro-drivers, and tell what despicable creatures they are, who is it, I ask, that supplies them with the human beings that they are tearing asunder?” Remarkably, Brown worked for a short time for Elijah Lovejoy, from whom he got “what little learning I obtained while in slavery.” He condemned American hypocrisy on his escape to freedom: “But when I thought of slavery with its Democratic whips—its Republican chains—its evangelical blood-hounds, and its religious slave-holders—when I thought of all this paraphernalia of American Democracy and Religion behind me, and the prospect of liberty before me, I was encouraged to press forward.”
Brown found work on Lake Erie steamboats running slaves to Canada. It was a literal and symbolic reversal of his life as a slave, during which he was forced to participate in the interstate slave trade on the Mississippi River. In 1842 alone he claimed to have aided sixty-nine fugitives. He subscribed to abolitionist newspapers, became a lecturer for the Western NYASS, organized a temperance society, and traveled to Haiti and Cuba to explore prospects for black emigration. By 1844 Brown had given his first national speech, at the annual meeting of the AASS. “I would have the Constitution torn to shreds,” he said, “and scattered to the four winds of heaven.” He was soon lecturing in Ohio, where he insisted on calculating his fare by his weight since he was consigned to the cargo car, and in New York with E. D. Hudson. Brown argued that the domestic slave trade was slavery’s dominant feature and that the law and public sentiment are “all a dead letter to the Slave.” In 1847 he was elected to the business committee of the AASS and moved to Boston. The next year Brown wrote an essay, “The American Slave Trade,” for the Liberty Bell and edited a book of abolitionist songs, The Anti-Slavery Harp. The songs selected displayed his talents as an editor, as some warn of slave rebellion while another has a fugitive slave asking, “Will you send me back?” Brown included his “Jefferson’s Daughter,” a topic he would explore in his novel Clotel. His daughter, Josephine Brown, with whom he had a mysterious falling out later, apparently for something scandalous she did, wrote his biography in 1855.14
Brown’s five-year stay abroad was a result of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In a speech he gave before leaving, he wittily noted that if America was the cradle of liberty, it had rocked the baby to death. Black Bostonians led by Hilton held a meeting honoring him as a delegate to the Paris Peace Congress. Brown reported that his narrative was in demand among some passengers aboard the steamship Canada but angered the slaveholding and pro-slavery among them. In Paris a slaveholder who had abused him during the voyage sought his favor so that he could meet Victor Hugo and Richard Cobden. Brown felt no compunction at snubbing him. Much to the chagrin of the American consul he was introduced to Madame de Tocqueville at the reception for the delegates. While pacifists like Burritt and Rev. William Allen wished to avoid a collision over slavery, Brown insisted that the violence of slavery must be removed for true peace to reign. In a public letter Brown effectively refuted Allen’s claim that slavery was a matter of states’ rights by pointing to the fugitive slave law and a host of actions by the federal government on behalf of slavery, from the Seminole to the Mexican war. Like Douglass, he published a letter to his former master. Brown gave over a thousand speeches in England.15
Brown wrote a catalogue of the panorama of slavery he had painted to accompany his speeches. His panorama highlighted the domestic slave trade, the Creole and Pearl cases, his own story and escape, and his experience with fugitives. He became a regular contributor to British and abolitionist newspapers and published a travelogue, Three Years in Europe (1852). Brown appended to his travel memoir a statement drafted by a group of fugitive slaves protesting the law of 1850, “An Appeal to the People of Great Britain and the World.” In one emphatic statement, it encapsulated the abolitionist critique that so angered representatives of the American government: “The history of the Negroes in America is but a history of repeated injuries and acts of oppression committed upon them by the whites.” The nation, now a “hunting ground” for slaveholders, was complicit. Brown recommended that there be a “good abolitionist” in England at all times to counter American slaveholders and officials.
On his return Brown was welcomed by abolitionist meetings in Philadelphia led by Purvis and in Boston presided over by Jackson, Garrison, and Phillips. Despite his estranged wife’s repeated attempts to discredit him, he had retained the confidence of his abolitionist colleagues. The only glitch in his English sojourn was Scoble’s rumor mongering about his personal problems, which lasted until Brown threatened to sue him for libel. Just as British Garrisonians remained suspicious of black clergymen like Pennington and Garnet, who were affiliated with the AFASS, mainstream British abolitionists clashed with black Garrisonians like Brown. Yet these factional divisions were often expressed only in private letters, and black abolitionists usually steered clear of them. When Brown returned home he got into a dispute with Douglass, whom he accused of demeaning him to Elizabeth Pease. Brown’s two daughters, who also traveled to England and were subject to racial ostracism aboard the America, were schooled as teachers in Paris and London. Scorning the idea of begging for money, Brown supported his daughters from his publications and writing. As they had done for Douglass, Ellen Richardson and her family raised money to buy his freedom. William I. Bowditch oversaw the transaction in Boston, and Brown came home a free man. In 1855 he published an expanded version of his travel memoir.16
In 1849, the year Brown published the first English edition of his narrative, three fugitive slave abolitionists, Henry Bibb, Josiah Henson, and Pennington, published their narratives. Bibb’s is prefaced by the proceedings of an investigation by some Liberty men into the facts of his life after a “scandalous and libelous account” to discredit him and the free soil cause was published in the Washington Union, a Democratic paper. In a letter to Birney, Bibb vindicated his authenticity and the “right to plead my own cause & the cause of the enslaved.” Bibb was born of a slave mother, Mildred Jackson, and white father, James Bibb, a Kentucky state senator. His narrative begins with a personal condemnation of slavery: “I received stripes without number, the object of which was to degrade and keep me in subordination. I can truly say, that I drank deeply of the bitter cup of suffering and woe. I have been dragged down to the lowest depths of human degradation and wretchedness, by Slaveholders.” Separated from his mother and hired out to various masters, Bibb learned “the art of running away to perfection.” He repeatedly returns to rescue his family and is recaptured and then sold in New Orleans with his wife, Malinda, and daughter to a particularly sadistic deacon. Bibb attempts to escape again, is recaptured, and sold successively to some “sporting gentlemen” and into Indian “heathen” slavery, which he opines is better than “Christian” slavery.
In 1841 Bibb escaped to Ohio and participated in the state black convention in Detroit, defiantly sending copies of its proceedings to his former master and to prominent slaveholders in Kentucky. When his master responded, Bibb replied that he ran away because of the ill-treatment of his wife and child and that he now “subscribes myself a friend to the oppressed, and of Liberty forever.” Bibb developed a critique of slavery that cited a labor theory of value. He was compelled to work under the lash without wages and, he argued, “who had a better right to eat of the fruits of my own hard earnings than myself?” It is a crime for a slave to starve, he wrote, rather than to help himself to the fruits of his labor. Attempting to purchase his wife and daughter from slavery, he learns that they had been sold to a man who had made his wife his mistress. He writes that Malinda is dead to him. But Bibb blames slavery, writing, “Poor unfortunate woman, I bring no charge of it against her, for I know not all the circumstances connected with the case.” He married a teacher from Boston, Mary Miles, and settled with her in Canada, publishing his Voice of the Fugitive and aiding runaway slaves there.17
Another fugitive slave abolitionist, Josiah Henson, had long headed the free black Dawn settlement in Canada. His amanuensis, Samuel Eliot, assured the reader that Henson’s narrative had been dictated by him and read back to him to correct errors and that “very often the words, are his.” Eliot, a colonizationist, earned the ire of abolitionists for his vote in Congress for the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and his connection to Henson became a matter of considerable controversy. Henson, who was born in Maryland, opens his narrative with his father being brutally beaten and having his right ear cut off for attacking an overseer who had whipped his mother. His father became “morose, disobedient and intractable” and was sold to Alabama. His mother and siblings were sold after the death of her master. Despite run-ins with an overseer that left him maimed, Henson got married and rose to a position of trust under his dissolute master, who, he noted in a Hegelian reversal of the proslavery argument, became dependent on him. When asked by his master to lead all his slaves to Kentucky to save them from being sold for debt, Henson does so despite being urged by free blacks in Cincinnati to flee for freedom. He admits that he had “painful doubts” about leading others to slavery, even though their escape would have been just retribution to his master. When they are sold off, Henson regrets his agency in their calamity and professes greater hatred of the system of slavery.
A Methodist preacher helps Henson raise money to purchase his freedom, and he becomes a preacher. But Henson’s master tricks him and attempts to sell him in New Orleans. Knowing that being sold to the Deep South meant hard labor, Henson hatches a plot to kill his master’s son. It would have been self-defense, justifiable and even praiseworthy, he writes, but in the end his conscience prevents him from committing murder. Henson compares the hollow paternalism of his master’s son, who promises to sell him to a good master who would use him as a house servant, to his watchful care when he falls severely ill, emphasizing his moral superiority to his enslavers. He returns to Kentucky but realizes that whatever merit he had in the eyes of his master lay in his “money value.” Absolved of all his obligations to his master, Henson escapes, assisted by a fellow slave who rows him and his family across the Ohio River, by free blacks in Cincinnati, and by Indians during their long trek in the wilderness. Henson the model slave became the model abolitionist. He devoted himself to black improvement in Canada, which he described as being helped by “immigration” from the United States. Henson also assisted fugitive slaves from Maryland and Kentucky, to which he ventured back, to escape “Egypt.”18
Like Henson, Pennington wrote his narrative well after his escape in 1827. First published in London, it was reprinted rapidly in three editions in 1849 and 1850. Pennington wrote his own preface (as he did for other black writers), a telling critique of slaveholders’ paternalism. The essence of slavery, he argued, was “the chattel principle,” the reducing of human beings to property, marketable commodity. As he put it, “My feelings are always outraged when I hear them speak of ‘kind masters,’—‘Christian masters,’—‘the mildest form of slavery,’—‘well fed and clothed slaves,’ as extenuations of slavery; I am satisfied they either mean to pervert the truth, or they do not know what they say.” The slave trade and the use of slaves “to toil without requite” to supply the world market “with cotton, sugar, rice, tobacco, &c” revealed the sordid material reality behind all talk of “kind Christian masters.” In his speeches, too, Pennington criticized the paternalistic pretensions of slaveholders.
Pennington described his dreary childhood subjected to the abuse of his master’s children and overseers, until he learned blacksmithing skills. He writes that his master was not particularly cruel but whipped him, his father, and a “deeply pious and exemplary slave” whose daughter he sold. His master “was a perpetualist. He was opposed to emancipation; thought free negroes a great nuisance, and was, as respects discipline, a thorough slaveholder.” Pennington’s escape to Pennsylvania stressed the trials of a fugitive slave forced to choose freedom over family, suffering from desperate hunger and privation, and dodging slave catchers. He is taken in by a Quaker abolitionist, William Wright, who teaches him how to read and write. On hearing that his master had posted a reward for him, Pennington moves to New York City with the help of Quakers and free blacks, reminding his readers that he escaped before there were antislavery societies and vigilance committees. Pennington decided to work for the uplift of free blacks, whose condition “the whites tortured into a defense of slavery.” He purchased himself, and his father and sisters escaped to Canada, but his mother died in slavery, and three siblings remained enslaved after the botched escape of his brother and nephews. In an appendix, Pennington published a letter he had written to his master in 1844 indicting him for the abuse of his family.19
American fugitive slaves successfully exported their brand of abolitionism to Britain. In 1848 Henry Watson published an account of his enslavement, his escape by sea, and the assistance rendered to him by free people of color and Garrison. Watson hoped his descriptions of slavery in Mississippi would fill a gap since most fugitives hailed from the upper south. He referred to the United States as a “land of Bibles and whips” on his departure to England. Watson sarcastically noted that he could provide more information on “what I have seen and felt of the kindly influences of that patriarchal institution” and its “heavenly character,” quoting George McDuffie’s claim that slavery lay “at the cornerstone of our republican edifice.” William Powell, disgusted by the new fugitive slave law, left for England and predicted a dissolution of the Union. Henson lectured with Pennington, Garnet, and Crummell in Britain. Garnet agreed to raise funds for the Weems family of Washington, whose free black father was desperately trying to buy back his enslaved children. One of them, Stella Weems, escaped and resided with the Garnets before dying in Jamaica. There were instances of fugitive slaves stowing away on British ships in southern ports; one of them was found nearly starved to death. Powell reported that he had assisted five stowaways in Liverpool. In 1853 the Ladies Society to Aid Fugitives was formed in England to help such runaways.20
Black women also contributed to the slave narrative genre. The most significant was the narrative of Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Van Wagenen), written by Olive Gilbert, who had befriended Truth in Northampton. The preface, written by Garrison, drew attention to the abuse of enslaved women. Truth capitalized on the success of fugitive slave narratives. Her story, published in 1850, is more biography than autobiography, though Gilbert relied on information provided by Truth. One of the few extant female slave narratives, it contains one of the rare descriptions of northern slavery. After she began her lecturing career, Truth sold copies of her book and, later, her carte de visite, becoming a potent symbol of radical reform. Despite her reliance on Gilbert and then Frances Titus, Truth fashioned her own persona.
Born a slave in New York, Isabella, like many of her siblings, was sold away from her parents. Her new master and mistress cruelly abused the nine-year-old girl, who spoke Dutch, the language of her first master. As she pointedly told Gilbert, “Now the war begun.” Gilbert quotes her as saying, “When I hear ’em tell of whipping women on the bare flesh, it makes my flesh crawl, and my very hair rise on my head!” Sold to John Dumont in 1810 on her father’s intervention, Isabella forms an attachment to her master, whom she characterized as being kind, but was probably abused by his wife. Dumont reneged on a promise to free her, and, like many northern slaves, she walked away from him and slavery a year before New York’s abolition law of 1827. She worked with the Van Wagenens, whose surname she adopted. The long shadow of slavery, however, haunted Truth, as her children served out long indentures, and one of them, Peter, was sold illegally to slavery in Alabama. With the help of Quaker abolitionists she lodged a complaint before a grand jury and obtained a writ against her son’s kidnappers. Gilbert writes of Truth’s perseverance to free her son, whose custody she is finally awarded by a judge. In what Truth understood as divine retribution, the Alabama slaveholder who had abused her son murdered his wife, the sister of the man who had sold her son. The narrative ends not with her conversion but with her former master being converted to antislavery.
Truth’s unconventional religiosity led her to join the Kingdom of Matthias, a cult founded by a self-proclaimed prophet, and, like Angelina Grimké, to flirt with Millerism (after William Miller, who predicted the Second Coming of Christ in 1843) before emerging as the abolitionist feminist preacher Sojourner Truth. In 1851 she launched her abolitionist career, accompanying Garrison, Phillips, and Thompson on their lecturing tour. Truth’s narrative was republished by Titus in 1875 and again in 1883 after her death. Titus added a second part, “a book of life,” containing material on her later storied life as a spokeswoman for abolition, women’s rights, and freedmen’s relief. The book of life was the title Truth gave to her book of autographs of Lincoln, Garrison, Phillips and abolitionists involved in slave running, Walker, Fairbank, and Haviland. To Phillips, who, like others, noticed her wit, Truth occupied a special place in the movement as the only former northern slave active in it. Truth’s life highlighted northern complicity in slavery and northern blacks’ demands for citizenship. As she once reminded proslavery hecklers, “I am a citizen of the State of New York; I was born in it, and I was a slave in the State of New York; and now I am a good citizen of this State.”21
Abolitionists promoted other writings by slaves besides narratives. The poems of the enslaved George Moses Horton first appeared in Freedom’s Journal, which supported his campaign to buy his freedom. He published three volumes of poetry, The Hope of Liberty (1829), Poetical Works of George M. Horton, the Colored Bard of North Carolina (1845), and Naked Genius (1865). An unpublished collection, The Museum, is lost to history. Joseph Gales, a colonizationist who became the official publisher of congressional records, and a Massachusetts woman named Caroline Hentz who had literary aspirations of her own and was Horton’s editor, helped him publish his first collection. In 1834 Garrison printed Horton’s poem on slavery: “Is it because my skin is black, / That thou should’st be so dull and slack, / And scorn to set me free?” In 1837 the Philadelphia abolitionists Joshua Coffin and Lewis Gunn republished his first collection as Poems By a Slave. The next year Garrison’s printer, Knapp, published the collection appended to a Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley to “present an unvarnished record of African genius.”
Horton was a slave at the University of North Carolina and had been promised freedom on condition that he leave for Liberia. In 1844 he wrote to Garrison, but the president of the university, David Swain, to whom he had entrusted the letter, never mailed it. A year later Horton’s collection of poems was published on a subscription taken out by Swain and students at the university. Horton had ingratiated himself with the students, for whom he ran errands and wrote love poems, and they shared their books with him. Horton also banked on the popularity of fugitive slave narratives, appending an account of his life “written by himself.” Abolitionist newspapers continued to publish his poetry: the NASS republished “The Slave’s Complaint” and the Emancipator republished “On Liberty and Slavery.” In 1848 the National Era reported that the Black Bard of Chapel Hill was still in slavery. The next year William G. Allen published a book of the works of Wheatley, Banneker, and Horton in which he also introduced American audiences to the transnational world of black letters: the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin and the black revolutionary poet from Cuba named Plácido. Horton did not give up the attempt to purchase himself, addressing a poetic petition to Greeley, which Swain also did not mail.
Like many southern slaves, Horton became a fugitive during the war. He obtained his freedom by walking to Union army lines. The abolitionist content of Horton’s last collection, published after the war by a sympathetic Union army officer, Capt. William H. S. Banks, was unmistakable. His poem “Slavery” remonstrates, “Slavery, thou peace-disturbing thief, / We can’t but look with frowns on thee, / Without the balm which gives relief, / The balm of birthright—Liberty.” The poem “Negro Speculation,” with its plaintive chorus “Weep, Humanity weep!,” condemns the slave trade. Horton’s poems on Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and “Sherman the Great,” two poems mocking the defeat and flight of Jefferson Davis, and three dedicated to Lincoln reveal the author’s ardent unionism, now linked to black freedom. His “Song of Liberty” celebrates “liberation” that no “treason can destroy.” Child included a section on Horton, “The Slave Poet,” in her freedmen’s book of 1865.22
The countless enslaved writers and artists who perished along with slavery are unknown. Dave the Potter in Edgefield, South Carolina, etched his poetry in clay pots, writing about Nat Turner and slave sales, including his own, one with the sorrowful title “Where is My Family?” He faithfully, yet mockingly, reproduced the views of nullifiers, secessionists, and slaveholders’ prohibition of slave literacy. The fugitive slave narratives, however, give one an inkling of the worldview of the enslaved. As Phillips put it, “It is the slave, the fugitive slave from the plantation, whose tongue inspired by oppression, speaks most forcibly to the American people.”23
In the decade before the war, slave narratives and abolitionist fiction inspired by them took a romanticist turn. Presenting improbable and daring stories of escape, they captured the public imagination and showcased both the ingenuity of self-emancipated slaves, who matched their wits and daring with slaveholders’ immense political and legal powers, and the abolitionist underground. Abolitionist fiction, inspired by the stories of fugitives and instances of slave revolt, blossomed. The abolitionists created a literature of protest that popularized antislavery and replaced newspapers, pamphlets, and petitions as the most potent tools in abolitionist print culture.
In 1849 two remarkable escape stories, the flight of a young slave couple named William and Ellen Craft in disguise and of Henry “Box” Brown, who shipped himself to freedom, became popular in abolitionist circles and beyond. William Craft published the Crafts’ story long after the fact in 1860, but Brown’s narrative was published a few months after his escape. Dictated to the abolitionist Charles Stearns, Brown’s narrative, like others, recounted the physical cruelties of slavery and the sale of his wife and children, but the story of his remarkable escape is its centerpiece. Maiming his finger to get reprieve from work, Brown enlisted a northerner, Samuel Smith, and a free black man, James C. A. Smith Jr., whom he identified as a UGRR conductor in Richmond, to help him. He had himself boxed and mailed to the PASS office in Philadelphia. Confined for over twenty-four hours in the box, which had holes and a “bladder” of water, and being placed upside down many times, Brown emerged singing a thanksgiving hymn before McKim and Still. He stayed with the Motts before moving to Boston. Brown’s mode of escape made him an instant draw at the annual convention of the NEASS, where he spoke on being introduced by Wells Brown. Benjamin Roberts painted a panorama of his escape for his lecture tour in Massachusetts. The next year the Liberator reported an attempt to kidnap him, and Brown sailed to England shortly thereafter.
In England he lectured, as Wells Brown had, with an elaborate panorama of slavery and even reenacted his escape, having himself shipped in a box again. Brown’s narrative was republished in England in 1851. Though he eliminated Stearns’s preface and letter, he included ample new abolitionist material, including a new preface written by himself, an introduction by British abolitionists, and letters from May and McKim. Garrison had criticized Stearns’s “declamatory style” and his lose compilation of Brown’s narrative. In his new preface Brown fashioned his own abolitionist indictment of slavery, the “bodily and mental” cruelties of the slave trade and his agony on losing his family: “Language is inadequate to express them.” Samuel Smith was arrested for helping two young slaves emulate Brown by shipping themselves. He served a seven-year term and was welcomed by black Philadelphians as a martyr to the cause of freedom and the “poor, downtrodden slave.” James Smith moved north and got into a controversy with Brown for not sharing the proceeds of their joint performances. Brown married again in England and became a successful lecturer and performer on disparate topics such as mesmerism. He returned to the United States as a performer doing magic tricks. Performance on an abolitionist stage prepared Brown for his later career.24
While Brown’s showmanship excited some criticism from abolitionists, including Wells Brown, the Crafts remained active on the abolitionist circuit in England. The ingenuity of their escape excited wonder, just as Brown’s had. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, William Craft pointed out, was not the story of their lives, but he could not refrain from writing about the breakup of their families. Like Pennington, he argued that southern custom offered no protection to slaves: “The practical working of slavery is worse than the odious laws by which it is governed.” He wrote that “after puzzling our brains for years,” the Crafts decided that “it was almost impossible to escape from slavery in Georgia, and travel a 1,000 miles across the slave states,” until he got the idea to dress his nearly white wife as an invalid gentleman and pretend to be her slave. Ellen came up with the idea of covering her right hand and face with “poultice” to avoid signing her name in hotel registers. Traveling through many southern cities, the Crafts arrived in Philadelphia, where they were assisted by Purvis and the Quaker abolitionist Barkley Ivens, who sent them on to Boston. Wells Brown took them under his wing, and they lectured with him throughout the state and later in England.
The Crafts thought they would be safe in the abolitionist heartland, but the passage of the new fugitive slave law dispelled their sense of security, as their masters sent agents to recapture them. The Crafts outfoxed their captors with the help of the Boston Vigilance Committee. The committee confronted two “slave hunters” from Georgia, Hughes, a Macon jailer, and Knight, harassing them with frivolous lawsuits and warning Marshal Charles Devens against arresting the Crafts. The warrant for their arrest was issued with the help of the lawyer Seth Thomas, a close ally of Daniel Webster and of the federal commissioners Benjamin F. Hallet and George T. Curtis; it was executed by Judge Levi Woodbury. Theodore Parker, who led a vigilance committee delegation to warn the Georgia “slave catchers” out of town, hid Ellen Craft. The heavily armed William first barricaded himself in his carpentry shop and then, accompanied by Henry I. Bowditch, hid in Lewis Hayden’s equally well-armed home. Parker officially married the Crafts before they left for Canada and England. It is known all over the world, William Craft wrote, that “Americans, as a people, are notoriously mean and cruel towards all coloured persons, whether they are bond or free.” In 1852 Ellen, in response to reports that she wanted to return to Georgia, published a letter stating her preference for living in England. William lectured for free produce and traveled to Dahomey to fight against the slave trade. The Crafts helped found the London Emancipation Committee in 1859 with British abolitionists and returned to Georgia during Reconstruction, where they ran a plantation and school for freedpeople.25
If 1849 was the year of remarkable slave escapes, then surely the most important one was that of Harriet Tubman, who came to personify fugitive slave abolitionism. Though her biography was published after the Civil War, her story became legend. Mythologized in countless stories of the UGRR, Tubman’s life was hardly romantic. Born in Maryland, she bore scars of whippings endured at the hands of successive masters and mistresses she was hired out to as well as a head injury from an overseer’s blow intended for another slave. Her first biographer, Sarah Bradford, appended a piece called “Essay on Woman-Whipping” to her book to highlight the abuse of female slaves. Married to the free black man John Tubman, who abandoned her, she planned her escape with her brothers, who decided not to accompany her. Tubman was assisted in her flight by an anonymous white woman, Thomas Garrett in Wilmington, and the PVC. In the 1850s Tubman acquired a formidable reputation as the Moses of her people, making repeated forays into slave country to lead her family members and others out of bondage. In 1854 she spirited her three brothers to freedom, assisted by her father, Benjamin Ross, a free black man who bought his wife’s freedom a year later. Tubman’s parents remained in Maryland, assisting her in what might be called a family operation. By the end of 1855 Garrett wrote that Tubman had made four trips to her home state, rescuing seventeen family members and other slaves. She settled in St. Catherine’s, Canada, with her brothers, leading slaves from “Egypt to de land of Canaan.” She was also a member of a fugitive slave aid society. In an interview she gave to the abolitionist Benjamin Drew, she noted, “Slavery is the next thing to hell.”
By the eve of the Civil War she had made thirteen clandestine trips and liberated around seventy slaves, her actions funded by leading abolitionists. In 1856 Maryland authorities announced a reward of twelve thousand dollars for her. The next year she brought her elderly parents from Maryland when state authorities threatened to arrest her father, saving “dem de expense ob de trial.” In 1859 she moved with her family to Auburn, New York, where she purchased a farm from William Seward, a benefactor and her neighbor, and continued working in the UGRR. Jermaine Loguen, a fugitive slave himself, observed that Tubman was better known to the slaves than the Bible because she circulated among them so freely. John Brown anointed her General Harriet Tubman, referring to her in the masculine in recognition of her physical prowess. During the war Tubman was a Union army scout, nurse, and laundress. Long denied a pension despite repeated petitions, she married a Union army veteran named Nelson Davis in 1869 and finally received a widow’s pension on his death. She died in 1913 but lived on as an icon of enslaved women’s resistance, a “black Joan of Arc.” Douglass’s testimonial of 1868 best captured her activism: “The midnight sky and the silent stars have been witnesses of your devotion to freedom and your heroism.”26
The incredible story of the kidnapping of Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga, New York, who published his narrative in 1853, is now a major motion picture, Twelve Years a Slave. His work reinforced the romanticist trend in abolitionist literature. In 1841 two men kidnapped Northup on a promise of employment and sold him to a slave trader, James Burch. He left behind his wife and three children. Burch shipped Northup to New Orleans. While at sea Northup plotted a shipboard rebellion with two other black men, but their plans were foiled when one of them succumbed to smallpox. Northup managed to send a letter via a sympathetic sailor to Henry Northup, whose family had owned his. Henry Northup took the letter to the governor of New York, but, lacking knowledge of Solomon’s whereabouts, they failed to rescue him. Though he was sold to a “good master,” William Ford, Northup’s narrative, like other slave stories, systematically dismantles the proslavery argument on slaveholder paternalism. Ford is unable to help a slave woman, Eliza, who is sold apart from her children, and she languished until her death. Northup himself is sold to successively abusive masters because of Ford’s financial difficulties. He ends up the slave of Edwin Epps, the owner of a cotton plantation. He relates the plight of Patsey, an expert cotton picker but “an enslaved victim” of her master’s lust and her mistress’s hate. Cold calculus, under which slaves who did not meet the daily quota were whipped, governed the Cotton Kingdom. An institution that tolerates so much cruelty, he concluded, was unjust and barbarous, taking direct aim at men who “discourse flippantly from arm chairs of the pleasures of slave life.”
Slaves passionately desired freedom, Northup wrote. The slaves of the bayou would hail an invading army, he told his readers. During the war a Union army soldier, John Burrud, who was familiar with the narrative, marched through Epps’s farm, where he met slaves who knew Northup. His narrative, Burrud wrote, does “not portray the system as bad as it is it is not in the power of man to do it.” Northup eventually found an antislavery Canadian carpenter, Samuel Bass, who sent word of his plight to New York. His wife, Anne, petitioned Gov. Washington Hunt, who appointed Henry Northup agent of the state of New York to recover him. Numerous black and white citizens from his hometown, Sandy Hill, gave affidavits on his behalf. By January 1853 Northup was back in Washington, where he brought charges of kidnapping against Burch. Arguing for the prosecution was Salmon Chase. Since Northup’s testimony was inadmissible in Washington even though he was a citizen of New York, Burch got off scot-free. Burch had the temerity to sue Gamaliel Bailey for libel for publishing the details of Northup’s story. The publication of the book led to the identification of Northup’s two abductors, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, who were charged with kidnapping. After much legal wrangling about whether they should be tried in New York, where Northup’s testimony was admissible, or in Washington, the case was dropped, and the kidnappers were never brought to justice.
An antislavery lawyer and politician, David Wilson, helped Northup edit his narrative, but Northup, who was literate, was undoubtedly its author. He dedicated his narrative to Harriet Beecher Stowe, but he differentiated his factual account from her fictional one; as he put it, “This is no fiction, no exaggeration.” Certain characters and events in his narrative seemed to echo Stowe’s famous novel. Northup noted that his story appeared in Stowe’s A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, evidence that Stowe compiled, in reply to her critics, to illustrate that her portrait of slavery was based on reality. When Northup’s book sold thirty thousand copies, he managed to buy some property from the proceeds and joined the abolitionist lecture circuit. Douglass reported that Solomon and Henry Northup attended an antislavery meeting in Troy, where Douglass took up a collection for him, and another one in Albany. He also became active in the abolitionist underground, working with a Methodist minister, John L. Smith, in Vermont to aid runaways. Northup probably died in 1863, when he drops out of the historical record.27
The success of Northup’s narrative owed a lot to the romantic antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which borrowed freely from his and other slave narratives. Written in response to the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Stowe’s novel was published serially in Bailey’s newspaper in 1851 and as a book a year later. A runaway best seller (pun intended), it made Stowe an international celebrity. The book was a literary phenomenon, selling over three hundred thousand copies in the United States in a year and a million in Britain and being translated into various European languages. Its diverse admirers included Douglass, Lenin, George Sand, José Martí, Mary Church Terrell, and Lincoln, who in the apocryphal story of their meeting called Stowe the “little lady” who had caused the “great war.” A sentimental antislavery novel inspired by the death of Stowe’s young son, it became the dominant representation of southern slavery in popular culture. Reproduced in countless plays and minstrel shows, at times shorn of its antislavery content, Uncle Tom’s Cabin took on a life of its own. In the South it inspired a mini-industry, the highly forgettable “anti-Tom novels,” which, Douglass opined, were “miserably bad.”
Ironically, slave resistance inspired a novel commonly criticized for its portrayal of a submissive slave. The central characters of Stowe’s book, Tom and George Harris, resembled real life fugitives such as Henson, Lewis Clarke, and Bibb; the story of Eliza escaping on the frozen Ohio River came from an actual slave mother who made that journey to Rankin’s farmhouse; the Quaker Halliday couple were based on Levi and Catherine Coffin and on Thomas and Rachel Garrett; and Van Tromp on the Ohio farmer Van Zandt. The prolific interstate slave trade and the continuous stream of fugitive slaves to Canada gave Uncle Tom’s Cabin its peculiar resonance, making it difficult for detractors to dismiss it as a mere work of sentimental fiction. One could argue that Stowe became an abolitionist after the stunning success of her book, which led Garrison to think it could be “eminently serviceable” to the slave’s cause. Stowe started subscribing to the Liberator, assuring Garrison that she respected his paper. Her appeal in the novel, which adopted the language of appeasement long deployed by antislavery gradualists and colonizationists, to “the generous, noble-minded men and women of the South . . . whose virtue, and magnanimity, and purity of character, are the greater for the severer trial it has encountered,” met with the same relentlessly hostile reception abolitionists had received. Her Key, published in 1853, made it evident that she had used slave narratives and stories from the abolitionist underground to compose her novel. Its extensive documentation included selections from Weld’s American Slavery As It Is, which she imitated in reproducing runaway advertisements and articles from southern newspapers, famous fugitive slave cases, and testimonials from self-emancipated slaves. To Douglass, this more overtly abolitionist work proved “more and worse things against the murderous system than are alleged in the great book.”
Stowe’s family, her father, Lyman, and sister Catharine Beecher, was colonizationist, critical of the radicalism of abolition and women’s rights. Her husband, Calvin Stowe, a professor at the Lane Seminary, was involved in the expelling of the abolitionist rebels led by Weld. In Cincinnati, Stowe was not a member of any female abolitionist society. Before the 1850s only Stowe’s brother Edward Beecher identified as an abolitionist. Her sister Isabella Beecher Hooker became a spokeswoman for women’s rights, and in 1851 another brother, Charles Beecher, published one of the most influential “higher law” tracts against the Fugitive Slave Act, The Duty of Disobedience to Wicked Laws, almost simultaneously with her serialized novel. According to him, no human law that violated God-given natural law and natural rights had any validity. The fugitive slave clause of the Constitution was wrong, as it “legalizes kidnapping.” Stowe’s younger brother Henry Ward Beecher, invited to be minister of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn by Henry C. Bowen, Tappan’s son-in-law, in 1847, also argued that the Constitution should not be obeyed if it “include requisitions which violate humanity.” Henry made the church the most famous one in the country, his fiery antislavery sermons attracting huge crowds. The Fulton ferry to Brooklyn came to be known as “Beecher boats.” Henry’s position on the fugitive slave issue was equivocal, as he would aid fugitives but not “interrupt” official renditions. He was critical of Garrison’s radicalism and, later, of John Brown. The Beechers were not abolitionists but, like some antislavery northerners, including the colonizationist clergyman Leonard Bacon and Lincoln, moved closer to abolition in the crisis decade.
Colonization rather than abolition brackets Stowe’s novel. In the preface she calls for “an enlightened and Christianized community . . . on the shores of Africa, laws, language and literature drawn from us.” In her concluding remarks she recommends the education of black people so that they “may put in practice the lessons they have learned in America.” The novel ends with George Harris’s endorsement of colonization, his rejection of Haiti as “a worn-out, effeminate” republic in comparison to the African nation of Liberia. Stowe had earlier advocated an “intermediatesociety” between abolition and colonization.
Stowe’s novel reproduced sectional, racial, and gendered stereotypes: the mean Yankee slaveholder Simon Legree, the weak yet benevolent aristocratic southern slaveholder Augustine St. Clare, racialist descriptions of Topsy and Eva, and the mixed-race rebels Cassy and George. St. Clare predicts that “Anglo-Saxon blood will lead the way” in case of a Haiti-like rebellion. The novel is suffused with romantic racialism. Stowe refers to Africans as an exotic race, and she feminizes Uncle Tom as morally superior, a Christlike figure who is ennobled by his suffering. He became an enduring motif of black victimization that would linger on in antilynching literature. Tom is a resistant figure in his own fashion, refusing to rat on fellow slaves to the point of suffering death, but Stowe’s portrayal of him as a pious martyr was out of sync with abolitionist activism, making Uncle Tom an epithet down to the present. The heroic slave women of Stowe’s novel, like Eliza, were first and foremost devoted mothers. In a largely forgotten essay on Stowe, Terrell empathized with her trials as a wife and mother, paying back in full measure the gendered solidarity Stowe expressed with slave mothers. Her brother Henry’s theatrical auctioning of “nearly white” slave women and their children in his church to help purchase their freedom replicated the worst features of the domestic slave trade and reinforced racist notions of female beauty. In 1856 he “auctioned” a slave woman, Sarah, who had been raising money for her own and her son’s freedom, and four years later a nine-year-old slave girl, Sally Maria Diggs, or “Pinky.” One writer to the Liberator compared his antics to those of the circus maven P. T. Barnum. Beecher’s conservative politics during Reconstruction also made him anathema to abolitionists. During this time, Stowe wrote thirty books that had little to do with race or slavery. Like her brother and many fair-weather friends of abolition, she became a conservative on race and labor issues.28
Abolitionists, though, hailed Stowe’s novel as a godsend, a mass conversion tool, but were alert to its problematic racialism. Garrison, who objected to the colonizationist ending of the novel, noted that Tom personified Christian nonresistance, but he went on to say, “Is there one law of submission and non resistance for the black man, and another law of rebellion and conflict for the white man?” How is it, he asked Stowe, that Christ approved of the American and European revolutions but not of slave rebellion? The Unitarian abolitionist minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson argued that the novel suffered from a great defect in that it had no heroism in it. He would have preferred it if Uncle Tom had resisted. Black abolitionists also critiqued Stowe’s racialist and colonizationist sentiments. Uncle Tom displayed “too much piety,” in the opinion of Allen, who recommended “resistance to tyrants, if need be, to the death” instead. Purvis called Stowe’s endorsement of colonization “a terrible blow.” William J. Wilson, writing as Ethiop, worried at how quickly Uncle Tom had replaced the racially derogatory images of Zip Coon and Jim Crow. At the annual meeting of the AFASS, McCune Smith introduced resolutions commending Stowe, for she had struck the literary equivalent of “California gold,” and called her advocacy of colonization spots in the sun. Tappan agreed, mentioning that he had asked Stowe to get rid of the colonization bits of her novel. H. O. Wagoner also thought her book would do good.
The most interesting debate over the political and racial meanings of Uncle Tom’s Cabin took place between Douglass and Martin Delany. Douglass, who felt that it could be appropriated for the benefit of the movement, was a booster of Stowe from the start. An early review of the book in his paper, probably written by Julia Griffiths, predicted that it would enlist sympathies on behalf “of the oppressed African race” and create a “host of enemies” of slavery. Douglass got the national black convention to pass a resolution commending the novel and hoped to get Stowe to fund a national black college after her triumphant tour of England and Europe. Stowe backed out of the project and gave him the five hundred dollars or so she had raised for his personal use. Delany, who was increasingly on the outs with Douglass over emigration at this time, felt that Stowe had stolen the credit that properly belonged to the fugitive slaves, suggesting even that Henson should receive a portion of the royalties from her publisher. It was a nineteenth-century version of the Elvis Presley debate over highly successful white artists appropriating black art. Delany deplored Stowe’s denigration of Haiti and condemned her as a colonizationist. In his short reply Douglass argued that Delany himself was a colonizationist of sorts and asked, “Who doubts that Mrs. Stowe is more of an abolitionist now than when she wrote that chapter?” Douglass viewed the novel as the most “efficient agent of change,” going through the country like fire through a “dry stubble.” The Douglass–Delany exchange established the contours of the debate over the novel still carried on today.29
The popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, based in part on its use of fugitive slave narratives, led to a revival of the genre. Besides Northup, Douglass published a larger and “novelized” version of his narrative in 1855, My Bondage and My Freedom. It sold fifteen thousand copies in the first two months of publication. It was, McCune Smith wrote in his new introduction to the narrative, Douglass’s declaration of independence from Garrison, his reinvention as a political abolitionist, and his emergence as a race leader. “He is a Representative American man—a type of his countryman,” he wrote. Douglass’s new narrative was not a simple rejection of abolitionist interracialism, as his effusive dedication to Gerrit Smith revealed. Douglass sought to define himself against not just Garrison but also the one black abolitionist McCune Smith deliberately left out of his cast of contemporary black leaders, Delany. The politics of black protest, not only the politics of the abolition movement, form an essential backdrop to My Bondage. According to McCune Smith, the “real object” of abolition “is not only to disenthrall” but also “to bestow upon the negro the exercise of all those rights, from the possession of which he has been long debarred.” After making it clear that Douglass’s genius was a result of his black, not his Caucasian (a term McCune Smith adeptly deconstructs, making fun of ethnologists) heritage, he argues that Douglass, like Dumas, Aldridge, and the singer Elizabeth Greenfield, “the Black Swan,” was an exemplar of a biological “grafting” of the Anglo-Saxon on “good, original negro stock.” Like Egypt, the United States was a “mixed race” nation.
In the narrative Douglass put forward his compelling vision of race, democracy, and nation. An expanded meditation of the original Narrative of 1845, it is a more thoughtful dismantling of the notion that “the relation of master and slave is one of reciprocal benefits.” The smaller part of the narrative describes Douglass’s abolitionist career, and an appendix contains his best speeches. It is also a more philosophical account of his break with Garrison and a considered repudiation of Garrisonian views on the Union and Constitution as proslavery. By arguing for the “unconstitutionality and complete illegality of slavery in our land,” Douglass claimed a spot for blacks in the nation and for himself the mantle of a “temperate revolutionary.” But he coupled it with his rage at the racism he had experienced and a recognition that the problem of slavery was also the problem of racism. Douglass transcended the dialectic of resistance and accommodation to arrive at a compelling synthesis of the black presence in the United States. He would live out the rest of his life as the “Representative Colored Man of the United States,” one who was identified with the struggles of the race. He claimed his identity as a black man to redefine what it meant to be an American.30
Others also banked on Stowe’s success and published new editions of their narratives. Perhaps the fugitive slave who capitalized most on Stowe’s novel was Henson. In 1858 Eliot published a new edition of Henson’s narrative as Truth Stranger Than Fiction, for which Stowe wrote the preface. That year Henson got into an argument with Remond at a West India emancipation celebration in New Bedford on the advisability of slave rebellions. He recommended running away instead. Henson used the Uncle Tom comparison in fund-raising lectures for the Dawn settlement and its manual labor school. His narrative was reprinted several times in England and Canada from 1877 to 1890, with Henson repeatedly identified as Uncle Tom in the title. Thomas Jones, who published his narrative in the 1850s, also referenced Stowe’s novel in the title, Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones. His book contained a frontispiece with his picture and a cabin with the descriptor “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
While Jones’s work followed fugitive slave narratives in graphically illustrating the cruelties of slavery, family separations, the slave trade, and whippings, it publicized a less known aspect of slave resistance, the manner in which many slaves scrimped and saved to buy themselves and their families out of slavery. After losing his first wife and three children when their mistress moved to Alabama, Jones bought the freedom of his second wife. She escaped with three of their children after being threatened with reenslavement, and he followed her. The story of Jones’s escape, which he revealed in subsequent editions of his narrative after the war, was dramatic. Unable to withstand turpentine fumes in the hold of a ship in which he was hiding, he was discovered and then managed to escape in a raft before being picked up by a rescue boat. Assisted by abolitionists in Brooklyn, the Jones family moved to Massachusetts and then, fearful of being remanded back to slavery after the passage of the new fugitive law, to Canada. Jones’s activism makes the Uncle Tom persona he adopted to sell his narrative incongruous. In Boston he pointed out that his children were not “in a free land,” as they were excluded from the schools “because their skin is black.” A successful preacher, he joined the MASS lecture circuit to purchase the freedom of his oldest son, left behind in slavery, and became an agent for the Liberator in Canada.
The second half of Jones’s narrative—Wild Tom, a play on Uncle Tom—is a work of fiction set in South Carolina. Wild Tom is of “unmixed African blood” and still remembers his mother’s stories of being kidnapped from Africa. In a nod to Hildreth’s novel, his story is related by Archy Moore, the nearly white slave son of his master. When Tom’s wife is whipped to death, he is transformed from a devout Methodist to a desperado, stealing rice from his master’s fields with a gang of slaves, burning his master’s home and rice mills, and killing the overseer. Wild Tom is caught and when asked who he belongs to, he defiantly answers, to God. He is burned alive in the end, smiling at his persecutors in “contemptuous defiance.” Jones’s novella acts as a definite counterfoil to Stowe’s novel. In 1885 he published another version of his narrative, adding that he had managed to buy the freedom of his father and mother.31
Other stories by fugitive slaves blurred the line between fact and fiction. William Still’s famous postwar book on the UGRR began with the poignant story of his brother Peter Still, who, with another brother, Levin, was sold into slavery by their Maryland master after their mother escaped to New Jersey. By sheer coincidence Peter purchased his freedom and met William, who figured out that he was his long-lost brother. But Peter pined for his wife and children in Alabama, and when Seth Concklin, an abolitionist “wholly insensible of fear,” read about his story he offered to bring his family out of slavery. The plan, Still confided, was known only to him and McKim, and they never sought the approval of the PVC, whose activities did not include slave running. Concklin managed to spirit Peter’s family all the way to Indiana, where his luck ran out when he was apprehended at Vincennes and the marshal of Evansville jailed the group. Peter’s family was taken back to slavery, and Concklin “was found drowned, with his hands and feet in chains and his skull fractured.”
Kate E. R. Pickard, a teacher at a female seminary at Tuscumbia, Alabama, who knew Peter, recounted a fictionalized version of his story in her book The Kidnapped and the Ransomed (1856). It was dedicated to the memory of Levin Still, the brother who died in slavery and after whom Peter named one of his sons. Pickard’s book contained a foreword by Samuel J. May and an appendix by Rev. William Furness on the life of Concklin. A working-class abolitionist who dedicated all his “frugal means” and energies to abolition, Concklin, Furness wrote, had a life that was a “heroic poem.” His only known words, besides his letters to Still, are a letter to his sister warning her of the “dreadful demon spirit” of racism in the colonization society. Peter did not give up the idea of redeeming his captive family after Concklin’s death. Still entered into negotiations with Peter’s master, who demanded five thousand dollars for his wife and their three children. Peter undertook a fund-raising tour on the abolitionist lecture circuit starting with May in Syracuse, speaking to the Garrisonians in Boston and in small towns all over New England and New York. He garnered funds and letters of support from antislavery celebrities such as Stowe, Greeley, Smith, and even Seward’s Whig political manager, Thurlow Weed, and Bacon. By 1854 Peter had collected enough money to negotiate the ransom of his family, but one of his sons was forced to leave a child behind. On obtaining their freedom, Peter and his wife, Lavinia, legalized their marriage. Pickard’s romanticized fictional version of the story has a happy ending.32
Abolitionist writers contributed to the popularity of fugitive slave literature. Mattie Griffith, a nineteen-year-old Kentucky orphan who freed her six slaves and became an abolitionist on hearing of the caning of Charles Sumner and reading his speech, published her Autobiography of a Female Slave in 1857. The book begins with the attempted sale of its young heroine Ann, and abolition is a constant theme, various characters declaiming at length against slavery. Its unconventional plot has Ann defending herself against abuse, for which she is imprisoned and whipped. Tragedy befalls her enslaved lover, Henry, whose master cheats him of his purchase money, leading him to commit suicide. Ann’s mistress frees her, and she moves north to a quiet “puritanical little town” in Massachusetts. The women who befriend her are a free black woman and an Irish servant and her mistress.
The underlying feminist–abolitionist theme in the novel is hard to miss even though there are female characters who betray Ann and abuse her. Douglass is set up as the beau ideal of an abolitionist, disrupting the black slave / white abolitionist binary, as does Ann’s romanticized view of Boston’s free black community. “There I met full-blooded Africans,” Griffith writes, “finely educated, in the possession of princely talents, occupying good positions, wielding a powerful political influence, and illustrating, in their lives, the oft-disputed fact, that the African intellect is equal to the Caucasian.” The novel ends with an abolitionist call to the “mechanics” and workers of the North to check the spread of slavery. Griffith’s mentor, Child, called her novel “sentimental and inflated.” Like Child, Griffith wrote for the Standard, including the serialized self-referential novel Madge Vertner, about a woman who emancipates her slaves. In 1866 Griffith married Albert Gallatin Browne, a Union officer who had been indicted in the attempted rescue of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns.33
Black writers as well capitalized on Stowe’s success. In 1853 Wells Brown published Clotel, reprinting his narrative as a preface to the novel, which was loosely based on Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. Brown’s main character, Clotel, Jefferson’s fictional daughter, is sold into slavery, highlighting the hypocrisy and cruelty of slaveholders. Unlike direct rebuttals of Jefferson’s racism, this fictional account of his black family is replete with real-life incidents and Brown’s own experiences with slavery, the domestic slave trade, and the UGRR. It borrowed heavily from Child’s The Quadroons and other abolitionists’ words, but it is a multifaceted indictment of slavery and racism. The trope of the “tragic mulatto” in abolitionist literature disrupted racist binaries even when playing off them. Re-creating the act of a real female slave whose actions were commemorated in an abolitionist poem reprinted by Brown, Clotel commits suicide by jumping off a bridge as she is hemmed in by slave traders from Washington at one end and Virginian slaveholders on the other. Published later in different versions, Brown’s pastiche of a novel alluded also to Turner’s rebellion, the Crafts’ escape, and the Haitian Revolution, blending protest and prose. The reception of Brown’s novel in England was overshadowed by the thunderous success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but today literary critics regard it as the first African American novel. Four years later he published a fugitive slave play, The Escape, or, A Leap to Freedom in five acts. Brown wrote in his preface that its main characters, Glen and Melinda, harassed by Melinda’s owner Dr. Gaines and tormented by his jealous wife, were “actual characters” who “still reside in Canada.” Melinda and Glen outwit their abusive owners. Brown gave successful dramatic readings of the play. During and after the war Brown wrote transnational black history and collective biographies of black abolitionists, writers, soldiers, and revolutionaries in the Americas. He was the most prolific black author of his time.34
Besides Brown, with whom she lectured in 1857, Frances Ellen Watkins emerged as a preeminent abolitionist writer. The niece of William Watkins, the orphaned Frances was educated by him and had worked as a teacher, seamstress, and domestic servant. Called the “bronze muse” of the abolition movement, Watkins spoke “eloquently of the wrongs of the slave” throughout the North and was hired as a lecturing agent by the Maine ASS. An abolitionist reporter described her as “a young lady of color, of fine attainments, of superior education, and an impressive speaker, leaving an impression, wherever she goes, which will not soon be forgotten.” Watkins became known for her evocative recitation of her poetry as well as her finished abolitionist lectures. She published her first poetry collection, Forest Leaves, in 1845. In 1854 Watkins made her debut on the abolitionist lecture circuit and published her second collection, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, with a preface by Garrison. It was reprinted twenty times. Her poems on free produce and the reaction of Lovejoy’s mother to the news of his death combined sentimental romanticism with activism. Two of her poems were based on characters from Stowe’s novel: “Eliza Harris,” depicting the flight across the Ohio, and “Eva’s Farewell,” on the death of Eva. One memorable stanza cast the female fugitive as the exemplary mother: “Oh! Poverty, danger and death she can brave, / For the child of her love is no longer a slave.”
Fugitive slaves were the subject of Watkins’s most famous poems, “The Slave Mother” and “The Fugitive’s Wife.” A Unitarian, Watkins, like the most famous Unitarian abolitionists of the day, Parker, William H. Channing, and Furness, was active in fugitive slave abolitionism. She was known to assist runaways, and Still listed her as “one of the most liberal contributors” to the UGRR. In Philadelphia she met many of the fugitives who inspired her poetry. In the expanded edition of her collection, published in 1857, she reworked “The Slave Mother” giving it the subtitle “A Tale of the Ohio,” referencing Margaret Garner, who killed her children rather than see them enslaved. In its miscellaneous prose section she included her letter from Canada, “I have gazed for the first time upon Free Land!” Two years later she published the sentimental “The Dying Fugitive” in the Anglo African Magazine, where her feminist short story “The Two Offers” also appeared.
By the start of the war Watkins had become an astute political commentator whose works often graced the abolitionist press. She was a fierce advocate of emancipation and critic of Lincoln’s colonization plans in her articles for the Christian Recorder. After the death of her husband and during Reconstruction, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper worked among freedmen and -women in the South. She became known for her advocacy of temperance and women’s rights and was active in Frances Willard’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In her speech before the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1866, Harper pointed out, “You white women here speak of rights. I speak of wrongs.” She held up Tubman, “a woman who has gone down into the Egypt of slavery and brought out hundreds of our people into liberty” but was subject to Jim Crow railroad cars, as her feminist hero. A prolific author, she published the novel Iola Leroy (1892), which concentrated on the travails of enslaved women and reworked the tragic mulatto trope, and several books of poetry after the war. Harper’s long literary and activist career make her an exceptional, if somewhat forgotten, abolitionist writer.35
Stowe fashioned herself as a patron of black writers. She wrote the preface for Frank J. Webb’s novel The Garies and their Friends (1857), a portrait of free black life, which, like Wilson’s autobiographical Our Nig, is an indictment of the pervasive nature of northern racism. The high point of the novel is the murder of Garies by a Philadelphia mob instigated by a lawyer who covets their property for being “amalgamationists.” Garies is a former planter whose wife is black. Stowe befriended Webb’s actress wife, Mary, for whom she wrote a dramatized account of her novel. Mary performed The Christian Slave (1855) in the North and in England. The Webbs, armed with Stowe’s letters of introduction, visited England, where Webb published his novel.36 Rather than view it in isolation, one must see the triumph of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the context of the slave narratives that preceded it and the renaissance of abolitionist literature that followed it.
LITERATURE OF RESISTANCE
Abolitionist writers developed a literature of resistance that upended the image of saintly suffering personified by Uncle Tom. The heroes and heroines of these books were rebels and fugitives, characters who challenged the military might and political power of the slaveholding republic. Starting with his confrontation with Covey, Douglass justified the notion of self-defense, even though he had opposed Garnet’s address to the slaves. At the NEAS convention in 1848 Douglass vindicated the “slaves’ right to revolt.” There are many “Madison Washingtons and Nathaniel Turners” in the South, he claimed, who would rise if northerners “take your feet from their necks, and your sympathy and aid from their oppressors.” He hoped that “the whole South will present again a scene something similar to the deck of the Creole.” Douglass enthralled an abolitionist meeting by saying he would welcome the news that “sable arms that had been engaged in beautifying and adorning the South were engaged in spreading death and devastation there.” In January 1853 Douglass published his novella The Heroic Slave on Washington and the Creole shipboard rebellion in Autographs of Freedom, which Griffiths put together to raise funds for his paper. It was reprinted serially in four parts in March.
Douglass implies that Washington was more of a revolutionary than the slaveholding founders whose names he bore. In the very first scene, his manly appearance and words convert the white Ohioan Listwell, who resolves to be an abolitionist. The fugitive slave influences the white man rather than vice versa, as Listwell listens well. In the next scene Listwell aids Washington on his way to Canada and then encounters the black man again in a slave coffle, apprehended in an attempt to free his wife. Douglass’s story adheres loosely to the actual story of the rebellion right down to the deliverance of the Creole rebels by black soldiers. Douglass’s heroic Washington stands in contrast to Herman Melville’s complex portrayal of the deceptively masterful slave rebel Babo in Benito Cereno (1855), also based on an actual shipboard rebellion described by Capt. Amasa Delano in his A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817). It was not a coincidence that both Melville and Douglass wrote on the aesthetics of black resistance during this time. Stowe pronounced Douglass’s novella excellent.37
Stowe herself contributed to the literature of resistance. In 1856 she published her lesser known novel Dred, which sold over two hundred thousand copies thanks to her celebrity. If Uncle Tom’s Cabin appropriated material from fugitive slave narratives, Dredrelied on the history of slave resistance. While it reads like a conventional plantation novel, Stowe introduces two notable instances of rebellion. An entire chapter is devoted to Vesey’s conspiracy, and an appendix, which acts as a historical source à la A Key, to Nat Turner’s confessions. Dred is a fugitive who lives in the Dismal Swamps, well known as the site of slave Maroon communities. He also happens to be the son of Vesey and a participant in Turner’s rebellion. His armed presence is a constant menace to plantation society. Stowe also alludes to the Garner case and the caning of Sumner by the South Carolinian Preston Brooks. The brutal slaveholder Tom Gordon whips the antislavery Edward Clayton, making him eminently suitable for Congress, she wryly notes. Dred’s runaway band rescues Clayton, reversing the order of fugitive slave “rescues” in the North, and breaks Tom’s arm.
Stowe’s romantic racialism, however, tinges her tale of black resistance. She describes the “unfathomable blackness and darkness” of Dred’s “African eye,” his overpowering physical presence. She draws attention to the “black velvet” skin of Aunt Milly, whom she calls an “African woman,” a character perhaps inspired by Truth. Stowe’s essay on Truth, the “Libyan Sibyl,” portrayed the black New Yorker as a “native African.” Major themes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are revisited in Dred, like the attempted abuse of the light-skinned slave Lisette by the abusive Gordon. Tom is the half brother of Nina Gordon, an adult version of Eva who dies of cholera in ministering to her slaves. She is the good slaveholder complicit in the system, and, like St. Clare, her abusive brother Tom inherits her slaves. The father of the antislavery Claytons, who free, educate, and settle their slaves in Canada, Judge Clayton delivers North Carolinian Thomas Ruffin’s infamous Mann decision of 1829, which declared a master’s power over his slaves absolute. Aunt Milly and Old Tiff are the seemingly Uncle Tom characters who escape from slavery, and Dred, the anti-Tom, dies a Tom-like martyr’s death. Aunt Milly educates “destitute children” in freedom, and her son, Tomtit, grows up to be an abolitionist. Stowe’s literary foray into the politics of black resistance was not a complete repudiation of her earlier views but more in keeping with abolitionist positions. Instead of Harris’s colonizationist letter, we get Harry’s letter, “the slave’s argument,” which evokes the Declaration on behalf of Vesey.38
Besides rebellion, works recovering the martial history of black men lent themselves to notions of violent resistance. William Cooper Nell’s The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855), for which Stowe wrote a preface, was the foremost. Often viewed as a simple black appropriation of the American revolutionary tradition, Nell’s book teems with slave rebels as well as black patriots, fugitive slave rebellions, and outstanding leaders of the black community, valorization of revolutionary ideals as well as a critique of racism. It defies easy categorization. An expansion of his earlier pamphlet Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812 (1851), which was popular enough to be printed in two editions, and inspired by the writings of Whittier and Child, the book recounts Nell’s attempts to raise funds for a statue of Crispus Attucks, noting that the fugitive slaves Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns were remanded back to slavery on the very ground Attucks “trod.” Attucks, Nell noted, was a fugitive slave. Black service in the Revolutionary War is coupled with early critiques of revolutionary republicanism in the New England slave petitions. The revolutionary hero Prince Whipple, Nell argued, did not hesitate to whip and shoot some white ruffians who attacked him. He presents a state-by-state account of black leaders and activism in which Turner, Vesey, and the “Virginia maroons” get the lion’s share of attention in the chapters on southern slave states.
An eclectic appendix that includes the “claims of the red man,” the words of Lafayette and Kościuszko, the Amistad revolt, and the Christiana uprising of 1851 illustrated Nell’s refashioning of the American revolutionary heritage. In a letter to Garrison, Nell singled out European revolutionaries, known to sympathize with black Americans, as not being tainted with “American colorophobia.” Abolitionists like Phillips, who wrote the introduction, Smith, and Garrison, he wrote, were “colored all over.” Nell ended his book with the eloquent address of 1853 at the national black convention written by Douglass. It was a “sad, but true, confession,” he concluded, that the “Revolution of 1776” necessitated another revolution. He called on black Americans to “nourish the tree of liberty” and “hasten . . . their claim to the title, ‘Patriots of the Second Revolution.’” He asked them to join a “moral battle” against “American proslavery” and crown “Freedom’s Army” with victory.
Nell, along with other black abolitionists in Massachusetts, namely, Morris, Hayden, Remond, and William J. Watkins, led a movement to form a black state militia. Their demand was no mere desire to dress up in fancy uniforms and parade around. At a time when Boston’s courthouses had become battlegrounds over fugitive slaves, and federal troops and deputized marshals roamed the city streets to enforce the hated fugitive law, armed black men acting on behalf of the state could very well tip the scales in a confrontation. In 1852 sixty-five “colored citizens” petitioned the legislature and the following year petitioned the state constitutional convention for an “independent black military company.” In his speech before the General Court, Watkins, apologizing for the “disabilities” of his education, viewed the exclusion of black men from the militia as an example of the “juggernaut of American Prejudice” crushing “the manhood out of us.” It was an “inseparable concomitant” of American slavery, and Watkins made it clear that black men did not intend to “submit to your indignities with Christian meekness and becoming submission,” like Uncle Tom. “Give us our rights,” he demanded, as able-bodied male citizens of the Commonwealth. The Irish, often used in fugitive slave rendition, the Germans, and the Hungarians were allowed to form militias denied to “native born” black Americans, who, he said, quoting Nell’s work, had fought for the country. Watkins’s argument was no bow to nativism, as he concluded with the Garrisonian motto, “Our country is the world—Our countrymen all mankind.”
Despite the support of radical Free Soilers such as Sumner and Henry Wilson, the opposition of conservatives like Benjamin F. Hallet, the bête noire of fugitive slaves and their abolitionist allies, killed the measure. The federal militia law of 1792 explicitly excluded black men, Hallet asserted. Not waiting for official permission, black abolitionists formed the Massasoit Guards, named after the Wampanoag chief, not after any of the revolutionary sires of the Commonwealth. Nell regretted they could not take the name of Attucks, which black military companies in New York and Cincinnati had already adopted. In 1857 a black coachman named Lewis Gaul formed the Liberty Guard, the name of John Brown’s militia in Kansas. White rowdies attacked them as they marched on city streets. Two years later Gov. Nathaniel Banks vetoed a bill allowing African Americans to join the militia. By one count there were twenty-seven black militias in the North and Canada West, most of them formed in the 1850s. Not until the Civil War was their dream of an armed black militia realized when one of the first black Union regiments, the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts, was formed under the auspices of the state’s radical governor John Andrews.39
Black abolitionists looked beyond America’s shores to construct a cosmopolitan discourse of revolutionary resistance. In 1841 “R,” probably Charles B. Ray, pointed to the Haitian Revolution rather than the American as an exemplar of black revolutionary resistance: “The immolations and martyrdoms on the plains of St. Domingo, in opposition to cruel and aristocratic oppression, though written as they are on the pages of history, in characters of blood, should be as ‘balm to our souls, and incense to our worship.’ They are sureties to us, that as a race, we cannot be crushed.” In defending the record of the Haitian Revolution from its racist detractors, McCune Smith, in his “Lecture on the Haytien Revolutions; With a Sketch of the Character of Toussaint L’Ouverture,” anticipated the efforts of twentieth-century black radical intellectuals like C. L. R. James. In the talk, delivered as a fund raiser for the Colored Orphan Asylum, Smith set out to present a full, objective history of the revolution. Noting that five thousand African slaves died each year prior to the revolution, Smith asked his audience to compare this holocaust in black lives to the casualties of the “wars, insurrections and massacres” of the revolution. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, whom he called the Robespierre of Haiti, killed only those who were attempting to reinstall slavery. Smith divided his history into three revolutions, the formation of the French Republic, the abolition of slavery, and the independence of Haiti, over which Toussaint was the “presiding genius.” His signal achievement, Smith wrote, was not just the abolition of slavery but also of the racial caste that had divided the island into whites, mixed race, and blacks.
Abolitionists had long laid claim to the heritage of the Haitian Revolution. In his lecture, which was published in 1855, Wells Brown found the American Revolution wanting: “Toussaint’s government made liberty its watchword, incorporated it in its constitution, abolished the slave-trade, and freedom universal amongst the people. Washington’s government incorporated slavery and the slave trade, and enacted laws by which chains were fastened upon the limbs of millions of people. Toussaint liberated his countrymen; Washington enslaved a portion of his, and aided in giving strength and vitality to an institution that will one day rent asunder the UNION that he helped form.” Brown also used his history of Haiti to call for rebellion. Southern slaves, he argued, burned for revenge: “The indignation of the slaves of the south would kindle a fire so hot that would melt their chains, drop by drop, until not a single link would remain.” Similarly, in his poem on the free black leader of Haiti, Vincent Ogé, George B. Vashon wrote, “Upon the slave’s o’erclouded sky, / Your gallant actions traced the bow, / Which whispered of deliverance nigh—/The meed of one decisive blow.” By 1861 Phillips had incorporated many of these ideas into his popular lecture “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” which was more a history of the Haitian Revolution than a biography of Toussaint. He drove home the point: “There never was a race that, weakened and degraded by such chattel slavery, unaided, tore off its own fetters, forged them into swords, and won its liberty in the battle-field, but one, and that was the black race of St. Domingo.”40
More than any other abolitionist, Delany imagined transnational black revolutionary resistance in his novel Blake, or, The Huts of America. Describing a Pan-African, hemispheric revolt against slavery, the novel was published serially in Thomas Hamilton’s Anglo-American Magazinestarting in February 1859. It was republished with an additional second part in the Weekly Anglo-African in 1861–62. Not published as a book until 1970, its last six chapters are lost to history. The central character is a fugitive slave in Mississippi called Henry Holland Blake, “a pure Negro—handsome, manly and intelligent.” The novel starts with the sale of his wife, Maggie, to Cuba, which in turn leads to Henry’s escape to Canada and his revolutionary plan to coordinate a rebellion in the slave south and Cuba, and along the way recover his wife’s freedom. It is not clear if Delany wrote Blake as a response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin or was influenced by Dred, as some scholars have claimed. He did not include the epigraphs by Stowe until the 1861–62 publication.
Blake visualized an international, Pan-African revolution as a response to proslavery imperialism and to the revival of plans to annex Cuba and reopen the African slave trade in the late 1850s. As early as 1849 Delany had written against slaveholding designs on Cuba, “the greatest western slave mart of the world,” and held that the “redemption of Cuba” was central to black revolutionary politics. He advised the “oppressed in Cuba” to imitate the Haitians and “take their cause in their own hands.” In 1854 Mohammah Gardo Baquaqua published his narrative of enslavement in Africa, slavery in Brazil, and the gaining of his freedom through the intervention of the New York State Vigilance Committee in 1847. Baquaqua lived in Haiti and Canada and then traveled to England. Abolitionists like Rev. Cyrus Grosvenor, the president of New York Central College, where Baquaqua enrolled, and Gerrit Smith helped him publish his book. He hoped to raise money to go back to Africa as a Baptist missionary. At the time Delany published Blake, black abolitionists in New York such as Pennington drew attention to the conduct of the illegal foreign slave trade to Cuba and Brazil, which involved American slavers and crew, and sought to ensure the freedom and safety of African recaptives, demanding that the children be housed in the Colored Orphan Asylum rather than in jail. An article in the Anglo-African Magazine asked free black people to take the lead against “the consummation of this astounding crime.” In Blake, Henry turns out to be a Cuban kidnapped into southern slavery, and when he reaches Cuba, Delany has him meet Plácido, the revolutionary poet who was executed during the La Escalera slave conspiracy in 1844. Henry is Carolus Henrico Blacus, a long-lost cousin of Plácido, and the two plot revolution. Henry, unlike the characters Mammy Judy and Daddy Joe, who are Uncle Tom–like, is presented as an exemplary revolutionary leader, arguing that if he were to listen to “the advice of the old people here, and become reconciled to drag out a miserable life of degradation and bondage,” his master would “crush out my lingering manhood, and reduce my free spirit to the submission of a slave.” He is “General-in-chief” of an “Army of Emancipation.”
The Western hemisphere, wrote Delany, was an inheritance of the colored races, of the original Indian people that inhabited the Americas, and of the black race. During his visit to Indian territory Henry posits a camaraderie between Indian masters and black slaves, quite unlike contemporary historical portrayals of Indian slavery. Delany, like the Haitian revolutionaries, saw the black revolution as reclaiming the Americas in the name of its indigenous inhabitants. Contrary to the dictates of the pseudoscience of race and social Darwinism, he wrote that while the colored races “increased and progressed,” whites “decreased and continually retrograded.” Henry sets sail for Africa, ironically in a slaver outfitted in Baltimore: “Goin’ to Afraka,” he says, “where de white man dare not stay.” The last line of the extant novel reads, “Woe be unto those devils of whites, I say!”41
The most important narrative of female slave resistance, written by Harriet Jacobs, a fugitive from North Carolina, was published in 1861. An indictment of the sexual exploitation of enslaved women, it is a culmination of a theme running through slave narratives. The emphasis on female slave abuse, physical and sexual, stories of overseers who enjoyed whipping female slaves, jealous masters and mistresses who did not hesitate to scour them, the sale and mishandling of female slaves, and the rape of slave women populate slave narratives. Even those women who ostensibly formed long-term relationships with their owners were shown all too often to be at the mercy of the slave system and vengeful relatives after the demise of their protectors. If slave narratives are accepted as authentic black testimony about the workings of slavery, then the abuse of female slaves was an essential component of fugitive slave abolitionism rather than a figment of the supposed prurient and pornographic imagination of white abolitionists.
A failure to account for the essential place of fugitive slave abolitionists in the movement and their pivotal ideological contributions to it has led scholars to repeat uncritically an argument first put forward by slaveholders and their apologists. The long-held belief that Child, the editor of Jacobs’s narrative, who confessed that she had not added more than forty words to the narrative itself, was its real author and that the narrative itself was abolitionist fiction underscores this point. Having adopted a pseudonym, Linda Brent, the author Jacobs was forgotten until her recovery by the literary scholar Jean Fagan Yellin. The fact that Jacobs rejected the editorial services of the famous Stowe and of her employer, whom she suspected of harboring proslavery sentiments, showed her determination not to lose control over her story. Of all abolitionist writers, Child had the largest role in the production of fugitive slave literature. In 1853 she wrote the life of Isaac Hopper, a pioneer of the abolitionist underground. Besides her numerous contributions to the abolitionist press, in 1858 she published a drama, pointedly titled The Stars and Stripes, based loosely on the escape of William and Ellen Craft. Like Brown’s play, it ends with slave hunters failing to catch their prey at the Canadian ferry. By all accounts, Jacobs, who decided not to use the more famous yet condescending Stowe, and Child formed a mutually respectful and productive literary partnership.
Pitting the will of a young slave girl against her would-be abuser, Jacobs lays bare the underside of the patriarchal institution. She wrote memorably, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, theyhave wrongs, and sufferings and mortifications peculiarly their own.” Jacobs first foiled her master’s designs by entering into a relationship with a prominent white lawyer by whom she has two children. She explained, “I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others,” artfully challenging the sexual double standard that she knew most of her female readers experienced. Jacobs claimed the mantle of the virtuous slave mother rather than that of the fallen woman. She finally escaped the unwanted attentions of her lecherous old master by hiding in a crawl space in the attic of her grandmother’s house for seven years, even sending him letters postmarked from New York. As she put it, “I resolved to match my cunning against his cunning.” On escaping to the North in 1842, she is helped by the abolitionist underground in Philadelphia and New York and becomes associated with the interracial abolitionist milieu in Boston and Rochester. Purvis corroborated the main outlines of her story to Gay, though he was confused about the details. Her brother John S. Jacobs was an abolitionist lecturer who published his narrative serially in a British religious journal the same year as Jacobs. Both narratives reveal that the Jacobses came from a family of rebels, a proud father and a runaway uncle. John, who walked out on his relatively kind master and father of his sister’s children, left him a note signed simply, “no longer yours.” He ends his narrative with an abolitionist philippic. Even more than Jacobs, her brother’s lecturing career embodied the life of a fugitive slave abolitionist. Jacobs’s confidante in Rochester was the Quaker abolitionist Amy Post, with whom she lived for a while. She worked in an antislavery reading room above Douglass’s newspaper office and wrote anonymous letters about her experiences in abolitionist newspapers before publishing her narrative.
Like other slave narratives, Jacobs’s destroyed the paternalistic image of slavery assiduously promoted by slaveholders and proslavery apologists, cataloguing instances of abuse and the hypocrisy of slaveholding Christianity and directly taking on slaveholders’ claims that slaves were treated better than working-class and poor whites in free societies. At one point she noted, “I would ten thousand times rather that my children should be the half-starved paupers of Ireland than to be the most pampered slaves in America.” On her visit to England Jacobs insisted that the condition of the poorest and the meanest there was vastly superior to that of American slaves. “I do not deny that the poor are oppressed in Europe,” but she did not subscribe to the “rose-colored” picture of slavery painted by some who compared their condition to that of the slaves. Child, whose editing of the narrative was minimal, mainly rearranging material, suggested deleting a concluding chapter on John Brown, and one is left to wonder what abolitionist ending Jacobs had originally visualized. She advised Jacobs to write a chapter on the terror inflicted on slaves and free blacks in the aftermath of Turner’s rebellion. During the war Jacobs, like other black women abolitionists, worked for the relief of contraband slaves and with her daughter established schools for freed people in Alexandria and Savannah. She died in 1897.42
Unlike Jacobs’s narrative, Hannah Craft’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative, a fictionalized account of the author’s experiences and escape from slavery, never saw the light of day. The literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. published the rediscovered manuscript in 2002, and Greg Hecimovich has recently established her identity as Hannah Bond. Her owner was John Wheeler, the master of a famous fugitive, Jane Johnson. Like Jacobs, Bond, identifying herself as a “fugitive slave recently escaped from North Carolina,” emphasized the abuse of slave women and unmistakably intended her story to be an argument for the abolition of slavery. As she asks in the preface, “Have I succeeded in portraying any of the peculiar features of that institution whose curse rests over the fairest land the sun shines upon? Have I succeeded in showing how it blights the happiness of the white as well as the black race?” Like Ellen Craft, she escaped slavery disguised as a man. Her novel has a happy ending that many slave narratives lacked: she marries a black Methodist minister and teaches in a school for “colored children” in New Jersey. Bond’s gothic novel, in which a mulatto mistress steadily descends into insanity before dying, her master commits suicide, and a slave trader and the man who sought to expose her mistress die, plays with notions of race and identity. The face of her mistress, Mrs. Wheeler, is temporarily blackened by powder, and she herself is fair enough to pass for white.43
Fugitive slaves presented the best riposte to proslavery thought. In 1856 Benjamin Drew, an abolitionist journalist and school principal from Massachusetts, published A North-Side View of Slavery, containing Canadian fugitive slave narratives. The title is a counterpoint to the proslavery tract by Garrison’s clerical adversary Rev. Nehemiah Adams, who wrote A South-Side View of Slavery. The fugitives’ experience, Drew wrote, “shed a peculiar lustre on the Institution of the South.” Anticipating the WPA slave narratives, he recorded hundreds of interviews, admitting he could not publish all of them. His book remains one of the best sources on Canadian black communities composed primarily of fugitive slaves. He gave a census count of fourteen black settlements, a careful account of the churches and schools founded by them, and individual stories of escape and migration. Most of the narratives are of young men from the border states, a fair sampling of the fugitive slave population. One of the longer narratives, that of John Holmes, an escaped slave from Virginia, with its description of slaveholder brutality, was republished in the Liberator. Drew distilled the meaning of the narratives in his astute introduction. To him, slavery was “the oppression of the laboring portion of the community . . . to an entire deprivation of their civil and personal rights” and punishes “with bodily tortures the least infraction of its mandates.” Only the authentic accounts of the slaves themselves told the real truth about slavery, that it was not a workers’ paradise, the motif so belabored by southern defenders of slavery. They alone could recite “the history of their sufferings and wrongs, of their bondage and their escape.” They were “the most irritating subject of discussion between the North and the South” and thwarted southern designs “to preserve, extend, and perpetuate slavery.” In action and words, fugitive slave abolitionists were the true adversaries of southern slaveholders.
These self-emancipated Canadian “refugees” from American slavery, many of whom served in the Union army, contributed to the formation of emancipation policy. During the Civil War, the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, which included Samuel Gridley Howe and Robert Dale Owen, was formed to report on the transition from slavery to freedom by gathering information from former slaves, Union army officials, missionaries, and teachers. Their report led to the formation of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Howe published a separate book on black communities in Canada in 1864, borrowing liberally from Drew’s narratives, as his own sampling of interviews of former slaves, which he reproduced verbatim, was much smaller. Unlike Drew, Howe interviewed not just former slaves but many white teachers, who vouched for their ability. Howe wanted to prove the capacity of black people for self-government, even in the midst of an “unsympathizing population,” and his work was geared to convince skeptical whites about the wisdom of emancipation and the ability of African Americans to thrive in freedom.44
Fugitive slave abolitionists represented a substantial countermovement to the slavery expansionism and proslavery imperialism of southern slaveholders in the 1850s. For them, the war against slavery had started long before the booming of guns involved the rest of the nation. It is no surprise that the ordinances of secession of southern states included the fugitive slave controversy as one of the major causes of disunion. And fugitive slaves en masse, acting like many of their predecessors, initiated the emancipation process during the war. Self-emancipated slaves were at the cutting-edge of the abolition movement.