Daily Archives: June 14, 2007

The Young Revolutionary, in Drag

 The following essay by Charlotte Harrigan of Hunter College has been awarded third place in the 2007 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Charlotte!

The Young Revolutionary, in Drag 

Imagine the life of a young couple, Mr. and Mrs. DoGood who had just left their home in England to start over in New England. As we all know, crossing the Atlantic was a perilous task, but this story is a particularly perilous one because Mrs. DoGood was pregnant. And shortly after the boat left the harbor, Mrs. DoGood unexpectedly went into labor. Making the situation ever more unfortunate was the throes of an impending storm, which made the sea rise violently and undoubtedly struck fear in the hearts of everyone on board. The brave and steadfast Mrs. DoGood must have summoned the entirety of her strength as the waves crashed around her and she bore a beautiful daughter, Silence, into the world.  But the story takes a sharp turn when just moments later, a merciless wave rose out of the dark, dreary sea and nearly devoured the ship.  Mrs. DoGood would only naturally cling to the small, fragile body of her newborn baby as the rest of the passengers struggled to stay alive.  When the water subsided, Mrs. DoGood gazed into the face of her helpless little girl, and must have been thrilled to realize they were safe once more. But unfortunately, the wave had carried her husband off to sea. Her despair was most likely as deep as the ocean. Little Silence entered the world the very day her father was literally, tossed out.[1]

This was the early life of Silence DoGood, a smart, witty woman whose tenure on earth had begun under unfortunate circumstances.  But Silence DoGood was not a real woman. She was a fictional character, an invention of none other than Benjamin Franklin.  Franklin had used the pseudonym of Silence DoGood in order to submit his writings to his older brother, who was then editor of the New England Courant.  Since Ben was only sixteen, and in a contentious sibling relationship with his brother, he feared that Franklin would not accept his writings. So Ben invented a personality to operate under.  Silence DoGood was an immediate hit. After New England Courant readers read her first piece, they eagerly awaited more.  And so Silence DoGood wrote fourteen pieces for the newspaper, and the popularity of her column aided in the newspaper’s growth.  These DoGood papers discussed subjects ranging from freedom of speech to hoop skirts.  Yet one can see in these early writings that sixteen year old Franklin was already demonstrating the traits of a future revolutionary.  This paper will explore the similarities the young Benjamin Franklin, operating under total anonymity, had with the mature and influential Franklin.  In order to answer these questions, the paper will determine why Franklin chose to write this column, what events (if any) his column was reacting to, and finally if his opinions anticipated or paralleled those of his later life.  In short, do the Silence DoGood letters reveal that Benjamin Franklin was always destined to be a Revolutionary?

The New England Courant itself had revolutionary origins.  At the time of the Newspaper’s inception, Cotton Mather (of Salem witch trial fame) was a prominent leader in Boston. Ben Franklin’s older brother James, felt that all the newspapers in the area were too compliant with the authorities of Boston- such as Mather, “who had a very strong influence on Boston society and politics.”[2] Thus, James sought to open his own paper, one that “would be lively, opinionated, and not averse to challenging the establishment.”[3] The first issue of the Courant attacked Mather’s method of inoculation against the smallpox epidemic of the time.  Cotton Mather immediately wrote a complaint in the Courant’s rival, the Boston News-Letter, calling the Courant a purveyor of “nonsense, unmanliness… immorality… arrogance… and to debauch and corrupt the minds and manners of New England.”[4] Today we know that inoculation is a successful method of fighting diseases and viruses, however, this would make little sense to any educated individual in the early 18th century. Even though James was wrong to argue with Mather on this subject, the fact that he argued with such a prominent member of society shows the newspaper’s courage and individuality.  Circulation numbers of the New England Courant are “impossible to know,” however, we do know that they must have been high enough to warrant a response from the stubborn Cotton Mather.[5]

Because of these feuds, Boston’s readers were subject to humorless quarreling and personal diatribes from their papers, making them an eager audience to the jovial and witty observances of Silence DoGood.  Before he posed as DoGood, Franklin had always been fond of reading and writing.  Yet his desire to communicate clearly and effectively did not always come easy.  Franklin had the advantage of the friendship and mentorship of  town intellectual and free thinker, John Collins.  Mr. Collins thought Franklin was a talented boy, but his writing style needed improvement.  In his autobiography, Franklin recalled that he “felt the justice of his remarks, became more attentive to language, and resolved to make every effort to improve my style.”[6] That very year Franklin saw an opportunity to practice his style when he observed that many of the Courant’s staff were writing editorials under pseudonyms.  Franklin wrote in his autobiography that he was “tempted to aspire to the same kind of reputation; but as I was still a boy, I naturally enough concluded that my brother would not insert any thing of which he knew me to be the author.”[7] Therefore, Benjamin Franklin submitted his editorial under the name of Silence DoGood.  James Franklin, completely unaware of its real author, immediately liked the piece.  After all, Silence DoGood poked fun at James’ archrival, Cotton Mather, who had recently published two books, “Silentarious,” and “Essays to Do Good.”[8]

Franklin used his natural wit to captivate readers.  His humorous essays were enhanced by his strong opinions and his meticulous observations of New England Society.  The first DoGood piece told the aforementioned story of DoGood’s origins because “the Generality of People” as Franklin (or Silence DoGood) observed “give their Opinion of the Performance, according to the knowledge which they have of the Author’s Circumstances.”[9] Franklin was criticizing the general public for judging an author’s work against his or her status, so he teased his readers with an inventive and humorous story, yet hooked them “into the realm of her sympathy.”[10]

Franklin also used his DoGood letters to criticize issues stretching beyond the literary world.  One issue he felt strongly about was education.  As discussed before, Franklin was an avid reader and would have done well at a university, however his father could not afford it, so he instead became an apprentice.  Benjamin Franklin did not have a high esteem for the university system.  He thought it more a status symbol and money-vacuum than a learning institution.  He believed that one could learn more from reading and from one’s own life lessons than from a college education.

 In her fourth letter, Mrs. DoGood describes a dream she had after discussing with her friend whether or not she should send her son to college. In the dream, she saw many people traveling to the “temple of learning,” most of them “dunces,” and “blockheads.” DoGood did not understand where they were going, but she was curious, so she decided to follow the crowd and find out.  When DoGood arrived at the temple, “the passage was kept by two sturdy Porters named Riches and Poverty, and the latter obstinately refused to give Entrance to any who had not first gain’d the Favour of the former.”[11] Thus, those without the proper funds were sent back, and only those who gave up enough money were allowed entrance.  In her dream, DoGood wondered about where those students would end up later in life.  Their parents sent them to school “because they think their Purses can afford it,” and their children “learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a Room genteely, (which might as well be acquir’d at a Dancing- School,) and from when they return, after Abundance of Trouble and Charge, as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.”[12] When she awoke from her dream, she related all of its events to her friend, who after some thought, told her that her dream was a representation of Harvard College. Benjamin Franklin might have decided to attack the school in his DoGood letters because of the many negative encounters he had with students who attended this college, which was located in his home town.  Another reason might have been that Franklin, by age sixteen, was already a highly intelligent, well-read, and (as we now know) talented writer.  Franklin was brighter than many Harvard graduates, and he was self-taught.  Furthermore, New England was a society where people got by on their credentials, and it stands to reason that Franklin, who “never respected people for their credentials,” would therefore take it upon himself to “lampoon Harvard.”[13]

It is unclear why Benjamin Franklin chose to write under the disguise of a woman, but perhaps it is because he felt very strongly about the unfortunate nature of women’s circumstances.  Benjamin Franklin felt that the subjugation of women was wrong and unnecessary.  These views were eloquently expressed by Mrs. DoGood.  An anonymous “Ephraim Censorious,” wrote to DoGood that he wished her to direct her resentments “against Female Vice; let Female Idleness, Ignorance and Folly, (which are Vices more peculiar to your Sex than our’s,).”  He then asks her to reform her sex, and once she has, he assures her it will be much easier to reform men, as women “are the prime causes of a great many Male Enormities.”[14] Silence DoGood, always one to step up to the challenge, voiced her whole-hearted objection to Censorious’ insults.  In response to his accusation of idleness, DoGood argues that women “always have more work upon their hands than they are able to do.”  She then goes on to argue that, even if there are grounds for Censorious’ accusations, one must ask “whose fault is it?”  DoGood asserts that men are to blame for socially and professionally limiting a woman’s role in life.  DoGood also blames Censorious’ accusation of ignorance on “the fault wholly of men, for not allowing women the advantages of Education.”[15]

Franklin’s opinions on the treatment of women were  progressive for the era and society in which he lived.  English and New England society limited women’s roles to the home and maybe, in certain circumstances, to the lower levels of the church.  There was no need to educate women at the time because their traditional role was “providing food, clothing, shelter, and the rudiments of hygiene.”[16] This work, before the advent of technology, was very hard.  A woman had no time to educate herself but, more importantly, a woman’s education was thought of as useless because she could not serve in any position that required an education. Although women in new England society were encouraged to read so that they could understand the scriptures, they were not encouraged to engage in politics or any other mode of education, as most were too busy with household work.  But it wasn’t just the limitations of women’s education and professionalism that bothered Franklin.  Later in his life, he posed as another woman to voice a social injustice, albeit a fictional case (but certainly a realistic one, given the laws at that time) to the literary community.

Polly Baker, another invention of Benjamin Franklin, was a story that gained international attention in England and France when it was published in 1747.  In it, Franklin posed as a woman who was brought to court on the charges of producing illegitimate offspring.  Polly Baker lived in Connecticut, had five children and never a husband.  During her fifth child’s infancy, she was called to court for her ungodly lifestyle, during which she vehemently, yet respectfully renounced the charges brought against her.  The piece was called  “Speech of Polly Baker,” and in it, Franklin criticized the existing penal system.  Particularly, Franklin protested the Puritan-based law that “prohibited sexual intercourse outside wedlock and condemned the mother of an illegitimate child to the payment of a fine and to a public whipping.”[17] Polly Baker protested her impending punishment by arguing that her actions of bringing “five fine children into the world,” should be celebrated and not punished.[18] Since she had not burdened the town with financial help, she assumed the charges brought up against her were strictly from a religious objection.  This she argued by announcing that she had done the work that God set out for her: “increase and multiply.”  Furthermore, she added, “if mine is a religious offence, leave it to the religious punishments.”[19] Franklin decides to end Baker’s story with a happy ending. Baker’s defiant plea persuaded the court to drop her charges, and even led to one of the judges deciding to marry her and raise her children.

One can deduce Franklin’s political views from the humor in the Speech of Polly Baker.  This piece discussed the unjust nature of the punishment at hand.  In most of these cases, the “father of the child usually went entirely free,” so Franklin asks the question: Why should just the woman be punished? [20]Shouldn’t the man who promised marriage be punished for abandoning his responsibilities?  The men in the court were acting hypocritically against Baker’s sex, because men had just as important a part in producing illegitimate children as the female had.

Franklin also presents another important issue: separation of church and state (or at least for the consideration of Polly Baker’s trial).  He argues that if the grievances presented against Polly Baker are from a religious view, why should it be punished on Earth?  Let God decide her eternal fate, and the courts limit their dealings to secular matters.  Silence DoGood had earlier weighed in on this issue in her ninth letter, when she stated that, “A Man compounded of Law and Gospel, is able to cheat a whole Country with his religion, and then destroy them under Colour of Law.”[21]

Silence DoGood’s letters expressed many radical views, such as her statements about law and gospel.  But it wasn’t the publication of DoGood’s editorials that got the New England Courant in trouble; instead it was a statement the editor, James Franklin, had made suggesting that the local authorities were not trying to capture the pirates that had been attacking the coast that season.  James was jailed for his sarcastic and disrespectful statement that the Captain “will sail sometime this month, if wind and weather permit.”[22] Benjamin took over as editor while James was in prison, and Silence DoGood felt compelled to give her two cents on the matter.  DoGood submitted a letter to the Courant quoting a passage from the London Journal which delved into the importance of freedom of speech.  It read, “without Freedom of Speech, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty.”[23] This was a lesson Benjamin certainly learned from his brother’s imprisonment.

After his brother was released from prison, Ben continued to serve under him for a while longer.  But because of sibling rivalry and Ben’s adventurous nature, his “apprenticeship became insufferable,” and he managed to finesse his way out of it and moved to Pennsylvania, embarking on his now legendary life.[24] Franklin is famous for a number of reasons, a few being his Revolutionary spirit and intelligent contributions to our nation’s constitution.  It is certain that our nation would not be the same today without his originality.  But a very important aspect of the DoGood letters that must be reemphasized, is its stand-out humor.  For example, one DoGood letter is dedicated to the subject of Pride, a “reigning Vice of the Town.”  More specifically, “Pride of Apparel” which has manifested itself in the “monstrous topsy turvy Mortar-Pieces,” called Hoop-Petticoats.  DoGood asks of her readers to question whether women, “who pay no Rates or Taxes, ought to take up more Room in the King’s High- Way, than the Men, who yearly contribute to the Support of the Government.”[25]

Franklin’s good-humored demeanor was a large part of his public persona, as well as his mischievous spirit.  In the DoGood letters, one is able to see how that is applied to such a wide range of topics. What is more interesting about these letters is to read his early opinions (and in some cases, perhaps read under what circumstances his opinions originated) on matters that later formed the identity of our nation.  At just sixteen, Franklin discussed the importance of Freedom of Speech after his brother was jailed for insulting the Boston authorities.  Other issues discussed were the oppression of women and the separation of church and state.  His disgust with Harvard University’s petty education might have later led him to design his own discipline when he founded the University of Pennsylvania.  For these reasons, the DoGood letters are entertaining and substantive.  With the Silence DoGood letters, a modern reader is privileged to discover this young revolutionary. 


[1] J.A. Leo Lemay, Franklin: Silence DoGood, The Busy- Body, and Early Writings. (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1987). 5.

[2] H.W. Brands.  Interview by author.  Phone conversation.  New York, NY., May 8, 2007.

[3] Brands, First American, 25

[4] Brands, First American, 26.

[5] Brands, Interview

[6] Benjamin Franklin, The Works of the Late Benjamin Franklin. Consisting of His Life, Written by Himself.  Together with Essays, Humorous, Moral and Literary Chiefly in the Manner of the Spectator. (Charlestown: Principal Booksellers, 1798) 25.

[7] Benjamin Franklin, Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin. (London: Pater-Noster Row, 1793) 27.

[8] Brands, First American, 26.

[9] Lemay, Franklin, 5.

[10] Brands, First American, 29.

[11] Lemay, DoGood, 11.

[12] Lemay, DoGood, 13.

[13] Brands, Interview.

[14] Lemay, DoGood, 14.

[15] Lemay, DoGood, 15.

[16] Carol Hymowitz and Michaele Weissman, A History of Women in America. (New York: Bantam Books, 1978), 2.

[17] Marcello Maestro, “Benjamin Franklin and the Penal Laws.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 36, No.3. (Jul.-Sep., 1994),551. http://www.jstor.com

[18] Brands, First American, 203.

[19] Maestro, Franklin, 551.

[20] Maestro, Franklin, 551.

[21] Lemay, DoGood, 27.

[22] Brands, First American, 29.

[23] Benjamin Franklin, The Silence DoGood Letters II. (New York: Privately Printed, 1969.) 13.

[24] Franklin, Works of Franklin Consisting of his Life, 32.

[25] Lemay, DoGood, 17-19.  

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Filed under 1700's, Colonial America, Essay Contest, Franklin, Newspapers, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

John Smith and Pocahontas: A Review of the “Sometimes Governor” of Jamestown’s Works and Reputation

 The following essay by Casey Levinson of Hunter College has been awarded second place in the 2007 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Casey!

John Smith and Pocahontas:

A Review of the “Sometimes Governor” of Jamestown’s Works and Reputation 

Most Americans who are familiar with John Smith know him from a paragraph in a high school textbook or from commercial dramatizations of colonial Jamestown such as the 1995 Disney animated feature “Pocahontas.” These popular treatments depict Smith and Pocahontas as two dashing twenty-somethings who fall madly in love but must hide their feelings from Powhatan, her father, and John Ratcliffe, the President of the Jamestown colony. Current historians, however, know that Pocahontas was only about thirteen years old when Smith met her, that they never had a romantic relationship and that the primary concerns within the Jamestown fort were starvation, disease and the amassing of what was later discovered to be fool’s gold. Smith himself, though absolutely an adventurer, was also a vain, dictatorial braggart and mercenary, castrated at twenty-nine by a gun powder explosion. Despite his efforts, the Virginia Company refused to rehire him and he died alone and unemployed with a reputation as a teller of tall tales. In fact, it has only been within the last twenty years or so that the historical community has begun to emerge from a contentious debate over the veracity of Smith’s words and many doubts still linger. This paper reviews Smith’s two different accounts of Jamestown’s first year, his 1608 A True Relation of such occurrences and accidents of note, as hath hapned in Virginia and his 1624 The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles and addresses one major question over which historians still struggle: Did the Pocahontas rescue in fact take place?

            Thomas Fuller, commenting in 1662 on the adventures Smith recounted in his 1630 autobiography, The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captain John Smith, wrote, “[Smith’s] perils, preservations, dangers, deliverances…they seem to most men above belief, to some beyond truth.”[1] A year after Smith’s death, a satirical epic poem appeared in London with a title character oddly reminiscent of the deceased. The braggart hero of David Lloyd’s 1631 comic romance, The Legend of Captaine Iones, fights Indians and Arabs, is wounded in the genitals and is sold into slavery, all events Smith recounted in his various works.[2]

            Yet his writings lived on, and as America developed, his legend steadily grew. In his 1803 history of America, Englishman John Davis writes, “of the first settlers in Virginia, the most distinguished character was Captain Smith, a man who seemed to inherit every quality of a hero; a man of such bravery and conduct, that his actions would confer dignity on the page of the historian.” Davis’ romanticized depiction of Smith conforms to the common public perception of his era. Smith’s tendency to magnify his exploits in his writings had translated over time into accepted popular belief. Davis declares in his history that “by [Smith’s] judgment, courage, and industry, he saved the new establishment.”[3] It was not until the post-Civil War era that a movement began among historians to once again question the veracity of Smith’s accounts. With this debate came the first doubts about the famous Pocahontas incident.

            In 1867, previously unknown historian Henry Adams made his career with an article in the North American Review attacking Smith as an historian and challenging the existence of his famous rescue from death by Pocahontas. Before Adams, historians had generally accepted that during Smith’s imprisonment with the Chesapeake’s Algonquin Indians, he had been brought before their chief, Powhatan, for execution, and that it was only by the last second intervention of the chief’s favorite daughter that Smith kept his life. The only source for this event was Smith’s own account, published in the Generall Historie in 1624. Adams cited the absence of the Pocahontas story in the much earlier True Relation as evidence that Smith was simply lying.[4]

            The following is a review of Smith’s two versions of the events of December, 1607 on the way to and in Werawocomoco, centering on his capture by Opechancanough and his near-execution in Powhatan’s hut. Again, the True Relation (henceforth Relation) is Smith’s first version of the events, written c. June 2, 1608, and the Generall Historie (henceforth Historie) includes Smith’s second version of the events, written around 1623-1624. In the summary that follows, all facts, events and commentary are essentially in accord unless otherwise noted.

From The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, edited by Philip L. Barbour, 3 vols. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986):

           

            In December, 1607, Smith hired two Powhatan Indians with a canoe to guide him down river with two other colonists, Jehu Robinson and Thomas Emry, to find the lake into which the river emptied. Farther down the river, Smith ordered his guides to dock the canoe so that he could explore the forest. He brought one of the two Indian guides with him, leaving the other behind with his two men.

            While he was alone with his guide in the woods, Smith was ambushed by Opechancanough and 200 Powhatan warriors. Suspecting a betrayal, Smith bound his guide to him as a shield. During the ensuing fracas, Smith was wounded in the thigh. For his part, he shot two Indians with his pistol. The Powhatans captured him and led him back to their village where they showed him the dead bodies of Robinson and Emry, full of arrows. The text in the Relation is marred by editorial cuts, after “Emry I saw not” and “all over the woods”:

                       

With kinde speeches and bread he requited me, conducting me where the Canow lay and John Robinson slaine, with 20 or 30. arrowes in him. Emry I saw not, I perceived by the aboundance of fires all over the woods, At each place I expected when they would execute me.[5]

            Weeks later, Opechancanough took Smith to Werawocomoco to present him to Powhatan. Here one finds the point in the 1624 Historie when the famous Pocahontas rescue occurs. Smith is restrained “by as many as could [lay] hands on him” and his head is placed on “two great stones” in front of Powhatan. As his guards approach with clubs “to beate out his braines,” Pocahontas, “the Kings dearest daughter” cradles Smith’s head in her arms and lays her own head over his, compelling Powhatan to call off the execution. The chief decides Smith will live on to provide hatchets and copper to his people.

            Two days later, Powhatan “disguised himselfe in the most fearfullest manner he could…made the most dolefullest noyse” from behind a mat and, “more like a devill than a man,” informed Smith that the two were now “friends.” Powhatan returned Smith to Jamestown to bring him back “two great gunnes [canons] and a gryndstone” in exchange for lordship over the “County of Capahowosick.” Powhatan stated that he would henceforth regard Smith as his own son, with the new name “Nantaquoud.” Though it seems clear that Powhatan intended Smith to be his vassal, there is no evidence in either text that Smith understood this, nor does Smith make any statement that suggests he suspected the near-execution to be a premeditated ceremony. Despite his lack of comprehension of the ceremony, Smith seems to have remained factually accurate in his report. The Pocahontas episode does nothing to champion Smith’s character or ability and it lacks the romantic angle applied to it by later writers.

            In the earlier Relation, in place of the would-be execution and Pocahontas’ rescue, comes a somewhat jarring passage describing Powhatan’s kindness and congeniality. Editor Philip Barbour suggests that a cut was made here and John Healey, the editor, may have penned the passage. That the style and tone of the prose in this section differs distinctly from that which precedes and follows it indeed supports Barbour’s argument for editorial interference. The Relation was published as a pamphlet for the Virginia Company, with the purposes of generating positive publicity for the colony and attracting more settlers. It was based on a private letter of Smith’s that he did not intend for print. One must assume the Virginia Company would have preferred to sell the idea of an amicable Powhatan in their pamphlet rather than that of a blood-hungry war chief. It was also in the Virginia Company’s interest to publicly present the Indians as capable of adopting Christianity. In item III of the first Virginia Charter, the crown stresses the importance of converting the Indians to Protestantism and the Virginia Company hoped to retain the king’s favor.[6] The shift from Smith’s narration to Healey’s occurs between Smith’s identification of Powhatan as “a naked Salvage” and Powhatan’s welcoming words:

[Powhatan,] with such a grave and Majesticall countenance, as drave me into admiration to see such state in a naked Salvage, hee kindly welcomed me with good wordes, and great Platters of sundrie Victuals, assuring mee his friendship, and my libertie within four dayes.[7]

            Smith’s discourse has been characterized to this point by both tension and astonishment as he anticipates his own murder but is at the same time awestruck by the majesty and ceremony of the Powhatan court. The tone of the second half of the excerpt eschews the fearful awe of the first portion and it is as if the attack, capture and imprisonment is revealed to have been a misunderstanding. John Healey’s editorial intervention in the Relation suggests that the 1608 account is not the completely dependable source historians such as Henry Adams have believed it to be. Concerning details where Smith’s own heroism is not currently at play, the Historie is in fact more consistently reliable. The Historie’s authority is most pronounced in regards to the Pocahontas episode.

            It is to Smith’s credit that he did not portray his relationship with Pocahontas as romantic. That lingering perception was developed by later interpreters and historians. In his 1803 history, John Davis describes their tryst in a rendition consistent with the stage plays and other retellings of his time. When Pocahontas, “whose soft simplicity and innocence,” writes Davis, “cannot but hold captive every mind,” first laid eyes on Smith at Werawocomoco, “never did the moon gaze more stedfastedly on the water than she on the prisoner.” After she rescues him, Pocahontas hangs “wildly on the neck of the reprieved victim, weeping with a violence that choaked her utterance.” According to Davis, Powhatan then offered one of his two best “sqaws” to Smith, but he refused the offer, “to the unspeakable joy of Pocahontas.” However, it was not until she later brought him provisions at Jamestown that she was able to summon the courage to confess her feelings. At that point, Davis states, Pocahontas “gave loose to all the tumultuous extasy of love.”[8]

            There are two main points in the case against the Pocahontas incident. First, Smith never mentioned the rescue in publication until after Pocahontas had died. Obviously, she never had a chance to rebut his testimony. Second, since Pocahontas had made quite a splash during her visit to Europe in 1616, only months before she succumbed to disease, the attention-hungry Smith could have been motivated to latch on to her celebrity to advance his own career.

            However, the case for the Pocahontas rescue is stronger. As stated before, there is a very good chance that it was cut by John Healey from the original 1608 account. The Relation was published without Smith’s knowledge while he was still in Jamestown. Healey admits in his introduction to the pamphlet that “somwhat more was by [Smith] written, which being as I thought (fit to be private) I would not adventure to make it publicke.” Wyndham Robertson suggested as far back as 1860, before Henry Adams’ article, that Healey may have cut the Pocahontas incident out of the Relation.[9] Without Smith’s original letter, there is no way of knowing what Healey and the Virginia Company thought was unfit for the public.         

            But the strongest evidence for the veracity of the Pocahontas story are Smith’s claims in the 1620’s that, prior to Pocahontas’ 1616 visit to the royal court, he gave Elizabeth I a “little booke” proclaiming the honorableness of the Indian Queen. Smith claimed his “little booke” explained how Pocahontas had saved his life by hazarding the beating out of her brains for his own. Though Smith’s “little booke” has not been preserved, Leo Lemay is right to insist that “it strains one’s credulity to believe that Smith in 1624 would lie about a letter written to the queen eight years before,” because surely, if this “little booke” were a lie, one of Smith’s contemporaries would have immediately exposed it. There was indeed a multitude of persons involved either with Virginia or the royal court circle such as Dr. Theodore Goulston, Henry Rolfe (John’s brother) and Samuel Purchas who had been close to Pocahontas or the queen and who were still alive when Smith published these statements. They would have known if Smith were lying and they would have said something about it. However, there is no record that any of them did.[10]

            Though he never seemed to recognize it, what John Smith experienced at Werawocomoco was most likely an Indian adoption ceremony. In such a ceremony, a captive is guided through a mock execution, spared his life and then accepted into his captor’s community, the effect being that a feudalistic political alliance is formed between the pardoner and the pardoned. The events following Smith’s reprieve suggest this was precisely the case and that Powhatan was attempting to incorporate Smith into his ruling underbody. Recordings of other contemporaneous examples of Indian adoption practices can be found in F. W. Hodge’s 1907 Handbook of American Indians. Jarvis Morse noted that “in connection with adoption practices…similar commutations of the death sentence can be found to have occurred both before and after the one in question.”[11]

            Critics of John Smith have rightfully pointed out that he had a tendency to exaggerate his accomplishments, embellish dramatic moments, and even invent heroic exploits for himself, especially toward the end of his life. These faults are more true, however, of Smith’s True Travels than of the Generall Historie. As well, the Pocahontas incident is almost entirely exempt from such temptations. Leo Lemay argues that sheer embarrassment may have been the cause of the rescue’s omission from the True Relation.[12] One should take into account as well the fact that Smith’s proclivity to declare unpopular truths kept him unemployed in middle age. Among his many complaints about the Virginia Company’s mismanagement, his criticism of the emphasis on gold mining must not have gone over well with either his employers or the crown. Gold, silver and copper were the only goods given their own section in the first Virginia charter. The crown and the Virginia (then London) Company were clearly inspired by the successes of the Spanish and judging by the charter, precious minerals were the main aim of the venture. The king, competing with Spain for global domination of both religion and wealth, was only concerned with a twenty percent tax on the gold and silver harvest and converting Indians to the Church of England.[13] Thus, though Smith was capable of telling tall tales, it was his habit of reporting truths that stifled his career. In light of these factors, but especially Smith’s “little booke” and Healey’s editing, we should confidently accept that the Pocahontas rescue did indeed occur.

           


 

Works Cited:

Adams, Henry. “Captain John Smith.” North American Review. CIV (1867): 1-30.

Davis, John. Travels of four and a half years in the United States of America; During 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802. London: R. Edwards, 1803.       

Lemay, J.A. Leo. Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Morse, Jarvis M. “John Smith and His Critics: A Chapter in Colonial Historiography.” Journal of Southern History. I (1935): 123-137.

The Parliamentary Register; or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Lords. Vol. II. London: J. Almon, 1775.

Smith, John. The Complete Works of Captain John Smith. Edited by Philip L. Barbour. 3 vols. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.        

Vaughan, Alden T. “John Smith Satirized: The Legend of Captaine Iones.” The William and Mary Quarterly. 3rd Ser., Vol. 45, No. 4 (Oct., 1988): 712-732.


[1]J.A. Leo Lemay, Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992), 94.

[2]Alden T. Vaughan, “John Smith Satirized: The Legend of Captaine Iones,” The William and Mary Quarterly. 3rd Ser., Vol. 45, No. 4 (Oct., 1988): 712-732.

[3]John Davis, Travels of four and a half years in the United States of America; During 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802 (London: R. Edwards, 1803), 259, 261.

[4]Henry Adams, “Captain John Smith,” North American Review. CIV (1867): 1-30.

[5]John Smith, The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, edited by Philip L. Barbour, 3 vols. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), vol. I, 45-47 and vol. II, 146-147.

[6]The Parliamentary Register; or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Lords. Vol. II. (London: J. Almon, 1775), 68.

[7]John Smith, The Complete Works, vol. I, 47-53 and vol. II, 150-151.

[8]Davis, 272-278.

[9]Lemay, 19.

[10]Lemay, 37-38.

[11]Jarvis M. Morse, “John Smith and His Critics: A Chapter in Colonial Historiography,” Journal of Southern History. I (1935): 125.

[12]Lemay, 27.

[13]The Parliamentary Register, 73.

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Filed under 1600's, Colonial America, Essay Contest, Indians, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

Spectators of Oppression: Depictions of American Slavery in Travel Journals, 1792-1840

The following essay  by Michael Brenes of Hunter College has been awarded first place in the 2007 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Michael!

 

Spectators of Oppression:

Depictions of American Slavery in Travel Journals, 1792-1840 

           

            In Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic tome on American life in the nineteenth century, Democracy in America, he famously denounced Southern slavery while presciently conveying his opinion that it “is not an institution which can last.”[1] De Tocqueville was profoundly disturbed by slavery; it was for him a glaring contradiction to the ideas and values that America was founded upon, among them the individual right to liberty and freedom. The “peculiar institution” was simply incompatible with the progressive ideas of the Enlightenment, and its life was dwindling to an end. Slavery might not abolished through the volition and goodwill of Southern whites, Tocqueville reasoned, but if “freedom is refused to the Negroes of the South, they will end up by seizing it themselves.”[2]  

            But de Tocqueville was only the most famous expatriate traveler to America in the 1800’s that took a position toward slavery. Many writers of travel journals, while passing through the United States, recorded anecdotes of interactions with slaves, depictions of plantation life and the dynamics between slave and master. Most authors of travel journals were predominantly from Europe—specifically England—who had the means to travel extensively. Many were highly educated at elite universities and had intimate relationships with American leaders in government. One author even dedicated his book to Thomas Jefferson.[3]

Coming from this educated, enlightened background, most of these writers were vociferous opponents of slavery. If they did not outright petition for the abolishment of slavery, they at least denounced its practice. They often categorized slavery in the southern United States as an evil enterprise that rested on fallacious ideas of African-Americans. These authors believed that slavery remained in perpetuity simply because it kept the Southern economy profitable; however, like de Tocqueville, they felt it could not last for long. Indeed, thirty years prior to de Tocqueville’s journey through America, author Isaac Weld used uncannily similar words as his successor to predict that “there will be and end to slavery in the United States…[as] negroes will not remain deaf to the inviting call of liberty forever.”[4]

            It is no surprise that cosmopolitan, European elites had anti-slavery sympathies around the turn of the eighteenth century. What is more revelatory—and more relevant—are the diverse perspectives travel writers held toward slavery at the time. This paper will examine these various viewpoints of slavery as recounted by writers of travel journals. Furthermore, they will be set against the historiography of slavery in order to decipher their factual validity. In the end, I conclude, these authors of travel journals in the early 1800’s did not intend to embellish or downplay the reality of slavery; most were attempting to be objective and to offer themselves to their readers as impartial observers trying to understand slavery within its context.

            Travel narratives were popular forms of literature even before the American Revolution, but they experienced a surge in publication following the end of the first administration. An overwhelming interest in the political experiment that was the United States spurred this rapid increase in readership. Wanting to understand what made Americans tick, travel writers went out into America to survey the topography of the land, record the intricacies of its economy, and observe the social milieus of the people, all in an effort to discover what differentiated America from other countries.[5]

            It must be said that while travel writing made an attempt to be objective, subjectivity underlay all of its insights. Most authors wrote travel books under the influence of Enlightenment philosophers like the Scottish thinker David Hume, who felt that “the senses alone are not implicitly to be depended on; but we…must correct their evidence by reason.”[6] Authors of travel journals abided by this philosophical conviction almost to the point of faithful devotion: they did not believe that their interpretation of events was the definitive one, but if they saw something, it must indeed be true because they reasoned that their observations were true. As modern research in the field of psychology has proven, this is not always the case.[7] Nonetheless, empiricism was deemed by travel authors to be at the time the most scientific approach one could use in order to arrive at some universal truths.

            Using the method of empirical research, travel writers acted essentially as modern day reporters: they indiscriminately went out into the field of study, conducted interviews, viewed the circumstances which confronted them and weighed them against their subjective interpretation. Their facts were their observations, and their sources were reliable, ipso facto, because they were observed. When they went to the South to uncover the particulars of slavery, this was the mentality travel authors set out with. John Davis exemplified the attitude of colleagues when he wrote in the introduction of his narrative that he had “entered with equal interest the mud hut of the negro, and the log house of the planter.”[8]

            When they directed their attention toward the practice of slavery in the South, writers of travel journals saw a barbaric practice, rooted in and supported by in the avariciousness and pitilessness of Southern plantation owners. Writers of travel journals deplored the fierce hardships that the slaves were forced to undergo. With forcible prose, Thomas Anburey saw that slaves were forced to work all hours of the day with nothing to eat but a lunch that “consists of hominy and salt.”[9] If they refused to work under such harsh conditions, it was expected that they would be whipped or bound. Isaac Weld saw that slaves were neglected in both body and spirit as they were malnourished, given rags to wear as clothing and were publicly humiliated.[10] Charles Janson wrote that slaves in South Carolina labored in rice fields that are “overflowed with stagnant water” and that they “endur[ed] the scorching rays of the sun, in raising tobacco and different kinds of grain” all to preserve the wealth of the very people who enslave them.[11]

            While the work was backbreaking, the living conditions of the slaves were decrepit. Blacks were described by various writers as living in conditions of squalor. Slaves usually lived in quarters that feigned “the appearance of a small village” which were comprised of large, wooden huts.[12] These structures intended to provide shelter for the entire population of slaves. Many took notice of the stark, economic dichotomy between the slave and the master. Some authors had difficulty reconciling the destitution slave quarters when contrasted with the fecundity of the owners’ estates.[13]

            Travel writers blamed the coexistence of the owner and the overseer for this cruel treatment of slaves. The role of the overseer on the plantation was integral to the machinations of the plantation, while the master was the arbiter of plantation rules. The overseer, these authors felt, was the individual who had a greater and more negative impact on slaves.  The overseer was the everyday authority on the plantation; the presence of the owner of the plantation was largely absent from the regular operations of the plantation. The master’s presence was largely symbolic, while the overseer’s was ubiquitous and palpable. Indeed, the “eye is assailed in every direction with the unpleasant sight of…slaves toiling under the harsh commands of the overseer,” wrote Isaac Weld.[14] The overseer was employed under the owner but entirely independent from him; he acted with caprice in dealing with the slaves and appeared not to answer to the owner for his savagery.[15] Overseers were thought to be worse than the owners; they were “unfeeling monsters,” whose rapacious nature knew no bounds since it could be unleashed on the slaves with impunity.[16]

            As a result of what they had seen when traveling through plantations in the South, it reinforced their preexisting ideas regarding slavery, the most conspicuous being that it must be abolished through whatever means. There was simply no logic—no “casuistry” to use one writer’s word—that could permit the ownership of slaves.[17] These writers looked to slaves as human beings who have human qualities and claimed that they should be given the rights that whites had already taken for granted. One writer claimed that since slaves shared the ability to communicate through language, it was obvious that they are “men” and should be free.[18]

            But they took great pains to absolve themselves for slavery’s existence in their time. It was not their contemporaries’ fault that slavery continued in the United States, these authors reasoned; however, they did have a resolute responsibility in ending it. One writer wrote that “the present generation” is not at fault for slavery, but that its must carry out its duty to “mitigate its evils as far as possible.”[19]

            Moreover, although writers of travel journals felt that slavery should be abolished, that did not mean that they felt that blacks were equal to whites, or that they had the mental capabilities and faculties of white Anglo-Saxons. Indeed, many, if not all, harbored virulent stereotypes of blacks—ones that we now recognize today as preposterous. None of the authors of travel journals thought that slaves were, or had the potential to be their intellectual equals. To think such a think would have been a departure from years of intellectual tradition. Just because African Americans were human beings who deserved to live unfettered from oppression, this did not make travel authors adopt the position that blacks were somehow equal to them.

            Indeed, the racism of many authors comes through multiple times in their books. James Kirke Paulding claimed that blacks “seem a gay, harmless, and unthinking race.”[20] Upon encountering an elderly black slave, Paulding reasons that he has witnessed the personification of his stereotype because the man possessed an “unreflecting gayety, which, happily for his race, so generally falls to their portion.”[21]  He thought it was a wonderful sight to see slaves overwhelmingly “jovial and vivacious in a Christian land.”[22] It was frequently felt by authors that blacks “appear jovial, contented and happy,” despite of their hardships.[23] Another writer felt that it “is a fortunate circumstance that they possess and are blessed with such an easy satisfied disposition” otherwise, the writer felt that slaves would inevitably “sink under…misery and wretchedness.”[24]

            These anecdotes reasserted the image of the “happy Sambo” in the American imagination as whites interpreted this behavior amongst African Americans as a sign that slaves acquiesced to their condition; and that the depravity of their bondage was alleviated by their own personal attitudes. Travel writers did not interpret this behavior for what it was: a tool of survival employed by blacks that assuaged whites’ suspicion of slave rebellion: an action that would be punished with whippings, beatings, torture, and possible death.

            But white, travel writers could not understand this. They were blinded to this explanation by their deep-seated racism. The ability to be racist and at the same time anti-slavery, which, according to most contemporary viewpoints, seems contradictory if not irreconcilable, but was nevertheless the attitude of most authors in the early 1800’s. To any historian of the nineteenth century, the mental compartmentalization of slavery and African Americans is no surprise. Nevertheless, it deserves elaboration since this mode of thought played a key role in the intellectual foundation of slavery.

            As modern historians have amply demonstrated, racist portrayals of blacks stemmed from slave owners’ attempt to justify the inequity of slavery. Many historians have developed hypothesis about the origins of black stereotypes and the reason for their recurrence in the lexicon of supporters of slavery. Eugene D. Genovese and Kenneth Stampp have asserted that these stereotypes were a product of the paternalistic relationship between blacks and whites which owners insinuated into the minds of their slaves.[25]  There is some veracity to this argument, as it is certain that racial stereotypes served to protect the hegemony of the master, but this is not the end of the argument. More likely is James Oakes’ theory that racial stereotypes served to keep slaves under “total subordination,” thereby guaranteeing that owners could obtain their comprehensive labor while at the same time preventing dissension.[26]

            The impact of these travel journals on the American reading public is difficult to assess. However, it would be a fair supposition that their publication was minimal on what one historian called “the slaveholding republic.”[27] Since literacy rates were still low at this point, it is unlikely that a wide array of Americans read these books. More likely is that these books gained more of a following in places like London, but that the reading public in America, while ever-growing, was not as significant.  These travel journals did not revolutionize the American outlook towards blacks, nor did they facilitate the demise of slavery.

            What these travel journals demonstrate is the opinion of prominent intellectuals of the day. Since it was these men—and a select group of women—who were responsible for the liberation of slaves in Europe and America, their insights provide an indication as to the direction of the anti-slavery movement. Their books are valuable historical documents that lend insights into the intellectual thought toward slavery at the time. Furthermore, they help contemporary audiences understand the ideological evolution toward thinking about African Americans. Contained within the writings of these authors are the glimpses of our society today. Indeed, the insights of travel narratives in the early nineteenth century continue to be salient, as they allow us to understand why racism in its entirety has yet to be extirpated from the American consciousness.


[1] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America (New York: Penguin Classics edition, 2003), 496.

[2] Ibid., 496.

[3] See, for example the introduction to John Davis, Travels of four and a half years in the United States of America; during 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802. Dedicated by permission to Thomas Jefferson, Esq. President of the United States. (London: Sold by T. Ostell and T. Hurst, 1803). Charles J. Tanenbaum collection, 18th-Century Reading room of the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York.

[4] Weld, 94.

[5] Richard Gassan, “The First American Tourist Guidebooks: Authorship and the Print Culture of the 1820s,” Book History 8 (2005): 51-74, http://muse.jhu.edu/

[6] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), 104. For a valuable synthesis of Enlightenment thought see Isaac Kramnick, The Portable Enlightenment Reader (New York: Penguin, 1995).

[7] There has been much research conducted by psychologists in the past fifty years alone that discredits the viability of empiricism as being an accurate method through which to ascertain whether any object or individual presented visually exists in the world objectively, and is in fact real, or in a state that one recognizes to be “real.” The process of seeing an object inherently means interpreting it, these psychologists say, and that is where the problem of empiricism lies: interpretation differs according to how the information is processed. The use of heuristics affect how an observed image will be processed within the brain, where it will be imbued with meaning within the context of its external surroundings.  See the work done by Richard E. Nisbitt and Timothy DeCamp Wilson, “Telling More than we Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes” Psychological Review 84 (1977) 231-259; Ziva Kunda, Social Cognition: Making Sense of People (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999) chapter 3.

[8] John Davis, Travels of four and a half years in the United States of America; during 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802. Dedicated by permission to Thomas Jefferson, Esq. President of the United States. (London: Sold by T. Ostell and T. Hurst, 1803). Charles J. Tanenbaum collection, 18th-Century Reading Room of the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York.

[9] Thomas Anburey, Travels through the Interior Parts of America; in a Series of Letters (London: Printed for William Lane, 1791), 296-6. Charles J. Tanenbaum collection, 18th-Century Reading Room of the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York.

[10] Isaac Weld, Travels through the State of North America, and the provinces of upper and lower Canada, during the years 1795, 1796, and 1797 Vol. II (London: Printed for J. Stockdale, 1800), 149, Charles J. Tanenbaum collection, 18th-Century Reading Room of the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York.

[11] Charles Janson, Stranger in America: containing observations made during a long residence in that country, on the genius, manners and customs of the people of the United States; with biographical particulars of public characters; hints and facts relative to the arts, sciences, commerce, agriculture, manufactures, emigration, and the slave trade (London: Albion Press, 1807), 373. Charles J. Tanenbaum collection, 18th-Century Reading Room of the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York.

[12] Anburey, 287.

[13] Weld, 133-140.

[14] Weld, 133.

[15] See Janson, 375.

[16] Anburey, 296

[17] Davis, 85.

[18] Davis, 85.

[19] Paulding, 26.

[20] James Kirke Paulding, Paulding, Letters from the South, written during an excursion in the

Summer of 1816 (New York: James Eastburn & Co., 1817), 118, Charles J. Tanenbaum collection, 18th-Century Reading Room of the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York.

[21] Ibid., 24.

[22] Paulding, 120.

[23] Anburey, 298.

[24] Ibid., 296.

[25] Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. (New York: Vintage 1976), 323; Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery and the Antebellum South (New York, Vintage, 1989), 322-323.

[26] James Oakes, Slavery and Freedom (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1990), 145.

[27] Don Edward Feherenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

 

 

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Filed under 1790's, 1800's, Early Republic, Essay Contest, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Slavery, Travel Literature

Item of the Day: The American Kalendar (1796)

Full Title: The American Kalendar; or, United States Register, for New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. For the Year 1796. London: Printed for J. Debrett, opposite Burlington-House, Piccadilly, 1796.

 

A VIEW of the Population of the United States of AMERICA.

In the year 1783, the number of inhabitants in the United States was computed at — 2,389,300

In the year 1791 it was according to the census taken — 4,131,616

The population therefore has increased, during eight years, — 1,742,316

And, according to this calculation, it has augmented from 1791 to 1794 — 653,367

The number of inhabitants in the United States was, therefore, in 1794 — 4,784,983

From this calculation, it appears that, in the natural course of things, the population of this country will be (if not checked by unforeseen events), in the year:

1800 — 6,091,717

in 1818 — 8,269,607

in 1820 — 10,447,497

in 1850 — 16,981,167

in 1900 — 27,879,617

 

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Filed under 1790's, Census, Early Republic, Posted by Caroline Fuchs