In 1820 the English critic Sidney Smith downplayed the emerging literature coming out of America and tied his critique to the practice of slavery: “Finally, under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a Slave, whom his fellow-creatures may buy and sell and torture?” The paradoxical fact that a nation founded on the principles of equality would develop into a slave holding republic was not lost on writers of the early national and antebellum period. American writers began to concern themselves with slavery issues. Tensions between the realities of slavery and the ideals of freedom inform much writing of the period.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, celebrated the democratic ideals while making clear that he regarded those ideals as best realized by whites. He presents black people as inferior to whites. African American writers regularly sought to counter such claims. Much African American writing of the period sought to abolish slavery, improve the condition of the free blacks, and challenge the hierarchical claims of the racial ethnologists by invoking (or reclaiming) the principles of the Declaration. [We can see in this example that two groups used the same document in different ways.] Others expanded the parameters of slavery and equality. Women reformers saw themselves as especially qualified to contest slavery, which they regarded both as a specific institution in the slave South and as one of many manifestations of patriarchal power.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was meant to humanize African Americans, but ended up in many ways having the opposite effect. She was hemmed in by stereotypes, not only regarding her subject matter, but against women writers in general. The spawn push-back. The debates on slavery exerted an especially strong influence on the literature of the 1840s and 1850s. If whiteness was the culture’s default and “superior” category of human existence, then, for many white writers blackness posed the threat (and sometimes appeal) of a dangerous otherness.
In 1857, the Supreme court ruled in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford that blacks could never become U.S. citizens and were inferior to whites. That ruling, which robbed Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence of its ambiguities and potential, made clear that the debates on slavery and race were debates about the nation. Much of the black writing ideals had them fleeing America altogether.
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