Another reason to love historical fiction!
The first work I read by Joyce Carol Oates was “The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese“. Then I read her Gothic novels, “Bellefleur,” “A Bloodsmore Romance,” and ”The Mysteries of Winterthurn.” I took a break from her work for a very long time, and recently picked up “The Accursed” which lead me to my post on Woodrow Wilson, who was a character in this story during the time when he was president of Princeton University (1902 – 1920).
This week, I just finished reading the second book from an additional favorite author, Lyndsay Faye, “Seven for a Secret,” the second of the Timothy Wilde series, the first being “Gods of Gotham“, both of which take place in 1840s New York.
Timothy Wilde, a “copper star,” learned about a particularly vile form of law enforcement, “blackbirders” who kidnapped free northern blacks and sold them into slavery. The book contains several quotes and, not surprisingly, quotes from “Twelve Years a Slave, Narrative of Solomon Northrup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City and Rescued in 1853 from a Cotton Plantation near the Red River in Louisiana” which won a Golden Globe Award for Best Picture – Drama and has been nominated for nine Academy Awards.
A quote that Ms. Faye included in her book was one that struck me particularly. Here is the complete paragraph from pages 206 & 207 of the Narrative:
“There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones—there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved and miserable; nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one. Men may write fictions portraying lowly life as it is, or as it is not—may expatiate with owlish gravity upon the bliss of ignorance—discourse flippantly from arm chairs of the pleasures of slave life; but let them toil with him in the field—sleep with him in the cabin—feed with him on husks; let them behold him scourged, hunted, trampled on, and they will come back with another story in their mouths. Let them know the heart of the poor slave—learn his secret thoughts—thoughts he dare not utter in the hearing of the white man; let them sit by him in the silent watches of the night—converse in trustful confidence, of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and they will find that ninety-nine out of every hundred are intelligent enough to understand their situation, and to cherish in their bosoms the love of freedom, as passionately as themselves.” [emphasis added.]
This Narrative was published in 1853, one year after the publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly.” Theodore Weld wrote “American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of A Thousand Witnesses” and it was published in 1839. I can’t help but think that Solomon Northrup was directing this comment toward Harriet Beecher Stowe and Theodore Weld followers. These two authors fell from different branches on the abolitionist tree. Harriett Beecher Stowe was an abolitionist along the lines of gradual emancipation and “returning” the slaves to Africa, otherwise known as colonization. Theodore Weld, who attended Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father, Lyman Beecher’s school, the Lane Theological Seminary School located in Cincinnati, Ohio, was of the immediate emancipation branch. Weld broke away from the school in 1834 when the school’s trustees prohibited the discussion of slavery, and Weld held debates anyway for 14 days in February 1834, while Lyman Beecher was out of town. When Weld was kicked out of Lane, he took the financial backing of the Tappan brothers. Lewis and Arthur, with him to Oberlin College.
In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise Act, was passed to strengthen the existing Fugitive Slave Act of 1783, which was also passed to enforce Article 4, Clause 3 of the United States, which stated:
No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.
This was the foundation upon which fugitive slaves were to be returned to their owners. Article 4 on the whole is fundamentally an article outlining the relationship between the states and the federal government. On the up side, it requires the states to recognize the laws of public acts, records and court proceedings of other states. This article is extremely important to civil rights in the United States, starting with slavery, to inter-racial marriage, violence against women and same-sex marriage.
Harriet Beecher Stowe often stated that it was the Fugitive Slave Act which compelled her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Every once in a while, I have to remind myself that the federal government used slave labor (and was sometimes sued for non-payment for services), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that congressional representatives at the time would, more likely than not, reflect the sentiments of that government. In the newspaper, Radical Abolitionist, dated July 1856, Dr. James C. Jackson, of Glen Haven, NY said:
What new thing is it with us, that a man like Charles Sumner is knocked down?
And if you don’t recall, Charles Sumner was nearly killed on the Senate floor two days after giving his speech, The Crime Against Kansas: The Apologies for the Crime; The True Remedy, in May 1856, the same month John Brown and his volunteers killed five men associated with the pro-slavery Law and Order Party in Pottawatomie, Kansas. So much for the other parts of the Constitution – the Second Amendment.
It was in this same publication that the Radical Abolitionists nominated Gerrit Smith (one of John Brown’s Secret Six) for President of the United States. It was also reported that at the Republican Convention, Mr. Lincoln of Illinois received 110 votes for Vice President, second to Mr. William Dayton of New Jersey who received 259 votes in the informal ballot.
Dr. Beriah Green, a close associate of Gerrit Smith, who made a speech at the Radical Abolitionist convention, made what I think sums up the federal government’s complicity in slavery correctly.
It has been affirmed, more than once, by names making a prominent figure in the sphere of politics, and enjoying a large amount of the general confidence, that slavery, from the very commencement of our political history, has been especially, prominently, and constantly, a cherished and petted “institution” of what bears the name of Government. … The thing has not only been endured by the Government – it has not only been cherished by the Government, but it has been regarded as pre-eminently, controllingly, the object to which, in the measures they might devise, they have been devoted. … I know it is claimed that the people at large are deceived and devoted to freedom ; … There will always be found a striking correspondence between those who grant office and those who hold office. We have therefore to refer this to a majority of those who wield power in this republic. …. If we look a little more earnestly, we shall be constrained to admit, that slavery without us, has its origin in slavery within us. A man will give expression to his own appropriate character. What he may be, within himself, he will be … in the objects he may pursue. … The fetters, the chains and the whips – whatever belongs to slavery, as it presents itself to they eye, has its origin within the depths of the human spirit.
Readers are reminded that the Republican Party platform at the time did not propose the suppression of the slave trade between the states, it did not propose the prohibition of slavery in the District of Columbia (which was, and continues to be, in many ways, under the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress), and failed to propose a repeal of the Fugitive Slave bill.
Frederick Douglass was present at the convention and was reported to have made two speeches. The second one was directed at the Republican Party attendees who sympathized with the abolitionist cause:
You are called Black Republicans. What right have you to that name? Among all the Candidates you have selected, or talked of, I have not seen or heard of a single black one. (Laughter.) Nor have I seen one mentioned with any prospect of success, who is friendly to the black man in his sympathies, or an advocate for the restoration of is rights. … And then there is the man who was struck down in the Senate; and he is the man you would be first to elevate, if acting on the tactics of Napoleon. … If you want to give us an example of your Black Republicanism – of your determination to resist and defy the Slave power, take Charles Sumner, and make him master at Washington.
to be continued …
The Radical Abolitionist, July 1856, Volume I, Number 12, edited by William Goodell, is available for purchase at Steam at Harper’s Ferry.