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« Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi | Main | Telling the Self »

A Douglass Lexicon

It's important to remember when MY BONDAGE AND MY FREEDOM was written: 1855, two years before the Dred Scott case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had no right to exclude slavery from any state or territory and that people brought from Africa to the United States as slaves had no federal rights whatsoever; six years before the election of Lincoln and the start of the Civil War; and eight years before his Emancipation Proclamation.

The nation is deeply divided, the halves resting uneasily on the Missouri Compromise, the Congressional equivocation that permitted a slave state to enter the union (Missouri) only so long as a free state did as well (Maine, carved off from Massachusetts). The compromise also drew a line through the former Louisiana Purchase, now a vast U. S. territory, declaring that slavery could not occur above that geographical (and arbitrary) limit. (This was the compromise voided in the Dred Scott decision.)

And it's important to remember that the South was not a unified block, despite seeming so in hindsight. Tennessee remained loyal to the Union for six months after the original states left. In fact, when Tennessee finally voted for secession, half the counties remained loyal. Kentucky never officially left the Union. Neither did Missouri--although the Confederate States of America claimed both. Delaware and Maryland, although slave-holding states, also never left the Union--and were never claimed by the Confederacy. Arkansas, today a "deep South" state, was at the time deeply ambivalent about joining the Confederacy, partly because the small farmers in the state hated the large plantation system that put their crops at an unfair cost advantage in the marketplace.

All that said, you needn't know a lot of American history to follow the narrative, since Douglass tacks pretty close to the personal. However, these terms might help you see a little more into its depths:

Abolition. It's the movement to abolish slavery, as Douglass defines it in chapter 12. Abolitionists were largely centered in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Radicals called for an all-out war with the South--or "simply" an end to the United States as a political entity. Moderates favored a progressive abolition, in which slave holders were compensated for their losses, current slaves were placed in forced apprenticeships, and (perhaps) their grandchildren would finally be fully free. Abolition is first and foremost a faith-based, Protestant movement, an evangelical call for national purity; its political meetings were in fact religious ones, full of fiery preaching, fainting, and shaking fervor. By Lincoln's election in 1861, most of the abolitionists had been subsumed into the newly formed Republican party. The most extreme were called (and called themselves) "radical Republicans"--and became the leaders in the disastrous Reconstruction of the South after the war. Lincoln never identified as an abolitionist, not even as a moderate one. Even when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he still envisioned a gradual emancipation lasting decades, compensation for the slave owners, and colonization in some undetermined country. (For more information, you might want to read historian--and our Colebrook neighbor--Eric Foner's newest book, THE FIERY TRIAL.)

American Colonization Society. Founded by the Kentucky senator and fiery orator Henry Clay and his friends in 1816, this group of mostly Quakers, active until and through the Civil War, sought to remove African-American slaves through voluntary transport--or in some cases, forced deportation--back to Africa, particularly to the colony they established there: Liberia. When Liberia declared its independence in 1847 and proved rather unruly, the society sought other venues, specifically in Haiti and what is modern-day Colombia. The society was a great favorite of northern, white politicians, particularly less radical abolitionists from Boston, and also of moderate senators from the border states of Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri, and Illinios. Many African-Americans detested it--particularly Douglass. Today, there still rages an academic debate about the depth and character of its racism.

Fugitive Slave Acts. The abolitionists and escaped slaves considered these among the most heinous laws of the federal government. The 1793 version gave the federal government the power to go after "persons escaping from justice and slaves escaping from the service of their masters." As you may know, the U. S. Constitution (Article IV) already gave the goverment the power to round up fugitive slaves. This was simply the mechanism to put that edict into practice, allowing for an exorbitant fine of $500 for anyone who aided an escaped slave. However, you'll also notice the legal obfuscation in the 1793 law: "from the service of their masters." The act didn't exactly clarify what the slave was escaping from--and obscured a bit the question of property rights. Not a lot, but a bit, and enough to give rise to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, one of the most draconian laws ever enacted by the U. S. government. It gave states (and by default, local jurisdictions) the right to create marshals from ordinary citizens (usually issued as writs in the wee hours). The marshals were given free range throughout the U. S. and all its territories. These men collected $10 (today, $263) for every slave returned. They also collected $5 (today, $132) if the slave were found to be returned to the wrong owner--or a free person caught wrongly. That said, few free people caught were ever returned north, partly because the law allowed the identity of the slave to be established "ex parte" (that is, by one party, just one side). This law is one of the reasons that an autobiography by an ex-slave is such an act of bravery. The writer could easily be picked up by any of the hundreds of marshals who roamed the north, to Boston and beyond. The "fugitive" would never be heard from again.

William Lloyd Garrison (1805 - 1879). Probably the most famous and certainly one of the fiercest abolitionists, Garrison was a Boston candymaker turned brimstone preacher in the cause of abolition. He edited and published The Liberator, the most famous abolition newspaper, a radical organ; he founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832; and he took up with some of the most famous radicals of his day, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lydia Maria Childs, and Susan B. Anthony. Garrison usually preached nonviolent resistance; however, he is most famous for declaring that slavery was "an agreement with hell," a remark that was seen as provoking violence on both sides. Boston mobs tried to lynch him, he was tossed into prison for his remarks, and the state of Georgia put a $5000 reward on his head. On the eve of the Civil War, one New York preacher even blamed the conflict on Garrison himself. Essentially, it was claimed, he hurt the South's feelings.

Reform. In truth, abolition forms part of the larger movements for social betterment that shook the United States throughout the nineteenth century. After emancipation and the Civil War, most of the leaders (including Garrison and Douglass) took up other causes, including women's suffrage, immigrant's rights, and temperance. It's important to remember that while some of the political goals were honorable, they were bound up with a larger call for purity, most of it predicated on a postmillenial strain of Christian thought that says we must cleanse the world and get it ready for the second coming of Christ. If we can get the earth right, we will have a thousand years of peace ("the millenium"), after which Jesus will come back for an etermity of bliss. It's up to us to get it right. Such thinking led to emancipation; it also led to Prohibition.

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