As the crisp outline left when a cooky cutter has finished its business serves to remind us, it is occasionally possible to see the shape of things as well from the outside as from within. That plantation slavery was much more than a labor system most readers of American history understand well enough: how much more is being slowly absorbed as the studies of those who lived just outside the system accumulate. In the last year several distinguished works have appeared on slavery as slaves and their owners experienced it. But it is a measure of the increasing sophistication of this field of scholarship that we also have several important new works of historians who have gone off the plantation, so to speak, to explore the social meaning of slavery for abolitionists and the free black victims of society, those who were in a technical sense the chattel property of nobody.
Even for these “outsiders” slavery was a dominating and coercive condition of life, dictating personal choices and public action. This was true for Angelina Grimké, the well-born daughter of a Charleston slaveholding family, who experienced the challenge of slavery very personally; the challenge became, in the view of Katherine DuPre Lumpkin, the spur that led in time, almost too late in time, to her self-liberation from the psychological and social limitations of nineteenth-century women. Angelina came through at last, and so did many of the free blacks and black leaders in the antislavery movement, whose difficulties “just outside” slavery have been described in new works by Ira Berlin and Jane and William Pease.
But the collective story of each group is on the whole depressing, filled with more frustration than triumph. The defeats are a register of the solid entrenchment of the peculiar institution in the social and political fabric of the nation, even as the economic position of slavery in the Upper South was deteriorating. The victories were usually personal; the defeats the result of fragmentation as organizations fell apart on what the Peases call “rightlessness” and “powerlessness.”
The struggles of the South’s free black caste and black antislavery spokesmen in the North are all the more chilling when read in conjunction with certain of the more recent works on slavery itself, which tend, on the whole, to sound the upbeat, to stress how even in the jaws of chattel bondage, the enslaved were able, in the words of Eugene D. Genovese in Roll, Jordan, Roll, to lay “the foundations for a separate black culture while enormously enriching American culture as a whole.” If slaves were able to do that, how is it that free blacks, Northern and Southern, met with so much frustration and despair?
Though Ira Berlin’s main concern is to give an authoritative account of how things were, rather than why they were not different, this question is implicit in his very important, detailed study of the South’s free black population. His answer is at once simple and complex. The slave had at least whatever practical protection the master’s economic interest afforded him, and sometimes he had as well the personal concern afforded by a lifetime of close association. But as a category, with some exceptions, the free blacks were exposed and vulnerable at every turn, the slaves of society. The majority were pushed into the lowest paying and least dignified jobs, visited with many social and legal restrictions, and they were ready-made scapegoats for rising internal tensions in a slaveholding society out of touch with its century. Those who fared better were able to do so only by subordinating themselves to the economic and psycho-social needs of the dominant whites in their world.
Whenever fears of a slave revolt swept the countryside, the free blacks, with their greater mobility, came under immediate suspicion, even though they were very seldom identified with insurrections or plots. They lived on the outer perimeter of a system under seige and engaged in justifying itself with a theory that slavery itself was a “positive good” for blacks and whites alike. If black people could survive as free men, and some obviously throve on freedom, the unwelcome suggestion that masters were perhaps unnecessary was bound to arise.
Berlin has written a more comprehensive study of the status and condition of free blacks in the South than any other we have yet seen, but his findings on the civil oppression of black freemen will not surprise students of Southern history. Their story has been told in part many times, how their testimony in courts was restricted, how they were denied the right to serve on juries, how they had to present “free papers” on demand, could be harassed by patrols with impunity, how barriers against their entry into one state after another were raised, and how they faced a stony white hostility that wanted almost from the beginning to pack them off to Africa. But Berlin’s account is far more than a recital of grievances. The originality and signal contribution of Slaves Without Masters derive from the author’s choice to treat his subjects in the stream of time, to see them as poised precariously in a fluid and dangerous state reflecting the dynamics of changing political and social currents in the white world. By this evolutionary approach he also provides a better understanding of how the free blacks came to be free, and under what impulses, drawing significant distinctions between their social positions in the Upper South and in the Lower South.
The foundations of the relatively large free black population of the Upper South were laid in the wake of the American Revolution, for there were very few slaves emancipated in the first part of the eighteenth century. Afterward many owners emancipated their human property en masse, and numbers of slaves emancipated themselves by absconding. This was easier after a large number of free blacks existed to provide cover. Both kinds of emancipation owed much to the ideals of the Revolution and the spread of evangelical Christianity, not a little to the declining price of tobacco, and nothing at all to the complexion, light or dark, of the emancipated. The newly emancipated were as likely to be full-blooded Africans as the slaves were.
Berlin shows that the free black caste of the Lower South originated in entirely different historical circumstances and grew under different impulses. In Louisiana a large free black creole population of mulattoes had evolved under Spanish and French rule, and their numbers rapidly increased with the arrival in the port cities of the Lower South of thousands of light-colored and socially elite refugees from the black revolt in Saint-Domingue. Later the slaveowners of the Lower South pursued a highly selective policy in emancipating slaves, freeing those who stood in some particular relationship of blood or friendship to themselves. Often that relationship was that of father or lover.
Tracing the demographic consequences of these contrasting circumstances in the origins of the free black caste, Berlin shows that the Lower South freemen were lighter in color, higher in socio-economic status, and more likely to be city dwellers. Some became wealthy slaveowners themselves, and they drew further and further away from the mass of slaves. This elite caste was less feared by whites, and was never so closely circumscribed as more northerly free blacks were. The Lower South free blacks became an effective buffer between the whites and the slaves, and not surprisingly many of them rushed to the defense of the Confederacy when the conflict came. “Nowhere else in the South,” Berlin writes, “did whites treat free Negro liberty with such respect.”
In the Upper South free blacks were far more numerous, more identified with the general slave population in economic condition and color, and they tended to be more freely scattered among the slave population. Nervous whites placed them in an increasingly disadvantageous legal position. The paradoxical result was that in the Upper South, where the notion of slavery as a “positive good” gained ground more slowly, and where the ideals of the Revolution died very late, if ever, blacks suffered a harder lot than in the Lower South where the positive view of slavery caught on much faster. These were the polar positions on a spectrum that tended in general to restrict the owner’s right to liberate his slaves privately, to prevent the build-up of free blacks, and to frustrate their upward economic and social mobility. By the 1850s the free blacks were in a crisis: although many were better off economically than they had ever been, slavery was under heavier attack from the North, and those states with a high free black population began seriously to agitate the question whether they should not be deported.
Although Berlin’s thesis explains many of his findings, and should be considered very seriously by scholars more particularly interested in the laws codifying “slave” status, some confusion results from his heavy emphasis on the differences between the free black castes in the two regions. The division does not explain all the phenomena, and the emphasis on laws may assume too much. Questions arise in the middle chapters devoted to the free black community and the mechanics of white dominance. The African church was the cultural focus of the black community, and the seat of many accomplishments of long-lasting value. Berlin assumes, without developing the point extensively, that free blacks were the leaders in the establishment of separate churches. He is probably right. But one would then suppose that separate churches would have been more hotly resisted in the Upper South, when in fact at first they were resisted everywhere, and the opposition apparently slackened earlier in the cities of the Upper South than elsewhere.
One learns that Charleston (a Lower South city?) was especially forward, first in abolishing the power of blacks within the “integrated” churches, and subsequently in closing down the separate church founded there under the auspices of the American Methodist Episcopalians. But blacks, getting indirect help from whites who wanted blacks out of their churches, did found their own institutions, and one learns that throughout the 1840s, and even during the 1850s, when white hostility and fear peaked again (especially in the Upper South) these institutions increased dramatically in number.
When we read that such Upper South cities as Baltimore and Richmond were the special scene of such development, the question naturally arises whether the unique character of New Orleans has not caused Berlin to generalize too widely about the distinctive character of the Lower South. If that city were omitted from calculation, then perhaps a more effective dichotomy might be made between urban and rural communities, between more complex economies and those resting primarily on plantation agriculture. If we use either of these explanations, we could relate hostile state legislation to the legislative strength or weakness of municipalities, and to the particular notion of a particular municipality of how best to deal with the free black “problem.” Certainly hostility was endemic, and petitions against free blacks came from urban and rural areas, throughout the South.
It is also worth noting that in spite of legislation hostile to private manumissions, Upper South owners continued to find ways of manumitting slaves, and slaves found ways of manumitting themselves. Slavery was deteriorating in economic importance in the Upper South, as Berlin writes, in one of the bravest and most challenging sections of his very important work. In suggesting that economic forces may have been equal to or even more significant than demographic ones in distinguishing between patterns of treatment in different parts of the South I do not mean to suggest that Berlin overlooks these factors. It is merely a matter of emphasis.
So much has now been written about disagreements among abolitionists over the best means to ring down the curtain on slavery that there would seem to be little to add. But there is. Jane and William Pease, who have been for some years the closest students of race relations in the abolition movement, have shown in their new work, They Who Would Be Free: Blacks’ Search For Freedom, 1830-1861, that it was not only the question of the best means to end slavery that divided the antislavery forces. They also show that between the black abolitionists and the white there were widely differing perceptions of freedom itself. “Whites,” they write, “conceiving of their own freedom as absolute and never having experienced its opposite extreme, embraced a simple duality. For blacks the alternative was not between slavery or freedom but between more or less freedom and more or less slavery.”
This “basic dualism” is central to understanding the problems black leaders had with their white colleagues, and it is the unifying theme of the Peases’ sensitive exploration of the quality of leadership provided by those who suffered the economic and social consequences of second-class status while simultaneously working to liberate Southern slaves. White abolitionists were simply less interested in the problems of Northern blacks than they were in the struggle against slavery. The more sophisticated conception of freedom and bondage as a continuum was the only possible position for those who daily struggled with what one black abolitionist called “semi-emancipation.” Until Northern “free” blacks had equal civil rights, he maintained, the North could not possibly “concentrate its moral and intellectual power….”
Excluded from the franchise, forced into the lowest paying jobs, denied equal access to education, the larger part of the Northern free black population was relegated to pauperism, many unable even in their own living to illustrate that emancipation was a practicable course. Or unable to do so to their own satisfaction, or to stop the mouths of those who quoted morbidity and mortality statistics to “prove” black maladjustment to “freedom.” From this point of view the struggle for equal rights in a “free” society was an indispensable corollary, or precondition, for emancipation in the South. The consequence for organized abolition was that blacks had a more pragmatic and flexible attitude to issues, and less and less sympathy for the more abstract perfectionism of their white colleagues. Some of their time, in short, was given to advocacy of race pride, self-help, and to an insistence that blacks be allowed to take more dominant positions in the antislavery societies.
These conflicts have a curiously contemporary ring. Blacks resented being kept in “the short frocks of childhood,” as one put it, excluded from decision-making roles, and patronized. Samuel Ringgold Ward, speaking to an English audience, charged that whites “assume the right to dictate to us about all matters,” that “they dislike to see us assume or maintain manly and independent positions; they prefer that we should be a second-rate set of folks, in intellectual matters.”
There was ample ground for these charges. After Frederick Douglass defied the advice of the Garrisonian abolitionists with whom he had worked so closely for so long, to found the North Star, a paper dedicated specifically to black aims, Garrison’s anger fell upon him, his paper, his supporters, and his character. Douglass was “thoroughly base and selfish,” “destitute of every principal of honor, ungrateful to the last degree, and malevolent in spirit.” When James McCune Smith accused the Garrisonians of excluding black speakers from their lecture series in 1854, the National Anti-Slavery Standard denied the intention, pointing to William Wells Brown’s participation and charging Smith with thinking that no man was “really ‘colored’ who [had] not by faithlessness to old friends proved his heart to be as black as his skin.”
Whites rang the changes on the ingratitude theme. It would be agreeable to add that the vicious in-fighting stopped at the color line, but it did not. There were the historic disputes over nomenclature, and whether to organize separately for specific black aims. Some black leaders deplored the attention the majority gave to economic and civil advancement of the black community, and held that separate black movements and organizations were diversionary, racism in reverse.
After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 this position became harder to defend. Abolitionists, white and black alike, could only view this law as a giant step backward in a seemingly fruitless twenty-year struggle. But for blacks the measures for the recapture of escaped slaves, and the legal hurdles the government placed in the way of a fair trial for those accused of being runaway slaves jeopardized the freedom of all blacks, not merely that of bona fide fugitives.
This was the Northern counterpart of the problem Ira Berlin’s free Southern blacks faced in the same decade. In three fine closing chapters the Peases trace the response of Northern leaders who now gave themselves to the rhetoric of violence in the face of a new dilemma. Separatism and nationalism gained ground, and there were curious shiftings of position among the advocates of accommodation and resistance. Even a militant leader like Martin Delany organized an emigration project, saying that there was no hope for black equality in the United States, and Frederick Douglass gave up the pacifism of the Garrisonians, announcing firmly that he was finished with nonresistance. Blacks were in the vanguard of those who resisted the Fugitive Slave Act, forcibly releasing black captives, often in the teeth of the courts. Blacks who did not advocate insurrection came very close to doing so when they applauded the prospect.
Neither extreme, of course, emigration or insurrection, carried the day. Aiding the escape of fugitives from the South was the outer boundary of violence, because it was the outer boundary of common sense. The Peases explain. “Nowhere in the North was there a population density of Negroes sufficient to sustain race war—even had the inarticulate been ready to respond to rhetoric.” The rhetoric, they observe, “offered no viable solutions,” and was only a gauge of banked frustration. The talk of emigration was headed off by leaders who recognized these schemes as colonization in reverse, who declared the equal right of blacks to remain in their own country.
One reasonable test of a work of history is whether the facts are delivered, and have been made to say enough and not too much. The Peases have written an authentic account of what was a failed effort. If it sometimes lacks focus, the reason is that the movement they record was hardly a movement at all, but an accumulation of individual performances responding to events beyond individuals’ control, but not beyond their criticism. In that respect their literary problem is much the same as Berlin’s, to synthesize the actions of a minority within a minority. The Peases honestly and reluctantly concede that neither black nor white abolitionism had achieved much by 1860, if “partisan victories and visible changes” in social institutions are “the only measures of success.”
But they are not the only measures, and the authors believe the antislavery movement stiffened popular resistance to the encroachments of the slave power. Most Northerners rated the Fugitive Slave Act an outrageous encroachment, and when white antislavery leaders organized for the specific purpose of flouting this law (even to the point of violence if necessary), they were building an antislavery public opinion. They were also for the first time following the leadership of the black antislavery spokesmen, who had been organized for fugitive slave rescues for several decades when the act of 1850 was passed.
Other “very real achievements” for the black leaders were the blocking of colonization and emigration plans, the black convention movement, and the creation of new organizations for specific aims of the black community. And yet it is only fair to say that some historians have seen in the evidence more positive achievement than the Peases do, and that others have been less critical than the Peases are of the white abolitionists in their dealings with the blacks in their organizations. Among honest historians there will always be such differences of emphasis, and they require no referee. If some scholars have celebrated victories, the Peases explain why they were so limited.
The women’s rights movement was related to the antislavery cause in much the same ways blacks’ struggle for civil equality in the North was: women and blacks alike were frustrated in their advocacy of abolition by legal and social restrictions on their activities. If blacks were mobbed, and even denied passports when traveling abroad as antislavery lecturers, a woman’s presence lecturing before a “promiscuous” audience was enough to announce her as a promiscuous woman. Conservatives in abolitionism were always nervous that too prominent a role for either group would discredit the entire movement before a general public that disliked seeing either far from their customary “places.” But opposition notwithstanding, it was through involvement in antislavery that a number of American women had their first taste of independent action and personal recognition. Angelina and Sarah Grimké threw antislavery circles into a general furor when they toured New England in 1837 telling audiences what they knew about American slavery from personal experience.
The Grimké sisters were the most improbable recruits in the entire roster of antislavery, two young aristocrats from a large, brilliant, and affluent slaveholding Charleston family, whose complex relationship with one another and the two causes they served are Katherine DuPre Lumpkin’s subject. The emancipation of Angelina Grimké is on one plane the translation of a vivacious antebellum belle into an electrifying orator, a translation which was an essential step, if not the first or the last, in Angelina’s private road to personal autonomy.
The first lap of Angelina’s long journey was her conversion from the formalism of her wealthy family’s Episcopalian creed to a pious and devout Presbyterianism preached by a young evangelical minister with whom Angelina soon fell in love. “Life had taken a glorious turn,” writes her biographer, for Angelina’s vigorous involvement in church affairs brought her knowledge of her abilities, and “a conviction of high purpose,” though she did not know what her mission was to be. The second lap was more costly. Under the influence of her older sister Sarah, who had become a Quaker during an extended visit to Philadelphia, Angelina began unloading the trappings of her girlish and worldly life. “My dear Angelina proposes destroying Scott’s novels,” wrote sister Sarah, “which she had purchased before she was serious. Perhaps I strengthened her a little.” The sisters cut up the novels; Angelina’s personal finery, the laces, veils, and flounces, all “superfluities of naughtiness,” came next. The Reverend William MacDowell and his church cost Angelina more, but she made the sacrifice, went to Philadelphia and joined her sister’s faith.
The two were never parted in all the years that followed; from Quakerism to antislavery to women’s rights, through a curious period of marriage, childbearing, and semiretirement for Angelina, they lived together. Few public figures have left so intimate a record of their restless combings of conscience, or so full an account of the failings of the dearly beloveds in their lives as Sarah, Angelina, and Angelina’s husband Theodore Dwight Weld.
The psychological dynamics of this trio are Ms. Lumpkin’s special fascination. Until Angelina became an avowed abolitionist, ready to write and expose herself publicly in the cause (something Sarah’s conservative sect of Quakers disapproved of), Sarah maintained a personal ascendancy that she obtained at the age of twelve, when she stormed successfully to be named the godmother of baby “Nina.” Until the girls were grown Angelina often addressed Sarah as “Mother.” Only when Angelina determined that it was God’s purpose that she should become an antislavery lecturer were the tables turned. Over Sarah’s objections she held to her plan, and then Sarah too defied the Quakers, saying “Whither Thou goest I will go….”
Angelina’s stunning successes on the platform owed much to her first-hand remembrances of slavery, much to her phenomenal speaking voice, and even more to her brains and ambition. The ambition was worrisome, for Angelina feared the acclaim she received gave her too much personal gratification. Her husband, Weld, worried about it too, and so did sister Sarah. They told her so, from time to time, for these God-driven people took the state of their souls seriously indeed. That there could be furtive self-serving motives on Weld’s part (he excelled in oratory too) for parking Angelina’s ambition and her career (along with his own) and on Sarah’s as well, for similar reasons, seems not to have occurred to any of this curious maison à trois, though Ms. Lumpkin is clearly on to the pattern of their conscientious criticism. One can’t avoid sympathy for those who exposed themselves so thoroughly in their diaries and letters to each other, which were read by all parties, often more than once.
Maybe there should be a rule protecting the psychological naïveté of the last century from the analytic pryings of our own, but biographers would be out of business, and the public would be deprived of some good books, of which this is among the number. Although Ms. Lumpkin is occasionally heavy-handed, especially with Sarah and Weld, the lapses are rare, and the general sensitivity of her explanations is enough to redeem psychohistory from some of its extraordinary contemporary malpractice.
Much to the author’s credit she does not attribute the “calling” of Weld and the Grimkés to psychological malad-justments, but to a sincere religious conviction. This is refreshing and convincing, for we see that we are not dealing with hypocrites. If in their innocence they hamstrung one another, they did so in ways we have come to see are endemic with the human condition.
In antislavery work the Grimké sisters were far more free from the latent (and sometimes not so latent) racism the Peases see as dividing the movement than most of their fellows. Angelina found occasion to beg black women to participate in antislavery meetings and to speak of their injuries arising from racial prejudice, and to do so even if they suffered social slights. The mortifications “will tend to your growth in grace and will help your paler sisters more than anything else to overcome their own sinful feelings….” The sisters easily made Francis and Archibald Grimké, who were the natural sons of their brother Henry by his household slave, members of their own family. Angelina’s conversion to women’s rights came quite naturally, because her own human rights were “invaded” when she worked for the slave. Both causes were “a part of the great doctrine of Human Rights” and thus “the rights of the slave and women blend like colors of the rainbow.”
But theory is not action, and Angelina remained long under the subtle dictation of her duties as wife and mother. The final step in her self-manumission was her recognition that for twelve years following her marriage she had seen her duty in life more through the eyes of her husband and her sister than through her own. Thus ended Angelina’s withdrawal from active participation in her causes, a period in which she bore three children, and nursed the home fires after her fashion, restlessly and without much talent. In this period she had again deferred to sister Sarah, who had the knack (and the drive) to mother Angelina’s children.
By 1854 Angelina again put her foot into the water, hesitantly at first, and then more firmly, as an advocate of women’s rights. The day of her great fame had passed, and younger feminists were leading the charge, but one supposes that Angelina in bloomer costume had found a kind of peace. The Emancipation of Angelina Grimké is, simply, an interesting book. Although it deals with a significant epoch in the history of freedom, it says less that is new about antislavery and feminism than it does about human interaction in a high cause and the difficulties of self-liberation from the toils of custom.
September 18, 1975