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Slavery, Race, and the Making of American Literature

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.

Tecumseh  (1775 ?-1813)

Was called by some the Greatest Indian. Tecumseh was unwaveringly hostile to the white Americans who relentlessly encroached on the lands of his people. When Indians began giving away land, Tecumseh attempted to organize a multi-tribal resistance to the Americans. In 1811 William Henry Harrison decisively defeated the Prophet’s (Tecumseh’s brother) forces at Tippecanoe. Tecumseh as not present at the battle. The defeat left the Prophet’s followers disillusioned, and Tecumseh had no further success in bringing the tribes together in resistance. He fought on the side of the British in the War of 1812 and was killed at the Battle of the Thames. The brief speech here derives from the “captivity narrative” of John Dunn Hunter, published in 1823. Hunter taken captive by Osage Indian as a baby and lived among them as a youth. When he was about ten he heard a speech made by Tecumseh. We must treat the following speech as such, but John Dunn Hunter was very moved at the time and the contents seem to match what Tecumseh was going through at the time.

Speech to the Osages

The white man wants to take us down so we must all stick together. When the whites first came here they were so weak that we had to take care of them. “Brothers, the white people are like poisonous serpents: when chilled, they are feeble and harmless; but invigorate them with warmth, and they sting their benefactors to death.” They are not our friends. They want ALL the land. They want to kill us all. They cheat us, despise us and think we are not good enough to live. We need vengeance. Make the tomahawk fat with blood and drink the blood of the white people. We are brave, but there are too many whites. We need the tribes to band together. “If we all unite, we will cause the rivers to stain the great waters with their blood. ” If we do not band together then they will simply take us down one tribe at a time. They are trying to turn us against each other. God wants us to win. Why should we fear the whites? They are not fast; easy to shoot. God will help us if we work together to destroy them. “We must be united; we must smoke the same pipe; we must fight each other’s battles; and more than all, we must love the Great Spirit; he is for us; he will destroy our enemies, and make all his red children happy.”

Cherokee Women

In traditional matriarchal Cherokee society, women held authority within their families, supervised land usage, occupied political offices such as Beloved Woman (or Ghighua), and participated in diplomacy. Motherhood was an organizing concept used to ground women’s claims to power. The diplomatic rhetoric of Cherokee women often focused on the physical and emotional bonds between mothers and children as a compelling reason to sustain peaceful relations with rival powers. In this address of Sept. 8, 1787, to Benjamin Franklin, then serving as the governor of Pennsylvania and as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, several representatives of the Cherokee Women’s Council ask Congress to pay attention to their desire for peace.

To Governor Benjamin Franklin

This side has smoked the peace pipe; hope your side will too. Consider that woman is the mother of All. We pull children from our own bodies; it is only right that people listen to us. I want to keep my children living in peace.

Logan  (1725 ?-1780)

Exact origins and identity of the man known as Chief Logan are not entirely clear. In English they called him John Logan. Agent of Virginia governor provoked a brief war in a bid for Indian lands in which Logan’s pregnant sister was mutilated along with her unborn child. This event was known as the Yellow Creek massacre and took place on the upper Ohio River. Afterwards, Logan was asked to attend a treaty meeting with Dunmore. He refused, but apparently sent a message that eventually was transformed into a speech in English known as “Logan’s Lament.” Not all points mentioned are factual. This speech was said to have been heard by a few who transcribed it, but the mystery surrounding the text deepens in light of the discrepancies between the historical facts as they have been uncovered and various statements attributed to Logan. He was later killed by his nephew who thought it a way to preserve his legacy. It remains unclear just how much of this speech represents the words that Logan actually spoke. It is the most famous instance of Indian oratory as a popular nineteenth-century American literary genre.

 

From Chief Logan’s Speech

Notes on the State of Virginia, Query VI

There is an introduction by Thomas Jefferson who says that in 1774 a robbery was committed by some Indians. The whites undertook to punish this outrage. Cresap and Great-house surprised a traveling and hunting party of the Indians, having their women and children with them, and murdered many. Among these families was Logan’s. This provoked his vengeance. The Indians were defeated. Logan disdained to be seen among the suppliants. He sent by a messenger the following speech to be delivered to Lord Dunmore.

Logan remained an advocate for peace. Such was my love of the white people. Col. Cresap, unprovoked, murdered all the relations of Logan, not sparing even my women and children. This called on me for revenge. I have sought it: I have killed many.

Pontiac  (1720 ?-1769)

 

Pontiac was Ottawa and grew up in the Detroit area. Ottawa Indian meaning “commerce” or “to trade.” Strong trading and diplomatic alliances with the French. In 1760 the British defeated the French so the Indians were then refused supplies. The whites wanted to treat them as servants to the British Crown.

The Delaware Indians suffered at the hands of British, who had defrauded them of most of their lands. Neolin was a Delaware prophet preached the necessity of largely abandoning the things and manners of the Europeans. To persuade other tribes to join the Ottawas in resistance to the British, Pontiac is said to have given the speech printed here to an assembly of Ottawa, Huron, and Pottawatomi leaders in April 27, 1763.

This speech is taken from Francis Parkman’s book, but the original documents cannot be found. Parkman said the information came from John McDougall, but did he actually hear Pontiac speak? Who translated the work? We do not know. Pontiac’s speech can be understood as a bicultural composite, on the assumption that there is a strong likelihood that he spoke words to this effect based on his knowledge of the Delaware prophet.

Speech at Detroit

A Delaware Indian set off on a search for wisdom and began looking for the Great Spirit. He encountered three paths. He climbed a vast mountain of dazzling whiteness. He saw a beautiful woman arrayed in white. She said to throw away guns, ammunition, provisions, clothing. Wash yourself and be prepared to meet the Master of Life. The man went on a difficult climb and later found himself on the summit where he was welcomed into the celestial abode. He was conducted into the presence of the Great Spirit. God said he made the land for the red people. Why do you suffer the white man to live among you? Their products make you weak. And as for these English,–these dogs dressed in red, who have come to rob you of your hunting-grounds, and drive away the game, you must lift the hatchet against them…but the French are cool. Don’t forget the prohibition to marry more than one wife and do not use magic!

 

J. Hector St. John De Crèvecoeur (1735-1813)

De Crevecoeur is a writer with a divided reputation and a mysterious and fascinating past. Crevecoeur rewards the reader’s close attention but only rarely provides firm conclusions about the author’s views and intentions. In “What Is an American?”–the most famous essay in his internationally acclaimed Letters from an American Farmer (1782)–Crevecoeur offers an idealistic portrait of the soon-to-be United States, one that resonated with later depictions of the nation as a melting pot and a land of opportunity. Farmer James, Crevecoeur’s persona in the Letters, is at his happiest and most hopeful here, and these qualities have sometimes been taken as his creator’s entire understanding of “the American, this new man”; however, the full text of the Letters tells a different story. It includes a shocking depiction of a slave suffering a brutal punishment; and it ends with Farmer James having moved his family to a frontier Indian village out of despair over the fratricidal violence unleashed by the Revolution. The complexity of Crevecoeur’s stance toward Revolutionary-era American society is greatly magnified by the uncertainties surrounding the author’s ultimate commitments. The uncertainties associated with the work itself are amplified by the differences between the English and French editions.

Born Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur in Caen, Normandy, he was the son of a minor nobleman. He came to reject Catholicism as oppressive, and perhaps for this reason he broke with his father as a teenager, sailed to England, and lived there with distant relatives. He traveled to French Canada and enlisted in the militia. He was wounded in the defense of Quebec during one of the major battles of the French and Indian War (1754-63). He later traveled to New York and was naturalized as a British colonial subject in 1765 and changed his name to Hector St. John. Sometimes he went by James Hector St. John, a moniker suggesting that he identified with his persona Farmer James. Crevecoeur traveled extensively in the colonies as a surveyor and a trader with American Indians. He married a wealthy Protestant woman, bought land in New York and settled into life on his farm. They had three children. In his first year at Pine Hill, Crevecoeur began to write a series of essays about America based on his travels and experience as a farmer.

He was arrested and imprisoned as an American spy in 1779, when he tried to sail from the British-held port of New York. Crevecoeur reached London in 1780 and sold his manuscript to a publishing house there, leading to the 1782 edition of Letters. There is evidence to suggest that the British edition was partially rewritten by an unknown editor to draw out its republican themes. He reconciled with his father then moved to Paris. The French translation of the Letters (1784) was recast more favorably toward France.

In 1783, Crevecoeur returned to the now victorious United States. He then learned that his farm had been burned in an Indian attack, his wife was dead, and his children were housed with strangers. After regaining custody of his children and moving to New York City, Crevecoeur was made French consul to New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. He was a great success as a diplomat. He later became an adopted member of the Oneida Nation.

Farmer James writes his letters in response to queries from an English visitor, who wishes to better understand America. The personal letter was a central genre in eighteenth-century literary culture, featured in epistolary novels as well as popular travelers’ and naturalists’ accounts, both factual and fictional. The American farmer was already a well-established figure in the political and social debates of the day.

Crevecoeur’s Letters engage the revolutionary-era debates over human nature and political organization vividly but unspecifically. He inserted himself into the same transatlantic debates over Americanness and its effects on humankind. Crevecoeur’s philosophical themes are woven through his work rather than presented discursively. This allusiveness distinguishes Crevecoeur’s Letters from the political writings of the day and lends the collection its lasting fascination.

 

From Letters from an American Farmer

From Letter III. What Is an American?

 

Begins lyrical and lofty in tone. The new continent is vast. Modern society, but different. No aristocratic families, no kings, no invisible power for the few. No great manufacturers employing thousands, few luxuries. Rich and poor closer to each other than in Europe. United by silken bands of mild government, all respecting laws, without dreading their power because they are equitable. Wants to convey the image that we are all equal and well taken care of. We have no princes. We are the most perfect society now in the world. We are a nation of immigrants. There never was a people, situated as they are, who with so ungrateful a soil have done more in so short a time.  

Crevecoeur writes of how much better this country treats her people. Laws protect people as they arrive and people are rewarded for their labors. People can buy land. Our government sets up the laws.

Crevecoeur sets out his definition of being an American. He mentions language, land, bread, protection and consequence. We all come from other countries and marry people from other countries. “He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men…” We can see our labors changing the world. Arts, sciences, vigor and industry. Incorporated into one fine system. We have new ideas and opinions. Simple subsistence. We are shaped through nurture and find little crime.

Crevecoeur describes different characteristics according to where people live. He mentions those that live near water, and those that live near the center of the country. More people are moving toward the center. The general indulgence leaves everyone to think for themselves in spiritual matters. He describes backwoods people saying they are the wildest bunch being the furthest away from the government. Where you live differentiates you from people living in other areas.

Various Christian sects introduced wear out, and religious indifference becomes prevalent. The nearer the church, the stronger the zeal. The strict modes of Christianity as practiced in Europe are lost. He gives an example. We do not care what religion you practice, so long as you are peaceful, who cares? Your religion doesn’t make you any better or worse than the next guy. “Their children will therefore grow up less zealous and more indifferent in matters of religion than their parents.” The fury of making proselytes, is unknown here; they have no time, the seasons call for all their attention. One may try a different religion’s church because it is nearby; others may stop attending altogether. Thus all sects are mixed as well as all nations; thus religious indifference is imperceptibly disseminated from one end of the continent to the other; which is at present one of the strongest characteristics of the Americans. Zeal evaporates in the great distance it has to travel. It burns away in the open air.

Woods people have to keep predators away. The farmer becomes the hunter. Woods people experience a lawless profligacy. Their wives and children live in sloth and inactivity; and having no proper pursuits, you may judge what education the latter receive. Half civilized, half savage. They are lonely and eat wild meat. No place of worship. They adopt the moroseness of ferocity of a native, without his mildness or his industry at home. As hunters it is divided between the toil of the chase, the idleness of repose, or the indulgence of inebriation. If European backwoods men can become so wild just imagine the Indians!

This place is settled by freeholders, the possessors of the soil they cultivate, members of the government they obey, the framers of their own laws, by means of representatives. The idle may be employed, the useless become useful, the poor become rich by cleared lands, cattle, good houses, good clothes. New arrivals meet with hospitality, kindness and plenty. We seldom hear of punishment or executions. We have elegant towns, industry and freedom. We have rural districts, convenient roads, good taverns and many accommodations.

If you want to work we have bread for you. America will also provide for your children, which is every parent’s fondest wish. “Go thou and work and till; thou shalt prosper, provided thou be just, grateful, and industrious.”

 

From Letter IX. Description of Charles-Town; Thoughts on Slavery; on Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene

 

Charles-Town is a capital in the north and one of the richest provinces. Carolina produces commodities, has thriving industries and displays its riches and luxuries. It was build at the confluence of two large rivers. It have warfs, docks, and warehouses which are extremely convenient to facilitate this great commercial business. Inhabitants are the happiest and at the center of the beau monde. They have the richest planters with the best health and pleasure. Our space provides better health than the West Indians could ever dream. The growth of this town and province has been astonishingly rapid. The weather is temperate though sometimes when they have no sea breezes the sun is too powerful. There are elegant houses with sumptuous furniture and table settings. The three principal classes of inhabitants are lawyers, planters and merchants. The richest spoils are to them and nothing can exceed their wealth, power and influence. These men are more properly law givers than interpreters of the law. They have the skill and dexterity of the scribe with the power and ambition of the prince. We are a litigious society as well.

At the same time, scenes of misery overspread the country. They neither see, hear, nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves, from whose painful labors all their wealth proceeds. Here the horrors of slavery, the hardship of incessant toils, are unseen; and no one thinks with compassion of those showers of sweat and of tears which from the bodies of Africans, daily drop, and moisten the ground they till. [See ninth edition page 647 for deeper discussion of a slavery.]

A clergyman comes in to soften hearts against slavery. The people got upset and asked him to stick to the bible. We try to conceive of slavery as not so bad since it has been known in all ages and all countries. Does the cosmic order abandon mankind to all the errors, the follies, and the miseries, which their most frantic rage, and their most dangerous vices and passions can produce? Everywhere one part of the human species are taught the art of shedding the blood of the other; of setting fire to their dwellings; of leveling the works of their industry; half of the existence of nations regularly employed in destroying other nations. This displays the violence of colonization. Man is neither civilized in nature nor in city. I prefer the country. Too many people equals more trouble. These are my melancholy reflections. While on a walk I perceived a Negro suspended in a cage and left to expire [649]. I gave him a drink of water. The reason for this slave being thus punished was on account of his having killed the overseer of the plantation.

 

From Letter X. On Snakes; and on the Humming Bird

 

While on a walk I came across two snakes, one pursuing the other. The aggressor was of the black kind, six feet long; the fugitive was a water snake, nearly of equal dimensions. They mutually tried with open jaws to lacerate each other. The scene was uncommon and beautiful; for this opposed they fought with their jaws. The black one pulled the water snake back from the ditch. Victory seemed doubtful, inclining sometimes to the one side and sometimes to the other. They both plunged into the ditch. The black snake seemed to retain its wonted superiority. It incessantly pressed down under the water, until the water snake was stifled and sunk. The black snake returned to shore and disappeared.

 

Sarah Kemble Knight 1666-1727

Bostonian Sarah Kemble Knight kept a boarding house and taught school. Her keen writing skills allowed her to teach penmanship, copy court records and write court letters. Taught herself about the law and could settle estates. She traveled alone (while her husband was abroad) to settle her cousin’s estate. The journey was hazardous and not often attempted by women traveling alone. Her travel log was not published until the 19th century. Knight was a keen ethnographic observer of provincial America. She had a sharp humor and did not shy away from the crude or ridiculous. Her journal depitcts everyday life at the turn of the 18th century while revealing some of America’s most troubling prejudices.

The piece below is transcribed and edited. It provides a healthy contrast to the soul-searching journals of Knight’s contemporaries and reminds us of the manifold ways in which provincial Americans absorbed transatlantic models for the expression of the most common and intimate details of their lives.  Her work can be seen as a meditation on what made a provincial culture viable and mature. Knight was a woman who did not suffer fools gladly and she was tough-minded. Her work shows that women early in the eighteenth century had significant economic roles. The text here is from The Journal of Madame Knight, edited by George P. Winship (1920; reprinted 1935).

 

From The Private Journal of a Journey from Boston to New York

From Tuesday, October the Third

[not in new Norton Anthology edition]

This is a travel tale. Ms. Knight writes of a very arduous journey. She and her guide forge a river and travel on horseback through the woods at night. The journal is punctuated with poetry.

When she gets to the inn she cannot sleep for the two men arguing in the next room.

We read a short poem about the arguing men in the next room at the inn. They are arguing loudly. In the poem Knight is hoping the men will get drunk and pass out. She writes that she paid sixpence a piece for their dinners, which was only smell.

 

Saturday, October the Seventh

Having a young male accompany her on her trip–most likely for safety. Knight describes being lost and asking directions. When she arrives in New Haven she pays her guide who then leaves. “…informed myself of the manners and customs of the place and at the same time employed myself in the affair I went there upon.” Knight is discussing the culture and laws of Connecticut and how they are similar to Boston. She feels they come down a bit too hard on the punishment for some rules that don’t allow young people to be young. Public whippings were a preferred punishment. Speaking of negro slaves and Indians who steal and the language barriers that arise when the Native American is brought to court. For fun they go to lectures and perform military exercises. New Haveners marry early, usually before age 20. As a ritual, the groom will run from the chapel right before the joining of hands and his groomsmen then drag him back. The farmers are too friendly with their slaves and they even eat together “…and into the dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand.” Knight also speaks of a court arbitration between master and slave in which the slave won.

These are the most unchristian Indians I have ever seen. Indians can own land and live by their own laws, including having multiple wives. Both Indians and the New Haveners do not seem ashamed to get divorced. Indians can only be punished for offenses on English land. When Natives lose a loved one they paint their faces black, cut their hair, and won’t allow the dead’s name be spoken. Indians will trade almost anything for rum, but it is watered down by the English.

Knight tells a humorous anecdote of what usually occurs in a general store [613]. New Haveners have native intelligence but you can’t always tell. Country people should keep to their own hearths and clean. They dress plainly. They celebrate election day like a national holiday.

 

From December the Sixth

Knight is now in New York. Pleasant and compact on a fine river with a shipping harbor. There are brick skyscrapers. She describes the insides of houses, especially fireplaces. Most hue to the Church of England. They are not as strict as Bostonians regarding keeping the Sabbath. New Yorkers are courteous and civil. Knight goes into detail regarding the jewelry worn by middle class Dutch women. You can get a good stiff drink here. In the winter they ride sleighs and visit friends.

 

January the Sixth

[not in new edition]

The journey was so tough that her horse died! (Or acted as if he did!) Knight procured another horse and carried on. She returned home to her “tender mother and dear and only son.” The entire trip took five months. Knight returned home unscathed.