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[Detail] Experience and personal narrative of Uncle Tom Jones...1858

Collection Overview

From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1822-1909 presents 397 pamphlets published from 1822 through 1909. Most pamphlets were written by African-American authors, though some were written by others on topics of particular importance in African-American history. The collection includes first-person accounts of slavery, tracts from anti-slavery organizations, legislative and presidential campaign materials, investigative reports, sermons, commencement addresses, organizational proceedings, and previously published materials from newspapers and magazines. Among the noted authors represented are Frederick Douglass, Lydia Maria Child, Alexander Crummell, Kelly Miller, Charles Sumner, Mary Church Terrell, and Booker T. Washington.

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Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

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To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or browse by Titles, Authors, or Subjects.

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From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1822-1909, offers primary source materials relating to a variety of historic events from the nineteenth century. Speeches, essays, letters, and other correspondence provide different perspectives on slavery, African colonization, Reconstruction, and the education of African Americans. Additional materials provide information about the political debates of legislation relating to slavery in the United States and its territories, such as the Wilmot Proviso and the Compromise of 1850.


William Lloyd Garrison was considered a radical in the abolitionist movement. Publisher of the anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, and co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Garrison called for the immediate end to slavery, believing in the equality of the races and in the ability of free African Americans to successfully assimilate into white society. This philosophy put him at odds with abolitionists who doubted the notion of racial equality and who sought to gradually end slavery.

Although he called for a peaceful approach to abolishing slavery, Garrison’s criticism of the Constitution as a pro-slavery document and his inclusion of women in the abolitionist movement prompted some members of the American Anti-Slavery Society to leave in 1839 and form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Pamphlets from this male-only organization offer a more moderate approach to abolitionism with pieces such as “Shall We Give Bibles to Three Millions of American Slaves?” and “Facts for the People of the Free States,” an 1846 pamphlet that chronicles the murder of slaves in the South, describes the relationship between politicians and slavery, and offers “Presidential Testimonies” on the values of liberty.

Contrast the tone of this new group and its publications with the original American Anti-Slavery Society by searching on American Anti-Slavery Society for publications including Wendell Phillips’s “The Philosophy of the Abolition Movement.” This 1853 speech describes the abolitionists fighting against desperate odds: “The press, the pulpit, the wealth, the literature, the prejudices, the political arrangements, the present self-interest of the country, are all against us.” (page 9). Garrison’s own rhetoric is available in speeches such as his 1860 “The ‘Infidelity’ of Abolitionism,” which proclaims:

The one great . . . all-conquering sin in America is its system of chattel slavery . . . at first, tolerated as a necessary evil . . . now, defended in every slave State as a most beneficent institution . . . controlling . . . courts and legislative assemblies, the army and navy, Congress, the National Executive, the Supreme Court--and having at its disposal all the offices, . . . to extend its dominion indefinitely.

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  • How do the ideas and tone of the American Anti-Slavery Society pamphlets differ from those of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society?
  • What are Garrison's objections to slavery? What problems does he attribute to it?
  • What steps do you think Garrison would have considered necessary to end slavery?

In addition to providing a chronology of slavery laws throughout United States history, the collection of New York Herald articles reprinted in “History of American Abolitionism,” distinguishes between two types of abolitionists:

[T]hose who are actuated by sentiments of philanthropy and humanity, but are at the same time no less opposed to any disturbance of the peace or tranquility of the Union…. [and those] who, in the language of Henry Clay, are ‘resolved to persevere at all hazards, and without regard to any consequences, however calamitous they may be.’”

page 4

The Religious Society of Friends began working against slavery within their organization in the late-seventeenth century. A search on Society of Friends, offers materials such as “A Brief Statement of the Rise and Progress of the Testimony of the Religious Society of Friends, Against Slavery and the Slave Trade” and “The Appeal of the Religious Society of Friends…on Behalf of the Coloured Races.” Both pamphlets chronicle the group’s efforts “to plead with their fellow-citizens who yet held slaves, and to labour in a meek and gentle spirit, to bring others to that sense of mercy and of justice, to which the Lord in his goodness had brought them,” (page 8).

  • What are the similarities and differences between the Religious Society of Friends, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, and the American Anti-Slavery Society?

Additional pamphlets from female abolitionists are represented in the “Women Authors” section of the special presentation, Collection Highlights, while searches on abolition and anti-slavery yield other materials from abolitionist groups using a variety of techniques to end slavery.

  • What is the background of each abolitionist group?
  • What were each group's various objections to slavery?
  • How did each group define its goal and the steps it considered necessary to end slavery?
  • Were these goals based on economic, political, social, moral, or philosophical reasons?
  • Did each group distinguish between the interests of the slaves and the interests of the nation?
  • Which groups were willing to abolish slavery at the cost of “any disturbance of the peace or tranquility of the Union”?
  • Which groups were unwilling to do so?
  • How are these attitudes reflected in the subject matter and tone of their pamphlets?
  • Which methods do you think were the most effective?
  • Which methods do you think were the most realistic?

American Colonization Society

The effort to colonize free African Americans began gaining momentum in 1816 with the formation of the American Colonization Society. Pamphlets such as “A Few Facts Respecting the American Colonization Society” describe the objective of the group: “[T]o colonize . . . on the Coast of Africa, or such other place as Congress shall deem expedient, the people of colour in our country, already free--and those others, who may hereafter be liberated by the humanity of individuals, or the laws of the States,” (page 3).

The majority of members, however, were not interested in liberating additional slaves. In fact, they felt that free African Americans “exhibit few characteristics to encourage hopes of their improvement in this country. Loosed from the restraints of slavery, they utterly neglect, or miserably abuse the blessings which liberty would confer,” (page 12). Liberty in Liberia, however, meant that colonists would have a new chance at improving their status. In the words of the organization’s 1832 pamphlet, “Reflections on the Causes that Led to the Formation of the Colonization Society,” repatriated African Americans could enjoy “all the advantages of society, self-government, eligibility to office, and freedom from the degradation arising from an inferiority of caste,” (page 8).

Proponents of colonization were also aware of the advantages white Americans stood to gain from the effort. The pamphlet, “Reflections on the Causes that Led to the Formation of the Colonization Society” contains the section, “Increase of the Coloured Population,” which reflects whites' fears about "the dangers from the great number of slaves . . ." fueled by ". . . the increasing discussions that take place on the subject in our papers and among themselves--and by the inflammatory publications that are clandestinely spreading among them in spite of all the vigilance of their masters," (page 9). Indeed, slave rebellions, such as Nat Turner's 1831 insurrection that killed fifty-seven whites fueled southern fears of slave revolts caused by large slave populations and inflamatory abolitionist tracts.

Such descriptions as that found in "Increase of the Coloured Population" prompted some abolitionists to challenge the motives of the American Colonization Society. In the pamphlet, “Colonization,” the American Anti-Slavery Society charged that colonization “widens the breach between the two races; exposes the colored people to great practical persecution . . . and . . . is calculated to swallow up and divert that feeling . . . that slavery is alike incompatible with the law of God and with the well being of man,” (page 7).

  • How might colonization have provided African Americans with the “advantages of society” and “self-government”?
  • How would the exodus of free African Americans to another country have affected the situation of slaves who remained behind?
  • How would it have contributed to the “great practical persecution” of colored people in America?
  • Why might colonization have reduced the threat of slave insurrections?

A search on colonization results in a number of pamphlets debating the benefits and dangers of the American Colonization Society. For example, Thomas Hodgkins’s “An Inquiry into the Merits of the American Colonization Society” defends the group. Hodgkins reasons that even though some of the original members were slaveholders, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the group was dedicated to preserving slavery (page 4).

  • Do you think that the American Colonization Society endorsed, condemned, or ignored the institution of slavery? Why?
  • Do you think that colonization was a viable option for free African Americans? Why?
  • How does the American Colonization Society compare to subsequent “back-to-Africa” movements such as Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association colonization plans?
  • What were these groups trying to achieve in their own era?

Slavery and the Territories: The Missouri Compromise and The Wilmot Proviso

In 1817, Missouri applied for admission into the Union as a slave state. This effort threatened the political balance of power in Congress, which consisted of twenty-two states evenly split between the slave and free factions. After years of deliberation, Congressmen Henry Clay and Daniel Webster drafted the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This bill admitted both Maine and Missouri into the Union (as a free and slave state, respectively) and prohibited slavery north of the southern boundary of Missouri, extending across the nation to Mexican territory.

The question of allowing slavery in United States territories was revisited when the Mexican-American War raged from 1846 to 1848 and the Union acquired territories stretching from Texas to the Pacific Northwest. Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot called for the prohibition of slavery in these new territories with an attachment to an appropriations bill for establishing the border with Mexico .

Arguments against the Wilmot Proviso came from across the nation. Michigan senator and 1848 presidential candidate, Lewis Cass, called for votes against the attachment in “General Cass on the Wilmot Proviso” with the first of many reasons being: “The present is no proper time for the introduction into the country, and into Congress, of an exciting topic, tending to divide us, when our united exertions are necessary to prosecute the existing war.” An article from the Charleston, South Carolina Mercury echoed Cass’s claim with the assertion that the Wilmot Proviso threatened to subvert the Constitution and is “splitting the Union into sectional parties; it is virtually the first step to a dissolution,” (page 65).

  • Why do you think that Wilmot sought to ban slavery in the western territories?
  • Why did his opposition believe that it was important to defer the question of slavery?
  • Why did the Wilmot Proviso threaten to fuel sectional tensions in Congress?
  • How might such a bill have either caused or created an imbalance of power in Congress?
  • On what basis did General Cass argue that the Wilmot Proviso subverted the Constitution?

The Mexican-American War and Accusations Against the South

The Wilmot Proviso ultimately died in Congress and the debate over the slavery in the territories continued. The term, Slavery—United States—Extension to the Territories in the Subject Index produces a number of arguments against the Mexican War and the introduction of slavery into new territories, including “Horace Mann's Letters on the Extension of Slavery into California and New Mexico.” Mann criticized the war with Mexico and claimed that it was merely a means for the South to add slave territories and states to the Union:

Hence the refusal to accept propositions of peace, unless territory south of . . . the Missouri Compromise line . . . should be ceded to us . . . And hence . . . the determination of a portion of the Southern members of Congress, to stop the whole machinery of the Government . . . and assail even the Union itself, unless slavery shall be permitted to cross the Rio Grande, and enter the vast regions of the West . . . .

page 2

The opportunity to open the territories to slavery was debated when Democrat Lewis Cass, and Whig Zachary Taylor faced off in the 1848 presidential election. While Cass wanted the territories to decide on the slavery issue, Taylor, who was a slaveholder himself, failed to commit himself on the issue. Outrage surrounding both men’s handling of the slavery issue prompted the formation of the Free Soil Party and the nomination of Martin Van Buren in the race.

In “The Great American Question, Democracy vs. Doulocracy,” William Wilson characterized the 1848 presidential election as a contest between democracy and doulocracy, “the government of servants or slaves,--the 250,000 slaveholders being governed, through the medium of their fears . . . by their slaves, and they controlling the Republic . . . by threats of secession from the Union if they should not be allowed to rule,” (page 6).

  • What percent of the total U.S. population were slaveholders? Was their influence in propotion to their numbers?
  • What does Wilson mean by saying that the slaveholders were “being governed . . . by their slaves”?
  • Do you think Wilson would include Taylor among “the 250,000 slaveholders”?
  • How do Mann and Wilson characterize the South? Do you think that these are fair assessments?
  • How does knowing that Mann viewed the Mexican War as he did impact your understanding and evaluation of Wilmot's proviso? How does it impact your view of arguments made against Wilmot?

Slavery and the Territories: The Compromise of 1850 and The Fugitive Slave Law

The territorial debate was ultimately resolved when Congressmen Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Stephen Douglas introduced a series of bills known as the Compromise of 1850. This legislation admitted California as a free state in the Union and abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia. On the other hand, it also organized the territories of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah without any reference to slavery, thereby leaving the territories open to the possibility of sanctioned slavery at a later date. Furthermore, the Compromise included the Fugitive Slave Act, designed to assist in the recovery of runaway slaves by increasing the number of federal officers and by denying fugitive slaves the right to a jury trial.

  • What is the role of a jury trial in a democracy?
  • On what basis did the Fugitive Slave Law deny slaves the right to a jury trial? (Search on Dred Scott to learn more).
  • What did this law imply about the value of slaves’ lives in the eyes of the courts?
  • Besides ensuring the return of fugitive slaves, what did slaveholders gain in terms of federal and political support from the Fugitive Slave Act?
  • Do you think that the Fugitive Slave Law was constitutional?

The term, “Fugitive Slave Law of 1850,” in the Subject Index yields a number of pamphlets debating the merits of the legislation. Horace Mann's Letters challenge the constitutionality of eliminating the possibility of a jury trial. On the other hand, Reverend John Lord’s sermon, “‘The Higher Law,’ in its Application to the Fugitive Slave Bill,” notes that slavery was a fact of life in the Old Testament and early American history: “The people of the North . . . bound themselves to respect the institution of slavery as it then existed . . . [S]uch an arrangement was not void as being against a higher law, and . . . is constitutional and lawful, and cannot be resisted upon any moral grounds,” (page 11).

A refutation of Lord’s argument appears in the pamphlet, “Slavery in its Relation to God” while Ichabod Spencer’s sermon, “Fugitive Slave Law, The Religious Duty of Obedience to Law,” reinforces the social and ethical value of accepting a federal law:

The question is not, whether slavery is right, or the Fugitive Slave Law right . . . The question is, shall Law be put in force, and the government of the country stand; or shall Law be resisted, and the government of the country disobeyed, and the nation plunged into all the horrors of civil war? If Law cannot be executed, it is time to write the epitaph of your country!

page 29

  • Do you think that the Fugitive Slave Law should have been obeyed?
  • How do Lord and Spencer define and prioritize the obligations of civil law and moral law?
  • Which, if any, of the abolitionist groups do you think would have called for adherence to the Fugitive Slave Law?
  • Abolitionists created the Underground Railroad to transport slaves to freedom, which became even more important with the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law. How would you characterize movements such as the Underground Railroad in terms of their relation to civil and moral laws?
  • How do Lord and Spencer’s arguments hold up when examining other times when civil disobedience became a tool for social change (e.g., the civil rights movement of the 1960s)? Did their arguments hold more relevance in the 1850s because of the state of the nation at that time?
  • What is the moral value of obeying civil law? Do you think that there are situations when breaking civil law is moral? When? What are the benefits and risks of doing so?

The Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription Act of 1863

A dwindling number of volunteers to fight in the Union Army prompted two very different measures in 1863 that seemed to create a double standard regarding race and military service. In January, the Emancipation Proclamation abolished the institution of slavery and permitted African Americans to join the military. A search on troops yields pamphlets such as “General Washington and General Jackson, on Negro Soldiers,” which offers a history of African Americans fighting for America since the Revolutionary War. It also locates“First Organization of Colored Troops in the State of New York,” which describes African-American soldiers responding to the government’s call by “sweeping forward in steady, solid legions . . . destined to wield the sword of just retribution,--to teach their former masters, on many a bloody battle-field . . . which of them is ‘of the superior race,’” (page 6).

While the Emancipation Proclamation allowed blacks to join the fight, the Conscription Act of 1863 made all white men between the ages of twenty and forty-five eligible for a draft. The wealthy could, however, avoid military service for a price. They could illegally bribe doctors for medical exemptions or legally hire a substitute or pay for a commutation of a draft. This ability to purchase a deferment heightened the resentment of many in the lower class who felt that they were being forced to fight for the freedom of African Americans.

Enrollment officers and blacks were occasionally attacked in retribution for the draft in several cities but the largest incident of its kind began on June 11, 1863, in New York City in which more than 100 people were murdered. After burning down a draft office and attacking police officers and well-dressed whites, a mob of lower-class whites focused its energy on killing African Americans.

The “Report of the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People, Suffering from the Late Riots in the City of New York” documents “Incidents of the Riot” with accounts of murder and other violent acts perpetrated by this mob of lower-class whites. Please note: These descriptions are often graphic and may not be suitable for some readers.

One example of violence comes in the events surrounding the death of William Jones, a black member of the community who walked into the mob while returning home from a bakery. Jones was hung from a lamppost where his body was mutilated for several hours after his death:

[S]o great was the fear inspired by the mob that no white person had dared to manifest sufficient interest in the mutilated body of the murdered man while it remained in the neighborhood to be able to testify as to who it was . . . The principal evidence which the widow . . . has to identify the murdered man as her husband is the fact of his having a loaf of bread under his arm.

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  • What were people’s expectations of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription Act?
  • Why did some people feel it was important to present a history of the African-American soldier in the U.S. military? Who is the intended audience of such a pamphlet?
  • How were the Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription Act meant to provide more Union soldiers?
  • Did this legislation set a double standard for black and white soldiers?
  • Was the lower class justified in feeling that they were being obligated to fight on behalf of African Americans?
  • Why do you think that the mob was still influential after the riot?


In the decade following the Civil War, the United States was charged with the task of rebuilding the literal and political landscape of the South. Federal troops who had once attacked the rebel states were now ruling over them until local governments could be established. How and when those local governments would be established, however, was a matter of debate.

Speeches by Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass from the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society provide evidence of the debate over Reconstruction policies including the conditions under which southern states would be readmitted to the Union. Abolitionists such as Phillips and Douglass called for nothing less than the full citizenship and enfranchisement of African Americans. Phillips, in his speech, criticizes an Executive branch, overeager to make peace, for being willing to readmit southern states under terms that leave room for "white men of the reconstructed States [to] keep inside the Constitution, be free from any legal criticism, and yet put the negro where no Abolitionist would be willing to see him," (page 31).

Douglass similarly criticizes an early Reconstruction policy, claiming that it "practically enslaves the negro, and makes the Proclamation of 1863 a mockery and delusion," (page 36). Douglass also feared the South would treat the Federal Government as a conquering force under Reconstruction and proffered the enfranchisement of African Americans as a safeguard against probable insurrection:

There will be . . . this rank undergrowth of treason . . . growing up there, and interfering with, and thwarting the quiet operation of the Federal Government in those states. You will see those traitors handing down, from sire to son, the same malignant spirit which they have manifested, and which they are now exhibiting, with mailicious hearts, broad blades, and bloody hands in the field, against our sons and brothers . . . Now, where will you find the strength to counterbalance this spirit, if you do not find it in the negroes of the South?

page 37

A search on suffrage produces pamphlets debating voting rights for men in the South. “Is the South Ready for Restoration?” points out the inconsistency of claiming political representation of African Americans in determining the Southern states’ power in Congress and in the Electoral College while “absolutely refusing the privilege of voting to those whom they thus claim as fully worthy of representation,” (page 10).

This point was taken into consideration in 1868 when the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution provided citizenship to African Americans. “Negro Suffrage and Social Equality” explains that if African-American males were not allowed to vote in a state, Congressional representation would be reduced so that only the white male population was counted (page 1). Along with this incentive, Southern states were required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment in order to re-enter the Union. Despite this stipulation, black men were not always represented at the polls and a year later, the Fifteenth Amendment more overtly established suffrage by guaranteeing African-American men the right to vote. In theory, this amendment eliminated a state’s ability to deny suffrage to black voters.

There was, however, a difference between providing laws protecting African Americans and enforcing those laws. The 1873 pamphlet, “The Struggle Between the Civilization of Slavery and That of Freedom,” explains, “You have abolished slavery; but you have not destroyed the civilization--the moral and social ideas, born of slavery,” (page 4). The term, “Reconstruction,” in the Subject Index yields additional pamphlets such as “The Massacre of Six Colored Citizens of the United States at Hamburgh, S. C., on July 4, 1876,” which documents the slaughter of a black militia at the hands of a white mob.

  • Why did Phillips and Douglass consider some early Reconstruction policies a mockery of the Union victory and the Emancipation Proclamation?
  • How did Reconstruction policies and their relation to African Americans change over time?
  • How had the role of abolitionists changed in the wake of the Civil War?
  • How did Reconstruction policies establish a new order in the South?
  • What did the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment imply about southern states reentering the Union?
  • Why do you think that it was easier to change laws instead of attitudes in the South?
  • Do you think that racial attitudes can be changed by legislation?
  • Could the Federal Government have gained control in the South without appearing to be a conquering force? If so, how?

The Education of African Americans

The education system in America was one facet of life in need of attention after the Civil War. As A.D. Mayo explains in “The New Education in the New South,” educators didn’t have much to work with in the South in 1865:

Their endowments were gone; their teachers dead or dispersed; the foremost people too poor to send their children from home to school; and five millions emancipated slaves, wholly untaught, and several millions of poor white people, deplorably ignorant of letters, were flung upon society.

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To educate people in the South in the late-nineteenth century, the government was now obligated to teach both races. A search on education provides an overview of the American education system as it developed in the late-nineteenth century. Pieces such as Richard R. Wright’s “A Brief Historical Sketch of Negro Education in Georgia,” which describe the state’s efforts in educating African Americans from 1865 to 1895.

As late as 1904, however, some people questioned the need to educate African Americans at all. Booker T. Washington’s 1904 address, “Negro Education Not a Failure,” challenges claims from politicians “that it does not pay, from any point of view, to educate the Negro; and that all attempts at his education have so far failed to accomplish any good results,” (page 5). Washington notes that almost all of the schools educating African-American students have been filled to capacity since the end of the Civil War. With this thirst for education, Washington explains, “the Negro, according to official records, has blotted out 55.5 per cent of his illiteracy since he became a free man,” (page 6). This progress, however, is only one step in the right direction:

[T]he fact that with all the Negro is doing for himself, with all the white people in the South are doing for themselves, and despite all that one race is doing to help the other, the present opportunities for education are woefully inadequate for both races. In the year 1877-8 the total expenditure for education in the ex-slave states was a beggarly $2.61 per capita for whites and only $1.09 for blacks; on the same basis the U. S. Commissioner of Education reasons that for the year 1900--1, $35,400,000 were spent for the education of both races in the South, of which $6,000,000 went to Negroes, or $4.92 per capita for whites and $2.21 for blacks; on the same basis, each child in Massachusetts has spent upon his education $22.35 and each one in New York $20.53, yearly.

page 7

  • What financial and social obstacles faced education in the South?
  • Why do you think that more education money was allocated for whites than blacks?
  • Why do you think that more money for education was available for Northern states? Was additional money being spent on something else in the South or do you think there just weren’t as many funds for education?
  • Do you think that the disparity between economic conditions in the North and South was a result of Reconstruction policies?
  • How does the education system in the North and South compare to other aspects of life in the late nineteenth century?


Critical Thinking

The materials of From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1822-1909, reflect the complexity of slavery in the United States and provide challenging opportunities to analyze documents and debates, such as religious arguments for and against slavery. Materials reflecting colonization and conversion efforts in Africa can be used to evaluate the relationship between language and culture. Other items support investigations into the history of slave laws and less-familiar aspects of the time period such as the appearance of white supremacist literature in the North.

Chronological Thinking

The “History of American Abolitionism” is a valuable resource for understanding the far-reaching impact of slavery as well as the many factors that shaped the complex debates surrounding it. Such factors include the Mexican-American war, British influence, slave rebellions, the influence of abolitionist groups, and territorial expansion.

This pamphlet chronicles slavery laws in the United States from 1787 to 1861. In addition to providing information (with an anti-slavery bias) about legislation such as the Missouri Compromise and the Wilmot Proviso, the pamphlet features statistics such as the slave population in each state in 1790 and 1850 (page 55). Use such information to create timelines of legislation and abolitionist efforts and maps that depict territorial expansion, changes in slave populations, and the admission of free and slave states in the Union. These items will aid in understanding the momentum of the debate and the violence surrounding slavery.

Historical Comprehension: 18th Century Slave Trade Legislation

The slave trade was a source of tension in the United States even before the formation of the federal government. Eighteenth-century legislation, beginning with the Constitution, set a legal precedent for the debate that would rage for the next seventy-five years. When the Constitution was ratified in 1787, it included two compromises on the slavery issue. First, only three-fifths of the slaves in a state were counted for taxation and representation purposes. Second, Congress was prohibited from ending the importation of slaves for twenty years.

Disunion and Slavery,” a collection of letters from Republican Henry Raymond to Alabama Congressman W.L. Yancey, includes a November 23, 1860 letter that quotes the Congressional record in its description of how northern states called for immediate power to prohibit the slave trade but “yielded their consent to its continuance for twenty years, only to threats of secession on the part of South Carolina and Georgia.”

The 1824 pamphlet, “A View of the Present State of the African Slave Trade,” chronicles the laws introduced to curb the slave trade (page 5). This history includes a brief discussion of such legislation as the 1794 prohibition of U.S. residents from transporting slaves to foreign countries and the 1800 law preventing residents from working on or owning slave trade vessels.

  • Why did Congress establish laws that prohibited activities related to the slave trade?
  • How do you think these laws affected the ability to carry out the slave trade?
  • Were such laws in violation of the compromise established in the Constitution? Were these laws in violation of the spirit of that compromise? If so, was that unethical?
  • How might the importation of slaves have affected the population count and the subsequent representation of the states in Congress?
  • What was the rationale for counting only three-fifths of the slaves? Who benefitted from this stipulation?
  • Why do you think that South Carolina and Georgia threatened to secede if Congress possessed the power to immediately prohibit the slave trade?
  • Do you think that the debate over the slave trade was more about states’ rights or about the economic benefits of slavery? Why?
  • How did the legislation of the eighteenth century foreshadow congressional decisions of the nineteenth century?

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Slavery and the Church

The debate over slavery often moved from the houses of government to the houses of God. The abolitionist tract, “The American Churches, the Bulwarks of American Slavery,” claims, “The extent to which most of the Churches in America are involved in the guilt of supporting the slave system is known to but few in this country,” (page 3).

Some of the ways in which the Church supported slavery are blatant. In “A Scriptural View of the Moral Relations of African Slavery,” passages such as Isaiah, Chapter 14:2 (“And the people shall take them . . . and the house of Israel shall possess them . . . and they shall rule over their oppressors.”) are interpreted as describing slavery that is “sanctioned by God himself,” (page 7). Reverend John Hopkins presents a similar case in “Bible View of Slavery” when he cites a number of passages that he claims distinguish between temporary servitude and perpetual bondage:

“Both thy bondmen and bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you . . . And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; THEY SHALL BE YOUR BONDMEN FOR EVER; but over your brethren, the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigor . . .” (Lev. 25:40--46, with v. 55.)

The distinction here made between the temporary servitude of the Israelite and the perpetual bondage of the heathen race, is too plain for controversy.

page 3

  • How might these scriptural texts, such as Hopkins used, have contributed to perceptions of African Americans and the relationship between master and slave, and thus between the races?
  • What does the equation of slaves with heathens imply about the conversion of slaves to Christianity? What was the actual effect of the Christianization of slaves?
  • How might the equation of slaves with heathens have influenced the African-American experience of Christianity?

An Address to the Anti-Slavery Christians of the United States”challenges the notion that the American slave trade is justified because people in Biblical times held non-Christians as slaves: “[I]t is wholly immaterial whether the Jews held slaves or not, since . . . they acted by virtue of a special and express permission from God, while it is equally admitted that no such permission has been given to us,” (page 4)

Searches on terms such as Bible, church, and scripture offer a number of other pamphlets that use biblical passages to make their case. Direct responses to Hopkins’s claims are also available in pamphlets such as “Remarks on Bishop Hopkins' Letter on the Bible View of Slavery” and “Review of Bishop Hopkins' Bible View of Slavery.” The latter tract argues that “Bishop Hopkins' pamphlet is made up of several groundless assumptions and assertions, and of attempted answers to certain objections made against the advocates of slavery,” (page 4).

  • What was the potential benefit of using the Bible to accept or condemn the institution of slavery?
  • Who was the intended audience of these pamphlets?
  • What was the importance of the “Address to the Anti-Slavery Christians” and its effort to refute the precedent of slavery that appears in the Bible?
  • When two parties interpret a work differently, is either side necessarily wrong? Why or why not?

For some Christians, the ethical questions surrounding slavery were as open to interpretation as the biblical passages they cited. In “The Church, The Ministry, and Slavery,” Reverend George Fisher attempts to distinguish between the sin of slavery and the Christian slaveholder who commits that sin. When describing an encounter that he had with a slaveholding friend, Fisher explains that this man was a good Christian despite his moral flaw:

If he could have seen the wrong, he would have forsaken it . . . He has always dwelt in the midst of slavery, and of course been under its blinding influence . . . That brother, though a slaveholder, I believe was a christian . . . and I regard him in that light now . . . You may charge me with countenancing and fellowshipping slavery, but I can bear that, knowing how baseless . . . the charge would be.

page 12

  • How does Fisher justify the actions and beliefs of his companion?
  • Why does Fisher emphasize the Christian nature of this person?
  • What does this stance imply about his concepts of social and religious obligations?
  • Do you think that Fisher is “countenancing and fellowshipping slavery”?
  • In what ways might "most of the Churches in America" have been "involved in the guilt of supporting the slave system?"

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Language and Culture

The opportunity to explore the relationship between language and culture is available in Reverend Alex Crummell’s 1860 address, “The English Language in Liberia.” Crummell notes that English is not the native language of Liberian colonists. Rather, Crummell says, English is representative of the colonist’s history as victims of political conquest: “No people lose entirely their native tongue without the bitter trial of hopeless struggles, bloody strife, heart-breaking despair, agony and death!”
(page 10).

  • How was the English language introduced to African slaves?
  • What is the relationship between a group’s use of the English language and their political power?

Although Crummell discusses the negative effects of the English language upon African-American slaves, he later characterizes it as “a language of unusual force and power” and “the language of freedom” (page 13). The strengths of English are exemplified in the education of African natives:

Christianity is using the English language on our coast as a main and mighty lever for Anglicising our native population, as well as for their evangelization . . . Hundreds of native youth have acquired a knowledge of English in Mission Schools, and then in their manhood have carried this acquisition forth, with its wealth and elevation, to numerous heathen homes.

page 21

  • Why might missionaries have been interested in the colonizing of Africa?
  • What was the purpose of teaching the English language in mission schools in Africa?
  • How did Crummell imagine students using this language outside of the schools?
  • Is it possible to reconcile the idea of the English language as a dominant force that stripped African Americans of their native culture and the idea of it as a valuable acquisition to be shared in “numerous heathen homes”?
  • Do you think that a language really conveys and even imposes characteristics of a culture? If so, how?
  • What happens to the native language of students who are taught a second, foreign language?
  • Is it necessary to prohibit their native language to ensure that the English language will take hold?
  • Are there situations in which a native language is still necessary for these students?
  • Are there limitations to which such students can understand this second language?
  • Do you think two languages and cultures can peacefully co-exist without one dominating the other? What types of cultural and political concessions would need to be made?
  • What leads to a “creolization,” or blending, of two languages and cultures into a unique third possibility?
  • Do you think that the English language should be the official language in America? What are the implications of that decision on non-English speakers?

Historical Research Capabilities

This collection is a rich resource of materials that can support a thorough, in-depth investigation into the complex history of the institution of slavery and the issues surrounding it. One facet of this history is the colonization effort that began in 1816 with the formation of the American Colonization Society. A search on Liberia results in a number of documents discussing Liberia, including a report on the Navy’s role in repatriation, “The U.S. Navy in Connection with the Foundation, Growth and Prosperity of the Republic of Liberia” and an 1869 address to the American Colonization Society by the first president of Liberia. Additional information on the history of Liberia is available in the exhibit, The African-American Mosaic, and in the American Memory collection, Maps of Liberia, 1830-1870, which includes a special presentation of a timeline of the nation’s history.

  • What was the role of the federal government in colonizing Liberia?
  • How did Liberia develop into an independent nation in 1847?
  • What were the potential benefits for African Americans moving to Liberia?

The collection’s Subject Index also offers information that is closer to the domestic slavery debate. The term, White Supremacist Literature, introduces a number of arguments against emancipation from citizens of the North. “The Mediator Between North and South” claims, “The time of punishment has arrived, and will persecute us until we have found a remedy to cure the evil, which would be how to get rid of the negroes, with a clear conscience and profit to the nation,” (page 6). “African Slavery Regarded from an Unusual Stand-point” argues“that this modern idea of the equality of the races of men is disproved by the experience of the world and sound science,” (page 3).

  • What is the basis for these arguments against emancipation?
  • What were the social, scientific, and religious ideas introduced in these pieces?
  • What does the language of these pieces suggest about the argument made?
  • Who were the white supremacists? What might have been their motivation for printing this material? What might have been their goal?
  • Might this literature be an outgrowth of class tensions?
  • Given that such materials were created in the 1860s, might these ideas have been in reaction to attitudes specific to the historical events or the political climate of the era?
  • How do these arguments compare to some of the speeches presented in Congress at the time?


Arts & Humanities

From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1822-1909, offers primary source materials depicting African Americans in the nineteenth century in representations ranging from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to humor on the minstrel stage, and abolitionist tracts in pamphlets and newspapers. Former-slave narratives provide an opportunity to analyze issues of authorship, while congressional speeches provide a look at the impact of contention in politics.

Former-Slave Narratives

Some abolitionist tracts offered accounts of the hardships of slavery straight from the pens of former slaves. A search on narrative yields six pamphlets that are attributed to former slaves. As the preface to the “Narrative of Henry Watson” notes, the intention of this account was to “present a faithful record of a few only of the transactions I have been eye-witness of, hoping that a perusal of them might add something to the already abundant testimony of the horrors of the slave system,” (page 4).

Despite the guarantee of providing eyewitness testimony, a review of Watson’s tale and other pamphlets such as “Life of James Mars, a Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut” and “Narrative of the Life of J.D. Green, a Runaway Slave,” hint that abolitionists may have revised these tales for dramatic effect. For example, J.D. Green’s explanation of how he felt when his mother was sold off the plantation includes the following reflection:

Oh! how dreadful it is to be black! Why was I born black? It would have been better had I not been born at all. Only yesterday, my mother was sold to go to, not one of us knows where, and I am left alone, and I have no hope of seeing her again. At this moment a raven alighted on a tree over my head, and I cried, "Oh, Raven! if I had wings like you, I would soon find my mother and be happy again."

page 6

A search for the term, slave narrative, across the American Memory site provides examples of other accounts from collections such as Voices from the Days of Slavery, The Nineteenth Century in Print, and Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project. Documents such as Jesse Davis’s narrative were transcribed by field workers in Federal Writers’ Project who made an effort to preserve the narrator’s dialect and phrasing: “Dere was my young misses, Miss Lizzie and Miss Lennie. My mammy name Sarah, just lak old mistress name Sarah. Her b’long to marster and mistress but my pappy no b’long to them. Him b’long to de big bugs, de Davis family,” (page 264).

  • What aspects of slavery do the former slave narratives in this collection discuss?
  • What is the purpose of including a description of the raven in J.D. Green’s narrative?
  • Are there any parts of slavery that are excluded from the accounts in these pamphlets?
  • What is the tone of these pamphlets?
  • How do they compare to publications from abolitionist groups such as the American Anti-Slavery Society?
  • Who do you think was the intended audience for these pamphlets?
  • Do you think that former slaves wrote these pamphlets?
  • How do these pamphlets compare to slave narratives in other American Memory collections?

Congressional Duels

Tensions ran high during the Congressional debates over slavery and many politicians made personal attacks on those who opposed their ideology. For example, in Horace Mann’s “Letters on the Extension of Slavery into California and New Mexico,” the author addresses the jokes made at his expense by Michigan Senator Lewis Cass. Instead of criticizing his colleague for his misconduct, Mann reciprocates with a series of puns on Cass’s last name such as “Small odds, 'twixt tweedle dum and tweedle-dee, And Cass means much the same, without the C,” (page 7).

Perhaps the most excessive examples come in Charles Sumner’s 1860 speech, “The Barbarism of Slavery,” when the Senator chronicles the “exhibition of Slave-masters in Congressional history” to prove that “at lawless outbreaks or official conduct, Slave-masters are always the same,” (page 53).

Some of the most egregious events come from the debates over the Compromise of 1850 when Mr. Foote, a slaveholder representing Mississippi, made a personal attack on Missouri Senator Benton: “Mr. Benton rose at once from his seat, and . . . advanced in the direction of Mr. Foote, when the latter, gliding backward, drew from his pocket a five-chambered revolver, full loaded, which he cocked,” (page 55). Although order was restored in the Senate chamber, the drawing of Foote’s gun was a precursor to his challenging Benton to a duel:

There are instances in the history of the Senator which might well relieve a man of honor from the obligation to recognize him as a fitting antagonist . . . if the Senator from Missouri will deign to acknowledge himself responsible to the laws of honor, he shall have a very early opportunity of proving his prowess in contest with one over whom I hold perfect control; or, if he feels in the least degree aggrieved at any thing which has fallen from me, he shall . . . have full redress accorded to him . . . . I do not denounce him as a coward . . . but if he wishes to patch up his reputation for courage . . . he will certainly have an opportunity of doing so whenever he makes his desire known in the premises.

page 56

Sumner explains that this was not the last time that a challenge was presented within a speech in the Senate chambers. He notes a number of such examples, including one instance that occurred during the current Congressional session, between the Senators of Mississippi and Vermont: “‘A gentleman,’ says the Senator, 'has the right to give an insult, if he feels himself bound to answer for it' and in reply to the Senator from Vermont, he declared, that in case of insult, taking another out and shooting him might be ‘satisfaction,’” (page 58).

Sumner concludes this section by criticizing the Fugitive Slave Act and declaring:

Let Senators who are so clamorous for "the enforcement of laws," begin by enforcing the statute which declares the Duel to be a felony. At least, let the statute cease to be a dead letter in this Chamber. But this is too much to expect while Slavery prevails here, for the Duel is a part of that System of Violence which has its origin in Slavery.

page 57

  • Do you think that Horace Mann’s puns and Charles Sumner’s examples from the Congressional record are appropriate conduct for the legislative branch of the federal government? Does the Congressional modus operandi of debate explain or excuse such conduct? Should there be laws barring these types of personal attacks from the Senate floor?
  • Why do you think that so many politicians resorted to personal attacks on one another at this time?
  • Is Sumner correct in his assessment that the threat of duels in Congress comes from the violence of slaveholders?
  • How do you think that these personal attacks compare with contemporary Congressional debates--or even contemporary presidential campaigns?
  • What does this comparison suggest about changes, or a lack thereof, in rhetoric and in concepts of debate, honor, and accountability?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin was both a reaction to, and a reflection of, the political climate of its era. As a novel and a theatrical production, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to fuel the abolitionist effort by creating what Wendell Phillips calls in “The Philosophy of the Abolition Movement,” “rather an event than a book,” (page 29). Phillips praises the stage interpretation for its ability to present a message to its audience that other members of the community were reluctant to express:

The theatre, bowing to its audience, has preached immediate emancipation, and given us the whole of "Uncle Tom"; while the pulpit is either silent or hostile, and in the columns of the theological papers, the work is subjected to criticism, to reproach, and its author to severe rebuke.

page 25

The London Times review, “Uncle Tom in England,” offers one contemporary reaction to the novel and points to why this format might have been an ideal medium for Stowe’s message:

She does not preach a sermon, for men are accustomed to nap and nod under the pulpit: she does not indite a philosophical discourse, for philosophy is exacting, is solicitous for truth, and scorns exaggeration. Nor does the lady condescend to survey her intricate subject in the capacity of a judge, for the judicial seat is fixed high above human passion, and she is in no temper to mount it.

page 3

  • According to the Times review, what did Stowe's use of the novel medium allow her to accomplish? Why couldn't she have done these things through a sermon or speech?
  • Why do you think the work was so popular both as a novel and a stage production, "rather an event than a book"?
  • Who is the intended audience of both formats?
  • What do you think is the political or social role of fiction?
  • What are the potential benefits of trying to include a message in a work of fiction? What are the potential hazards of such an endeavor?

Minstrel Humor

The “Black American Joker” offers a collection of comic minstrel dialogues and jokes for the minstrel stage. This 1897 pamphlet features sketches such as “That ‘Tale’ Did Not Wag,” a dialogue with a man who just returned from the American West that concludes with the following exchange:

Inter. Oh, Steve, while there did you meet any Indians?

Bones. No Injuns there--all gone to de happy hunting-ground!

Inter. Oh, why do they call their heaven that?

Bones. 'Case there are no Injun agents there an' no white sojers to stop them hunting one anoder!

page 12

  • How does this exchange portray Native Americans and the white Americans who were charged with providing food and "civilizing" them?
  • What does the joke imply about the relationship between the two groups?
  • How do these sketches reflect historic events of the era?

In addition to featuring sketches, the “Black American Joker” also features advice for selecting pieces for the minstrel stage. The “Negro Plays” section offers suggestions on performance styles:

[I]n all of the following described plays, the female characters may be assumed by males. In such cases let me warn the amateur against indulging in any action displaying the least trace of vulgarity.

In playing a female role, even in a negro farce, it is better to under-act than over-act. Of course the dress may be somewhat outré and the gestures exaggerated, but coarseness must be strictly forbidden . . .

In regular minstrel companies all the characters are played with black faces. I advise amateurs to follow this rule, as a white-face character in a negro minstrel entertainment is decidedly out of place.

page 72

  • What does an actor in a woman’s costume convey to an audience?
  • Why do you think that it was recommended that men portraying women not project vulgarity?
  • What does an actor in blackface makeup convey to an audience? What is the difference in the meaning of blackface makeup depending upon whether a white or an African-American actor uses it?
  • Why would a white character be “decidedly out of place” on a minstrel stage?
  • Who do you think is the intended audience for these plays? What were the intended goals?

Abolitionist Newspapers

William Lloyd Garrison called for an immediate end to slavery in America. This position, echoed in his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, placed him at odds with other abolitionists—even those working with him in the American Anti-Slavery Society. For example, in Correspondence, between the Hon. F. H. Elmore . . . and James G. Birney, one of the secretaries of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Birney describes the publications Emancipator and Human Rights as “organs of the Executive Committee” of the society (page 18).

Although Garrison was directly affiliated with The Liberator and, at least indirectly associated with the Emancipator, Joseph Alden claims in “‘Emancipator’ and ‘Liberator’” that the newspapers were at odds with one another. Alden explains that the Emancipator offered a moderate approach by focusing solely on ending chattel slavery while The Liberator called to end the Constitution, the Sabbath, the Protestant Church, and the ministry:

In all their "antics," the Liberator party of non-resistants, as opposed to the Emancipator party of voting abolitionists who organized as the Liberty party, were encouraged and hounded on by slaveholders . . . But neither of the above institutions has been abolished . . . while chattel slavery is legally dead. Hence the Emancipator and its co-laborers . . . accomplished their work by political action while the Liberator "died a natural death," without accomplishing one of its darling objects, except talking and doing nothing else.

page 2

The formation of the Liberty party that Alden refers to marked a philosophical split in the American Anti-Slavery Society when a number of moderate abolitionists left the organization. These members united to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the Liberty party in 1839.

  • What is the role of an abolitionist newspaper?
  • Who is the target audience of the abolitionist newspaper? How does this compare to the function and audience of a general newspaper?
  • How is content influenced by the political ideology of a newspaper’s writers and editors?
  • Do you think that newspapers should always appeal to a certain part of their audience?