A Serf Musings on Slavery.
‘Nothing so outlandish,’ observed Michel de Montaigne, ‘that cannot be demonstrated in public practice somewhere in the world.’
If you happen to be young enough, living in a Western democracy and somewhat curtailed regarding history’s long view, you might have this perception of slavery as something rare and strange. But you’d be wrong. Strange, even bizarre, it may be in its notion of humans as chattels to be bought and sold, but rare it is not. It’s been going on since before the fall of Babylon, on three continents and islands in between, and despite laws abolishing slavery, continues to this day.
Mark Twain, (Samuel Clemens’) classic novel, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ reveals slavery in all its strangeness. The novel may well have been part of the abolitionist literature that contributed to the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolishing slavery in the United States, but it was written nineteen years later. What the novel does do is explore the evils of slavery within an ordinary, Christian community that seems unable to question those evils. Mark Twain writes that as a boy he himself did not question the idea that slaves were property.
‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ needs to be read in terms of the author’s ironic vision. What is so ironic in the novel is how perpetrators of slavery are often kindly folk, like the Phelps family, Uncle Silas and Aunt Sally, hospitable to travellers down on their luck, but exceedingly harsh to runaway slaves.
Huck, too innocent and ignorant to understand what’s wrong with his world, believing that his own defiance of that society’s mores will earn him damnation, struggles with his conscience when he reads a handbill advertising the runaway slave who is Huck’s companion on his journey down the Mississippi River:
‘The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”
It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double I was letting onto give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea, and I says, I’ll go and write the letter—and then see if I can pray.’
Huck writes a letter to Miss Watson about her runaway slave…
‘I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his ‘n ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was;… and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a- trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.’ (H.F. Chapter 31.)
A Little History of Slavery..
Lots of information on slavery on the internet so I’ll be brief. A history of Western slavery goes back 10,000 years to Mesopotamia where a male slave could be worth as much in value as an orchard of palms. In the time before inanimate energy like waterwheels and steam power, most work was done by animals and by us using our own muscles. Of course you’re going to get people with the means, pharaohs and emperors and powerful land owners getting the lower castes to do the work for them, less cost the better, and that means slaves, your enemy defeated in war or purchased in slave markets.
Slavery; a pervasive phenomenon.
In the Roman Empire, symbol of grandeur and obedience, sprawled across the entire Mediterranean region, slave trading was big business. At the time of Augustus, in Italy, as many as 35% of people were slaves brought from many places, in Rome, slavery was not based on race. Slaves were trained for all possible functions, with gladiators fighting to the death for public entertainment at the extreme end. Roman emperors owned thousands of slaves to indulge their every whim. Many slaves acted as clerks, secretaries and even tax agents. These were the lucky ones. Some might even be manumitted as a reward for services rendered and allowed to become Roman citizens. For most slaves, however, life was nasty brutish and short. Thousands were worked to death mining gold and silver for the Empire. Plantation slavery with its history of abuses began in Rome in the second century BC. Sicily witnessed a series of slave revolts, culminating in the great uprising led by Spartacus. When it was finally crushed, 6,000 slaves were crucified all along the Appian way from Rome to Capua.
In Medieval Europe religion was no barrier to slavery, all participated, Christian, Muslim, Hebrew. Christians had an on-off relationship with the slave trade. In the early Middle Ages the Church condoned slavery, opposing it only when Christians were enslaved by ‘infidels’. Vikings raided Britain from 800 AD and sold their captives to markets in Istanbul and Islamic Spain. In the 16th century Pope Paul III tried to stem Protestantism by threatening those who left the Catholic Church with enslavement.
The Black Death – a plague epidemic – made demand for domestic slaves soar in Italy but had some positive consequences. The decline in population in the late 14th century resulted in more bargaining power for peasants in Europe and England, leading to the collapse of the manor system and to a new urbanized Europe that paved the way for a society and economy based on different principles. In Russia where the Black Death was not so destructive, serfdom continued well into the 19th century.
South of the Mediterranean Sea dynasties of Arabs along the coast developed an African slave trade. West Africa, both as source of slaves and slave traders, became a lucrative marketplace for human cargo, a transatlantic slave trade inaugurated by the Portuguese, soon to be joined by the Spanish and others countries.
Strange but true.
Thus began the notorious Middle Passage where slaves would be loaded lying down in the holds of ships, often lying on their sides to preserve space. By the 18th century the majority of the ships that used this inhuman commerce were British ships running a triangular trade, profitable in each separate branch, departing from Liverpool or Bristol with items in demand in West Africa, cotton, alcohol and guns, then taking slaves for America to the slave markets of the West Indies, unloading and loading molasses from the West Indies for the return journey.
Ironic that Britain, the precursor of Western liberty, from Magna Carta to John Stuart Mill and the Scottish Enlightenment, (a bit like the democratic revolution under Pericles in Athens, 5th century B.C. working slaves in the silver mines,) was building its fortune from commerce partly based on the tyranny of the slave trade.
The abolitionist movement from the late 17th century on, in Britain and America, had many strands, from Quakers condemning it and society founder George Fox speaking against it in the British Parliament, to two landmark cases in law.
In England in1772 there was the famous case in which Lord Mansfield freed James Somerset, slave of an American master on the grounds that he had set foot in England. The second case, in Scotland five years later, concerned Joseph Knight, an African born slave sold in Jamaica.
For Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, nurture, not nature explained human nature and institutions and liberty not race was a fundamental issue as demonstrated in the case of Knight. When Knight was taken by his master to Scotland, and tried to run away, the master had him arrested. In 1777, his case ended up in the Court of High sessions in Edinburgh and was momentous enough to be heard by a full panel of judges including Lord Kames. History was about to be made. His brief, assisted by input from James Boswell and advice from Samuel Johnson, their argument that, ‘No man is by nature the property of another.’ Pronounced Lord Kames, ‘We sit here to enforce right, not to enforce wrong.’ The Court pronounced slavery against the law of the land.
Although Lord Mansfield had made a similar ruling five years earlier, the Scottish decision was more significant because it established a broader principle, it went to ‘the general question of whether a perpetual obligation of service to one master in any mode should be sanctioned by a free country.’ (Arthur Herman ‘The Scottish Enlightenment, The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World.’ Harper London. Ch.4.) The decision was also a vindication of the Scottish approach to law not based on precedent but on ‘the dictate of reason.’ More of the dictate of reason in The American Constitution.
Thomas Jefferson and the American Revolution
‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1776 in the Declaration of Independence, justifying America’s separation from Britain, words that were to inspire his own and future generations to heroic efforts to make them a reality.
The Committee of Five appointed, in June 1776, to draft the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingstone and Roger Sherman, like actors in some other powerful historical movements, the great generation of the Greek Revolution, the thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, were men of broad interests and intellectual stature. But one of them, the man who wrote the inspirational words of the Declaration, was a slave owner.
George Washington, commander of the Continental Army in the fight for independence, and first President off The United States was also a slave owner but he freed his slaves and as president established the precedent that no one should serve more than two terms in the office. Washington personifies the word ‘great,’ his character was solid, ‘honest George Washington.’ The perceptive Abigail Adams quoted poet John Dryden to describe Washington:
‘Mark his majestic fabric He’s a temple sacred from his birth and built by hands divine.’ (Cited in Smithsonian Magazine. Stephen E.Ambrose. Nov. 2002.)
Thomas Jefferson did not free his slaves, other than the children of his slave Sally Heming. Jefferson acknowledged that slavery was wrong but apparently could see no way to relinquish it in his lifetime. A man of outstanding abilities and wide reading, educated by teachers of the Scottish Enlightenment, Jefferson was more conflicted regarding slavery than John Adams who was unambiguous in denouncing it or Mark Twain, who was able to transcend attitudes of the slave owning society he was born into.
In other ways Jefferson was an advocate for the republican values of the rights of man. He was the author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, he was committed to universal education. He proposed the plan of government adopted by The Northwest Ordinance of government of 1778, that when the populations of the Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan were large enough, they would come into the Union as fully equal states. ’
As President, Thomas Jefferson made war against the Barbary Coast slave trade. Christopher Hitchins, who wrote his own study of Jefferson argues that there would likely be no continuing Republic of the United States without two important actions by Jefferson that strengthened its defense. The first of these was the war of 1801-5 against the Barbary Coast slavers in retaliation for the capture of American ships and enslaving of their crews.
… to the shores of Tripoli
Netherlands and as far north as Iceland. Samuel Pepys writes in his diary of an entire town in Ireland being taken as slaves.
Nations paid protection money or ‘tribute’ to be free of the scourge. As British colony, America had not been a target of the slavers, but after the War of Independence it became one. In 1786, when Adams and Jefferson were sent as peace emissaries to Europe to negotiate treaties of amity, Adams and Jefferson were required by the not yet formalized Republic to negotiate payment of fair tribute with the Barbary Coast slavers. At every turn they met with intransigence and escalating demands. They were told by the envoy for Tripoli, Ambassador Abdrahaman, that as written in the Koran, the faithful should plunder and enslave sinners who failed to acknowledge the true Prophet.
Jefferson came to the conclusion that paying tribute would be more costly than war with the Barbary States, and when the United States Constitution was adopted he encouraged Congress to authorize the building of a navy to defend its interests.
In 1801 when Tripoli declared war on the United States because of late payment of tribute, Jefferson, now President, by-passed Congress, sending ships into the region under guise of overseeing the treaty but with orders to respond as necessary to situations, which they did, a bombardment that Christopher Hitchins says, led to ‘significant regime behavior modification.’
… don’t fence me in.
While he was President, Thomas Jefferson also ensured the security of the United States by the Louisiana Purchase. At the passing of the Constitution the United States was a vulnerable strip of coastal land stretching from Massachusetts in the north to Florida in the south. Jefferson wishing to make it more secure and to expand trade sent envoys to France to offer purchase of Florida and part of Louisiana, its seaport of New Orleans and hinterland. When a financially insecure Napoleon offered to sell all of Louisiana for fifteen million dollars, the offer was quickly accepted and paid for with money borrowed from European banks. In one day, at a cost of less than ten cents an acre, the size of the United States was doubled. ‘Thomas Jefferson called the Louisiana Purchase ‘an ample provision for our posterity and a widespread field for the blessings of freedom.’
Aspects of the private life of Thomas Jefferson.
In the times in which Thomas Jefferson lived, the early death of a wife and children was a tragic but not uncommon experience. During the period that Jefferson was involved in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence he was anxious to return to Monticello because his wife was ill after the birth of their sixth child. When Martha Jefferson died in September 1782, four months after the baby’s birth, it is reported that following her death, Jefferson, who had been very devoted to his charming and cultured wife, fainted and remained so long insensible that it was feared that he would not survive. Before she died, Martha had asked him, probably as a protection to her three living children, never to marry again, and he never did. Mary was only thirty-three years of age when she died and Thomas Jefferson thirty-nine.
In the following months Jefferson was offered government positions but a grieving Jefferson turned them down. On the urgings of friends he finally accepted an appointment as American Minister to France, to join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in negotiating European treaties of amity and commerce. In 1784, Jefferson departs for Paris, accompanied by his eldest daughter Martha, (Patsy.)
Once in Paris, Jefferson commits himself to the Parisienne life, taking an elegant apartment on the Champs Elysee and becoming much in demand at Court. He is also a regular visitor to the Adams’ residence in Auteuil, four miles from Paris. Abigail Adams, responsive to Jefferson’s family loss, soon becomes an affectionate friend. To her sister, Mary, Abigail Adams writes that ‘Jefferson is one of the choice ones of the earth.’
The ‘Adams-Jefferson Letters,’ (edited L.J.Cappon.) the complete correspondence between two of the architects of the American Republic, offers insights into the two leaders’ contributions to the American Revolution and also include many letters between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson. When John Adams is sent to London, Jefferson writes in playful tone to Abigail Adams, ‘I fancy myself at Auteuil and chatter on till the last page of my paper awakes me from my reverie.’ ( Sept 25.1785.) An extended interval between letters did not go unnoticed. Writing to John Adams in July 1786 Jefferson says, ‘I am meditating on what step to take to provoke a letter from Mrs Adams, from whom my files inform me I have not received one these hundred years.’
And here’s a letter, not strictly true, from Jefferson apologizing to Abigail Adams for his own delay in writing:
‘An unfortunate dislocation of my right wrist has for three months deprived me of the honor of writing to you. I begin to use my pen a little, but it is in great pain and I have no other use of my hand.’ ( Paris, Dec 21. 1786.)
Thomas Jefferson meets Maria Cosway.
Lot of concealed context here. The case of the dislocated wrist. Early in 1786, Thomas Jefferson had met Maria Cosway, an accomplished artist and musician and appears to have experienced love at first sight, prolonging their first meeting and cancelling other engagements to do so.
Maria Cosway is married to another artist, an older man, something of a philanderer, there doesn’t seem to have been in a close marriage. In the weeks following the Cosway and Jefferson meeting they became constant companions. Whether there was a sexual relationship is uncertain, she was a devout Catholic, but certainly there was a warm relationship. The usually reserved Jefferson is said to have dislocated his wrist in a giddy moment, either leaping over a stone fountain in the company of Maria, or in hurrying to meet her.
When Maria’s husband decides to leave Paris for London, they spend one last day together riding around Paris in a carriage, but next day, to postpone their parting , Jefferson accompanies the Cosways on the first part of their journey to the outskirts of Paris. A despondent Jefferson returns to Paris to write Maria a 4000-word letter, using his left hand. Herewith a few extracts:
“Having performed the last sad office of handing you into your carriage at the Pavillon de St. Denis, and seen the wheels get actually into motion, I turned on my heel and walked, more dead than alive, to the opposite door, where my own was awaiting me.
… I was carried home. Seated by my fire side, solitary and sad, the following dialogue took place between my Head and my Heart.
Head. Well, friend, you seem to be in a pretty trim.
Heart. I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings. Overwhelmed with grief, every fibre of my frame distended beyond its natural powers to bear, I would willingly meet whatever catastrophe should leave me no more to feel or to fear.
Head. These are the eternal consequences of your warmth and precipitation. This is one of the scrapes into which you are ever leading us. You confess your follies indeed: but still you hug and cherish them, and no reformation can be hoped, where there is no repentance.
Heart. Sir, this acquaintance was not the consequence of my doings. It was one of your projects which threw us in the way of it. It was you, remember, and not I, who desired the meeting, at Legrand & Molinos…
Head. My visit to Legrand & Molinos had publick utility for it’s object. … While I was occupied with these objects, you were dilating with your new acquaintances, and contriving how to prevent a separation from them. Every soul of you had an engagement for the day. Yet all these were to be sacrificed, that you might dine together. Lying messengers were to be dispatched into every quarter of the city with apologies for your breach of engagement. … You [wanted] me to invent a more ingenious excuse; but I knew you were getting into a scrape, and I would have nothing to do with it. Well, after dinner to St. Cloud, from St. Cloud to Ruggieri’s, from Ruggieri to Krumfoltz, and if the day had been as long as a Lapland summer day, you would still have contrived means, among you, to have filled it.
Heart. Oh! my dear friend, how you have revived me by recalling to my mind the transactions of that day! …. Go on then, like a kind comforter, and paint to me the day we went to St. Germains… Every moment was filled with something agreeable. The wheels of time moved on with a rapidity of which those of our carriage gave but a faint idea, and yet in the evening, when one took a retrospect of the day, what a mass of happiness had we travelled over! Retrace all those scenes to me, my good companion, and I will forgive the unkindness with which you were chiding me. The day we went to St. Germains was a little too warm, I think, was not it?
Head. Thou art the most incorrigible of all the beings that ever sinned! I reminded you of the follies of the first day, intending to deduce from thence some useful lessons for you, but instead of listening to these, you kindle at the recollection, you retrace the whole series with a fondness which shews you want nothing but the opportunity to act it over again. I often told you during it’s course that you were imprudently engaging your affections under circumstances that must cost you a great deal of pain … that the lady had moreover qualities and accomplishments, belonging to her sex, which might form a chapter apart for her: such as music, modesty, beauty, and that softness of disposition which is the ornament of her sex and charm of ours. But that all these considerations would increase the pang of separation: that their stay here was to be short: that you rack our whole system when you are parted from those you love …
Heart. But they told me they would come back again the next year.
Head. But in the mean time see what you suffer: and their return too depends on so many circumstances that if you had a grain of prudence you would not count upon it.”
This was to be the first in a lifetime correspondence. There was a final meeting between Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway when she returned to Paris for a four month stay in August 1787 where Maria Cosway perceived a change in their relationship and for whatever reason they spent little time together.
Enter stage. Sally Hemings.
Thomas Jefferson was a complex, character, both as a public figure and private and individual, and nothing challenged historians and biographers more than Jefferson’ relationship with multi-racial slave Sally Heming, half sister to his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson.
In May 1785 Jefferson learns in a letter mislaid in transit, that his youngest daughter Lucy died of whooping cough the year before and he is now anxious to have his second daughter, Mary, with him in Paris. He arranges with kinsmen to have her sent in a suitable vessel, (tribute protected) bound for England in the Spring of 1787. Eight year old Mary,( Polly) crosses the Atlantic in the company of Sally Hemings, to spend some time in London with Abigail Adams before joining Jefferson in Paris. In a letter to Jefferson informing him of his daughter’s arrival, Abigail Adams refers to the fifteen or sixteen year old maid servant who accompanied her, saying that she seems fond of the child but ‘wants more care than the child.’ Abigail mistakes Sally for an older girl, she is in fact only fourteen years old. John Adams later refers to her as ‘the dashing Sally.’
When Polly and Sally arrive in Paris, Sally’s nineteen year old brother, James, is already there being trained by a French chef. Therein lies another dramatic story. James and Sally are members of a shadow family, children of Betty Hemings, concubine to Jefferson’s father in law, John Wayles, who was the father of her six children. Sally, the youngest of these children is one year younger than Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Patsy.
In Paris, Jefferson’s two daughters lived in a famous convent. It is not known if Sally lived there too, there is no record in the convent of her being there. It is known that Jefferson had her taught French and that he bought her clothes in order to accompany his elder daughter on social outings. It was said by observers that Sally was ‘very handsome, long straight hair down her back.’ Jefferson’s grandson later described her as ‘light colored and decidedly good-looking.’
Most historians now believe that Jefferson had a relationship with Sally Heming that lasted nearly four decades until his death, and that Jefferson fathered her six children. Under French law the Hemings brother and sister could have petitioned to stay in France. It’s likely that family bonds drew them home. According to Sally’s son Madison’s later testimony, Sally Hemings became pregnant to Jefferson in Paris. She agreed to return with him to the United States based on his promise to free their children when they reached the age of twenty-one years. This first child did not survive. Six other children were born to Sally Hemings between 1795 and 1804, two dying in infancy.
At Monticello, Sally performed the duties of Lady’s maid to Martha and took care of Jefferson’s chamber and ward-robe. The Wayles family all denied there was a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings but evidence suggests otherwise.
Early historians generally accepted the claims of Jefferson’s legitimate family that he was not the father of Hemings’ children. The startling resemblance to Jefferson of servants waiting at table, that guests observed, was explained by Jefferson’s grandson as a family resemblance because Jefferson’s grandson, Peter Carr was the father of the children. Later DNA studies showed no match between the Carr line and Heming descendents but did show a match between the Jefferson male line and a descendent of Sally Heming’s youngest son, Eston Hemings.
Professor of Law and History at Harvard and later at Oxford, Annette Gordon-Reed became interested in Jefferson and drew on her legal training to apply context concerning the anecdotal and contextual evidence that was available.
Much of the legitimate family evidence marshalled against the Hemings-Jefferson connection was shown to be flawed, like the claim that the liaison was impossible due to Jefferson’s absence from Monticello. Farm book records of births show that Jefferson was always at Monticello at the time of conception of Sally Hemings’ six children, born between 1790 and 1785. Gordon-Reed notes that the Hemings children were given lighter duties than other slaves, and were the only slaves freed under the provisions of Jefferson’s will, as Sally Hemings’ son Madison had stated as an agreement between his mother and Jefferson.. The two eldest children, Harriet and Beverley, were allowed to leave Monticello in 1721 or 1722, and went north to Philadelphia or Washington. According to a Monticello overseer, Jefferson authorized him to pay the beautiful Harriet $50 and the stage coach fare to her destination. Madison and Eston Hemings , who appear reliable witnesses, both claimed that the children always knew that Jefferson as their father. Eston Hemings later changed his name to Jefferson.
…Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
History stranger than fiction. Jefferson’s life history…it’s a complex story isn’t it, enabled by the institution of slavery, contradictions and denials required involving legitimate and shadow families, seduction by Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, of a young girl that he owns, their children unacknowledged by their father, shades of a Greek drama? There’s the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, in action and in correspondence, one of the great stories, and there’s the concealed story of Jefferson and Hemings, one of the dark stories.