“A Land under the Curse of Slavery”: Highlights from The American Slavery Collection, 1820-1922
The February release of The American Slavery Collection, 1820-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes letters of dissent from within the Presbyterian Church, a compilation of judicial biographies titled Atrocious Judges, and a reminder that America’s peculiar institution was not limited to the South.
Slavery and the Church (1856)
Writing under the pseudonym Smectymnuus, the author rebuts arguments presented by the Reverends Nathan Lewis Rice and Nehemiah Adams. He explains “Smectymnuus” is derived from the initials of “the names of five Puritan Divines, who wrote a celebrated treatise in favor of their principles, under this title, in a period of persecution…”
Alluding to his own potential persecution, the author justifies shielding his given name, noting:
…I may wish to visit the South, as I have formerly done, and if my work and my name precede me, I shall not be likely to share so largely in Southern hospitality as my friend Dr. Adams did, whose ‘South Side View’ was so happily attempered to Southern optics, for your ‘peculiar institution’ has left little room for the outflow of charity towards an abolitionist. Yet I hope again to visit the South, and would to God I might see it overspread, like my own New England, with churches, villages and schools, instead of the negro cabin, the forced labor, and the dull monotony of a land under the curse of slavery.
Turning his pen away from himself and toward the works of Reverends Rice and Adams, Smectymnuus asks of the former:
You tell us that the Bible ‘condemns all robbery, oppression and cruelty, and tolerates slavery.’ I shall leave you to unriddle this paradox, when you can prove that compulsory servitude is neither robbery, oppression or cruelty—in other words, that to rob a man of his liberty, without crime, is not robbery; to compel him to labor for your benefit, is not oppression; to sell his wife and children, is not cruelty.
And after describing the latter’s South Side View as “a book whichought never to have been written,” Smectymnuus asserts:
Dr. Adams has outstripped Dr. Rice, in his zeal to help the slaveholder, and both gentlemen are laboring under the strange illusion, that the relation of master and slave is not sinful – an illusion which would quickly be dispelled, if they and their families were delivered over to the absolute authority and disposal of others, who might or might not abuse their power. A brief experience of the blessings of slavery in a cotton-field, would prove a most instructive and convincing argument, on this point.
Atrocious Judges (1856)
By Richard Hildreth
Richard Hildreth was born in Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1807, graduated from Harvard College in 1826, and was admitted to the bar at Boston in 1830. Rather than practice law Hildreth became a journalist, author, and historian. He is best known for his six-volume History of the United States of America.
Hildreth argues the importance of the judiciary cannot be overstated:
It is in the history of the English courts, still more than in the history of the English Parliament, that we are to trace the origin and growth of…popular rights and of that idea of public liberty, propagated from England to America, and upon which our Anglo-American free institutions are mainly founded.
Hildreth also acknowledges the danger of judicial overreach, writing of Britain’s courts prior to the Restoration:
It “has not been so much by the aid of mercenary soldiers, as by the assistance of lawyers and judges, that tyranny has sought to introduce itself into that country.”
The only American parallel to these courts is to be found in the authority conferred by the fugitive act of 1850, upon certain commissioners of the Circuit Court of the United States, to seize and deliver over to slavery peaceable residents in their respective states, without a jury, and without appeal.
History is philosophy teaching by example. From what judges have attempted and have done in times past…we may draw some pretty shrewd conclusions as to what, if unchecked, they may attempt, and may do, in times present, and in America. Nor let any man say that the following pages present a collection of judicial portraits distorted and caricatured to serve an occasion.
Nor let it be said that these biographies relate to ancient times, and can have no parallelism…to the present state of affairs among us here in America. The times which they include are the times of the struggle in Great Britain between the ideas of free government and attempts at the establishment of despotism; and that struggle is precisely the one now going on among us here in America, with the sole difference…among our British forefathers, it was the despotism of a monarch that was sought to be established; here in America, the despotism of some two hundred thousand petty tyrants, who, not content with lording it over their several plantations, are now attempting, by combination among themselves, and by the aid of a body of northern tools and mercenaries, such as despots always find, to lord it over the Union, and to establish the policy of slaveholding as that of the nation.
Negro Slavery in Old Deerfield (1893)
By George Sheldon
In this essay George Sheldon—a farmer and Justice of the Peace who was elected to both houses of the Massachusetts legislature—recalls a history often overlooked. He begins:
Of those of us who have been in the habit of thinking of negro slavery as an exclusively Southern institution, this title may have in it an element of surprise, if not of offense. I know of no reason, however, why we should not face the facts relating to it, found in the history of our colonies, in church and town records, and old family manuscripts. There can be no dispute that for more than a hundred years before the foot of a slave was allowed to pollute the soil of Georgia, men, women, and children were bought and sold, and held, and worked, by the leading dignitaries of the Puritanic Colony of Massachusetts Bay; and on the death of their owners were inventoried in their estates as property, together with horses, hogs, cows and other animals.