Freedom From Slavery Essay Papers

From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1822-1909

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Collection Overview

From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1822-1909 presents 397 pamphlets published from 1822 through 1909. Most pamphlets were written by African-American authors, though some were written by others on topics of particular importance in African-American history. The collection includes first-person accounts of slavery, tracts from anti-slavery organizations, legislative and presidential campaign materials, investigative reports, sermons, commencement addresses, organizational proceedings, and previously published materials from newspapers and magazines. Among the noted authors represented are Frederick Douglass, Lydia Maria Child, Alexander Crummell, Kelly Miller, Charles Sumner, Mary Church Terrell, and Booker T. Washington.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

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To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or browse by Titles, Authors, or Subjects.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1822-1909, offers primary source materials relating to a variety of historic events from the nineteenth century. Speeches, essays, letters, and other correspondence provide different perspectives on slavery, African colonization, Reconstruction, and the education of African Americans. Additional materials provide information about the political debates of legislation relating to slavery in the United States and its territories, such as the Wilmot Proviso and the Compromise of 1850.


William Lloyd Garrison was considered a radical in the abolitionist movement. Publisher of the anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, and co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Garrison called for the immediate end to slavery, believing in the equality of the races and in the ability of free African Americans to successfully assimilate into white society. This philosophy put him at odds with abolitionists who doubted the notion of racial equality and who sought to gradually end slavery.

Although he called for a peaceful approach to abolishing slavery, Garrison’s criticism of the Constitution as a pro-slavery document and his inclusion of women in the abolitionist movement prompted some members of the American Anti-Slavery Society to leave in 1839 and form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Pamphlets from this male-only organization offer a more moderate approach to abolitionism with pieces such as “Shall We Give Bibles to Three Millions of American Slaves?” and “Facts for the People of the Free States,” an 1846 pamphlet that chronicles the murder of slaves in the South, describes the relationship between politicians and slavery, and offers “Presidential Testimonies” on the values of liberty.

Contrast the tone of this new group and its publications with the original American Anti-Slavery Society by searching on American Anti-Slavery Society for publications including Wendell Phillips’s “The Philosophy of the Abolition Movement.” This 1853 speech describes the abolitionists fighting against desperate odds: “The press, the pulpit, the wealth, the literature, the prejudices, the political arrangements, the present self-interest of the country, are all against us.” (page 9). Garrison’s own rhetoric is available in speeches such as his 1860 “The ‘Infidelity’ of Abolitionism,” which proclaims:

The one great . . . all-conquering sin in America is its system of chattel slavery . . . at first, tolerated as a necessary evil . . . now, defended in every slave State as a most beneficent institution . . . controlling . . . courts and legislative assemblies, the army and navy, Congress, the National Executive, the Supreme Court--and having at its disposal all the offices, . . . to extend its dominion indefinitely.

page 5

  • How do the ideas and tone of the American Anti-Slavery Society pamphlets differ from those of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society?
  • What are Garrison's objections to slavery? What problems does he attribute to it?
  • What steps do you think Garrison would have considered necessary to end slavery?

In addition to providing a chronology of slavery laws throughout United States history, the collection of New York Herald articles reprinted in “History of American Abolitionism,” distinguishes between two types of abolitionists:

[T]hose who are actuated by sentiments of philanthropy and humanity, but are at the same time no less opposed to any disturbance of the peace or tranquility of the Union…. [and those] who, in the language of Henry Clay, are ‘resolved to persevere at all hazards, and without regard to any consequences, however calamitous they may be.’”

page 4

The Religious Society of Friends began working against slavery within their organization in the late-seventeenth century. A search on Society of Friends, offers materials such as “A Brief Statement of the Rise and Progress of the Testimony of the Religious Society of Friends, Against Slavery and the Slave Trade” and “The Appeal of the Religious Society of Friends…on Behalf of the Coloured Races.” Both pamphlets chronicle the group’s efforts “to plead with their fellow-citizens who yet held slaves, and to labour in a meek and gentle spirit, to bring others to that sense of mercy and of justice, to which the Lord in his goodness had brought them,” (page 8).

  • What are the similarities and differences between the Religious Society of Friends, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, and the American Anti-Slavery Society?

Additional pamphlets from female abolitionists are represented in the “Women Authors” section of the special presentation, Collection Highlights, while searches on abolition and anti-slavery yield other materials from abolitionist groups using a variety of techniques to end slavery.

  • What is the background of each abolitionist group?
  • What were each group's various objections to slavery?
  • How did each group define its goal and the steps it considered necessary to end slavery?
  • Were these goals based on economic, political, social, moral, or philosophical reasons?
  • Did each group distinguish between the interests of the slaves and the interests of the nation?
  • Which groups were willing to abolish slavery at the cost of “any disturbance of the peace or tranquility of the Union”?
  • Which groups were unwilling to do so?
  • How are these attitudes reflected in the subject matter and tone of their pamphlets?
  • Which methods do you think were the most effective?
  • Which methods do you think were the most realistic?

American Colonization Society

The effort to colonize free African Americans began gaining momentum in 1816 with the formation of the American Colonization Society. Pamphlets such as “A Few Facts Respecting the American Colonization Society” describe the objective of the group: “[T]o colonize . . . on the Coast of Africa, or such other place as Congress shall deem expedient, the people of colour in our country, already free--and those others, who may hereafter be liberated by the humanity of individuals, or the laws of the States,” (page 3).

The majority of members, however, were not interested in liberating additional slaves. In fact, they felt that free African Americans “exhibit few characteristics to encourage hopes of their improvement in this country. Loosed from the restraints of slavery, they utterly neglect, or miserably abuse the blessings which liberty would confer,” (page 12). Liberty in Liberia, however, meant that colonists would have a new chance at improving their status. In the words of the organization’s 1832 pamphlet, “Reflections on the Causes that Led to the Formation of the Colonization Society,” repatriated African Americans could enjoy “all the advantages of society, self-government, eligibility to office, and freedom from the degradation arising from an inferiority of caste,” (page 8).

Proponents of colonization were also aware of the advantages white Americans stood to gain from the effort. The pamphlet, “Reflections on the Causes that Led to the Formation of the Colonization Society” contains the section, “Increase of the Coloured Population,” which reflects whites' fears about "the dangers from the great number of slaves . . ." fueled by ". . . the increasing discussions that take place on the subject in our papers and among themselves--and by the inflammatory publications that are clandestinely spreading among them in spite of all the vigilance of their masters," (page 9). Indeed, slave rebellions, such as Nat Turner's 1831 insurrection that killed fifty-seven whites fueled southern fears of slave revolts caused by large slave populations and inflamatory abolitionist tracts.

Such descriptions as that found in "Increase of the Coloured Population" prompted some abolitionists to challenge the motives of the American Colonization Society. In the pamphlet, “Colonization,” the American Anti-Slavery Society charged that colonization “widens the breach between the two races; exposes the colored people to great practical persecution . . . and . . . is calculated to swallow up and divert that feeling . . . that slavery is alike incompatible with the law of God and with the well being of man,” (page 7).

  • How might colonization have provided African Americans with the “advantages of society” and “self-government”?
  • How would the exodus of free African Americans to another country have affected the situation of slaves who remained behind?
  • How would it have contributed to the “great practical persecution” of colored people in America?
  • Why might colonization have reduced the threat of slave insurrections?

A search on colonization results in a number of pamphlets debating the benefits and dangers of the American Colonization Society. For example, Thomas Hodgkins’s “An Inquiry into the Merits of the American Colonization Society” defends the group. Hodgkins reasons that even though some of the original members were slaveholders, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the group was dedicated to preserving slavery (page 4).

  • Do you think that the American Colonization Society endorsed, condemned, or ignored the institution of slavery? Why?
  • Do you think that colonization was a viable option for free African Americans? Why?
  • How does the American Colonization Society compare to subsequent “back-to-Africa” movements such as Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association colonization plans?
  • What were these groups trying to achieve in their own era?

Slavery and the Territories: The Missouri Compromise and The Wilmot Proviso

In 1817, Missouri applied for admission into the Union as a slave state. This effort threatened the political balance of power in Congress, which consisted of twenty-two states evenly split between the slave and free factions. After years of deliberation, Congressmen Henry Clay and Daniel Webster drafted the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This bill admitted both Maine and Missouri into the Union (as a free and slave state, respectively) and prohibited slavery north of the southern boundary of Missouri, extending across the nation to Mexican territory.

The question of allowing slavery in United States territories was revisited when the Mexican-American War raged from 1846 to 1848 and the Union acquired territories stretching from Texas to the Pacific Northwest. Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot called for the prohibition of slavery in these new territories with an attachment to an appropriations bill for establishing the border with Mexico .

Arguments against the Wilmot Proviso came from across the nation. Michigan senator and 1848 presidential candidate, Lewis Cass, called for votes against the attachment in “General Cass on the Wilmot Proviso” with the first of many reasons being: “The present is no proper time for the introduction into the country, and into Congress, of an exciting topic, tending to divide us, when our united exertions are necessary to prosecute the existing war.” An article from the Charleston, South Carolina Mercury echoed Cass’s claim with the assertion that the Wilmot Proviso threatened to subvert the Constitution and is “splitting the Union into sectional parties; it is virtually the first step to a dissolution,” (page 65).

  • Why do you think that Wilmot sought to ban slavery in the western territories?
  • Why did his opposition believe that it was important to defer the question of slavery?
  • Why did the Wilmot Proviso threaten to fuel sectional tensions in Congress?
  • How might such a bill have either caused or created an imbalance of power in Congress?
  • On what basis did General Cass argue that the Wilmot Proviso subverted the Constitution?

The Mexican-American War and Accusations Against the South

The Wilmot Proviso ultimately died in Congress and the debate over the slavery in the territories continued. The term, Slavery—United States—Extension to the Territories in the Subject Index produces a number of arguments against the Mexican War and the introduction of slavery into new territories, including “Horace Mann's Letters on the Extension of Slavery into California and New Mexico.” Mann criticized the war with Mexico and claimed that it was merely a means for the South to add slave territories and states to the Union:

Hence the refusal to accept propositions of peace, unless territory south of . . . the Missouri Compromise line . . . should be ceded to us . . . And hence . . . the determination of a portion of the Southern members of Congress, to stop the whole machinery of the Government . . . and assail even the Union itself, unless slavery shall be permitted to cross the Rio Grande, and enter the vast regions of the West . . . .

page 2

The opportunity to open the territories to slavery was debated when Democrat Lewis Cass, and Whig Zachary Taylor faced off in the 1848 presidential election. While Cass wanted the territories to decide on the slavery issue, Taylor, who was a slaveholder himself, failed to commit himself on the issue. Outrage surrounding both men’s handling of the slavery issue prompted the formation of the Free Soil Party and the nomination of Martin Van Buren in the race.

In “The Great American Question, Democracy vs. Doulocracy,” William Wilson characterized the 1848 presidential election as a contest between democracy and doulocracy, “the government of servants or slaves,--the 250,000 slaveholders being governed, through the medium of their fears . . . by their slaves, and they controlling the Republic . . . by threats of secession from the Union if they should not be allowed to rule,” (page 6).

  • What percent of the total U.S. population were slaveholders? Was their influence in propotion to their numbers?
  • What does Wilson mean by saying that the slaveholders were “being governed . . . by their slaves”?
  • Do you think Wilson would include Taylor among “the 250,000 slaveholders”?
  • How do Mann and Wilson characterize the South? Do you think that these are fair assessments?
  • How does knowing that Mann viewed the Mexican War as he did impact your understanding and evaluation of Wilmot's proviso? How does it impact your view of arguments made against Wilmot?

Slavery and the Territories: The Compromise of 1850 and The Fugitive Slave Law

The territorial debate was ultimately resolved when Congressmen Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Stephen Douglas introduced a series of bills known as the Compromise of 1850. This legislation admitted California as a free state in the Union and abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia. On the other hand, it also organized the territories of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah without any reference to slavery, thereby leaving the territories open to the possibility of sanctioned slavery at a later date. Furthermore, the Compromise included the Fugitive Slave Act, designed to assist in the recovery of runaway slaves by increasing the number of federal officers and by denying fugitive slaves the right to a jury trial.

  • What is the role of a jury trial in a democracy?
  • On what basis did the Fugitive Slave Law deny slaves the right to a jury trial? (Search on Dred Scott to learn more).
  • What did this law imply about the value of slaves’ lives in the eyes of the courts?
  • Besides ensuring the return of fugitive slaves, what did slaveholders gain in terms of federal and political support from the Fugitive Slave Act?
  • Do you think that the Fugitive Slave Law was constitutional?

The term, “Fugitive Slave Law of 1850,” in the Subject Index yields a number of pamphlets debating the merits of the legislation. Horace Mann's Letters challenge the constitutionality of eliminating the possibility of a jury trial. On the other hand, Reverend John Lord’s sermon, “‘The Higher Law,’ in its Application to the Fugitive Slave Bill,” notes that slavery was a fact of life in the Old Testament and early American history: “The people of the North . . . bound themselves to respect the institution of slavery as it then existed . . . [S]uch an arrangement was not void as being against a higher law, and . . . is constitutional and lawful, and cannot be resisted upon any moral grounds,” (page 11).

A refutation of Lord’s argument appears in the pamphlet, “Slavery in its Relation to God” while Ichabod Spencer’s sermon, “Fugitive Slave Law, The Religious Duty of Obedience to Law,” reinforces the social and ethical value of accepting a federal law:

The question is not, whether slavery is right, or the Fugitive Slave Law right . . . The question is, shall Law be put in force, and the government of the country stand; or shall Law be resisted, and the government of the country disobeyed, and the nation plunged into all the horrors of civil war? If Law cannot be executed, it is time to write the epitaph of your country!

page 29

  • Do you think that the Fugitive Slave Law should have been obeyed?
  • How do Lord and Spencer define and prioritize the obligations of civil law and moral law?
  • Which, if any, of the abolitionist groups do you think would have called for adherence to the Fugitive Slave Law?
  • Abolitionists created the Underground Railroad to transport slaves to freedom, which became even more important with the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law. How would you characterize movements such as the Underground Railroad in terms of their relation to civil and moral laws?
  • How do Lord and Spencer’s arguments hold up when examining other times when civil disobedience became a tool for social change (e.g., the civil rights movement of the 1960s)? Did their arguments hold more relevance in the 1850s because of the state of the nation at that time?
  • What is the moral value of obeying civil law? Do you think that there are situations when breaking civil law is moral? When? What are the benefits and risks of doing so?

The Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription Act of 1863

A dwindling number of volunteers to fight in the Union Army prompted two very different measures in 1863 that seemed to create a double standard regarding race and military service. In January, the Emancipation Proclamation abolished the institution of slavery and permitted African Americans to join the military. A search on troops yields pamphlets such as “General Washington and General Jackson, on Negro Soldiers,” which offers a history of African Americans fighting for America since the Revolutionary War. It also locates“First Organization of Colored Troops in the State of New York,” which describes African-American soldiers responding to the government’s call by “sweeping forward in steady, solid legions . . . destined to wield the sword of just retribution,--to teach their former masters, on many a bloody battle-field . . . which of them is ‘of the superior race,’” (page 6).

While the Emancipation Proclamation allowed blacks to join the fight, the Conscription Act of 1863 made all white men between the ages of twenty and forty-five eligible for a draft. The wealthy could, however, avoid military service for a price. They could illegally bribe doctors for medical exemptions or legally hire a substitute or pay for a commutation of a draft. This ability to purchase a deferment heightened the resentment of many in the lower class who felt that they were being forced to fight for the freedom of African Americans.

Enrollment officers and blacks were occasionally attacked in retribution for the draft in several cities but the largest incident of its kind began on June 11, 1863, in New York City in which more than 100 people were murdered. After burning down a draft office and attacking police officers and well-dressed whites, a mob of lower-class whites focused its energy on killing African Americans.

The “Report of the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People, Suffering from the Late Riots in the City of New York” documents “Incidents of the Riot” with accounts of murder and other violent acts perpetrated by this mob of lower-class whites. Please note: These descriptions are often graphic and may not be suitable for some readers.

One example of violence comes in the events surrounding the death of William Jones, a black member of the community who walked into the mob while returning home from a bakery. Jones was hung from a lamppost where his body was mutilated for several hours after his death:

[S]o great was the fear inspired by the mob that no white person had dared to manifest sufficient interest in the mutilated body of the murdered man while it remained in the neighborhood to be able to testify as to who it was . . . The principal evidence which the widow . . . has to identify the murdered man as her husband is the fact of his having a loaf of bread under his arm.

page 16

  • What were people’s expectations of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription Act?
  • Why did some people feel it was important to present a history of the African-American soldier in the U.S. military? Who is the intended audience of such a pamphlet?
  • How were the Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription Act meant to provide more Union soldiers?
  • Did this legislation set a double standard for black and white soldiers?
  • Was the lower class justified in feeling that they were being obligated to fight on behalf of African Americans?
  • Why do you think that the mob was still influential after the riot?


In the decade following the Civil War, the United States was charged with the task of rebuilding the literal and political landscape of the South. Federal troops who had once attacked the rebel states were now ruling over them until local governments could be established. How and when those local governments would be established, however, was a matter of debate.

Speeches by Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass from the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society provide evidence of the debate over Reconstruction policies including the conditions under which southern states would be readmitted to the Union. Abolitionists such as Phillips and Douglass called for nothing less than the full citizenship and enfranchisement of African Americans. Phillips, in his speech, criticizes an Executive branch, overeager to make peace, for being willing to readmit southern states under terms that leave room for "white men of the reconstructed States [to] keep inside the Constitution, be free from any legal criticism, and yet put the negro where no Abolitionist would be willing to see him," (page 31).

Douglass similarly criticizes an early Reconstruction policy, claiming that it "practically enslaves the negro, and makes the Proclamation of 1863 a mockery and delusion," (page 36). Douglass also feared the South would treat the Federal Government as a conquering force under Reconstruction and proffered the enfranchisement of African Americans as a safeguard against probable insurrection:

There will be . . . this rank undergrowth of treason . . . growing up there, and interfering with, and thwarting the quiet operation of the Federal Government in those states. You will see those traitors handing down, from sire to son, the same malignant spirit which they have manifested, and which they are now exhibiting, with mailicious hearts, broad blades, and bloody hands in the field, against our sons and brothers . . . Now, where will you find the strength to counterbalance this spirit, if you do not find it in the negroes of the South?

page 37

A search on suffrage produces pamphlets debating voting rights for men in the South. “Is the South Ready for Restoration?” points out the inconsistency of claiming political representation of African Americans in determining the Southern states’ power in Congress and in the Electoral College while “absolutely refusing the privilege of voting to those whom they thus claim as fully worthy of representation,” (page 10).

This point was taken into consideration in 1868 when the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution provided citizenship to African Americans. “Negro Suffrage and Social Equality” explains that if African-American males were not allowed to vote in a state, Congressional representation would be reduced so that only the white male population was counted (page 1). Along with this incentive, Southern states were required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment in order to re-enter the Union. Despite this stipulation, black men were not always represented at the polls and a year later, the Fifteenth Amendment more overtly established suffrage by guaranteeing African-American men the right to vote. In theory, this amendment eliminated a state’s ability to deny suffrage to black voters.

There was, however, a difference between providing laws protecting African Americans and enforcing those laws. The 1873 pamphlet, “The Struggle Between the Civilization of Slavery and That of Freedom,” explains, “You have abolished slavery; but you have not destroyed the civilization--the moral and social ideas, born of slavery,” (page 4). The term, “Reconstruction,” in the Subject Index yields additional pamphlets such as “The Massacre of Six Colored Citizens of the United States at Hamburgh, S. C., on July 4, 1876,” which documents the slaughter of a black militia at the hands of a white mob.

  • Why did Phillips and Douglass consider some early Reconstruction policies a mockery of the Union victory and the Emancipation Proclamation?
  • How did Reconstruction policies and their relation to African Americans change over time?
  • How had the role of abolitionists changed in the wake of the Civil War?
  • How did Reconstruction policies establish a new order in the South?
  • What did the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment imply about southern states reentering the Union?
  • Why do you think that it was easier to change laws instead of attitudes in the South?
  • Do you think that racial attitudes can be changed by legislation?
  • Could the Federal Government have gained control in the South without appearing to be a conquering force? If so, how?

The Education of African Americans

The education system in America was one facet of life in need of attention after the Civil War. As A.D. Mayo explains in “The New Education in the New South,” educators didn’t have much to work with in the South in 1865:

Their endowments were gone; their teachers dead or dispersed; the foremost people too poor to send their children from home to school; and five millions emancipated slaves, wholly untaught, and several millions of poor white people, deplorably ignorant of letters, were flung upon society.

page 2

To educate people in the South in the late-nineteenth century, the government was now obligated to teach both races. A search on education provides an overview of the American education system as it developed in the late-nineteenth century. Pieces such as Richard R. Wright’s “A Brief Historical Sketch of Negro Education in Georgia,” which describe the state’s efforts in educating African Americans from 1865 to 1895.

As late as 1904, however, some people questioned the need to educate African Americans at all. Booker T. Washington’s 1904 address, “Negro Education Not a Failure,” challenges claims from politicians “that it does not pay, from any point of view, to educate the Negro; and that all attempts at his education have so far failed to accomplish any good results,” (page 5). Washington notes that almost all of the schools educating African-American students have been filled to capacity since the end of the Civil War. With this thirst for education, Washington explains, “the Negro, according to official records, has blotted out 55.5 per cent of his illiteracy since he became a free man,” (page 6). This progress, however, is only one step in the right direction:

[T]he fact that with all the Negro is doing for himself, with all the white people in the South are doing for themselves, and despite all that one race is doing to help the other, the present opportunities for education are woefully inadequate for both races. In the year 1877-8 the total expenditure for education in the ex-slave states was a beggarly $2.61 per capita for whites and only $1.09 for blacks; on the same basis the U. S. Commissioner of Education reasons that for the year 1900--1, $35,400,000 were spent for the education of both races in the South, of which $6,000,000 went to Negroes, or $4.92 per capita for whites and $2.21 for blacks; on the same basis, each child in Massachusetts has spent upon his education $22.35 and each one in New York $20.53, yearly.

page 7

  • What financial and social obstacles faced education in the South?
  • Why do you think that more education money was allocated for whites than blacks?
  • Why do you think that more money for education was available for Northern states? Was additional money being spent on something else in the South or do you think there just weren’t as many funds for education?
  • Do you think that the disparity between economic conditions in the North and South was a result of Reconstruction policies?
  • How does the education system in the North and South compare to other aspects of life in the late nineteenth century?


Critical Thinking

The materials of From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1822-1909, reflect the complexity of slavery in the United States and provide challenging opportunities to analyze documents and debates, such as religious arguments for and against slavery. Materials reflecting colonization and conversion efforts in Africa can be used to evaluate the relationship between language and culture. Other items support investigations into the history of slave laws and less-familiar aspects of the time period such as the appearance of white supremacist literature in the North.

Chronological Thinking

The “History of American Abolitionism” is a valuable resource for understanding the far-reaching impact of slavery as well as the many factors that shaped the complex debates surrounding it. Such factors include the Mexican-American war, British influence, slave rebellions, the influence of abolitionist groups, and territorial expansion.

This pamphlet chronicles slavery laws in the United States from 1787 to 1861. In addition to providing information (with an anti-slavery bias) about legislation such as the Missouri Compromise and the Wilmot Proviso, the pamphlet features statistics such as the slave population in each state in 1790 and 1850 (page 55). Use such information to create timelines of legislation and abolitionist efforts and maps that depict territorial expansion, changes in slave populations, and the admission of free and slave states in the Union. These items will aid in understanding the momentum of the debate and the violence surrounding slavery.

Historical Comprehension: 18th Century Slave Trade Legislation

The slave trade was a source of tension in the United States even before the formation of the federal government. Eighteenth-century legislation, beginning with the Constitution, set a legal precedent for the debate that would rage for the next seventy-five years. When the Constitution was ratified in 1787, it included two compromises on the slavery issue. First, only three-fifths of the slaves in a state were counted for taxation and representation purposes. Second, Congress was prohibited from ending the importation of slaves for twenty years.

“Disunion and Slavery,” a collection of letters from Republican Henry Raymond to Alabama Congressman W.L. Yancey, includes a November 23, 1860 letter that quotes the Congressional record in its description of how northern states called for immediate power to prohibit the slave trade but “yielded their consent to its continuance for twenty years, only to threats of secession on the part of South Carolina and Georgia.”

The 1824 pamphlet, “A View of the Present State of the African Slave Trade,” chronicles the laws introduced to curb the slave trade (page 5). This history includes a brief discussion of such legislation as the 1794 prohibition of U.S. residents from transporting slaves to foreign countries and the 1800 law preventing residents from working on or owning slave trade vessels.

  • Why did Congress establish laws that prohibited activities related to the slave trade?
  • How do you think these laws affected the ability to carry out the slave trade?
  • Were such laws in violation of the compromise established in the Constitution? Were these laws in violation of the spirit of that compromise? If so, was that unethical?
  • How might the importation of slaves have affected the population count and the subsequent representation of the states in Congress?
  • What was the rationale for counting only three-fifths of the slaves? Who benefitted from this stipulation?
  • Why do you think that South Carolina and Georgia threatened to secede if Congress possessed the power to immediately prohibit the slave trade?
  • Do you think that the debate over the slave trade was more about states’ rights or about the economic benefits of slavery? Why?
  • How did the legislation of the eighteenth century foreshadow congressional decisions of the nineteenth century?

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Slavery and the Church

The debate over slavery often moved from the houses of government to the houses of God. The abolitionist tract, “The American Churches, the Bulwarks of American Slavery,” claims, “The extent to which most of the Churches in America are involved in the guilt of supporting the slave system is known to but few in this country,” (page 3).

Some of the ways in which the Church supported slavery are blatant. In “A Scriptural View of the Moral Relations of African Slavery,” passages such as Isaiah, Chapter 14:2 (“And the people shall take them . . . and the house of Israel shall possess them . . . and they shall rule over their oppressors.”) are interpreted as describing slavery that is “sanctioned by God himself,” (page 7). Reverend John Hopkins presents a similar case in “Bible View of Slavery” when he cites a number of passages that he claims distinguish between temporary servitude and perpetual bondage:

“Both thy bondmen and bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you . . . And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; THEY SHALL BE YOUR BONDMEN FOR EVER; but over your brethren, the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigor . . .” (Lev. 25:40--46, with v. 55.)

The distinction here made between the temporary servitude of the Israelite and the perpetual bondage of the heathen race, is too plain for controversy.

page 3

  • How might these scriptural texts, such as Hopkins used, have contributed to perceptions of African Americans and the relationship between master and slave, and thus between the races?
  • What does the equation of slaves with heathens imply about the conversion of slaves to Christianity? What was the actual effect of the Christianization of slaves?
  • How might the equation of slaves with heathens have influenced the African-American experience of Christianity?

“An Address to the Anti-Slavery Christians of the United States”challenges the notion that the American slave trade is justified because people in Biblical times held non-Christians as slaves: “[I]t is wholly immaterial whether the Jews held slaves or not, since . . . they acted by virtue of a special and express permission from God, while it is equally admitted that no such permission has been given to us,” (page 4)

Searches on terms such as Bible, church, and scripture offer a number of other pamphlets that use biblical passages to make their case. Direct responses to Hopkins’s claims are also available in pamphlets such as “Remarks on Bishop Hopkins' Letter on the Bible View of Slavery” and “Review of Bishop Hopkins' Bible View of Slavery.” The latter tract argues that “Bishop Hopkins' pamphlet is made up of several groundless assumptions and assertions, and of attempted answers to certain objections made against the advocates of slavery,” (page 4).

  • What was the potential benefit of using the Bible to accept or condemn the institution of slavery?
  • Who was the intended audience of these pamphlets?
  • What was the importance of the “Address to the Anti-Slavery Christians” and its effort to refute the precedent of slavery that appears in the Bible?
  • When two parties interpret a work differently, is either side necessarily wrong? Why or why not?

For some Christians, the ethical questions surrounding slavery were as open to interpretation as the biblical passages they cited. In “The Church, The Ministry, and Slavery,” Reverend George Fisher attempts to distinguish between the sin of slavery and the Christian slaveholder who commits that sin. When describing an encounter that he had with a slaveholding friend, Fisher explains that this man was a good Christian despite his moral flaw:

If he could have seen the wrong, he would have forsaken it . . . He has always dwelt in the midst of slavery, and of course been under its blinding influence . . . That brother, though a slaveholder, I believe was a christian . . . and I regard him in that light now . . . You may charge me with countenancing and fellowshipping slavery, but I can bear that, knowing how baseless . . . the charge would be.

page 12

  • How does Fisher justify the actions and beliefs of his companion?
  • Why does Fisher emphasize the Christian nature of this person?
  • What does this stance imply about his concepts of social and religious obligations?
  • Do you think that Fisher is “countenancing and fellowshipping slavery”?
  • In what ways might "most of the Churches in America" have been "involved in the guilt of supporting the slave system?"

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Language and Culture

The opportunity to explore the relationship between language and culture is available in Reverend Alex Crummell’s 1860 address, “The English Language in Liberia.” Crummell notes that English is not the native language of Liberian colonists. Rather, Crummell says, English is representative of the colonist’s history as victims of political conquest: “No people lose entirely their native tongue without the bitter trial of hopeless struggles, bloody strife, heart-breaking despair, agony and death!”
(page 10).

  • How was the English language introduced to African slaves?
  • What is the relationship between a group’s use of the English language and their political power?

Although Crummell discusses the negative effects of the English language upon African-American slaves, he later characterizes it as “a language of unusual force and power” and “the language of freedom” (page 13). The strengths of English are exemplified in the education of African natives:

Christianity is using the English language on our coast as a main and mighty lever for Anglicising our native population, as well as for their evangelization . . . Hundreds of native youth have acquired a knowledge of English in Mission Schools, and then in their manhood have carried this acquisition forth, with its wealth and elevation, to numerous heathen homes.

page 21

  • Why might missionaries have been interested in the colonizing of Africa?
  • What was the purpose of teaching the English language in mission schools in Africa?
  • How did Crummell imagine students using this language outside of the schools?
  • Is it possible to reconcile the idea of the English language as a dominant force that stripped African Americans of their native culture and the idea of it as a valuable acquisition to be shared in “numerous heathen homes”?
  • Do you think that a language really conveys and even imposes characteristics of a culture? If so, how?
  • What happens to the native language of students who are taught a second, foreign language?
  • Is it necessary to prohibit their native language to ensure that the English language will take hold?
  • Are there situations in which a native language is still necessary for these students?
  • Are there limitations to which such students can understand this second language?
  • Do you think two languages and cultures can peacefully co-exist without one dominating the other? What types of cultural and political concessions would need to be made?
  • What leads to a “creolization,” or blending, of two languages and cultures into a unique third possibility?
  • Do you think that the English language should be the official language in America? What are the implications of that decision on non-English speakers?

Historical Research Capabilities

This collection is a rich resource of materials that can support a thorough, in-depth investigation into the complex history of the institution of slavery and the issues surrounding it. One facet of this history is the colonization effort that began in 1816 with the formation of the American Colonization Society. A search on Liberia results in a number of documents discussing Liberia, including a report on the Navy’s role in repatriation, “The U.S. Navy in Connection with the Foundation, Growth and Prosperity of the Republic of Liberia” and an 1869 address to the American Colonization Society by the first president of Liberia. Additional information on the history of Liberia is available in the exhibit, The African-American Mosaic, and in the American Memory collection, Maps of Liberia, 1830-1870, which includes a special presentation of a timeline of the nation’s history.

  • What was the role of the federal government in colonizing Liberia?
  • How did Liberia develop into an independent nation in 1847?
  • What were the potential benefits for African Americans moving to Liberia?

The collection’s Subject Index also offers information that is closer to the domestic slavery debate. The term, White Supremacist Literature, introduces a number of arguments against emancipation from citizens of the North. “The Mediator Between North and South” claims, “The time of punishment has arrived, and will persecute us until we have found a remedy to cure the evil, which would be how to get rid of the negroes, with a clear conscience and profit to the nation,” (page 6). “African Slavery Regarded from an Unusual Stand-point” argues“that this modern idea of the equality of the races of men is disproved by the experience of the world and sound science,” (page 3).

  • What is the basis for these arguments against emancipation?
  • What were the social, scientific, and religious ideas introduced in these pieces?
  • What does the language of these pieces suggest about the argument made?
  • Who were the white supremacists? What might have been their motivation for printing this material? What might have been their goal?
  • Might this literature be an outgrowth of class tensions?
  • Given that such materials were created in the 1860s, might these ideas have been in reaction to attitudes specific to the historical events or the political climate of the era?
  • How do these arguments compare to some of the speeches presented in Congress at the time?


Arts & Humanities

From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1822-1909, offers primary source materials depicting African Americans in the nineteenth century in representations ranging from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to humor on the minstrel stage, and abolitionist tracts in pamphlets and newspapers. Former-slave narratives provide an opportunity to analyze issues of authorship, while congressional speeches provide a look at the impact of contention in politics.

Former-Slave Narratives

Some abolitionist tracts offered accounts of the hardships of slavery straight from the pens of former slaves. A search on narrative yields six pamphlets that are attributed to former slaves. As the preface to the “Narrative of Henry Watson” notes, the intention of this account was to “present a faithful record of a few only of the transactions I have been eye-witness of, hoping that a perusal of them might add something to the already abundant testimony of the horrors of the slave system,” (page 4).

Despite the guarantee of providing eyewitness testimony, a review of Watson’s tale and other pamphlets such as “Life of James Mars, a Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut” and “Narrative of the Life of J.D. Green, a Runaway Slave,” hint that abolitionists may have revised these tales for dramatic effect. For example, J.D. Green’s explanation of how he felt when his mother was sold off the plantation includes the following reflection:

Oh! how dreadful it is to be black! Why was I born black? It would have been better had I not been born at all. Only yesterday, my mother was sold to go to, not one of us knows where, and I am left alone, and I have no hope of seeing her again. At this moment a raven alighted on a tree over my head, and I cried, "Oh, Raven! if I had wings like you, I would soon find my mother and be happy again."

page 6

A search for the term, slave narrative, across the American Memory site provides examples of other accounts from collections such as Voices from the Days of Slavery, The Nineteenth Century in Print, and Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project. Documents such as Jesse Davis’s narrative were transcribed by field workers in Federal Writers’ Project who made an effort to preserve the narrator’s dialect and phrasing: “Dere was my young misses, Miss Lizzie and Miss Lennie. My mammy name Sarah, just lak old mistress name Sarah. Her b’long to marster and mistress but my pappy no b’long to them. Him b’long to de big bugs, de Davis family,” (page 264).

  • What aspects of slavery do the former slave narratives in this collection discuss?
  • What is the purpose of including a description of the raven in J.D. Green’s narrative?
  • Are there any parts of slavery that are excluded from the accounts in these pamphlets?
  • What is the tone of these pamphlets?
  • How do they compare to publications from abolitionist groups such as the American Anti-Slavery Society?
  • Who do you think was the intended audience for these pamphlets?
  • Do you think that former slaves wrote these pamphlets?
  • How do these pamphlets compare to slave narratives in other American Memory collections?

Congressional Duels

Tensions ran high during the Congressional debates over slavery and many politicians made personal attacks on those who opposed their ideology. For example, in Horace Mann’s “Letters on the Extension of Slavery into California and New Mexico,” the author addresses the jokes made at his expense by Michigan Senator Lewis Cass. Instead of criticizing his colleague for his misconduct, Mann reciprocates with a series of puns on Cass’s last name such as “Small odds, 'twixt tweedle dum and tweedle-dee, And Cass means much the same, without the C,” (page 7).

Perhaps the most excessive examples come in Charles Sumner’s 1860 speech, “The Barbarism of Slavery,” when the Senator chronicles the “exhibition of Slave-masters in Congressional history” to prove that “at lawless outbreaks or official conduct, Slave-masters are always the same,” (page 53).

Some of the most egregious events come from the debates over the Compromise of 1850 when Mr. Foote, a slaveholder representing Mississippi, made a personal attack on Missouri Senator Benton: “Mr. Benton rose at once from his seat, and . . . advanced in the direction of Mr. Foote, when the latter, gliding backward, drew from his pocket a five-chambered revolver, full loaded, which he cocked,” (page 55). Although order was restored in the Senate chamber, the drawing of Foote’s gun was a precursor to his challenging Benton to a duel:

There are instances in the history of the Senator which might well relieve a man of honor from the obligation to recognize him as a fitting antagonist . . . if the Senator from Missouri will deign to acknowledge himself responsible to the laws of honor, he shall have a very early opportunity of proving his prowess in contest with one over whom I hold perfect control; or, if he feels in the least degree aggrieved at any thing which has fallen from me, he shall . . . have full redress accorded to him . . . . I do not denounce him as a coward . . . but if he wishes to patch up his reputation for courage . . . he will certainly have an opportunity of doing so whenever he makes his desire known in the premises.

page 56

Sumner explains that this was not the last time that a challenge was presented within a speech in the Senate chambers. He notes a number of such examples, including one instance that occurred during the current Congressional session, between the Senators of Mississippi and Vermont: “‘A gentleman,’ says the Senator, 'has the right to give an insult, if he feels himself bound to answer for it' and in reply to the Senator from Vermont, he declared, that in case of insult, taking another out and shooting him might be ‘satisfaction,’” (page 58).

Sumner concludes this section by criticizing the Fugitive Slave Act and declaring:

Let Senators who are so clamorous for "the enforcement of laws," begin by enforcing the statute which declares the Duel to be a felony. At least, let the statute cease to be a dead letter in this Chamber. But this is too much to expect while Slavery prevails here, for the Duel is a part of that System of Violence which has its origin in Slavery.

page 57

  • Do you think that Horace Mann’s puns and Charles Sumner’s examples from the Congressional record are appropriate conduct for the legislative branch of the federal government? Does the Congressional modus operandi of debate explain or excuse such conduct? Should there be laws barring these types of personal attacks from the Senate floor?
  • Why do you think that so many politicians resorted to personal attacks on one another at this time?
  • Is Sumner correct in his assessment that the threat of duels in Congress comes from the violence of slaveholders?
  • How do you think that these personal attacks compare with contemporary Congressional debates--or even contemporary presidential campaigns?
  • What does this comparison suggest about changes, or a lack thereof, in rhetoric and in concepts of debate, honor, and accountability?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin was both a reaction to, and a reflection of, the political climate of its era. As a novel and a theatrical production, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to fuel the abolitionist effort by creating what Wendell Phillips calls in “The Philosophy of the Abolition Movement,” “rather an event than a book,” (page 29). Phillips praises the stage interpretation for its ability to present a message to its audience that other members of the community were reluctant to express:

The theatre, bowing to its audience, has preached immediate emancipation, and given us the whole of "Uncle Tom"; while the pulpit is either silent or hostile, and in the columns of the theological papers, the work is subjected to criticism, to reproach, and its author to severe rebuke.

page 25

The London Times review, “Uncle Tom in England,” offers one contemporary reaction to the novel and points to why this format might have been an ideal medium for Stowe’s message:

She does not preach a sermon, for men are accustomed to nap and nod under the pulpit: she does not indite a philosophical discourse, for philosophy is exacting, is solicitous for truth, and scorns exaggeration. Nor does the lady condescend to survey her intricate subject in the capacity of a judge, for the judicial seat is fixed high above human passion, and she is in no temper to mount it.

page 3

  • According to the Times review, what did Stowe's use of the novel medium allow her to accomplish? Why couldn't she have done these things through a sermon or speech?
  • Why do you think the work was so popular both as a novel and a stage production, "rather an event than a book"?
  • Who is the intended audience of both formats?
  • What do you think is the political or social role of fiction?
  • What are the potential benefits of trying to include a message in a work of fiction? What are the potential hazards of such an endeavor?

Minstrel Humor

The “Black American Joker” offers a collection of comic minstrel dialogues and jokes for the minstrel stage. This 1897 pamphlet features sketches such as “That ‘Tale’ Did Not Wag,” a dialogue with a man who just returned from the American West that concludes with the following exchange:

Inter. Oh, Steve, while there did you meet any Indians?

Bones. No Injuns there--all gone to de happy hunting-ground!

Inter. Oh, why do they call their heaven that?

Bones. 'Case there are no Injun agents there an' no white sojers to stop them hunting one anoder!

page 12

  • How does this exchange portray Native Americans and the white Americans who were charged with providing food and "civilizing" them?
  • What does the joke imply about the relationship between the two groups?
  • How do these sketches reflect historic events of the era?

In addition to featuring sketches, the “Black American Joker” also features advice for selecting pieces for the minstrel stage. The “Negro Plays” section offers suggestions on performance styles:

[I]n all of the following described plays, the female characters may be assumed by males. In such cases let me warn the amateur against indulging in any action displaying the least trace of vulgarity.

In playing a female role, even in a negro farce, it is better to under-act than over-act. Of course the dress may be somewhat outré and the gestures exaggerated, but coarseness must be strictly forbidden . . .

In regular minstrel companies all the characters are played with black faces. I advise amateurs to follow this rule, as a white-face character in a negro minstrel entertainment is decidedly out of place.

page 72

  • What does an actor in a woman’s costume convey to an audience?
  • Why do you think that it was recommended that men portraying women not project vulgarity?
  • What does an actor in blackface makeup convey to an audience? What is the difference in the meaning of blackface makeup depending upon whether a white or an African-American actor uses it?
  • Why would a white character be “decidedly out of place” on a minstrel stage?
  • Who do you think is the intended audience for these plays? What were the intended goals?

Abolitionist Newspapers

William Lloyd Garrison called for an immediate end to slavery in America. This position, echoed in his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, placed him at odds with other abolitionists—even those working with him in the American Anti-Slavery Society. For example, in Correspondence, between the Hon. F. H. Elmore . . . and James G. Birney, one of the secretaries of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Birney describes the publications Emancipator and Human Rights as “organs of the Executive Committee” of the society (page 18).

Although Garrison was directly affiliated with The Liberator and, at least indirectly associated with the Emancipator, Joseph Alden claims in “‘Emancipator’ and ‘Liberator’” that the newspapers were at odds with one another. Alden explains that the Emancipator offered a moderate approach by focusing solely on ending chattel slavery while The Liberator called to end the Constitution, the Sabbath, the Protestant Church, and the ministry:

In all their "antics," the Liberator party of non-resistants, as opposed to the Emancipator party of voting abolitionists who organized as the Liberty party, were encouraged and hounded on by slaveholders . . . But neither of the above institutions has been abolished . . . while chattel slavery is legally dead. Hence the Emancipator and its co-laborers . . . accomplished their work by political action while the Liberator "died a natural death," without accomplishing one of its darling objects, except talking and doing nothing else.

page 2

The formation of the Liberty party that Alden refers to marked a philosophical split in the American Anti-Slavery Society when a number of moderate abolitionists left the organization. These members united to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the Liberty party in 1839.

  • What is the role of an abolitionist newspaper?
  • Who is the target audience of the abolitionist newspaper? How does this compare to the function and audience of a general newspaper?
  • How is content influenced by the political ideology of a newspaper’s writers and editors?
  • Do you think that newspapers should always appeal to a certain part of their audience?


How to Read a Slave Narrative

William L. Andrews
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
©National Humanities Center

Historical Overview of an American Tradition

Under the general rubric of slave narrative falls any account of the life, or a major portion of the life, of a fugitive or former slave, either written or orally related by the slave himself or herself. Slave narratives comprise one of the most influential traditions in American literature, shaping the form and themes of some of the most celebrated and controversial writing, in both autobiography and fiction, in the history of the United States. Although the vast majority of American slave narratives were authored by people of African descent, Offering a diversity of voices, slave narratives represent an influential tradition in American literature. African-born Muslims who wrote in Arabic, the Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano, and a handful white American sailors taken captive by North African pirates also penned narratives of their enslavement during the nineteenth century. From 1760 to the end of the Civil War in the United States, approximately one hundred autobiographies of fugitive or former slaves appeared. After slavery was abolished in North America in 1865, at least fifty former slaves wrote or dictated book-length accounts of their lives. During the Depression of the 1930s, the Federal Writers Project gathered oral personal histories from 2,500 former slaves, whose testimony eventually filled eighteen volumes. The narratives of former slaves in the United States continue to be discovered and published, most recently David Blight’s A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation (2007). (See also "Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs: American Slave Narrators" in Freedom's Story.)

The earliest slave narrative to receive international attention was the two-volume Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), which traces Equiano’s career from West African boyhood, through the dreadful transatlantic Middle Passage, to eventual freedom and economic success as a British citizen. Although some scholarship has questioned the authenticity of Equiano’s claim to African birth, his autobiography is unquestionably the first to challenge on moral and religious grounds the popular acceptance of slavery as a socio-economic institution in eighteenth-century England and the Americas. The first fugitive slave narrative in the United States, the Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, Written by Himself (1825), revealed for the first time to readers in the North the horrors of chattel slavery in the American South and the pervasiveness of racial injustice in New England.

Title page,
The Confessions of Nat Turner.

In the late summer of 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia, an insurrection of slaves fomented by a black preacher named Nat Turner crystallized the impending crisis into which slavery was taking the nation. Before they were apprehended by state and federal troops, Turner’s loosely disciplined army executed sixty whites, including Prophet Nat’s master and family. After dictating a narrative hurried into publication under the title The Confessions of Nat Turner, the leader of the most successful slave revolt in U.S. history was hanged on November 11, 1831. It is estimated that fifty thousand copies of Turner’s decidedly unrepentant “confessions” were printed, making this the most widely read African American slave narrative of its time.

In the aftermath of the Turner revolt and the South’ s iron-fisted response to it, a new generation of reformers in the North proclaimed their uncompromising opposition to slavery. Led by the crusading white journalist William Lloyd Garrison, these abolitionists demanded the immediate end of slavery throughout the United States. Free blacks in the North lent their support to Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society, editing newspapers, holding conventions, circulating petitions, and investing their money in protest actions. Searching for a means of galvanizing public concern for the slave as “a man and a brother,” this generation of black and white radical abolitionists began actively soliciting and publicizing the narratives of fugitive slaves. Southern response to the Turner revolt spurred anti-slavery agitation, including the publication of slave narratives.From 1830 to the end of the slavery era, the fugitive slave narrative dominated the literary landscape of antebellum black America, far outnumbering the autobiographies of free people of color, not to mention the handful of novels published by African Americans. Most of the major authors of African American literature before 1865, such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Jacobs, launched their writing careers via narratives of their experience as slaves.

Advertised in the abolitionist press and sold at antislavery meetings throughout the English-speaking world, a significant number of antebellum slave narratives went through multiple editions and sold in the tens of thousands. The widespread, sometimes international, popularity of the narratives of celebrated fugitives such as Douglass, William Wells Brown, Henry Box Brown, Henry Bibb, and William and Ellen Craft was not solely attributable to the publicity the narratives received from the antislavery movement. Readers could see that, as one reviewer put it, "the slave who endeavours to recover his freedom is associating with himself no small part of the romance of the time." To the noted transcendentalist clergyman Theodore Parker, slave narratives qualified ironically as the only indigenous literary form that America, the reputed “land of the free,” had contributed to world literature. To Parker, "all the original romance of Americans is in [the slave narratives], not in the white man’s novel."

In 1845 the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself became an antebellum international best seller. A fugitive from Maryland slavery, Douglass spent four years honing his skills as an abolitionist lecturer before setting about the task of writing his autobiography. The genius of Douglass’s Narrative, often considered the epitome of the slave narrative Douglass's Narrative links literacy and freedom.before 1865, was its linkage of the author’s adult quest for freedom to his boyhood pursuit of literacy, thereby creating a lasting ideal of the African American hero committed to intellectual achievement and independence as well as physical freedom. During the first five years of its publication, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is estimated to have sold at least 30,000 copies, a greater number of sales than Moby-Dick (1851), Walden (1854), and Song of Myself (1855) could have amassed in common during the first five years of their publication.

In the late 1840s well-known fugitive slaves such as William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, James W. C. Pennington, and William and Ellen Craft reinforced the rhetorical self-consciousness of the slave narrative by incorporating into their stories trickster motifs from African American folk culture, extensive literary and biblical allusion, and a picaresque perspective on the meaning of the slave’s flight from bondage to freedom. As social and political conflict in the United States at mid-century centered more and more on the presence and fate of African Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom expanded the scope of the slave narrative to critique racism.Americans, the slave narrative took on an unprecedented urgency and candor, unmasking as never before the moral and social complexities of the American caste and class system in the North as well as the South. My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Douglass’s second autobiography, conducted a fresh inquiry into the meaning of slavery and freedom, adopting the standpoint of one who had spent enough time in the so-called “free states” to understand how pervasive racism and paternalism were, even among the most liberal whites, the Garrisonians themselves. Harriet Jacobs, the earliest known African American female slave to author her own narrative, also challenged conventional ideas about slavery and freedom in her strikingly original Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861).

Jacobs’s autobiography shows how sexual exploitation made slavery especially oppressive for black women. But in demonstrating how she fought Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl challenges the image of the female slave as victim.back and ultimately gained both her own freedom and that of her two children, Jacobs proved the inadequacy of the image of victim that had been pervasively applied to female slaves in the male-authored slave narrative. The writing of Jacobs; the feminist oratory of the "Libyan sybil," Sojourner Truth; and the renowned example of Harriet Tubman, the fearless conductor of runaways on the Underground Railroad, enriched African American literature with new models of female self-expression and heroism.

In the 1850s, slave narratives contributed to the mounting national debate over slavery. The most widely read and hotly disputed American novel of the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), was profoundly influenced by its author’ s reading of slave narratives, to which she owed many graphic incidents and the models for some of her most memorable characters. Uncle Tom, she explained, had been inspired by her reading of The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada (1849). Stowe’s novel, in turn, spurred the publication of narratives that promised to out-do her in exposing the full truth about the horrors of slavery. The most famous—and widely read—was Solomon Northup’s ghostwritten autobiography, whose title summed up his shocking story: Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana (1853).

After the abolition of slavery in 1865 former slaves continued to publish their autobiographies, often to show how the rigors of slavery had prepared them for full participation in the post-Civil War social and economic order. A notable example of the post-Civil War slave narrative flowed from the pen of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, whose Behind the Scenes: or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868) recounted the author’s successful rise from enslavement to independent businesswoman and confidante to the First Lady of the United States, Mary Todd Lincoln. The influence of the slave narrative reaches into the twentieth-first century.In November 1874, Mark Twain broke into the prestigious Atlantic Monthly with “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” the narrative of Mary Ann Cord, the Clemens family cook, who had been enslaved for more than sixty years before emancipation. Ten years later, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ostensibly the autobiography of a poor-white teenager who tries to help an older slave escape, became a major white contribution to the American fugitive slave narrative. The biggest selling of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century slave narratives was Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901), a classic American success story that extolled African American progress and interracial cooperation in the Black Belt of the deep South since the end of slavery in 1865. Notable twentieth-century African American autobiographies, such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), as well as prize-winning novels such as William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1989), and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World (2004), bear the unmistakable imprint of the slave narrative, particularly in probing the origins of psychological as well as social oppression and in their searching critique of the meaning of freedom for twentieth-century black and white Americans alike.

Guiding Student Discussion

What does the title page of a slave narrative tell us?


Title page,
Narrative of William W. Brown,
an American Slave

Title page,
Incidents in the Life
of a Slave Girl

The title page of a slave narrative bears significant clues as to the authorship of the narrative itself. Subtitles often convey the role that the subject named in the narrative’s title actually played in the production of the narrative. The narratives of Equiano, Grimes, Douglass, Wells Brown, and Bibb, for instance, all bear the subtitle Written by Himself. Though the title page of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl does not name the “Slave Girl” whose life story follows, the subtitle of the book states that it was Written by Herself. Narratives that identify the subject and author of the text as one and the same represent, in the eyes of many scholars, the most authoritative texts in the tradition. Ask students why it would be important for white readers of the mid-nineteenth century to see the Written by Himself or Herself subtitle in these narratives? Why is authorship of one’s own story so important? Students should understand that identifying a slave narrator as literate and capable of independent literary expression was a powerful way to combat a key proslavery myth, which held that slaves were unself-conscious and incapable of mastering the arts of literacy. Students should remember that in mid-nineteenth-century America, where many whites had had little or no schooling, literacy was a marker of social prestige and economic power.

What is the significance of the prefaces and introductions found in many slave narratives?

Typically, the antebellum slave narrative carries a black message inside a white envelope. Prefatory (and sometimes appended) matter by whites attest to the reliability and good character of the black narrator while calling attention to what the narrative would reveal about the moral abominations of slavery. Notable examples of white prefaces to black texts (only a small minority of nineteenth-century slave narratives carry a preface by a person of African descent) are William Lloyd Garrison’s in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Lydia Maria Child’s in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In both cases, the prefaces seek to authenticate the veracity of the narratives that follow them. A good question to ask students is, why did these narratives need such prefaces? Would the race or color of the preface writer—both Garrison and Child were white—matter to the slave narratives’ primarily white readership?

What is the plot of most pre-Civil War slave narratives?

Beyond the prefatory matter, the former slave’s autobiographical narrative generally centers on his or her rite of passage from slavery in the South to freedom in the North. Usually, the antebellum slave narrator portrays slavery as a condition of extreme physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual deprivation, a kind of hell on earth. Since most antebellum narratives Slave narratives adapt the rite-of-passage story to propagandistic purposes.were intended to serve a propagandistic purpose—to illustrate in graphic but authoritative terms the hardships of actual day-to-day life in slavery—the focus of most of these narratives tends to be more on the institution of slavery rather than on the consciousness of the individual slave. Students will learn a great deal from some narratives—such as those of Grimes, Bibb, and Northup—about the day-to-day grind of back-breaking agricultural labor that we often associate with slavery. Such narratives are not always as self-reflective as readers today might like. Students should understand that fugitive slaves could not assume that whites were interested in what they thought or how they felt about matters other than slavery.

In studying such narratives as Douglass’s, Wells Brown’s, Jacobs’s, and the Crafts’, students might explore what slavery was like for comparatively fortunate slaves. Douglass, for instance, spent a crucial part of his boyhood in a port city where he had access to information and had the opportunity to learn to read. In his young manhood he had the opportunity to learn a trade and hire his time in Baltimore. Wells Brown, another skilled slave, had the advantage of working primarily as a house servant, not a field hand. So did Harriet Jacobs and William and Ellen Craft. Students could ask themselves why slaves with these comparative advantages were the ones who not only risked everything to escape but then wrote so passionately and eloquently about the injustices of their enslavement.

What is the turning-point in a slave narrative? Is it when the slave resolves to escape or when he or she arrives in the North? How does the slave arrive at the decision to escape? Does the narrator portray a process of growing awareness, dissatisfaction, and resistance that culminates in the escape effort?

Most slave narratives portray a process by which the narrator realizes the injustices and dangers facing him or her, tries to resist them—sometimes physically, sometimes through deceit or verbal opposition—but eventually resolves to risk everything for the sake of freedom.

Precipitating the narrator’s decision to escape is usually some sort of personal crisis, such as the sale or death of a loved one (Box Brown), insults and cruelties too great to bear (Pennington), a dark night of the soul (Henson), or simply a rare opportunity too inviting to forego (Jacobs). Many readers were fascinated by the harrowing accounts of flight featured in some of the most popular slave narratives, such as Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery, Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide (1849) and Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860). Douglass, on the other hand, refused to disclose the means by which he made his escape, thereby directly contradicting the expectations of the form he himself had adopted. Why would Douglass make such a decision, knowing his readership wanted to read these kinds of escape accounts (in his post-Civil War Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he explained how he made his way to freedom)?

How do most slave narratives end? How do they portray life in the North?

Impelled by faith in God and a commitment to liberty and human dignity comparable (some narrators insist) to that of America’ s Founders, the slave’s arduous quest for freedom almost always climaxes in his or her arrival in the North. In some well-known antebellum narratives, the attainment of freedom is signaled not simply by reaching the so-called free states but by renaming oneself (Douglass and William Wells Brown make a point of explaining why), finding employment, marrying, and, in some cases, dedicating significant energy to antislavery activism. Few slave narratives condemn the widespread racial discrimination and injustice that African Americans endured in the North. The Life of William Grimes is a remarkable exception. If students compare the final paragraphs of this autobiography and the last chapter of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to the final scene of Douglass’s Narrative (see below), they will have a chance to compare and contrast three different perspectives on life in the North.

Different Perspectives on Life in the North from Three Slave Narratives

From The Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, Written by Himself (1825)PDF file

. . . Those slaves who have kind masters, are perhaps as happy as the generality of mankind. They are not aware that their condition can be better, and I dont know as it can: indeed it cannot by their own exertions. I would advise no slave to leave his master. If he runs away, he is most sure to be taken. If he is not, he will ever be in the apprehension of it. And I do think there is no inducement for a slave to leave his master, and be set free in the northern states. I have had to work hard; I have been often cheated, insulted, abused, and injured; yet a black man, if he will be industrious and honest, he can get along here as well as any one who is poor, and in a situation to be imposed on. I have been very unfortunate in life in this respect. Notwithstanding all my struggles and sufferings, and injuries, I have been an honest man. There is no one who can come forward and say he knows any thing against Grimes. This I know, that I have been punished for being suspected of things, of which, some of those who were loudest against me, were actually guilty. The practice of warning poor people out of town is very cruel. It may be necessary that towns should have that power, otherwise some might be overrun with paupers. But it is mighty apt to be abused. A poor man just gets a going in business, and is then warned to depart. Perhaps he has a family, and dont know where to go, or what to do. I am a poor man, and ignorant. But I am a man of sense. I have seen them contributing at church for the heathen, to build churches, and send out preachers to them, yet there was no place where I could get a seat in the church. I knew in New-Haven, Indians and negroes, come from a great many thousand miles, sent to be educated, while there were people I knew in the town, cold and hungry, and ignorant. They have kind of societies to make clothes, for those, who they say, go naked in their own countries. The ladies sometimes do this at one end of a town, while their father’s who may happen to be selectmen, may be warning a poor man and his family, out at the other end, for fear they may have to be buried at the state expense. It sounds rather strange upon a man’s ear, who feels that he is friendless and abused in society, to hear so many speeches about charity; for I was always inclined to be observing.

I have forebore to mention names in my history where it might give the least pain, in this I have made it less interesting and injured myself.

I may sometimes be a little mistaken, as I have to write from memory, and there is a great deal I have omitted from want of recollection at the time of writing. I cannot speak as I feel on some subjects. If those who read my history, think I have not led a life of trial, I have failed to give a correct representation. I think I must be Forty years of age but don’t know; I could not tell my wife my age. I have learned to read and write pretty well; if I had opportunity I could learn very fast. My wife has a tolerable good education, which has been a help to me.

I hope some will buy my books from charity, but I am no beggar. I am now entirely destitute of property; where and how I shall live I don’t know; where and how I shall die I dont know, but I hope I may be prepared. If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave. I would in my will, leave my skin 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.

From Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)PDF file

Mrs. Bruce came to me and entreated me to leave the city the next morning. She said her house was watched, and it was possible that some clew to me might be obtained. I refused to take her advice. She pleaded with an earnest tenderness, that ought to have moved me; but I was in a bitter, disheartened mood. I was weary of flying from pillar to post. I had been chased during half my life, and it seemed as if the chase was never to end. There I sat, in that great city [New York], guiltless of crime, yet not daring to worship God in any of the churches. I heard the bells ringing for afternoon service, and, with contemptuous sarcasm, I said, "Will the preachers take for their text, ’Proclaim liberty to the captive, and the opening of prison doors to them that are bound’? or will they preach from the text, ’Do unto others as ye would they should do unto you’?" Oppressed Poles and Hungarians could find a safe refuge in that city; John Mitchell was free to proclaim in the City Hall his desire for "a plantation well stocked with slaves;" but there I sat, an oppressed American, not daring to show my face. God forgive the black and bitter thoughts I indulged on that Sabbath day! The Scripture says, "Oppression makes even a wise man mad;" and I was not wise.

I had been told that Mr. Dodge [Jacobs’s current owner] said his wife had never signed away her right to my children, and if he could not get me, he would take them. This it was, more than any thing else, that roused such a tempest in my soul. Benjamin was with his uncle William in California, but my innocent young daughter had come to spend a vacation with me. I thought of what I had suffered in slavery at her age, and my heart was like a tiger’s when a hunter tries to seize her young.

Dear Mrs. Bruce! I seem to see the expression of her face, as she turned away discouraged by my obstinate mood. Finding her expostulations unavailing, she sent Ellen to entreat me. When ten o’clock in the evening arrived and Ellen had not returned, this watchful and unwearied friend became anxious. She came to us in a carriage, bringing a well-filled trunk for my journey-trusting that by this time I would listen to reason. I yielded to her, as I ought to have done before.

The next day, baby and I set out in a heavy snow storm, bound for New England again. I received letters from the City of Iniquity, addressed to me under an assumed name. In a few days one came from Mrs. Bruce, informing me that my new master was still searching for me, and that she intended to put an end to this persecution by buying my freedom. I felt grateful for the kindness that prompted this offer, but the idea was not so pleasant to me as might have been expected. The more my mind had become enlightened, the more difficult it was for me to consider myself an article of property; and to pay money to those who had so grievously oppressed me seemed like taking from my sufferings the glory of triumph. I wrote to Mrs. Bruce, thanking her, but saying that being sold from one owner to another seemed too much like slavery; that such a great obligation could not be easily cancelled; and that I preferred to go to my brother in California.

Without my knowledge, Mrs. Bruce employed a gentleman in New York to enter into negotiations with Mr. Dodge. He proposed to pay three hundred dollars down, if Mr. Dodge would sell me, and enter into obligations to relinquish all claim to me or my children forever after. He who called himself my master said he scorned so small an offer for such a valuable servant. The gentleman replied, "You can do as you choose, sir. If you reject this offer you will never get any thing; for the woman has friends who will convey her and her children out of the country."

Mr. Dodge concluded that "half a loaf was better than no bread," and he agreed to the proffered terms. By the next mail I received this brief letter from Mrs. Bruce: "I am rejoiced to tell you that the money for your freedom has been paid to Mr. Dodge. Come home to-morrow. I long to see you and my sweet babe."

My brain reeled as I read these lines. A gentleman near me said, "It’s true; I have seen the bill of sale." "The bill of sale!" Those words struck me like a blow. So I was sold at last! A human being sold in the free city of New York! The bill of sale is on record, and future generations will learn from it that women were articles of traffic in New York, late in the nineteenth century of the Christian religion. It may hereafter prove a useful document to antiquaries, who are seeking to measure the progress of civilization in the United States. I well know the value of that bit of paper; but much as I love freedom, I do not like to look upon it. I am deeply grateful to the generous friend who procured it, but I despise the miscreant who demanded payment for what never rightfully belonged to him or his.

I had objected to having my freedom bought, yet I must confess that when it was done I felt as if a heavy load had been lifted from my weary shoulders. When I rode home in the cars I was no longer afraid to unveil my face and look at people as they passed. I should have been glad to have met Daniel Dodge himself; to have had him seen me and known me, that he might have mourned over the untoward circumstances which compelled him to sell me for three hundred dollars.

When I reached home, the arms of my benefactress were thrown round me, and our tears mingled. As soon as she could speak, she said, "O Linda, I’m so glad it’s all over! You wrote to me as if you thought you were going to be transferred from one owner to another. But I did not buy you for your services. I should have done just the same, if you had been going to sail for California to-morrow. I should, at least, have the satisfaction of knowing that you left me a free woman."

My heart was exceedingly full. I remembered how my poor father had tried to buy me, when I was a small child, and how he had been disappointed. I hoped his spirit was rejoicing over me now. I remembered how my good old grandmother had laid up her earnings to purchase me in later years, and how often her plans had been frustrated. How that faithful, loving old heart would leap for joy, if she could look on me and my children now that we were free! My relatives had been foiled in all their efforts, but God had raised me up a friend among strangers, who had bestowed on me the precious, long-desired boon. Friend! It is a common word, often lightly used. Like other good and beautiful things, it may be tarnished by careless handling; but when I speak of Mrs. Bruce as my friend, the word is sacred.

My grandmother lived to rejoice in my freedom; but not long after, a letter came with a black seal. She had gone "where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest."

Time passed on, and a paper came to me from the south, containing an obituary notice of my uncle Phillip. It was the only case I ever knew of such an honor conferred upon a colored person. It was written by one of his friends, and contained these words: "Now that death has laid him low, they call him a good man and a useful citizen; but what are eulogies to the black man, when the world has faded from his vision? It does not require man’s praise to obtain rest in God’s kingdom." So they called a colored man a citizen! Strange words to be uttered in that region!

Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage. I and my children are now free! We are as free from the power of slaveholders as are the white people of the north; and though that, according to my ideas, is not saying a great deal, it is a vast improvement in my condition. The dream of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own. I still long for a hearthstone of my own, however humble. I wish it for my children’s sake far more than for my own. But God so orders circumstances as to keep me with my friend Mrs. Bruce. Love, duty, gratitude, also bind me to her side. It is a privilege to serve her who pities my oppressed people, and who has bestowed the inestimable boon of freedom on me and my children.

It has been painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage. I would gladly forget them if I could. Yet the retrospection is not altogether without solace; for with those gloomy recollections come tender memories of my good old grandmother, like light, fleecy clouds floating over a dark and troubled sea.

From Narrative of the Life Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845)PDF file

I was quite disappointed at the general appearance of things in New Bedford. The impression which I had received respecting the character and condition of the people of the north, I found to be singularly erroneous, I had very strangely supposed, while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and scarcely any of the luxuries, of life were enjoyed at the north, compared with what were enjoyed by the slaveholders of the south. I probably came to this conclusion from the fact that northern people owned no slaves. I supposed that they were about upon a level with the non-slaveholding population of the south. I knew they were exceedingly poor, and I had been accustomed to regard their poverty as the necessary consequence of their being non-slaveholders. I had somehow imbibed the opinion that, in the absence of slaves, there could be no wealth, and very little refinement. And upon coming to the north, I expected to meet with a rough, hard-handed, and uncultivated population, living in the most Spartan-like simplicity, knowing nothing of the ease, luxury, pomp, and grandeur of southern slaveholders. Such being my conjectures, any one acquainted with the appearance of New Bedford may very readily infer how palpably I must have seen my mistake.

In the afternoon of the day when I reached New Bedford, I visited the wharves, to take a view of the shipping. Here I found myself surrounded with the strongest proofs of wealth. Lying at the wharves, and riding in the stream, I saw many ships of the finest model, in the best order, and of the largest size. Upon the right and left, I was walled in by granite warehouses of the widest dimensions, stowed to their utmost capacity with the necessaries and comforts of life. Added to this, almost every body seemed to be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore. There were no loud songs heard from those engaged in loading and unloading ships. I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer. I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly on. Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man. To me this looked exceedingly strange. From the wharves I strolled around and over the town, gazing with wonder and admiration at the splendid churches, beautiful dwellings, and finely-cultivated gardens; evincing an amount of wealth, comfort, taste, and refinement, such as I had never seen in any part of slaveholding Maryland.

Every thing looked clean, new, and beautiful. I saw few or no dilapidated houses, with poverty-stricken inmates; no half-naked children and barefooted women, such as I had been accustomed to see in Hillsborough, Easton, St. Michael’s, and Baltimore. The people looked more able, stronger, healthier, and happier, than those of Maryland. I was for once made glad by a view of extreme wealth, without being saddened by seeing extreme poverty. But the most astonishing as well as the most interesting thing to me was the condition of the colored people, a great many of whom, like myself, had escaped thither as a refuge from the hunters of men. I found many, who had not been seven years out of their chains, living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, than the average of slaveholders in Maryland. I will venture to assert that my friend Mr. Nathan Johnson (of whom I can say with a grateful heart, "I was hungry, and he gave me meat; I was thirsty, and he gave me drink; I was a stranger, and he took me in") lived in a neater house; dined at a better table; took, paid for, and read, more newspapers; better understood the moral, religious, and political character of the nation,--than nine tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot county, Maryland. Yet Mr. Johnson was a working man. His hands were hardened by toil, and not his alone, but those also of Mrs. Johnson. I found the colored people much more spirited than I had supposed they would be. I found among them a determination to protect each other from the blood-thirsty kidnapper, at all hazards. Soon after my arrival, I was told of a circumstance which illustrated their spirit. A colored man and a fugitive slave were on unfriendly terms. The former was heard to threaten the latter with informing his master of his whereabouts. Straightway a meeting was called among the colored people, under the stereotyped notice, "Business of importance!" The betrayer was invited to attend. The people came at the appointed hour, and organized the meeting by appointing a very religious old gentleman as president, who, I believe, made a prayer, after which he addressed the meeting as follows: "Friends, we have got him here, and I would recommend that you young men just take him outside the door, and kill him!" With this, a number of them bolted at him; but they were intercepted by some more timid than themselves, and the betrayer escaped their vengeance, and has not been seen in New Bedford since. I believe there have been no more such threats, and should there be hereafter, I doubt not that death would be the consequence.

I found employment, the third day after my arrival, in stowing a sloop with a load of oil. It was new, dirty, and hard work for me; but I went at it with a glad heart and a willing hand. I was now my own master. It was a happy moment, the rapture of which can be understood only by those who have been slaves. It was the first work, the reward of which was to be entirely my own. There was no Master Hugh standing ready, the moment I earned the money, to rob me of it. I worked that day with a pleasure I had never before experienced. I was at work for myself and newly-married wife. It was to me the starting-point of a new existence. When I got through with that job, I went in pursuit of a job of calking; but such was the strength of prejudice against color, among the white calkers, that they refused to work with me, and of course I could get no employment.* Finding my trade of no immediate benefit, I threw off my calking habiliments, and prepared myself to do any kind of work I could get to do. Mr. Johnson kindly let me have his wood-horse and saw, and I very soon found myself a plenty of work. There was no work too hard—none too dirty. I was ready to saw wood, shovel coal, carry the hod, sweep the chimney, or roll oil casks,—all of which I did for nearly three years in New Bedford, before I became known to the anti-slavery world.

In about four months after I went to New Bedford, there came a young man to me, and inquired if I did not wish to take the "Liberator." I told him I did; but, just having made my escape from slavery, I remarked that I was unable to pay for it then. I, however, finally became a subscriber to it. The paper came, and I read it from week to week with such feelings as it would be quite idle for me to attempt to describe. The paper became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for my brethren in bonds—its scathing denunciations of slaveholders—its faithful exposures of slavery—and its powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institution—sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before!

I had not long been a reader of the "Liberator," before I got a pretty correct idea of the principles, measures and spirit of the anti-slavery reform. I took right hold of the cause. I could do but little; but what I could, I did with a joyful heart, and never felt happier than when in an anti-slavery meeting. I seldom had much to say at the meetings, because what I wanted to say was said so much better by others. But, while attending an anti-slavery convention at Nantucket, on the 11th of August, 1841, I felt strongly moved to speak, and was at the same time much urged to do so by Mr. William C. Coffin, a gentleman who had heard me speak in the colored people’s meeting at New Bedford. It was a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly. The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease. From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren—with what success, and with what devotion, I leave those acquainted with my labors to decide.

*I am told that colored persons can now get employment at calking in New Bedford—a result of anti-slavery effort.

Further Reading

For carefully edited digital reproductions of all African American slave narratives published in English before 1930, see North American Slave Narratives in Documenting the American South <>. The most comprehensive studies of American slave narratives are: William L. Andrews, To Tell A Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (1986); and Frances Smith Foster, Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives, 2nd ed. (1994). George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, 19 vols. (1972-1976) includes the oral histories of former slaves collected by the Federal Writers Project. Ashraf H.A. Rushdy, Neo-Slave Narratives (1999) examines the impact of the slave narrative on American fiction since 1960. Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (1998) is a valuable historical overview of slavery in the United States.

William L. Andrews is E. Maynard Adams Professor of English and Senior Associate Dean for Fine Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (1980) and To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (1986). He is co-editor of The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (1997) and The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (2003), and general editor of The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology (1998) and “North American Slave Narratives, A Database and Electronic Text Library” He has edited more than 40 books on a wide range of African American literature and culture. His essays and articles have won awards from American Literature in 1976 and from PMLA in 1990.

Address comments or questions to Professor Andrews through TeacherServe “Comments and Questions.”

Illustration credits

To cite this essay:
Andrews, William L. “How to Read a Slave Narrative.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY.


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