Item of the Day: Mrs. Grant’s Memoirs of an American Lady (1809)

Full Title: Memoirs of an American lady: with sketches of manners and scenery in America, as they existed previous to the revolution. New-York: Printed for Samuel Campbell by D. and G. Bruce, 1809.

[Although born in Scotland in 1755, Anne MacVicar Grant, the daughter of a British military officer who was stationed in America from 1758 through 1768, spent the most of the years between her third and thirteenth birthdays living in the Albany, New York area. It was there that the young Anne came under the tutelage of Catalina Schuyler, who helped to formally educate her. Returning to Scotland in 1768, Anne MacVicar and her family later lost title to their Vermont “loyalist” lands when they were confiscated during the revolutionary war. After the untimely death of her husband, Reverend James Grant, a military chaplain and an accomplished scholar, Mrs. Grant began her literary career. She became a popular poet, letter writer, essayist and contributor to Scots Musical Museum and Blackwood’s Magazine. Memoirs of an American Lady, excerpted below, provides a unique blending of a biography of her friend, Madame Schuyler with Grant’s personal idealized memories of her childhood in colonial New York. Mrs. Grant’s other writings include Essays on the Superstitions of the Highlanders and Letters from the Mountains. The following passage is taken from Chapter VII of the Memoirs, “Gentle treatment of slaves among the Albanians.—Consequent attachment of domestics.—Reflections on servitude.”]

In the society I am describing, even the dark aspect of slavery was softened into a smile. And I must, in justice to the best possible masters, say that a great deal of that tranquility and comfort, to call it by no higher name, which distinguished this society from all others, was owing to the relation between master and servant being better understood here than in any other place. Let me not be detested as an advocate for slavery when I say that I think I have never seen people so happy in servitude as the domestics of the Albanians. One reason was, (for I do not now speak of the virtues of their masters,) that each family had few of them, and there were no field negroes. They would remind one of Abraham’s servants, who were all born in the house, which was exactly their case. They were baptized too, and shared the same religious instruction with the children of the family; and, for the first years, there was little or no difference with regard to food or clothing between their children and those of their masters.When a negro-woman’s child attained the age of three years, the first New Year’s Day after, it was solemnly presented to a son or daughter, or other young relative of the family, who was of the same sex with the child so presented. The child to whom the young negro was given immediately presented it with some piece of money and a pair of shoes; and from that day the strongest attachment subsisted between the domestic and the destined owner. I have no where met with instances of friendship more tender and generous than that which here subsisted between the slaves and their masters and mistresses. Extraordinary proofs of them have been often given in the course of hunting or Indian trading, when a young man and his slave have gone to the trackless woods together, in the case of fits of ague, loss of canoe, and other casualties happening near hostile Indians. The slave has been known, at the imminent risque of his life, to carry his disabled master through trackless woods with labour and fidelity scarce credible; and the master has been equally tender on similar occasions of the humble friend who stuck closer than a brother; who was baptized with the same baptism, nurtured under the same roof, and often rocked in the same cradle with himself.

These gifts of domestics to the younger members of the family, were not irrevocable: yet they were very rarely withdrawn. If the kitchen family did not increase in proportion to that of the master, young children were purchased from some family where they abounded, to furnish those attached servants to the rising progeny. They were never sold without consulting their mother, who, if expert and sagacious, had a great deal to say in the family, and would not allow her child to go into any family with whose domestics she was not acquainted. These negro-women piqued themselves on teaching their children to be excellent servants, well knowing servitude to be their lot for life, and that it could only be sweetened by making themselves particularly useful, and excelling in their department. . . .

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Filed under 1800's, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Slavery, Women

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