Photo of Frederick Douglass, by George Kendall Warren, c. 1879 / National Archives
Frederick Douglass’ Speech, Delivered to Abolitionist Friends in 1852
From Frederick Douglass’s speech, delivered in Rochester, New York to abolitionist friends on July 5th, 1852:
“Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions. But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy, a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour. Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
Douglass is invited by his friends to come to Rochester on July 4th to talk about the meaning of freedom, the meaning of liberty, the meaning of this great country. These were his friends. He refused to come on July 4th for the reasons that you certainly heard in this excerpt–and this is a three hour long speech. It’s a brilliant speech. But he refused to come on July 4th, because to talk about independence and liberty to a person who emancipated himself was unkind at best, certainly blind. But he did come. He came on July 5th, the next day, and offered and presented one of the great speeches in American letters.
What does it mean to be American?
Battle Road Trail with short walls / Minute Man National Historic Park, near Lexington, Massachusetts
Thinking about the excerpt of Douglass’s famous oration from 1852, I want to move backward even further, another eighty years or so, going from a rather well-known document and a quite famous individual to a rather unknown document and to someone who is essentially lost to history. I want to talk about events in the 1770s. One quick tangent though: when I was about four or five years old, living near Concord, Massachusetts, my mother would take me on field trips. She’d try them out on me before taking her first and second graders. And one day she took me to Minuteman Park, the site of the start of the Revolutionary War. So I’m with my four and five year old attention span listening to the tour guides walking through these beautiful fields and meadows. Afterwards, we were driving around a country road, and I point to these stone walls and said, “Mom, those are like the walls the Minutemen hid behind from those stories.” She said, “Jonathan, those are the walls.” Four or five years old, I mean, I was not really thinking in grand, historical terms. Life did not exist beyond my four or five years as far as I understood it. But at that moment, I sort of was astonished that these stories, these fun little stories that I’d been hearing for the past hour or so, whatever it was, in the tour, were actually true, that something existed beyond my own existence on the planet.
The Story of John Jack
Headstone of John Jack / Photo by Regan Clarke, Minute Man National Park Cemetery
Near the Minuteman Park, there’s also a cemetery. At that cemetery, there’s a headstone. The story behind this headstone is where I want to start. It’s a story about a man named John Jack. It’s a story about an individual who certainly understood very well about a sense, the existence of forces much larger than himself determining his life. The epitaph reads, excuse me: “God wills us free. Man wills us slave. I will as God wills. God’s will be done.” That’s the opening lines. I know it’s a little bit tough to make out. It’s on the course website, by the way, the first week.
“God wills us free. Man wills us slave. I will as God wills. God’s will be done. Here lies the body of John Jack, native of Africa, who died March 1773, aged about 60 years. Though born in the land of slavery, he was born free. Though he lived in a land of liberty, he lived a slave, till by his honest though stolen labors, he acquired the source of slavery which gave him his freedom. Though not long before Death, the grand tyrant, gave him his final emancipation and set him on a footing with kings. Though a slave to vice, he practiced those virtues without which kings are but slaves.”
It’s a remarkable document. My mother did this head rubbing–this stone rubbing–a charcoal rubbing of the headstone, had it framed. It hung in my family’s house. I walked past this image for about fifteen years before I actually read it. I’m not saying the guy was bright. I look at the opening lines, about nineteen or twenty years old, and I’m floored. “God wills us free. Man wills us slave. I will as God wills. God’s will be done.” It’s astonishing. Couple of years later, I’m heading to grad school, and I look at the headstone again, and I’m thinking grand thoughts about going to study American history. And I start reading the epitaph all over again, and I start seeing all these connections, these dualisms, God and man, freedom and slavery. And so I decided to acquire the headstone. I took it from my parents’ house. I told them about it once I had it on my wall in my apartment at grad school. And through my mother’s good graces, I still have it. It hangs above my computer. It’s always, it’s always with me. It is something of a totem.
Now the story about John Jack I think is even more interesting than the headstone. So we know that John Jack, certainly not his birth name, a black African, born in the continent somewhere in Africa, a continent with thousands of years history of slavery, still present today of course. He survives the Middle Passage. He comes to–and he’s born free in Africa but is enslaved somehow–he comes over to what will become the United States. It’s not quite the Unite States. John Jack would never see the United States. He comes to colonial New England. Now this point’s just important on its surface. We’re going to hear a lot about the South in this class. If you think geographically about so many of the freedom struggles, the post-emancipation African American experience, they are southern stories. But don’t let yourself be fooled. Slavery was alive and well in New England, and a lot of the freedom struggles that have happened since emancipation certainly happened up in New England as well.
Anyway, John Jack winds up in Concord, Massachusetts. He has, as the saying would have been at the time, “a kind master” who teaches him a trade. He’s a cobbler, works on shoes, and allows him to keep a little bit of every shoe he cobbles. The amount of money’s immaterial. It wouldn’t have been much. Over time, through his stolen labors, his “honest though stolen labors” as the epitaph says, he acquired the source of slavery. He raised enough money to buy himself. He secured his own emancipation through his hard work. He acquires some land on the edge of town, a subsistence farm, nothing much more than that. And then we discover that he drinks himself to death. Between the time of his emancipation–his self-emancipation and his death–he tries to become a citizen of Concord. He couldn’t do it. He was male, an important criteria. Check that one off. He owned property. Those were usually the two most important criteria. But because he had been enslaved, he couldn’t become a citizen.
Let’s think of the moment. We are on the cusp of the Revolutionary War, in Concord, Massachusetts, the start of the Revolutionary War. You have the citizens of Concord, the white, male property owners in Concord, complaining to the British crown about being treated as slaves. This is literally their language, that they were being treated as slaves, and this wasn’t right. Somehow these people questing for freedom ignored those people they owned. The black African slaves in their midst, they were blind to their existence, apparently. John Jack, though, understood the situation. He saw what was happening all around him. He couldn’t help but, and who knows why he became an alcoholic, but that might be a good reason. Anyway, he’s drinking himself to death and knows it, and he hires an attorney to put his affairs in order. It’s his attorney who crafts the epitaph here.
Here’s where the story gets even more interesting, I think. The person John Jack hires to put his affairs in order is a British sympathizer, a Tory. John Jack got it. He was going to hire–almost like he’s thumbing his nose postmortem. He wasn’t going to be allowed to be a citizen, despite his freedom, in an area that’s fighting for freedom, claiming that they weren’t citizens, they were slaves in fact, and they certainly didn’t know slavery like he knew it. John Jack understood something fundamental about what would become the United States of America, pretty soon in fact. And the fundamental thing he understood is that you cannot understand freedom, that thing that is at the bedrock of what this country is about, you cannot understand it without understanding slavery. Freedom and slavery were intertwined, intertwined for the citizens on the ground, intertwined for people like John Jack, Frederick Douglass, of course, and others after. You could not separate the denial of freedom from the quest of freedom. That’s why the citizens of Concord knew it was so important. They may not have wanted to have John Jack be a citizen, but they didn’t want to be like him.
The Linkage between Freedom and Citizenship
Photo of Dr. Ralph Ellison, noted author and professor, 1961 / United States Information Agency
Two hundred years later, after John Jack’s attorney produces this epitaph–not quite two hundred years, let’s say one hundred and eighty or so–Ralph Ellison, one of the great writers of the American past, identifies much of the same phenomenon that John Jack must have identified and that John Jack’s attorney certainly understood. And he wrote this brilliant passage. Ellison wrote, “Southern whites cannot talk, walk, sing, conceive of laws or justice, think of sex, love, the family, or freedom, without responding to the presence of Negroes.” They are intertwined, linked fate, as it were.
There was a linkage between freedom–not so much freedom and slavery, but citizenship and the denial of citizenship. And we’re going to spend time investigating how this challenge, this problem, this tension, can be located in unexpected places. We’ll turn to primary sources of all types in order to examine this story. One place is a great example is just in currency, stuff you’re carrying–well, we don’t carry much in terms of dollars and change any more, it’s on credit cards, I suppose, debit cards. But back in the day, a few years ago, when we all carried cash–the story of a nation’s myth is embodied on its currencies.
Confederate one dollar bill (left) and ten dollar bill (right) / National Museum of American History
These are two examples of Confederate scrip. You can see on these dollar bills stories that were important to the Confederate States of America – one dollar bill and a ten dollar bill. What you see is labor and white womanhood, and the laborer you see is a slave. The laborer is happy. The slave carrying the cotton is smiling. On the other bill, you have white womanhood. You’re going to see this is quite a fascinating trope in American history, southern American history: the exalted white woman, especially as it pertains to black men, with tropes of violence, and danger, and sexual predation woven throughout that dynamic. So on the money that Confederates were handing to one another to exchange goods, you have happy labor, you have exalted white womanhood. Notions of who belongs, the myths that form our nation states, are all around us. They’re on the money that we carry.
The History of the Post-Emancipation African American Experience
Aspiration, by Aaron Douglas, 1936 / DeYoung Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco
We’re going to look for stories like this in all manner of places, and through looking at these stories, we’re going to see that the post-emancipation African American experience is several different types of histories. It’s a history of political struggle, no doubt. An image here of black woman voting, the 1950s I believe, from the same night–and the history behind an image like that is filled with all kinds of political struggle that you certainly have at least a slim awareness of, a glimmer of awareness of. But on the same night, in the same district, that struggle is embodied by this. The risk she took in voting were risks that involved her life.
It’s a history of political struggle in this country. Certainly a history of social protest as well. You have here an image of women from a group called the National Association of Colored Women, the “upstanding women of the race,” and I use that in quotation marks for reasons we’ll understand in a few weeks. Not that they weren’t upstanding, but it’s a very loaded phrase on purpose. Marching at the White House in this case to protest the lack of an anti lynching law. “Protect life and liberty!” they’re exclaiming. It’s a history of social struggle.
It’s a history, certainly, of social control. There are some images that don’t need much in the way of narration. I will point out though–I mean actually I don’t know the history of the image, but if you look closely, you’ll see Spanish language up here in the archways. I think this actually happens in Laredo, Texas, this Klan rally. It is also a history of cultural celebration. Above is one image of a series of paintings by the artist Aaron Douglas. I’m not going to go into it now, because I will go into it in about a month and a half, I think. But I will tell you that in this history of cultural celebration, the images that we’ll be seeing are complicated, deeply loaded with many different stories in the same spirit of John Jack’s epitaph. The stories are in this image here, and I’ll explain it in more detail as we get to it.
State flag of Georgia, 1956-2001 / Wikimedia Commons
It’s also a history of powerful relevance today. We are being trained, people are trying to train us, to talk about this moment as being a post-racial moment. I actually think it couldn’t be anything further from the truth. The election of Barack Obama–now excuse me, I got ahead of my notes one section here. History of powerful relevance today for many of its political and cultural symbols. Prior to the election of Barack Obama, you have battles over flags, state flags. Above was the state flag of Georgia until 2001, flying above the Capitol, on license plates, you name it. The Confederate battle flag, as many of you know, is a powerful symbol of–depending on your perspective, tradition and heritage or violence and degradation. There’s not much gray area when it comes to the battle flag. As NAACP organized protests about flying something with the Confederate flag on state property, and southern legislatures refused to back down–Interestingly enough, the NFL, National Football League, has done incredible work in getting rid of the symbols and markers of a segregated past, for fear of threatening boycotts, removing the Super Bowl from say Atlanta, because of the Confederate battle flag. And. in fact, doing something like this in Arizona over the fact that Arizona did not recognize Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday. The battle ensues over these flags in Georgia, and one option is going to be this flag that incorporates all the different flags from Georgia’s past, and this is the final cleaning up as it were of southern history. Now it’s a history of powerful relevance today. This is a handful of years ago.
Local Events in History
Obama hope poster / Wikimedia Commons
After Obama won his first presidential election, many were carrying one of the iconic images in the Obama campaign about hope, and a suggestion of a new day. Then again, the suggestion of a post-racial day. Now I don’t want to deny the fact that this is an historical election for all manner of reasons, whether it was Hillary Clinton who won or Barack Obama who won, if a Democrat was to win, it was going to be historic. I don’t want to minimize that. But I also don’t want to buy into the fact that simply because the nation has elected a President who is ostensibly black, and I say that very purposefully–if you think about racial coding, as we get later on in this course, you’ll understand better why I say ostensibly black. I don’t put any political meaning in that phrase, by the way. I’m not trying to either prop up or push down Barack Obama’s racial affiliations. But electing a President who’s ostensibly black, the nation healed itself. It found a way to get past its ugly histories and its scars. It was a better place. It was a more perfect union. It was post-racial. But really, was it? Let’s think more locally. Let’s go back to Confederate scrip.
As it happens, I’ve been showing the other Confederate scrip for years. And about a year ago, I discovered that, somewhere in the last couple of years, Yale bought a huge collection of Confederate scrip. It now has the largest collection in the world of Confederate scrip. Just one of these things. Actually, they are beautiful documents, I mean, beautifully constructed. So I went up to the numsistatic collection at Sterling Library and looked at the Confederate scrip. And I was floored when I saw this image. I’m like, “Can you scan this for my purposes, please?” You have happy labor. You have Lady Liberty. This is happy labor. And you have this man.
Portrait of John C. Calhoun, by George Peter Alexander Healy, c,1845 / National Portrait Gallery, Washington
You will know I’m the Master of Calhoun College, which I think is humorous in just its nomenclature, certainly. This is John C. Calhoun, one of the great men of Eli, as the Yale Corporation thought through the naming of the residential colleges, the first seven back in 1931 and ’32. They wanted to name the colleges after the great–the great sons of Eli, excuse me. And they wanted, you know, the greatest Yale alum in the world of arts, in the world of letters, in the world of politics, and so on. And they decided that John C. Calhoun, an important person, there’s no doubt about it: vice-president of the United States, powerful senator from South Carolina–Still revered in that state as one of its great heroes. They decided that John C. Calhoun was their greatest alum. There is no financial connection from the name or the family to the college, but this was the logic of 1932, ’33, Yale Corporation.
John C. Calhoun was the architect–although he did not live to see the Civil War, he was the intellectual architect for secession. He believed in states’ rights, an important theme of this course that we’ll be talking much more in detail about later on. And he certainly did not believe that slaves were fully equipped to handle the rigors of civilization. It may sound like kind of a strange sentence construction. They weren’t ready to handle the rigors of being civilized, but this is the language of the day. I wonder, as I look up in the Master’s house living room, or in my office, or in the courtyard–and there’s images of Calhoun all over the dang place in the college, I have to wonder what he thinks. History’s rather humorous sometimes, and the ironies can be rather beautiful. But the phenomenon of thinking about race, or not thinking about race, not talking about race, is with us today. It is all around us.
Now thinking about Confederate scrip, you know we aren’t carrying that around in our pockets after all. How’s that a reminder of today, thinking about a decision that some people made in 1933? That’s not today’s thinking. You know, how is this with us today? Thinking about race is with us today in the astonishing ways that people make their decisions and maintain their blindnesses.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Poem: “Bury Me in a Free Land”
Photo of American poet and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper / Wikimedia Commons
This is a poem by the journalist, activist, underground railroad host to those slaves escaping towards freedom–She would open her doors to them. Woman’s rights activist, anti-lynching crusader, woman by the name of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. It’s a poem written in 1854, the same moment that Frederick Douglass is castigating his abolitionist friends about their understandings of freedom, and of liberty, and of slavery. The poem is called Bury Me in a Free Land. And I want you to listen. It’s not–I’m not going to say the poem is high art. It’s better than I can do, but it’s not high art, I don’t think. But think about the images that are crafted in this poem. It’s sort of the psychological terror represented in this poem as well. Bury Me in a Free Land.
“Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a loft hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.
I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.
I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood with each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.
I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.
If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.
I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.
I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.”
The Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act
Animation showing the free/slave status of U.S. states and territories, 1789–1861, including the Missouri Compromise. It shows which areas of the United States did and did not allow slavery between 1789 and Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861. The animation includes a 5 second frame on 1789, 1800, 1821, 1837, The unrealized 1846 Wilmot Proviso, 1846, 1858, and 1861. The map colorings of some areas require further comment. New York (1799) and New Jersey (1804) adopted laws gradually freeing enslaved people, but some people in these states remained enslaved until 1824 (NY) and 1865 (NJ). Territories and states which had not specifically banned slavery are colored red/pink.
Although the literal start of the Civil War is seven years away, this was an era when it was clear to people like Frederick Douglas and Frances Harper and so many other individuals, free and not free. This is an era of incredible tension in the country, and really the handwriting’s on the wall as the country’s barreling towards its sectional crisis. As early as 1820, the political battles had begun with the Missouri Compromise, an attempt to balance the number of slave states and free states. The Missouri Compromise angered the South because of the way the federal government intervened in this process. You’re going to hear this often in this course. The tension between federal government initiatives and states’ rights initiatives. Who has greater authority, the federal government or the states? Fundamentally important to the post–or to the African American experience, pre- and post-emancipation.
So in 1820 at the Missouri Compromise, balancing free states and slave states, so neither would have an advantage in the federal government when it came to setting policy about labor in particular. Fast forward, 1850, the Compromise of 1850, essentially the same issues as in the Missouri Compromise. It’s relating to territory gained in the Mexican-American War. What part of the United States is going to be free versus what part is going to be–or what states are going to allow slavery. One of the most important texts in US history, novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is published in 1852, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Quite a long time before Oprah’s Book Club, the book sells in numbers that are astonishing. Three hundred thousand copies of this text are put into print, and eventually, over a million copies are sold. This is in 1852. It’s–the numbers are sort of incomparable to today. The importance of the book is that it galvanizes through this sort of very romantic and treacley novel. It reads very–it’s an interesting read in our contemporary ears. But it galvanizes so much of Northern opinion about slavery and, frankly, helps pull this country apart, looking backwards.
In 1854, you have the Kansas-Nebraska Act, that wipes out the Missouri Compromise of thirty-four years earlier and starts a bloody war, essentially a civil war within Kansas about whether we’re going to have slave territories–slave states or free states in these areas. Out of the battles in Kansas, the Republican Party emerges. It didn’t exist before. And it would become the party that was most sympathetic to the African American experience–African Americans’ interests in becoming free and having citizenship rights. It becomes the party with which blacks would affiliate until nineteen–the mid-1930s. Now this takes us up to around 1857. Again, I’m fast forwarding through a lot of history here, just to get to some of the main themes of this lecture. So the country is being ripped apart through a variety of federal and state legal battles about where people can be free and where they cannot, what states can support slavery, recognize it as being legal.
Photo of Dred Scott, 1857 / Wikimedia Commons
During all these battles, a court case is winding through the system, a legal case, and it’s finally decided in 1857 by the Supreme Court, Scott v. Sanders, more famously, the Dred Scott case. Now it’s a complicated case, which I’ll reduce to its simplest forms. It’s a complicated case that revolves around travel, essentially. North of the line thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes related to the Missouri Compromise and the battles in Kansas and Nebraska, north of that line, the country is–these are free states. South of the line, you’re in slave holding territories. Dred Scott lives on both sides of this line. He’s a slave. Sorry if I didn’t make that part clear. He’s a slave and lives with his master and his mistress on both sides of this line, on and off over the course of much of his life. And for much of a decade, he’s living in free territory. When his master dies in 1846, Scott sues for his freedom on the ground that he had been living in free territory.
“You can’t own me,I’ve been living in a place that doesn’t recognize that status.” So he sues in court. The courts go back and forth until the Supreme Court issues the final decision in 1857. Eleven years have transpired since the original suit. And in the course of these cases–these decisions going back and forth, Dred Scott and his family, if you can imagine, have been emancipated, re-enslaved, emancipated, re-enslaved, depending on the court’s decision. He’s living a life in a terrible–I mean a limbo that we really can’t imagine. Well the Supreme Court weighs in and solves the matter once and for all. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney writes a decision that is quite notable. He says that Scott should remain a slave, that by virtue of his slavery, he is not a citizen of the United States, and so could not bring suit in a federal court in the first place. He wipes out the whole process. “You were never a citizen, because you were a slave. You didn’t have the right to sue.”
Moreover, Taney says, that as a slave, he was personal property, and personal property can never become free. We think of personal property as inanimate objects. Certainly African American slaves were not inanimate, but for Taney it didn’t matter. That’s a gray area, I mean if you could call it a gray area, that for Taney, that was a gray area that was really reduced to something simple: They were personal property; they could not become free. Adding insult to injury–I mean the decision gets just better and better from the standpoint of raising one’s bile–Taney makes plain his opinion of blacks. “They were,” he offered, and this is a quote, “so far inferior that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” “They were so far inferior that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” So in one decision, he eliminates even the chance, from a legal standpoint, that you could sue if you had been a slave. He says that’s not even a possibility. Furthermore, you’re property and you weren’t free ever, and now we shouldn’t even respect you anyway, because you’re so far inferior.
Photo of Roger B. Taney, c.1860 / Library of Congress
Taney’s decision, building upon the legislative battles of the previous thirty-seven years at that point, building upon the tension that’s exacerbated, I suppose, might be the right word, with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Taney’s decision helps move the country closer to Civil War because it infuriates anti slavery advocates. On so many levels of his decision, he has made the wrong choice, philosophically, ethically and legally, according to anti-slavery advocates. The new Republican Party which was opposed to the expansion of slavery–now notice, it’s the expansion, not wiping it all out. Things take time. The Republican Party, which is opposed to the expansion of slavery, criticized the decision.
There’s a postscript to this. In 1857, we don’t want to lose sight of Dred Scott himself. Scott’s mistress, his master’s widowed–widow, Dred Scott’s mistress remarries and gives Scott and his family their freedom. Now why she couldn’t do this eleven years earlier is a mystery that, you know, only she could answer, I suppose. But she gives him and his family their final freedom. And if you remember the epitaph from Monday, I mean the painful, bitter irony of the whole process, just like John Jack. Not long after he buys his freedom, he dies. One year after Dred Scott finally gets his freedom, an eleven year battle in the legal system, one year later he dies from tuberculosis. It’s a bitter coda to a life of struggle.
So Dred Scott dies in 1858. Steadying–Continuing this March, 1859, John Brown, former principal of a seminary where Frances Harper, whose poem I read to you earlier, the principal of the seminary where Frances Harper worked, becomes an evangelizing zealot against–or for anti-slavery causes. Slavery is inhumane. It’s unholy, according to John Brown, and he recognizes–or he believes the way to solve this problem, since the legal process isn’t working, since the process of moral suasion isn’t working, is to get guns. John Brown organizes a band of armed abolitionists, black and white men, and their plan is to storm the arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. John Brown invites Frederick Douglass. “You’re such an important leader for African Americans. You need to join us in this battle.” And Douglass says–I mean, I wasn’t there for the conversation, but–“John, you’re crazy.” And he may have been a bit, well, visionary I suppose is another word for crazy in sometimes. He forms a group, John Brown does, and they begin their raid. Doesn’t last very long. Robert E. Lee, general in the United States army, not yet a traitor, quickly defeats John Brown and his associates. Brown is wounded in the battle and he’s captured, and in short order, he’s convicted of treason, and he’s ultimately hanged.
Between the time of the raid, or when he’s caught that is, and his hanging, there’s a trial. And during that trial, John Brown becomes seen as a messianic hero to many people. Frances Harper, again, has a note sent to John Brown when he’s in prison that reads in part, and I’m quoting from it here,
“In the name of the young girl sold from the, excuse me, In the name of the young girl sold from the warm–warm clasp of a mother’s arms to the clutches of a libertine or profligate, in the name of the slave mother, her heart rocked to and fro by the agony of her mournful separations, I thank you, that you have been brave enough to reach out your hands to the crushed and blighted of my race, I thank you.”
Brown himself fanned the flames of celebrity during the trial with long soliloquies, all to no avail. He’s going to be hung. Some of his last famous–his famous last words. He declares, “I believe that to have interfered as I have done on behalf of this despised poor, I did no wrong, but right.” To the end, he was quite certain his path, armed resistance, was the solution to a country that could not figure itself out on this issue, whether it be a slave holding country, non-slave holding country or some strange mix.
Abraham Lincoln and Slavery
Photo of President Abraham Lincoln, by Alexander Gardner, 1863 / Mead Art Museum
John Brown’s raid in 1860, Abraham Lincoln’s elected in 1860. Simplifying a complicated story, but essentially, the South has no electoral presence in the election, and it felt that the Union was doomed, and Southern states begin to secede. April of 1861, the Civil War starts. Lincoln wants to preserve the Union at all costs, and tries from the very start to lure the South back in with a plan of compensated emancipation. Essentially, “We’ll pay for your slaves. You emancipate them, we give you some money.” Many people in the North balk at this idea. This is crazy. And the South completely refuses. Lincoln tries to develop a colonization plan to move blacks to Latin America. Now this is part of a longer tradition. Lincoln didn’t just create an idea of like solving the race problem by getting rid of the race. This has been going back to this point through colonization societies, thirty, forty, fifty years, and then in terms of individual ideas, much longer. But Lincoln thinks, “Well this is a solution. We’ve got a problem with slaves. Slaves were black in this country.” There’s also Native American slaves, but a much smaller population. “We’ll just move them.” That plan doesn’t work out either.
Now Lincoln has an evolutionary viewpoint when it comes to slavery, in terms of its role in society, pragmatically, how it affected the Union, the sustainability of the Union, or the possibility of reconciliation of the Union. He doesn’t support slavery, but he could not find a way to eliminate it, and try to preserve or reconcile the Union. Political and pragmatic pressures finally force his hand. Congress had already begun to chip away at slavery by refusing to allow captured slaves to be returned to their bonded status. And with just a little over a year after the Civil War begins, Lincoln essentially throws up his hands. He goes, “There’s really no–there’s no way to solve this problem,” and decides that emancipation is going to be the solution. How are we going to do it? What’s it going to look like?
By the end of the year, he’s drawn up the plans and enunciated the policy and on January 1st , 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation takes effect. Now the proclamation is a fascinating document. It’s compromised, as most political things are. It’s a manifestation of compromise and it declares that the slave population in any state that’s still in rebellion against the United States on January 1863–slave populations in those states that are in rebellion against the federal government, against the United States, at that moment would become free. Now what does this mean? It means, curiously, not much in a practical sense.
If you’re in South Carolina, you own slaves. Your state had seceded from the union. Lincoln says on January 1863, “You don’t own those slaves anymore.” Well, if you’re in South Carolina, you don’t care what Lincoln says. You still own your slaves. In Maryland though, which sided with the Union, if I had a plantation that owned slaves and I was in Maryland, my state is not in rebellion against the U.S., I still own my slaves. Now slavery in Maryland is different from slavery in South Carolina on the level of type of slavery and also scale of it. So in terms of literally freeing people, the Emancipation Proclamation doesn’t. It is still one of the most important documents in the history of the United States, because when you think of politics, there’s the literal effects and there’s the philosophical or cultural, symbolic effects. You think of the Emancipation Proclamation in that way, it is an astonishing document. The Civil War, the debates go on to this day. The Civil War, was it a war about slavery? Was it a war about just different economic systems? Was it a war about political philosophy? And people still argue themselves blue in the face. But what is clear is that at the moment of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War does become about slavery. Even if you were fighting it for some other reason, the stakes are very real, that if the North wins, if the Union wins, slavery will be abolished from the United States.
New York City, the Irish and the Freed Slaves
Recruiting poster from New York City printed by Baker & Godwin, June 23, 1863 / United States Army
The war is about slavery, at least in this sort of cultural politics of the moment. It’s a miserable war. The South and the North are beating themselves up to a pulp certainly, and Lincoln faces a problem. The Union troops face a problem. They don’t have enough people. And as we head through the winter of 1863, Lincoln decides he has to try to find a way to raise the number of troops that are available to fight in these wars–in this war, and you had the Conscription Acts being passed, and they’re going to take effect in March of 1863. And what the Conscription Acts say is that there’s mandatory military service for men who are between age twenty and forty-five unless–and there always seems to be an unless when it comes to conscription–unless they happen to have three hundred dollars on them. If you had three hundred dollars, you could buy yourself an exemption. It’s a long history of that in this country, and many other places. The history is still with us today. Political leaders bought their exemption. It’s called–you know it’s called, “Daddy’s a powerful political figure. I will not go to war.”
Conscription Acts of March 1863 said if you were between twenty and forty-five, and you were a man, you had to serve, unless you could find three hundred dollars. Well, three hundred dollars is a huge sum of money, 1863, so no surprise the wealthy gave their money, and they were exempt. Most of the country wasn’t wealthy. This was a way to raise troops and also raise money. They needed both. There was an unintended effect. I don’t think you would have been a surprise, but it was an unintended effect. It exacerbated class tensions within the country, within the Union, I should say. So as you’re heading into spring of 1863, the battle is still going on. Young men are dying left and right. The war, what is this war about really? Who is it for? It’s about emancipating these black slaves. And you head into March and you had these Conscription Acts taking place. “Now I have no choice but to go.” Then you head into the summer and these tensions, wondering what the war is about, not having the resources to get out of risking one’s life, for something you’re not sure if you even believe in. Class tensions exacerbated. In New York City, all of these different tensions combine and essentially combust.
What’s going on in New York in particular? In addition to those things I just mentioned, in New York, there are labor tensions. Really dramatic labor tensions. The Irish immigrant population treated horribly for quite some time. The Irish control the docks. The Irish are already struggling with local blacks for that bottom rung on the ladder. Who’s going to have a chance to get a purchase on that bottom rung and to start to pull themselves up? And the Irish dock workers control this–these important ports in New York City. Horrible, dirty, messy, dangerous job, but we’re not going to let blacks take this job. So there’s tensions in labor ranks in terms of who can actually be the laborer to start to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There is a fear adding to this labor tension, has an ethnic and racial aspect to it–there’s a fear now that since January of 1863, since Lincoln freed the slaves, these slaves are going to end up in New York City. How they’re going to get there is, you know, another issue, but there’s going to be a fear–there’s a fear of a flood of emancipated blacks coming up to New York to find work. And let’s face it, these folks had nothing. They’ll take any job, was the expectation. And so the Irish dock workers felt even further antagonized by the fact of job insecurity and the fact that this other, these black folks, were going to take their jobs.
Now as I said before, the Irish, many of them are brand new to this country. They’re scrambling to secure their own place as citizens in this country. Looked down upon, treated terribly by other groups. And they believed, aside from wanting to keep these jobs, that their claim to citizenship rested in part at least upon the fact that they were not black. This is a very important point. It’s not that it’s just about a job, but about belonging. Irish treated–like there’d be signs in the stores, “No Irish or dogs allowed in.” Blacks already weren’t allowed in. No Irish or dogs. The Irish were treated horribly, and so they realized, as long as they are not like “that person,” “those people,”–that person, those people being black. Having been emancipated, whether they were actually ever a slave or not, they are–they are tarred in a sense with that same label, from an enslaved people. People who weren’t citizens in many people’s minds. The Irish workers say, “Well, at least I’m not that, so I’m moving up the ladder.”
So you take emancipation, you take the Conscription Acts, which are certainly affecting the Irish more than any other population in New York City, you take the fear of emancipated blacks coming up and taking jobs away from the Irish dock workers, and it makes it plain that the Irish now feel incredibly compromised. Everything they had fought for might be in danger of slipping away. Their freedom, as I mentioned when talking about John Jack and citizens of Concord in 1773, Irish workers’ freedom was incumbent upon blacks’ slavery. They’re intertwined. Now we’re into July of 1863, after setting all this stage.
First page of the five-page Emancipation Proclamation issued January 1, 1863 / National Archives
On July 11th, a first lottery is held for conscription. So we’ve had this plan, now we’re going to make it real. And within two days, mayhem ensues. Now New York is a port city. So aside from having the dock workers unloading material goods and products, or loading them onto these ships, you have troops that are being rallied from different places in the Northeast that are coming down to New York City, or they’re leaving from New York to head further south into the military battles, into military stages, scenes. And so there’s all this tension around the military being there. And now, with the Conscription Acts really becoming–well becoming real, people are going to be forced to don the uniform.
Several days of rioting begin. The military command–commandant of the region, anything embodying military, or suggesting police control, is targeted. So the commandant is sought out. Soldiers are sought out, police are sought out. They’re targeted by these gangs, largely ethnic gangs, largely Irish gangs. They’re the ones who felt most at threat. And these gangs also targeted blacks. The call went out from the commandant, “We need more troops.” Now it takes a couple of days, during 1863, to get people there. After a few days, military troops are brought in to the city to restore calm. When the dust has settled, as many as a thousand people are dead during these riots.
Think of these places in New York City: on the West Side, Twenty-Seventh and Seventh Avenue, West Thirty-Third Street, Thirty-Seventh and Seventh Avenue. On the East Side, Thirty-Fourth and East River–a very specific street–address, One Hundred Forty-Seven East Twenty-Eighth Street. These are sites of lynchings in New York City. We’re not talking about gangs throwing rocks and beating each other up. We are talking about lynchings, in addition to that as well, I should say. In total, eleven people are lynched during the several days of riots. A few examples: Joseph Reed, separated from his mother and grandmother, he’s beaten to death. He’s seven years old. William Williams, a sailor, assaulted by the longshoremen, the dock workers, when he asked for directions, not knowing this riot is happening. Someone picks up a cobblestone, hurls the stone at him. Someone else stabs him. The crowd cheers, and they start chanting–And I’m sorry to use the language always. You’ll be hearing it several different times in the course, but this is just the history of it all–start chanting, “Don’t hire niggers! Don’t hire niggers!” Labor and class all intertwined, certainly citizenship as well.
The Colored Orphanage, a very large building there to take care of abandoned children, the crowd sees this place as a site of threat–I guess you’d say it’s threat, but something given to blacks that the Irish didn’t have the benefit of. And they decide they’re going to set the orphanage on fire. Thankfully, word gets to the orphanage in time, and they were able to escape out the back as the building is torched. So the Colored Orphanage is burned to the ground. One story is particularly illustrative, not a happy story of course. On the third day of riots, Abraham Franklin, a disabled black coachman, and his sister Henrietta, were pulled out of their boarding room. Now there’s one thing I forgot to mention that’s important, thinking about this particular setting. Blacks and Irish were sort of–were at each others’ throats through this process, but they’re living in the same areas. They’re interacting all the time, and that’s what makes this story that much more horrific in a sense.
Many Irish–I don’t want to paint entire groups–many Irish and blacks got along perfectly fine, and certainly commingled in every way that you can imagine that way being used, happily, passionately, or angrily, you name it. But they were living in the–these were their own neighborhoods. Abraham Franklin and his sister Henrietta are pulled out of their boarding room. Henrietta is beaten while Abraham is hanged. Federal troops, who are now coming into the city trying to quell the riot as it moves to different places, federal troops arrive, and they cut down his body. It’s too late to save his life. Troops break up the crowd and then disperse, heading off to another flashpoint. The rioting crowd re-hangs the body, and they start chanting. Just as you had William Williams being murdered to chants of “Don’t hire niggers,” inflammatory declaration, in Abraham Franklin’s case, you have chants coming out from the crowd, inflammatory in a different way. They re-hang his body to chants of “Jeff Davis! Jeff Davis” What does this mean? They’re praising the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
So you have Irish workers, living with other African Americans certainly, feeling threatened that their citizenship is at stake, deciding to take our their threat, and feeling they might be conscripted into the military, likely would be. They decide to take out their anxiety, fears, and anger on the Colored Orphanage, on seven year old boys, on sailors, on disabled black coachmen. And they’re going to honor the idea of keeping people out of unions. “Don’t hire niggers.” And they’re going to honor, curiously, the presidency of the Confederacy–president of the Confederacy. So Abraham Franklin is hung, body cut down. He’s re-hung–re-hanged, excuse me–and then later on, after the crowd disperses to do something else, somewhere else, a sixteen-year old Irish butcher cuts down Franklin. Maybe his body will finally be put to rest. No, in fact the butcher decides to drag his body through the streets as a trophy, in so doing, I claim, marking his own claim to citizenship on the dead body of a black–of a crippled black man.
Now what’s the point of all this narrative? The point of this is that we can see in the crucible of the Civil War a very clear picture of what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be American. A foundational question for this class, as I mentioned in Monday’s lecture. Douglass questioned the sanctity of July 4th, that great cultural marker of freedom. “Why would you bring me here, representing a people who only know slavery?” Harper, the poet and journalist, activist, makes clear how blind people were to the psychological anguish of slavery, children being torn from their mothers’ breasts. The Dred Scott case is explicitly about who could be a citizen of the United States. Taney didn’t think any slave could be a citizen. They’re too inferior and they’re property.
The political turns made out of necessity, and this is very important, made out of necessity in the Civil War, made it absolutely plain to people like Abraham Lincoln, who starts to decide to change these policies; made it absolutely plain that citizenship was going to be linked to freedom, and that freedom was linked to race. The connection is certainly there in terms of social, cultural forums. It’s there in political forums. It is tangible. As soon as he signs in to being the Emancipation Proclamation, and in the fallout through the Conscription Acts and the New York City draft riots, it is real. Citizenship is linked to freedom; freedom is linked to race. The tensions between all of these linkages are made really quite perfectly clear by those people who are rioting in New York City. And, I really think, made abundantly clear when Abraham Franklin was dragged through the streets of New York by his genitals.