The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America/Chapter 4
THE EMANCIPATION OF DEMOCRACY
|||How the black slave by his incessant struggle to be free has broadened the basis of democracy in America and in the world.|||
Help in exploration, labor unskilled and to some extent skilled, and fighting, have been the three gifts which so far we have considered as having been contributed by black folk to America. We now turn to a matter more indefinite and yet perhaps of greater importance.
Without the active participation of the Negro in the Civil War, the Union could not have been saved nor slavery destroyed in the nineteenth century. Without the help of black soldiers, the independence of the United States could not have been gained in the eighteenth century. But the Negro’s contribution to America was at once more subtle and important than these things. Dramatically the Negro is the central thread of American history. The whole story turns on him whether we think of the dark and flying slave ship in the sixteenth century, the expanding plantations of the seventeenth, the swelling commerce of the eighteenth, or the fight for freedom in the nineteenth. It was the black man that raised a vision of democracy in America such as neither Americans nor Europeans conceived in the eighteenth century and such as they have not even accepted in the twentieth century; and yet a conception which every clear sighted man knows is true and inevitable.
Democracy was not planted full grown in America. It was a slow growth beginning in Europe and developing further and more quickly in America. It did not envisage at first the man farthest down as a participant in democratic privilege or even as a possible participant. This was not simply because of the inability of the ignorant and degraded to express themselves and act intelligently and efficiently, but it was a failure to recognize that the mass of men had any rights which the better class were bound to respect. Thus democracy to the world first meant simply the transfer of privilege and opportunity from waning to waxing power, from the well-born to the rich, from the nobility to the merchants. Divine Right of birth yielded the Divine Right of wealth. Growing industry, business and commerce were putting economic and social power into the hands of what we call the middle class. Political opportunity to correspond with this power was the demand of the eighteenth century and this was what the eighteenth century called Democracy. On the other hand, both in Europe and in America, there were classes, and large classes, without power and without consideration whose place in democracy was inconceivable both to Europeans and Americans. Among these were the agricultural serfs and industrial laborers of Europe and the indentured servants and black slaves of America. The white serfs, as they were transplanted in America, began a slow, but in the end, effective agitation for recognition in American democracy. And through them has risen the modern American labor movement. But this movement almost from the first looked for its triumph along the ancient paths of aristocracy and sought to raise the white servant and laborer on the backs of the black servant and slave. If now the black man had been inert, unintelligent, submissive, democracy would have continued to mean in America what it means so widely still in Europe, the admission of the powerful to participation in government and privilege in so far and only in so far as their power becomes irresistible. It would not have meant a recognition of human beings as such and the giving of economic and social power to the powerless.
It is usually assumed in reading American his- tory that whatever the Negro has done for America has been passive and unintelligent, that he accompanied the explorers as a beast of burden and accomplished whatever he did by sheer accident; that he labored because he was driven to labor and fought because he was made to fight. This is not true. On the contrary, it was the rise and growth among the slaves of a determination to be free and an active part of American democracy that forced American democracy continually to look into the depths; that held the faces of American thought to the inescapable fact that as long as there was a slave in America, America could not be a free republic; and more than that: as long as there were people in America, slave or nominally free, who could not participate in government and industry and society as free, intelligent human beings, our democracy had failed of its greatest mission.
This great vision of the black man was, of course, at first the vision of the few, as visions always are, but it was always there; it grew continuously and it developed quickly from wish to active determination. One cannot think then of democracy in America or in the modern world without reference to the American Negro. The democracy established in America in the eighteenth century was not, and was not designed to be, a democracy of the masses of men and it was thus singularly easy for people to fail to see the incongruity of democracy and slavery. It was the Negro himself who forced the consideration of this incongruity, who made emancipation inevitable and made the modern world at least consider if not wholly accept the idea of a democracy including men of all races and colors.
2. Influence on White Thought
Naturally, at first, it was the passive presence of the Negro with his pitiable suffering and sporadic expression of unrest that bothered the American colonists. Massachusetts and Connecticut early in the seventeenth century tried to compromise with their consciences by declaring that there should be no slavery except of persons "willingly selling themselves" or "sold to us." And these were to have "All the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israel." Massachusetts even took a strong stand against proven "man stealing"'; but it was left to a little band of Germans in Pennsylvania, in 1688, to make the first clear statement the moment they looked upon a black slave: "Now, though they are black, we cannot conceive there is more liberty to have them slaves than it is to have other white ones. There is a saying that we shall do to all men like as we will be done to ourselves, making no difference of what generation, descent or color they are. Here is liberty of conscience which is right and reasonable. Here ought also to be liberty of the body.
In the eighteenth century, Sewall of Massachusetts attacked slavery. From that time down until 1863 man after man and prophet after prophet spoke against slavery and they spoke not so much as theorists but as people facing extremely uncomfortable facts. Oglethorpe would keep slavery out of Georgia because he saw how the strength of South Carolina went to defending themselves against possible slave insurrection rather than to defending the English colonies against the Spanish. The matter of baptizing the heathen whom slavery was supposed to convert brought tremendous heart searchings and argument and disputations and explanatory laws throughout the colonies. Contradictory benevolences were evident as when the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel sought to convert the Negroes and American legislatures sought to make the perpetual slavery of the converts sure. The religious conscience, especially as it began to look upon America as a place of freedom and refuge, was torn by the presence of slavery. Late in the eighteenth and early in the nineteenth centuries pressure began to be felt from the more theoretical philanthropists of Europe and the position of American philanthropists was made correspondingly uncomfortable.
Benjamin Franklin pointed out some of the evils of slavery; James Otis inveighing against England’s economic tyranny acknowledged the rights of black men. Patrick Henry said that slavery was “repugnant to the first impression of right and wrong” and George Washington hoped slavery might be abolished.
Thomas Jefferson made the celebrated statement: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature, and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events; that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”
Henry Laurens said to his son: “You know, my dear son, I abhor slavery. I was born in a country where slavery had been established by British kings and parliaments, as well as hy the laws of that country ages before my existence. I found the Christian religion and slavery growing under the same authority and cultivation. I nevertheless disliked it. In former days there was no combating the prejudices of men supported by inter- est; the day I hope is approaching when, from principles of gratitude as well as justice, every man will strive to be foremost in showing his readiness to comply with the golden rule."
The first draft of the Declaration of Independence harangued King George III of Britain for the presence of slavery in the United States:
"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him; captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of Infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And, that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom we also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
The final draft of the Declaration said: “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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
It was afterward argued that Negroes were not included in this general statement and Judge Taney in his celebrated decision said in 1857:
“They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit…."
This obiter dictum was disputed by equally learned justices. Justice McLean said in his opinion:
"Our independence was a great epoch in the history of freedom; and while I admit the Government was not made especially for the colored race, yet many of them were citizens of the New England States, and exercised the rights of suffrage when the Constitution was adopted; and it was not doubted by any intelligent person that its tendencies would greatly ameliorate their condition.
Justice Curtis also said:
"It has been often asserted, that the Constitution was made exclusively by and for the white race. It has already been shown that in five of the thirteen original States, colored persons then possessed the elective franchise and were among those by whom the Constitution was ordained and established. If so, it is not true, in point of fact, that the Constitution was made exclusively by the white race. And that it was made exclusively for the white race is, in my opinion, not only an assumption not warranted by anything in the Con stitution, but contradicted by its opening declaration, that it was ordained and established by the people of the United States, for themselves and their posterity. And, as free colored persons were then citizens of at least five States, they were among those for whom and whose posterity the Constitution was ordained and established.”
After the Revolution came the series of State acts abolishing slavery, beginning with Vermont in 1777; and then came the pause and retrogression followed by the slow but determined rise of the Cotton Kingdom. But even in that day the prophets protested. Hezekiah Niles said in 1819: “We are ashamed of the thing we practice; . . . there is no attribute of Heaven that takes part with us, and we know it. And in the contest that must come, and will come, there will be a heap of sorrows such as the world has rarely seen.” While the wild preacher, Lorenzo Dow, raised his cry from the wilderness even in Alabama and Mississippi, saying: “In the rest of the Southern States the influence of these Foreigners will be known and felt in its time, and the seeds from the HORY ALLIANCE and the DECAPIGANDI, who have a hand in those grades of Generals, from the Inquisitor to the Vicar General and down. . . . The STRUGGLE will be DREADFUL! The CUP will be BITTER! and when the agony is over, those who survive may see better days! FAREWELL!” Finally came William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown.
It may be said, and it usually has been said, that all this showed the natural conscience and humanity of white Americans protesting and eventually triumphing over political and economic temptations. But to this must be added the inescapable fact that the attitude, thought and action of the Negro himself was in the largest measure back of this heart searching, discomfort and warning; and first of all was the physical force which the Negro again and again and practically without ceasing from the first days of the slave trade down to the war of emancipation, used to effect his own freedom.
We must remember that the slave trade itself was war; that from surreptitious kidnapping of the unsuspecting it was finally organized so as to set African tribes warring against tribes, giving the conquerors the actual aid of European or Arabian soldiers and the tremendous incentive of high prices for results of successful wars through the selling of captives. The captives themselves fought to the last ditch. It is estimated that every single slave finally landed upon a slave ship meant five corpses either left behind in Africa or lost through rebellion, suicide, sickness, and murder on the high seas. This which is so often looked upon as passive calamity was one of the most terrible and vindictive and unceasing struggles against misfortune that a group of human beings ever put forth. It cost Negro Africa perhaps sixty million souls to land ten million slaves in America.
The first influence of the Negro on American Democracy was naturally force to oppose force—revolt, murder, assassination coupled with running away. It was the primitive, ancient effort to avenge blood with blood, to bring good out of evil by opposing evil with evil. Whether right or wrong, effective or abortive, it is the human answer to oppression which the world has tried for thousands of years.
Two facts stand out in American history with regard to slave insurrections: on the one hand, there is no doubt of the continuous and abiding fear of them. The slave legislation of the Southern States is filled with ferocious efforts to guard against this. Masters were everywhere given peremptory and unquestioned power to kill a slave or even a white servant who should “resist his master.” The Virginia law of 1680 said: “If any Negro or other slave shall absent himself from his master’s service and lie, hide and lurk in obscure places, committing injuries to the inhabitants, and shall resist any person or persons that shall by lawful authority be employed to apprehend and take the said Negro, that then, in case of such resistance, it shall be lawful for such person or persons to kill the said Negro or slave so lying out and resisting.”In 1691 and in 1748, there were Virginia acts to punish conspiracies and insurrections of slaves. In 1708 and in 1712 New York had laws against conspiracies and insurrections of Negroes. North Carolina passed such a law in 1741, and South Carolina in 1743 was legislating “against the insurrection and other wicked attempts of Negroes and other slaves.” The Mississippi code of 1839 provides for slave insurrections “with arms in the intent to regain their liberty by force.” Virginia in 1797 decreed death for any one exciting slaves to insurrection. In 1830 North Carolina made it a felony to incite insurrection among slaves. The penal code of Texas, passed in 1857, had a severe section against insurrection.
Such legislation, common in every slave state, could not have been based on mere idle fear, and when we follow newspaper comment, debates and arguments and the history of insurrections and attempted insurrections among slaves, we easily see the reason. No sooner had the Negroes landed in America than resistance to slavery began.
As early as 1503 the Governor of Hispaniola stopped the transportation of Negroes “because they fled to the Indians and taught them bad manners and they could never be apprehended.” In 1518 in the sugar mills of Haiti the Negroes “quit working and fled whenever they could in squads and started rebellions and committed murders.” In 1522 there was a rebellion on the sugar plantations. Twenty Negroes from Diego Columbus’ mill fled and killed several Spaniards. They joined with other rebellious Negroes on neighboring plantations. In 1523 many Negro slaves “fled to the Zapoteca and walked rebelliously through the country.” In 1527 there was an uprising of Indians and Negroes in Florida. In 1532 the Wolofs and other rebellious Negroes caused insurrection among the Carib Indians. These Wolofs were declared to be “haughty, disobedient, rebellious and incorrigible.” In 1548 there was a rebellion in Honduras and the Viceroy Mendoza in Mexico writes of an uprising among the slaves and Indians in 1537. One of the most remarkable cases of resistance was the establishment and defense of Palmares in Brazil where 40 determined Negroes in 1560 established a city state which lived for nearly a half century growing to a population of 20,000 and only overthrown when 7,000 soldiers with artillery were sent against it. The Chiefs committed suicide rather than surrender.
Early in the sixteenth century and from that time down until the nineteenth the black rebels whom the Spanish called “Cimarrones” and whom we know as “Maroons” were infesting the mountains and forests of the West Indies and South America. Gage says between 1520 and 1530: “What the Spaniards fear most until they get out of these mountains are two or three hundred Negroes, Cimarrones, who for the bad treatment they received have fled from masters in order to resort to these woods; there they live with their wives and children and increase in numbers every year, so that the entire force of Guatemala (City) and its environments is not capable to subdue them.” Gage himself was captured by a mulatto corsair who was sweeping the seas in his own ship.
The history of these Maroons reads like romance. When England took Jamaica, in 1565, they found the mountains infested with Maroons whom they fought for ten years and finally, in 1663, acknowledged their freedom, gave them land and made their leader, Juan de Bolas, a colonel in the militia. He was killed, however, in the following year and from 1664 to 1778 some 3,000 black Maroons were in open rebellion against the British Empire. The English fought them with soldiers, Indians, and dogs and finally again, in 1738, made a formal treaty of peace with them, recognizing their freedom and granting them 25,000 acres of land. The war again broke out in 1795 and blood-hounds were again imported. The legislature wished to deport them but as they could not get their consent, peace was finally made on condition that the Maroons surrender their arms and settle down. No sooner, however, had they done this than the whites treacherously seized 600 of them and sent them to Nova Scotia. The Legislature voted a sword to the English general, who made the treaty; but he indignantly refused to accept it. Eventually these Maroons were removed to Sierra Leone where they saved that colony to the British by helping them put down an insurrection.
In the United States insurrection and attempts at insurrection among the slaves extended from Colonial times down to the Civil War. For the most part they were unsuccessful. In many cases the conspiracies were insignificant in themselves but exaggerated by fear of the owners. And yet a record of the attempts at revolt large and small is striking.
In Virginia there was a conspiracy in 1710 in Surrey County. In 1712 the City of New York was threatened with burning by slaves. In 1720 whites were attacked in the homes and on the streets in Charleston, S. C. In 1730 both in South Carolina and Virginia, slaves were armed to kill the white people and they planned to burn the City of Boston in 1723. In 1730 there was an insurrection in Williamsburg, Va., and five counties furnished armed men. In 1730 and 1731 homes were burned by slaves in Massachusetts and in Rhode Island and in 1731 and 1732 three ships crews were murdered by slaves. In 1729 the Governor of Louisiana reported that in an expedition sent against the Indians, fifteen Negroes had “performed prodigies of valor.” But the very next year the Indians, led by a desperate Negro named Samba, were trying to exterminate the whites. In 1741 an insurrection of slaves was planned in New York City, for which thirteen slaves were burned, eighteen hanged and eighty transported. In 1754 and 1755 slaves burned and poisoned certain masters in Charleston, S. C.
4. Haiti and After
On the night of August 23, 1791, the great Haitian rebellion took place. It had been preceded by a small rebellion of the mulattoes who were bitterly disappointed at the refusal of the planters to assent to what the free Negroes thought were the basic principles of the French Revolution. When 450,000 slaves joined them, they began a murderous civil war seldom paralleled in history. French, English and Spaniards participated. Toussaint, the first great black leader, was deceived, imprisoned and died perhaps by poisoning. Twenty-five thousand French soldiers were sent over by Napoleon Bonaparte to subdue the Negroes and begin the extension of his American empire through the West Indies and up the Mississippi valley. Despite all this, the Negroes were triumphant, established an inde pendent state, made Napoleon give up his dream of American empire and sell Louisiana for a song: “Thus, all of Indian Territory, all of Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa and Wyoming and Montana and the Dakotas, and most of Colorado and Minnesota, and all of Washington and Oregon states, came to us as the indirect work of a despised Negro. Praise if you will, the work of Robert Livingston or a Jefferson, but today let us not forget our debt to Toussaint L’Ouverture who was indirectly the means of America’s expansion by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.”
The Haitian revolution immediately had its effect upon both North and South America. We have read how Haitian volunteers helped in the American revolution. They returned to fight for their own freedom. Afterward when Bolivar, the founder of five free republics in South America, undertook his great rebellion in 1811 he at first failed. He took refuge in Jamaica and implored the help of England but was unsuccessful. Later in despair he visited Haiti. The black republic was itself at that time in a precarious position and had to act with great caution. Neverthless President Petion furnished Bolivar, soldiers, arms and money. Bolivar embarked secretly and again sought to free South America. Again he failed and a second time returned to Haiti. Money and reinforcements were a second time furnished him and with the help of these achieved the liberation of Mexico and Central America.
Thus black Haiti not only freed itself but helped to kindle liberty all through America. Refugees from Haiti and San Domingo poured into the United States both colored and white and had great influence in Maryland and Louisiana. Moreover the news of the black revolt filtered through to the slaves in the United States. Here the chains of slavery were stronger and the number of whites much larger. As I have said in another place: “A long, awful process of selection chose out the listless, ignorant, sly and humble and sent to heaven the proud, the vengeful and the daring. The old African warrior spirit died away of violence and a broken heart.”
Nevertheless a series of attempted rebellions took place which can be traced to the influence of Haiti. In 1800 came the Prosser conspiracy in Virginia which planned a force of 11,000 Negroes to march in three columns in the city and seize the arsenal. A terrific storm thwarted these men and thirty-six were executed for the attempt. In 1791 Negroes of Louisiana sought to imitate Toussaint leading to the execution of twenty-three slaves. Other smaller attempts were made in South Carolina in 1816 and in Georgia in 1819. In 1822 came the celebrated attempt of Denmark Vesey, an educated freedman who through his trade as carpenter accumulated considerable wealth. He spoke French and English and was familiar with the Haitian revolution, the African Colonization scheme and the agitation attending the Missouri compromise. Lie openly discussed slavery and ridiculed the slaves for their cowardice and submission; he worked through the church and planned the total annihilation of the men, women and children of Charleston. Thousands of slaves were enrolled but one betrayed him and this led to the arrest of 137 blacks of whom 35 were hanged and 37 banished. A white South Carolinian writing after this plot said: “We regard our Negroes as the Jacobins of the country, against whom we should always be upon our guard and who although we fear no permanent effects from any insurrectionary movements on their part, should be watched with an eye of steady and unremitted observation.” Less than ten years elapsed before another insurrection was planned and partially carried through. Its leader was Nat Turner, a slave born in Virginia in 1800. He was precocious and considered as “marked” by the Negroes. He had experimented in making paper, gun powder and pottery; never swore, never drank and never stole. For the most part he was a sort of religious devotee, fasting and praying and reading the Bible. Once he ran away but was commanded by spirit voices to return. By 1825 he was conscious of a great mission and on May 12, 1831, “a great voice said unto him that the serpent was loosed, that Christ had laid down the yoke.” He believed that he, Nat Turner, was to lead the movement and that “the first should be last and the last first.” An eclipse of the sun in February, 1831 was a further sign to him. He worked quickly. Gathering six friends together August 21, they made their plans and then started the insurrection by killing Nat’s master and the family. About forty Negroes were gathered in all and they killed sixty-one white men, women and children. They were headed toward town when finally the whites began to arm in opposition. It was not, however, until two months later, October 30, that Turner himself was captured. He was tried November 5 and sentenced to be hanged. When asked if he believed in the righteousness of his mission he replied “Was not Christ crucified?” He made no confession.
T. R. Grey—Turner’s attorney—said “As to his ignorance, he certainly had not the advantages of education, but he can read and write and for natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension is surpassed by few men I have ever seen. Further the calm, deliberate composure with which he spoke of his late deeds and intentions, the expression of his fiend-like face when excited by enthusiasm; still bearing the stains of the blood of helpless innocence about him; clothed with rags and covered with chains, yet daring to raise his manacled hands to heaven; with a spirit soaring above the attributes of man, I looked on him and my blood curdled in my veins.”
Panic seized the whole of Virginia and the South. Military companies were mobilized, both whites and Negroes fled to the swamps, slaves were imprisoned and even as far down as Macon, Ga., the white women and children were guarded in a building against supposed insurrections. New slave codes were adopted, new disabilities put upon freedmen, the carrying of fire arms was especially forbidden. The Negro churches in the South were almost stopped from functioning and the Negro preachers from preaching. Traveling and meeting of slaves was stopped, learning to read and write was forbidden and incendiary pamphlets hunted down. Free Negroes were especially hounded, sold into slavery or driven out and a period of the worst oppression of the Negro in the land followed.
In 1839 and 1841 two cases of mutiny of slaves on the high seas caused much commotion in America. In 1839 a schooner, the Amistad, started from Havana for another West Indian port with 53 slaves. Led by a black man, Cinque, the slaves rose, killed the captain and some of the crew, allowed the rest of the crew to escape and put the two owners in irons. The Negroes then tried to escape to Africa, but after about two months they landed in Connecticut and a celebrated law case arose over the disposition of the black mutineers which went to the Supreme Court of the United States. John Quincy Adams defended them and won his case. Eventually money was raised and the Negroes returned to Africa. While this case was in the court the brig Creole in 1841 sailed from Richmond to New Orleans with 130 slaves. Nineteen of the slaves mutinied and led by Madison Washington took command of the vessel and sailed to the British West Indies. Daniel Webster demanded the return of the slaves but the British authorities refused.
During these years, rebellion and agitation among Negroes, and agitation among white friends in Europe, was rapidly freeing the Negroes of the West Indies and beginning their incorporation into the body politic—a process not yet finished but which means possibly the eventual development of a free black and mulatto republic in the isles of the Caribbean.
It may be said that in most of these cases the attempts of the Negro to rebel were abortive, and this is true. Yet it must be remembered that in a few cases they had horrible success; in others nothing but accident or the actions of favorite slaves saved similar catastrophe, and more and more the white South had the feeling that it was sitting upon a volcano and that nothing but the sternest sort of repression would keep the Negro “in his place.” The appeal of the Negro to force invited reaction and retaliation not only in the South, as we have noted, but also in the North. Here the common white workingman and particularly the new English, Scotch and Irish immigrants entirely misconceived the writhing of the black man. These white laborers, themselves so near slavery, did not recognize the struggle of the black slave as part of their own struggle; rather they felt the sting of economic rivalry and underbidding for home and job; they easily absorbed hatred and contempt for Negroes as their first American lesson and were flattered by the white capitalists, slave owners and sympathizers with slavery into lynching and clubbing their dark fellow victims back into the pit whence they sought to crawl. It was a scene for angels’ tears.
In 1826 Negroes were attacked in Cincinnati and also in 1836 and 1841. At Portsmouth, Ohio, nearly one-half of the Negroes were driven out of the city in 1830 while mobs drove away free Negroes from Mercer County, Ohio. In Philadelphia, Negroes were attacked in 1820, 1830 and 1834, having their churches and property burned and ruined. In 1838 there was another anti-Negro riot and in 1842, when the blacks attempted to celebrate abolition in the West Indies. Pittsburg had a riot in 1839 and New York in 1843 and 1863.
Thus we can see that the fear and heart searchings and mental upheaval of those who saw the anomaly of slavery in the United States was based not only upon theoretical democracy but on force and fear of force as used by the degraded blacks, and on the reaction of that appeal on southern legislatures and northern mobs.
5. The Appeal to Reason
The appeal of the Negro to democracy, however, was not entirely or perhaps even principally an appeal of force. There was continually the appeal to reason and justice. Take the significant case of Paul Cuffee of Massachusetts, born in 1759, of a Negro father and Indian mother. When the selectmen of the town of Dartmouth refused to admit colored children to the public schools, or even to make separate provision for them, he refused to pay his school taxes. He was duly imprisoned, but when freed he built at his own expense a school house and opened it to all without race discrimination. His white neighbors were glad to avail themselves of this school as it was more convenient and just as good as the school in town. The result was that the colored children were soon admitted to all schools. Cuffee was a ship owner and trader, and afterward took a colony to Liberia at his own expense. Again Prince Hall, the Negro founder of the African Lodge of Masons which the English set up in 1775, aroused by the revolution in Haiti and a race riot in Boston said in 1797:
“Patience, I say, for were we not possessed of a great measure of it you could not bear up under the daily insults you meet with in the streets of Boston; much more on public days of recreation, how are you shamefully abused, and that at such a degree that you may truly be said to carry your lives in your own hands. . . .
“My brethren, let us not be cast down under these and many other abuses we at present labor under; for the darkest hour is before the break of day. My brethren, let us remember what a dark day it was with our African brethren six years ago, in the French West Indies. . . . But blessed be to God, the scene is changed, they now confess that God hath no respect of persons, and therefore receive them as their friends and treat them as brothers. Thus doth Ethiopia begin to stretch forth her hand from a sink of slavery to freedom and equality.”
A more subtle appeal was made by seven Massachusetts Negroes on taxation without representation. In a petition to the General Court of Massachusetts in 1780 they said: “We being chiefly of the African extract, and by reason of long bondage and hard slavery, we have been deprived of enjoying the profits of our labor or the advantage of inheriting estates from our parents, as our neighbors the white people do, having some of us not long enjoyed our own freedom; yet of late, contrary to the invariable custom and practice of the country, we have been, and now are, taxed both in our polls and that small pittance of estate which, through much hard labor and industry, we have got together to sustain ourselves and families with all. We apprehend it therefore, to be hard usage, and will doubtless (if continued) reduce us to a state of beggary, whereby we shall become a burden to others, if not timely prevented by the interposition of your justice and power.
“Your petitioners further show, that we apprehend ourselves to be aggrieved, in that, while we are not allowed the privilege of free men of the State, having no vote or influence in the election of those that tax us, yet many of our color (as is well known) have cheerfully entered the field of battle in the defence of the common cause, and that (as we conceive) against similar exertion of power (in regard to taxation) too well known to need a recital in this place.”
Perhaps though the most startling appeal and challenge came from David Walker, a free Negro, born of a free mother and slave father in North Carolina in 1785. He had some education, had traveled widely and conducted a second-hand clothing store in Boston in 1827. He spoke to various audiences of Negroes in 1828 and the following year published the celebrated “Appeal in four articles, together with a preamble to the Colored Citizens of the World but in particular and very expressly to those of the United States of America.” It was a thin volume of 76 octavol pages, but it was frank and startlingly clear:
“Can our condition be any worse? Can it be more mean and abject? If there are any changes, will they not be for the better though they may appear for the worst at first? Can they get us any lower? Where can they get us? They cannot treat us worse; for they well know the day they do it they are gone. But against all accusations which may or can be preferred against me, I appeal to heaven for my motive in writing—who knows that my object is if possible to awaken in the breasts of my afflicted, degraded and slumbering brethren a spirit of enquiry and investigation respecting our miseries and wretchedness in this Republican land of Liberty! ! ! !
“My beloved brethren:—The Indians of North and South America—the Greeks—the Irish, subjected under the King of Great Britain—the Jews, that ancient people of the Lord—the inhabitants of the Islands of the Sea—in fine, all the inhabitants of the Earth, (except, however, the sons of Africa) are called men and of course are and ought to be free.—But we, (colored people) and our children are brutes and of course are and ought to be slaves to the American people and their children forever—to dig their mines and work their farms; and thus go on enriching them from one generation to another with our blood and our tears! ! ! !
“I saw a paragraph, a few years since, in a South Carolina paper, which, speaking of the barbarity of the Turks, it said: ‘The Turks are the most barbarous people in the world—they treat the Greeks more like brutes than human beings.’ And in the same paper was an advertisement which said: ‘Eight well built Virginia and Maryland Negro fellows and four wenches will positively be sold this day to the highest bidder!’
“Beloved brethren—here let me tell you, and believe it, that the Lord our God as true as He sits on His throne in heaven and as true as our Saviour died to redeem the world, will give you a Hannibal, and when the Lord shall have raised him up and given him to you for your possession, Oh! my suffering brethren, remember the divisions and consequent sufferings of Carthage and of Haiti. Read the history particularly of Haiti and see how they were butchered by the whites and do you take warning. The person whom God shall give you, give him your support and let him go his length and behold in him the salvation of your God. God will indeed deliver you through him from your deplorable and wretched condition under the Christians of America. I charge you this day before my God to lay no obstacle in his way, but let him go. . . . What the American preachers can think of us, I aver this day before my God I have never been able to define. They have newspapers and monthly periodicals which they receive in continual succession but on the pages of which you will scarcely ever find a paragraph respecting slavery which is ten thousand times more injurious to this country than all the other evils put together; and which will be the final overthrow of its government unless something is very speedily done; for their cup is nearly full.—Perhaps they will laugh at or make light of this; but I tell you, Americans! that unless you speedily alter your course, you and your Country are gone!
“Do you understand your own language? Hear your language proclaimed to the world, July 4, 1776—‘We hold these truths to be self evident—that ALL men are created EQUAL!! That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!!! Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us—men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation!!!
“Now Americans! I ask you candidly, was your suffering under Great Britain one hundredth part as cruel and tryrannical as you have rendered ours under you? Some of you, no doubt, believe that we will never throw off your murderous government and provide new guards for our future ‘security’. If Satan has made you believe it, will he not deceive you?”
The book had a remarkable career. It appeared in September, was in a third edition by the following March and aroused the South to fury. Special laws were passed and demands made that Walker be punished. He died in 1830, possibly by foul play.
6. The Fugitive Slave
Beside force and the appeal to reason there was a third method which practically was more effective and decisive for eventual abolition, and that was the escape from slavery through running away. On the islands this meant escape to the mountains and existence as brigands. In South America it meant escape to the almost impenetrable forest. As I have said elsewhere:
“One thing saved the South from the blood sacrifice of Haiti—not, to be sure, from so successful a revolt, for the disproportion of races was less, but from a desperate and bloody effort—and that was the escape of the fugitive.
“Along the Great Black Way stretched swamps and rivers and the forests and crests of the Alleghanies. A widening, hurrying stream of fugitives swept to the havens of refuge, taking the restless, the criminal and the unconquered—the natural leaders of the more timid mass. These men saved slavery and killed it. They saved it by leaving it to a false seductive dream of peace and the eternal subjugation of the laboring class. They destroyed it by presenting themselves before the eyes of the North and the world as living specimens of the real meaning of slavery.”
“Three paths were opened to the slaves: to submit, to fight or to run away. Most of them submitted, as do most people everywhere, to force and fate. To fight singly meant death and to fight together meant plot and insurrection—a difficult thing, but one often tried. Easiest of all was to run away, for the land was wide and bare and the slaves were many. At first they ran to the swamps and mountains and starved and died. Then they ran to the Indians and in Florida founded a nation, to overthrow which cost the United States $20,000,000 and more in slave raids known as the Seminole ‘wars.’ Then gradually, after the War of 1812 had used so many black sailors to fight for free trade that the Negroes learned of the North and Canada as cities of refuge, they fled northward.”
From the sixteenth century Florida Indians had Negro blood, but from early part of the nineteenth century the Seminoles gained a large new infiltration of Negro blood from the numbers of slaves who fled to them and with whom they intermarried. The first Seminole war, therefore, in 1818 was not simply a defense of the frontiers against the Indians and a successful raid to drive Spain from Florida, it was also a slave raid by Georgia owners determined to have back their property. By 1815 Negroes from Georgia among the Creeks and Seminoles numbered not less than 11,000 and were settled along the Appalachicola river, many of them with good farms and with a so-called Negro “fort” for protection. The war was disastrous to Negroes and Indians but not fatal and in 1822 some 800 Negroes were counted among the Indians who inhabited the new territory seized from Spain. Pressure to secure alleged fugitives and Negroes from the Indians was kept up for the next three years and the second Seminole war broke out because the whites treacherously seized the mulatto wife of the Indian chief Osceola. The war broke out in 1837 and its real nature, as a New Orleans paper said in 1839, was to subdue the Seminoles and decrease the danger of uprisings “among the serviles.” Finally after a total cost of twenty million dollars the Indians were subdued and moved to the West and a part of the Negroes driven back into slavery, but not all.
Through the organization which came to be known as the Underground Railroad, thousands of slaves escaped through Kentucky and into the Middle West and thence into Canada and also by way of the Appalachian Mountains into Pennsylvania and the East. Not only were they helped by white abolitionists but they were guided by black men and women like Joshua Henson and Harriet Tubman.
Beside this there came the effort for emigration to Africa which was very early suggested. Two colored men sailed from New York for Africa in 1774 but the Revolutionary War stopped the effort thus begun. The Virginia legislature in secret session after Gabriel’s insurrection in 1800, tried to suggest the buying of some land for the colonization of free Negroes, following the proposal of Thomas Jefferson made in 1781. Paul Cuffee, mentioned above, started the actual migration in 1815 carrying nine colored families, thirtyeight persons in all, to Sierra Leone at an expense of $4,000 which he paid himself. Finally came the American Colonization Society in 1817 but it was immediately turned from a real effort to abolish slavery gradually into an effort to get rid of free Negroes and obstreperous slaves. Even the South saw it and Robert Y. Hayne said in Congress: “While this process is going on, the colored classes are gradually diffusing themselves throughout the country and are making steady advances in intelligence and refinement and if half the zeal were displayed in bettering their condition that is now wasted in the vain and fruitless effort of sending them abroad, their intellectual and moral improvement would be steady and rapid.”
The Negro early learned a lesson which he may yet teach the modern world and which may prove his crowning gift to America and the world: Force begets force and you cannot in the end run away successfully from the world’s problems. The Negro early developed the shrewd foresight of recognizing the fact that as a minority of black folk in a growing white country, he could not win his battle by force. Moreover, for the mass of Negroes it was impracticable to run away and find refuge in some other land.
Even the appeal to reason had its limitations in an unreasoning land. It could not unfortunately base itself on justice and right in the midst of the selfish, breathless battle to earn a living. There was however a chance to prove that justice and self interest sometimes go hand in hand. Force and flight might sometimes help but there was still the important method of co-operating with the best forces of the nation in order to help them to win and in order to prove that the Negro was a valuable asset, not simply as a laborer but as a worker for social uplift, as an American. Sometimes this co-operation was in simple and humble ways and nevertheless striking. There was, for instance, the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793. The blacks were not suffering from it or at least not supposed to suffer from it as much as the whites. The papers appealed to them to come forward and help with the sick. Led by Jones, Gray and Allen, Negroes volunteered their services and worked with the sick and in burying the dead, even spending some of their own funds in the gruesome duty. The same thing happened much later in New Orleans, Memphis and Cuba. In larger ways it must be remembered that the Abolition crusade itself could not have been successful without the co-operation of Negroes. Black folk like Remond, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth, were not simply advocates for freedom but were themselves living refutations of the whole doctrine of slavery. Their appeal was tremendous in its efficiency and besides, the free Negroes helped by work and money to spread the Abolition campaign.
In addition to this there was much deliberate bargaining,-—careful calculation on the part of the Negro that if the whites would aid them, they in turn would aid the whites at critical times and that otherwise they would not. Much of this went on at the time of the Revolution and was clearly recognized by the whites.
Alexander Hamilton (himself probably of Negro descent) said in 1779: “The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience; and an unwillingness to part with property of so valuable a kind will furnish a thousand arguments to show the impractic ability or pernicious tendency of a scheme which requires such a sacrifice. But it should be considered that if we do not make use of them in this way, the enemy probably will; and that the best way to counteract the temptations they will hold out will be to offer them ourselves. An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and, I believe, will have a good influence upon those who remain by opening a door to their emancipation. This circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of the project; for the dictates of humanity and true policy equally interest me in favor of this unfortunate class of men.”
Dr. Hopkins wrote in 1776: “God is so ordering it in His providence that it seems absolutely necessary something should speedily be done with respect to the slaves among us in order to our safety and to prevent their turning against us in our present struggle in order to get their liberty. Our oppressors have planned to gain the blacks and induce them to take up arms against us by promising them liberty on this condition; and this plan they are prosecuting to the utmost of their power. . . . The only way pointed out to prevent this threatening evil is to set the blacks at liberty our selves by some public acts and laws; and then give them proper encouragement to labor or take arms in the defense of the American cause, as they shall choose. This would at once be doing them some degree of justice and defeating our enemies in the scheme they are prosecuting.”
When Dunmore appealed to the slaves of Virginia at the beginning of the Revolution, the slave owners issued an almost plaintive counter appeal:
“Can it, then, be supposed that the Negroes will be better used by the English who have always encouraged and upheld this slavery than by their present masters who pity their condition; who wish, in general, to make it easy and comfortable as possible; and who would, were it in their power, or were they permitted, not only prevent any more Negroes from losing their freedom but restore it to such as have already unhappily lost it?”
In the South, where Negroes for the most part were not received as soldiers, the losses of the slaveholders by defection among the slaves was tremendous. John Adams says that the Georgia delegates gave him “a melancholy account of the State of Georgia and South Carolina. They said if one thousand regular troops should land in Georgia and their commander be provided with arms and clothes enough and proclaim freedom to all the Negroes who would join his camp, twenty thousand Negroes would join it from the two provinces in a fortnight. The Negroes have a wonderful art of communicating intelligence among themselves; it will run several hundreds of miles in a week or fortnight. They said their only security was this,—that all the King’s friends and tools of Government have large plantations and property in Negroes, so that the slaves of the Tories would be lost as well as those of the Whigs.”
Great Britain, after Cornwallis surrendered, even dreamed of reconquering America with Negroes. A Tory wrote to Lord Dunmore in 1782:
“If, my Lord, this scheme is adopted, arranged and ready for being put in execution, the moment the troops penetrate into the country after the arrival of the promised re-enforcements, America is to be conquered with its own force (I mean the Provincial troops and the black troops to be raised), and the British and Hessian army could be spared to attack the French where they are most vulnerable. . ." 'What! Arm the slaves? We shudder at the very idea, so repugnant to humanity, so barbarous and shocking to human nature,' etc. One very simple answer is, in my mind, to be given: Whether it is better to make this vast continent become an acquisition of power, strength and con- sequence to Great Britain again, or tamely give it up to France who will reap the fruits of American independence to the utter ruin of Britain? . . . experience will, I doubt not, justify the assertion that by embodying the most hardy, intrepid and determined blacks, they would not only keep the rest in good order but by being disciplined and under command be prevented from raising cabals, tumults, and even rebellion, what I think might be expected soon after a peace; but so far from making even our lukewarm friends and secret foes greater enemies by this measure, I will, by taking their slaves, engage make them better friends.
On the other hand, the Colonial General Greene wrote to the Governor of South Carolina the same year:
“The natural strength of the country in point of numbers appears to me to consist much more in the blacks than in the whites. Could they be incorporated and employed for its defence, it would afford you double security. That they would make good soldiers, I have not the least doubt; and I am persuaded the State has it not in its power to give sufficient re-enforcements without incorporating them either to secure the country if the enemy mean to act vigorously upon an offensive plan or furnish a force sufficient to dispossess them of Charleston should it be defensive.”
This spirit of bargaining, more or less carefully carried out, can be seen in every time of stress and war. During the Civil War certain groups of Negroes sought repeatedly to make terms with the Confederacy. Judah Benjamin said at a public meeting in Richmond in 1865:
“We have 680,000 blacks capable of bearing arms and who ought now to be in the field. Let us now say to every Negro who wishes to go into the ranks on condition of being free, go and fight —you are free. My own Negroes have been to me and said, ‘Master, set us free and we’ll fight for you.’ You must make up your minds to try this or see your army withdrawn from before your town. I know not where white men can be, found.”
Robert E. Lee said: “We should not expect slaves to fight for prospective freedom when they can secure it at once by going to the enemy in whose service they will incur no greater risk than in ours. The reasons that induce me to recommend the employment of Negro troops at all render the effect of the measures I have suggested upon slavery immaterial and in my opinion the best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity of the auxiliary force would be to accompany the measure with a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation. As that will be the result of the continuance of the war and will certainly occur if the enemy succeed, it seems to me most advisable to adopt it at once and thereby obtain all the benefits that will accrue to our cause.
“The employment of Negro troops under regulations similar to those indicated would, in my opinion, greatly increase our military strength and enable us to relieve our white population to some extent. I think we could dispense with the reserve forces except in cases of emergency. It would disappoint the hopes which our enemies have upon our exhaustion, deprive them in a great measure of the aid they now derive from black troops and thus throw the burden of the war upon their own people. In addition to the great political advantages that would result to our cause from the adoption of a system of emancipation, it would exercise a salutary influence upon our Negro population by rendering more secure the fidelity of those who become soldiers and diminishing inducements to the rest to abscond.”
At the time of the World War there was a distinct attitude on the part of the Negro population that unless they were recognized in the draft and had Negro officers and were not forced to become simply laborers, they would not fight and while expression of this determination was not always made openly it was recognized even by an administration dominated by Southerners. Especially were there widespread rumors of German intrigue among Negroes, which had some basis of fact.
Within the Negro group every effort for organization and uplift was naturally an effort toward the development of American democracy. The motive force of democracy has nearly always been the push from below rather than the aristocratic pull from above; the effort of the privileged classes to outstrip the surging forward of the bourgeoisie has made groups and nations rise; the determination of the “poor whites” in the South not to be outdone by the “nigger” has been caused by the black man’s frantic efforts to rise rather than by any innate ambition on the part of the lower class of whites. It was a push from be low and it made the necessity of recognizing the white laborer even more apparent. The great democratic movement which took place during the reign of Andrew Jackson from 1829-1837 was caused in no small degree by the persistent striving of the Negroes. They began their meeting together in conventions in 1830, they organized migration to Canada. In the trouble with Canada in 1837 and 1838 Negro refugees from America helped to defend the frontiers. Bishop Loguen says: “The colored population of Canada at that time was small compared to what it now is; nevertheless, it was sufficiently large to attract the attention of the government. They were almost to a man fugitives from the States. They could not, therefore, be passive when the success of the invaders would break the only arm interposed for their security, and destroy the only asylum for African freedom in North America. The promptness with which several companies of blacks were organized and equipped, and the desperate valor they displayed in this brief conflict, are an earnest of what may be expected from the welling thousands of colored fugitives collecting there, in the event of a war between the two countries.”
In America during this time they sought to establish a manual training college, they established their first weekly newspaper and they made a desperate fight for admission to the schools. They helped thus immeasurably the movement for universal popular education, joined the anti-slavery societies and organized churches and beneficial societies; bought land and continued to appeal. Wealthy free Negroes began to appear even in the South, as in the case of Jehu Jones, proprietor of a popular hotel in Charleston, and later Thome Lafon of New Orleans who accumulated nearly a half million dollars and eventually left it to Negro charities which still exist. In the North there were tailors and lumber merchants and the guild of the caterers; taxable property slowly but surely increased.
All this in a peculiar way forced a more all-embracing democracy upon America, and it blossomed to fuller efficiency after the Civil War.
- At least this was the opinion of Abraham Lincoln—cf. Wilson’s Black Phalanx, p. 108.
- Thomas, Attitude of Friends toward Slavery, p. 267 and Appendix.
- Jefferson’s Writings, Vol. 8, pip. 403-4.
- George Livermore, Opinions of the Founders of the Republic on Negroes as Slaves, as Citizens, and as Soldiers, Boston, 1862, p. 61.
- Jefferson’s Works, Vol. I, pp. 23-4.
- Howard's Reports, Vol. 19.
- Howard's Reports, pp. 536-8.
- Howard’s Reports, pp. 572-3, 582.
- Niles’ Register, Vol. 16, May 22, 1819.
- Benjamin Brawley, A Social History of the American Negro, New York, 1921, p. 90.
- Hening’s Statutes.
- John C. Hurd, The Law of Freedom and Bondage, Boston, 1858-1862.
- Wiener, Africa and the Discovery of America, Vol. I, pp. 155-8.
- C. E. Chapman in Journal of Negro History, Vol. 3, p. 29.
- J. Kunst, Negroes in Guatemala, Journal of Negro History, Vol. I, pp. 392-8.
- Cf. Bryan Edward’s West Indies, 4th Edition, Vol. I, pp. 337-98.
- Gayarre, History of Louisiana, Vol. I, pp. 435, 440.
- Du Bois’ Slave Trade, pp. 6, 10, 22, 206; J. Coppin, Slave Insurrections, 1860; Brawley, Social History, pp, 39, 86, 132.
- Cf. T. G. Steward, The Haitian Revolution.
- DeWitt Talmadge in the Christian Herald, Nov. 28, 1906; DuBois’ Slave Trade, Chapter 7.
- Cf. Dunbar-Nelson in the Journal of Negro History, Vol. I.
- Du Bois, John Brown, p. 81.
- A. H. Grimke, Right on the Scaffold in Occasional Papers, No. 7, American Negro Academy.
- Brawley, p. 140; T. W. Higginson, Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 8,
- I. W. Cromwell, in Journal of Negro History, Vol. 5, pp. 208ff.
- Cf. Du Bois’ Philadelphia Negro, Chapter 4; Woodson’s Negro in our History, pp. 140-1.
- Brawley, pp. 123-4; Journal of Negro History, Vol. 2, pp. 209-28.
- Brawley, p. 71.
- Williams’ Negro Race, Vol. 2, p. 126.
- Du Bois’ John Brown, pp. 82ff.
- Cf. Joshua R. Giddings, Exiles of Florida, Columbus', Ohio, 1858.
- Among the first subscribers to Garrison’s Liberator were free Negroes and one report is that the very first paid subscriber was a colored Philadelphia caterer.
- Livermore, p. 170.
- Livermore, pp. 125-6.
- Force’s Archives, 4th series, Vol. 3, p. 1387.
- Works of John Adams, Vol. 2, p. 428.
- Livermore, pp. 183, 184.
- Wilson, pp. 491-92.
- J. T. Wilson, The History of the Black Phalanx, Hartford, 1897, p. 490.
- Cf. Cromwell, Negro in American History, Chapter 2.
- J. W. Loguen, As a Slave and as a Freeman, p. 344.