Category Archives: Slavery

Item of the Day: A Tale of St. Domingo (1834)

Excerpted from a collection of short stories found in: The Romantic Historian; A Series of Lights and Shadows, Elucidating American Annals. Philadelphia: Published by Hogan & Thompson, No. 139 Market Street, 1834.



There seems to me to be a striking resemblance between slave-holding and volcanic countries. Though the inhabitants may be blessed with every enjoyment depending upon soil and climate, yet in the very bowels of the land there are constantly the elements of destruction. Even while we are most happy and secure, the volcano may be upon the point of bursting forth with overwhelming ruin, which no foresight can anticipate, and no prudence avert. Such was the state of St. Domingo, at the opening of my tale; on the eve of that fearful insurrection which consigned so many unsuspecting beings to premature death, or drove them from their homes and kindred, to struggle with want in the loneliness of a foreign land.

The hot glaring day had passed, and was succeeded by the soft splendor of a West Indian evening. Monsieur L ___, a large proprietor of land and slaves, was sitting at a table in his saloon, looking over some newspapers, which he had just received from a neighboring town. At the other end of the table his wife was engaged in preparations for the evening meal. Before an open window in the same apartment, sat their only daughter, Theresa, with her cousin and accepted lover, Eugene M ___.

Eugene was an orphan. At the very beginning of his course through life, he had encountered misfortunes and difficulties, which only his own talents and energy had enabled him to surmount. He had met with wrongs and treachery enough from the world to make him prize, at their full value, the purity and single-minded love of Theresa. Young as he was, he had seen much of mankind. With an ardent disposition and a heart formed for universal love, the fraud and ingratitude of all whom he had trusted had changed his naturally frank bearing to one of haughty coldness. But to Theresa he looked as the only being whom he might love, without danger and reserve. His eyes were now fixed upon hers, with a mixture of pride and affection which was not very far removed from idolatry. The window at which they were seated, was covered with a luxuriant vine, trained under Theresa’s direction. The checquered moonlight streamed through it, and the evening breeze rustled among its leaves. With all the congenial beauties of a tropical night around them, the lovers were enjoying that interchange of romantic feeling, which it is so much the fashion to ridicule in this matter of fact country of ours; but which I consider the single green spot, and single sparkling fountain, in the dreary waste of a sordid and selfish world. What they were talking of heaven only knows. Chance has once or twice made me an unintentional listener to the conversation of lovers. Much as I was interested at the time, I could not afterwards recollect a word that had passed. And I am inclined to think that their intercourse consists in the exchange of kind words and tones rather than ideas.

The opening of a door, and the entrance of a tall athletic negro, belonging to M. L ___, drew for a moment the attention of all parties. The circumstance in itself was of little importance. It was usual for the negroes after their daily taks was completed, to go to the dwelling house of their masters, and complain of any petty grievance, or ask for little privileges. There was, however, about this man an air of apprehansion and uncertainty, which had just fixed Eugene’s attention, when he rushed upon his master and buried in his bosom a large knife, which he had held unobserved in his hand. The unhappy L ___ fell from his chair without a groan, and the next instant Eugene was standing over his body. With his right hand he had caught a knife from the table, and in his left he held a chair, with which he parried a blow aimed at him by the slave. Afraid to contend singly against such resistance, and confounded perhaps by his own success in the attempt upon his master’s life the negro turned and retreated through the door at which he had entered. A single glance into the portico showed Eugene that it was filled with negroes, and the truth flashed at once upon his mind. To lock and barricade the door, to snatch a candle from the table, and hurry his aunt and cousin up the staircase which ascended from the saloon, was to Eugene but the work of a moment. There was a small closet at the heard [sic] of the stairs, which Mons. L ___. had devoted to his collection of arms, for which he had a singular fondness. It was not time to search for keys. With the wild energy of despair, Eugene threw himself against the door. It gave way, and he was precipitated headlong into the closet among the rattling pistols and fowling pieces, and flasks and bags of amunition. He selected two double barrel guns, and a musket, which, by its large calibre, was peculiarly fitted for his purpose. He loaded them heavily with swan shot, and took a positon from which he could command a view of the whole stairs. . . .


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Filed under 1830's, Fiction, History, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Slavery

Item of the Day: Proceedings… Abolition Societies (1797)

Full Title:

Minutes of the Proceedings of the Fourth Convention of Delegates from the Abolition Societies Established in different Parts of the United States, Assembled at Philadelphia, on the Third Day of May, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Ninety-Seven, and Continued, By Adjournments, Until the Ninth Day of the Same Month, Inclusive.  Philadelphia: Printed by Zachariah Poulson, Junior, Number Eighty, Chesnutt-Street. 1797. 

May fifth, 1797. 

The committee appointed at the last meeting to take into consideration the reports from the different Abolition Societies, and to report to the Convention the measures necessary to be taken in consequence of those communications, as well as the objects proper for the attention of the Convention, and the most suitable means for their attainment, report,

I. That they have carefully attended to the communications, from several Societies, made to the Convention for the past and present years, and compared with them the recommendations and requirements of the Convention of 1796.  By the annexed table, the Convention will perceive what these requisitions and recommendations were, and how far each society has complied therewith.

II. The committee recommend it to the Convention, to address a letter or memorial to the Secretary of State of the United States, recapitulating the evidence which the records of the District Court of the United States, for the Pennsylvania District afford, of attempts made by citizens of the United States, to evade the law prohibiting our citizens from supplying foreign countries with slaves, by clandestinely using the Danish flag and registers, and praying such aid and interference of the government of the United States, with the court of Denmark, or with other governments under whose authority such practices now obtain, as may consist with propriety, for the prevention of the use of their flag or registers, by the citizens of the United States, under any pretence whatever, for the purpose of pursuing the trade in men. 

III. It appearing from the report of the Alexandria Society, that the law of the United States, entitled, “An act to prohibit the carrying of the slave-trade from the United States to any foreign place or country,” is defective, in that it does not prevent the shipment of slaves (for sale in the West Indies and elsewhere) on board vessels, not specially fitted out for that purpose–an act being thereby evaded.

The committee recommend it to the Convention, to present a memorial or petition to Congress, praying such an ammendment of the act above referred to, as may oblige the master or owner of any vessel or vessels before clearing out, to declare on oath or affirmation, that no slaves are received or taken on board said vessel or vessels, for sale in any foreign port; and as may further oblige him to enter into a recognizance or bond, with a sufficient penalty to be put in suit, and the penalty recovered, in case a sale of any slave so put on board should take place. 

IV. It appears from the papers from North Carolina, that, by a law of that state, passed in 1777, certain negroes and others, who had been previously emancipated by their proprietors, citizens of that state, were taken up, and again reduced to slavery; and this, not only where the persons so emancipated had continued in the state, but also where the emancipation had been effected in other states, and the freed-man had returned into North Carolina, to reside there: in both cases, tin direct violation of the constitution of the state.  But the committee would recommend it to the Convention to obtain the opinion of the most eminent counsel in this city, whether an action for damages, by a person emancipated in another state before the passing of the act in 1777, and who was again reduced to slavery on returning to North Carolina, could not be maintained against the purchaser or holder of such person in the Courts of the United States; or whether any, and what legal remedy may be had for persons under these circumstances, and where they were made slaves, without having quitted the state.


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Filed under 1790's, Early Republic, Liberty, Posted by Matthew Williams, Slavery

Item of the Day: Franklin on the Slave Trade (1790/1836)

Full Title:

The Works of Benjamin Franklin; Containing Several Political and Historical Tracts Not Included in Any Former Edition, And Many Letters Official and Private Not Hitherto Published; with Notes and A Life of the Author.  By Jared Sparks.  Volume II [of 9].  Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Company. 

On The Slave Trade.

To the Editor of the Federal Gazette. 

March 23rd, 1790.


Reading last night in your excellent paper the speech of Mr. Jackson in Congress against their meddling with the affair of slavery, or attempting to mend the condition of the slaves, it put me in mind of a similar one made about one hundred years since by Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim, a member of the Divan of Algiers, which may be seen in Martin’s Account of his Consulship, anno 1687.  It was against granting the petition of the sect called Erika, or Purists, who prayed for the abolition of piracy and slavery as being unjust.  Mr. Jackson does not quote it; perhaps he has not seen it.  If, therefore, some of its reasonings are to be found in his eloquent speech, it may only show that men’s interests and intellects operate and are operated on with surprising similarity in all countries and climates, whenever they are under similar circumstances.  The African’s speech, as translated, is as follows.

Allah Bismallah, &c.  God is great, and Mahomet is his Prophet.

“Have these Erika considered the consequences of granting this petition?  If we cease our cruises against the Christians, how shall we be furnished with the commodities their countries produce, and which are so necessary for us?  If we forbear to make slaves of their people, who in this hot climate are to cultivate our lands?  Who are to perform the common labors of our city, and in our families?  Must we not then be our own slaves?  And is there not more compassion and more favor due to us as Mussulmen, than to these Christian dogs?  We have now above fifty thousand slaves in and near Algiers.  This number, if not kept up by fresh supplies, will soon diminish, and be gradually annihilated.  If we then cease taking and plundering the infidel ships, and making slaves of the seamen and passengers, our lands will become of no value for want of cultivation; the rents of houses in the city will sink one half; and the revenue of government arising from its share of prizes be totally destroyed!  And for what?  To gratify the whims of a whimsical sect, who would have us, not only forbear making more slaves, but even manumit those we have. 

“But who is to indemnify their masters for the loss?  Will the state do it?  Is our treasury sufficient?  Will the Erika do it?  Can they do it?  Or would they, to do what they think justice to the slaves, do a greater injustice to the owners?  And if we set our slaves free, what is to be done with them?  Few of them will return to their countries; they know too well the greater hardships they must there be subject to; they will not embrace our holy religion; they will not adopt our manners; our people will not pollute themselves by intermarrying with them.  Must we maintain them as beggars in our streets, or suffer our properties to be the prey of their pillage?  For men accustomed to slavery will not work for a livelihood when not compelled.  And what is there so pitiable in their present condition?  Were they not slaves in their own countries?

“Are not Spain, Portugal, France, and the Italian states governed by despots, who hold all their subjects in slavery, without exception?  Even England treats its sailors as slaves; for they are, whenever the government pleases, seized, and confined in ships of war, condemned not only to work, but to fight, for small wages, or a mere subsistence, not better than our slaves are allowed by us.  Is their condition then made worse by their falling into our hands?  No; they have only exchanged one slavery for another, and I may say a better; for here they are brought into a land where the sun of Islamism gives forth its light, and shines in full splendor, and they have an opportunity of making themselves acquainted with the true doctrine, and thereby saving their immortal souls.  Those who remain at home have not that happiness.  Sending the slaves home then would be sending them out of the light and into darkness.

“I repeat the question, What is to be done with them?  I have heard it suggested, that they may be planted in the wilderness, where there is plenty of land for them to subsist on, and where they may flourish as a free state; but they are, I doubt, too little disposed to labor without compulsion, as well as too ignorant to establish a good government, and the wild Arabs would soon molest and destroy or again enslave them.  While serving us, we take care to provide them with every thing, and they are treated with humanity.  The laborers in their own country are, as I am well informed, worse fed, lodged, and clothed.  The condition of most of them is therefore already mended, and requires no further improvement.  Here their lives are in safety.  They are not liable to be impressed for soldiers, and forced to cut one another’s Christian throats, as in the wars of their own countries.  If some of the religious mad bigots, who now tease us with their silly petitions, have in a fit of blind zeal freed their slaves, it was not generosity, it was not humanity, that moved them to the action; it was from the conscious burden of a load of sins, and a hope, from the supposed merits of so good a work, to be excused from damnation.

“How grossly are they mistaken to suppose slavery to be disallowed by the Alcoran!  Are not the two precepts, to quote no more, ‘Masters, treat your slaves with kindness; Slaves, serve your masters with cheerfulness and fidelity,’ clear proofs to the contrary?  Nor can the plundering of infidels be in that sacred book forbidden, since it is well known from it, that God has given the world, and all it contains, to his faithful Mussulmen, who are to enjoy it of right as fast as they conquer it.  Let us then hear not more of this detestable proposition, the manumission of Christian slaves, the adoption of which would, by depreciating our lands and houses, and thereby depriving so many good citizens of their properties, create universal discontent, and provoke insurrections, to the endangering of government and producing general confusion.  I have therefore no doubt, but this wise council will prefer the comfort and happiness of a whole nation of true believers to the whim of a few Erika, and dismiss their petition.”      

The result was, as Martin tells us, that the Divan came to the resolution; “The doctrine, that plundering and enslaving the Christians is unjust, is as best problematical; but that it is in the interest of this state to continue the practice, is clear; therefore let the petition be rejected.”

And it was rejected accordingly.

And since like motives are apt to produce in the minds of men like opinions and resolutions, may we not, Mr. Brown, venture to predict, from this account, that the petitions to the Parliament of England for abolishing the slave-trade, to say nothing of other legislatures, and the debates upon them, will have a similar conclusion?  I am, Sir, your constant reader and humble servant,


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Filed under 1790's, 1830's, Early Republic, Eighteenth century, Foreign Relations, Government, Islam, Koran, Letters, Newspapers, Posted by Matthew Williams, Slavery

Item of the Day: Botta’s History of the War of Independence (1834)

Full Title:

History of the War of Independence of the United States of America.  By Charles [Carlo Giuseppe Gugliehmo] Botta.  Sixth Edition, in two volumes, revised and corrected.  Vol. I. Translated from the Italian, by George Alexander Otis, Esq.   New Haven: Published and Printed by Nathan Whiting.  1834.

Book V.  1775.

[…] In New Jersey, at the news of the affair at Lexington, the people took possession of the provincial treasure; and a part of it was destined to pay the troops which were levied at the same time in the province.

At Baltimore, in Maryland, the inhabitants laid a strong hand upon all the military stores that were found in the public magazines; and among other arms, fifteen hundred muskets thus fell into their power.  A decree was published, inderdicting all transportation of commodities to the islands where fisheries were carried on, as also to the British army and fleet stationed at Boston.

The inhabitants of Philadelphia took the same resolution, and appeared in all respects, equally disposed to defend the common cause.  The Quakers themselves, notwithstanding their pacific institutions, could not forbear to participate in the ardor with which their fellow-citizens flew to meet a new order of things.

When Virginia, this important colony, and particularly opposed to the pretensions of England, received the intelligence of the first hostilities, it was found in a state of extreme commotion, excited by a cause, which, though trivial in itself, in the present conjuncture became of serious importance.  The provincial congress, convened in the month of March, had recommended a levy of volunteers in each county, for the better defense of the country.  The governor, lord Dunmore, at the name of volunteers, became highly indignant; and conceived suspicions of some pernicious design.  Apprehending the inhabitants intended to take possession of a public magazine, in the city of Williamsburg, he caused all the powder in it to be removed, by night, and conveyed on board an armed vessel, at anchor in the river James.  The following morning, the citizens, on being apprised of the fact, were violently exasperated; they flew to arms, assembled in great numbers, and demonstrated a full determination to obtain restitution of the powder, either by fair means or force.  A serious affair was apprehended; but the municipal council interposed, and, repressing the tumult, dispatched a written request to the governor, entreating him to comply with the public desire.  They complained, with energy, of the injury received; and represented the dangers to which they should be exposed, in case of insurrection on the part of the blacks, whose dispositions, from various reports, they had too much reason to distrust.  The governor answered, that the powder had been removed, because he had heard of an insurrection in a neighboring county; that he had removed it in the night time to prevent any alarm; that he was much surprised to hear the people were under arms; and that he should not think it prudent to put powder into their hands in such a situation.  He assured them, however, that in case of a revolt of the negroes, it should be returned immediately.  Tranquility was re-established; but in the evening, an alarm was given, that the soldiers of the ship of war were approaching the city in arms; the people again also took up theirs, and passed the whole night in expectation of an attack.

The governor, not knowing, or unwilling to yield to the temper of the times, manifested an extreme irritation at these popular movements.  He suffered certain menaces to fall from his lips, which it would have been more prudent to suppress.  He intimated, that the royal standard would be erected; the blacks emancipated, and armed against their masters; a thing no less imprudent than barbarous, and contrary to every species of civilization; finally, he threatened the destruction of the city, and to vindicate, in every mode, his own honor, and that of the crown.  These threats excited a general fermentation throughout the colony, and even produced an absolute abhorrence toward the government.  Thus, incidents of slight importance, assisted by the harsh and haughty humors of the agents of England and America, contributed to accelerate the course of things toward that crisis, to which they tended already, but too strongly, of themselves.

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Filed under 1770's, 1830's, Colonial America, Eighteenth century, History, Military, New Jersey, Posted by Matthew Williams, Revolution, Slavery, United States

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,

[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: Mrs. Trollope’s Manners of the Americans (1832)

Domestic Manners of the Americans.  By Mrs. Trollope. 
Vol I.
London:  Printed for Whittaker, Treacher, & Co. Ave Maria Lane, 1832. Chapter II. 
New Orleans – Society – Creoles and Quandroons – Voyage up the Mississipppi. On first touching the soil of a new land, of a new continent, of a new world, it is impossible not to feel considerable excitement and deep interest in almost every object that meets us.  New
Orleans presents very little that can gratify the eye of taste, but nevertheless there is much of novelty and interest for newly-arrived European.  The large proportion of blacks seen in the streets, all labour being performed by them; the grace and beauty of the elegant Quadroons, the occasional groups of wild and savage looking Indians, the unwonted aspect of the vegetation, the huge and turbid river, with its low and slimy shore,  all help to afford that aspecies of amusement which proceeds from looking at what we never saw before. 

The town has much the appearance of a French Ville de Province, and is, in fact, an old French colony taken from
Spain by
France.  The names of the streets are French, and the language about equally French and English.  The market is handsome and well supplied, all produce being conveyed by the river.  We were much pleased by the chant with which the Negro boatmen regulate and beguile their labour on the river; it consists but of a very few notes, but they are sweetly harmonious, and the Negro voice is almost always rich and powerful. By far the most agreeable hours I passed at
New Orleans were those in which I explored with my children the forest near the town.  It was our first walk in “the eternal forests of the western world,” and we felt rather sublime and poetical.  The trees, generally speaking, are much too close to be either large or well grown; and moreover, their growth is often stunted by a parasitical plant, for which I could learn no other name than “Spanish moss;” it hangs gracefully from the boughs, converting the outline of all the trees it hangs upon into that of weeping willows.  The chief beauty of the forest in this region is from the luxuriant under-growth of palmettos, which is decidedly the loveliest coloured and most graceful plant I know.  The pawpaw, too, is a splendid shrub, and in great abundance.  We here, for the first time, saw the wild vine, which we afterwards fround growing so profusely in every part of America, as naturally to suggest the idea that the natives ought to add wine to the numerous productions of their plenty-teeming soil.  The strong pendant festoons made safe and commodious swings, which some of our party enjoyed, despite the sublime temperament above-mentioned. 
Notwithstanding it was mid-winter when we were at New Orleans, the heat was much more than agreeable, and the attacks of the mosquitos incessant, and most tormenting; yet I suspect that for a short time, we would rather have endured it, than not have seen oranges, green peas, and red pepper, growing in the open air at Christmas.  In one of our rambles we ventured to enter a garden, whose bright orange hedge attracted our attention; here we saw green peas fit for the table, and a fine crop of red pepper ripening in the sun.  A young Negress was employed on the steps of the house; that she was a slave made her an object of interest to us.  She was the first slave we had ever spoken to, and I believe we all felt that we cold hardly address her with sufficient gentleness. She little dreamed, poor girl, what deep sympathy she excited; she answered us civilly and gaily, and seemed amused at our fancying there was something unusual in red pepper pods; she gave us several of them, and I felt fearful lest a hard mistress might blame her for it.  How very childish does ignorance make us! and how very ignorant we are upon almost every subject, where hear-say evidence is all we can get! I left
England with feelings so strongly opposed to slavery, that it was not without pain I witnessed its effects around me.  At the sight of every Negro man, woman, and child that passed, my fancy wove some little romance of misery, as belonging to each of them; since I have known more on the subject, and become better acquainted with their real situation in America, I have often smiled at recalling what I then felt.

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Filed under 1830's, Culture, New Orleans, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Slavery, Women

Item of the Day: United States’ Gazette, for the Country (1804)

Full Title: United States’ Gazette, for the Country. Volume IV. No. 344. [Philadelphia] 4 December 1804.

From the Charleston Times.


A planter of the state of South Carolina, takes the liberty to propose to you an object of manufacture, in his opinion very well worthy of your attention; and in which opinion he is not singular, but from a communication he has had with many respectable planters, who with himself hold a number of slaves, and wish to see them cloathed in the winter seasons, with the manufacturers of our own states, rather than be dependent on foreign supplies of this kind; as our country can never be said to be independent , while we rely entirely on foreign cloth to cover us. The present time we deem highly propitious for the beginning of the manufacture of this cloth in the eastern states. The fabrick recommended is a warp of cotton, and to be filled with wool dyed brown, or in its natural colour; to be seven-eights of a yard wide, and to be well milled of good thickness, and dressed on the surface. For such cloth, from 55 to 75 cents per yard might be readily obtained, if delivered in Charleston, fitting for this manufacture, at the rates of from 16 to 20 cents per pound; a quantity of wool, which is now thrown aside for want of a market, might also be had at a low rate; and thus a beneficial exchange of our raw material for your manufacture, would be established. I wish the enterprizing spirit of my fellow citizens to the Northward, would make the experiment above recommended; I can assure them of success, if the cloth is well made, and of sufficient warmth to make our people comfortable in winter. Negro cloths imported from England are yearly advancing in price, to an extent this season (the best 92 cents per yard;) and the next season it may be expected by the troubles of war, it will be 100 cents, and perhaps more. In our revolutionary war, were at first put to many shifts and difficulties for clothing of our slaves comfortably in winter, but in a little time we got the better of it, and many of us made to our plantations, as much cloth of this kind as clothed all our people in a warm comfortable manner; but on the return of peace we returned to our former habits of buying imported cloth, which then was reasonable in price; but of late, and the present season, the prices are greatly advanced, which in my opinion makes the present time favourable to the introduction of our own manufactures, besides the advantage of strengthening the bond of our union. I wish it be understood, that I have no private interested motives in his hint, am as little embarrassed in my fortune as any man, therefore find as little difficulty in paying these high prices for imported negro cloth — but it has long been a wish of mine to see our supplies of this article come from the Eastern States of our union; and no time was ever more favourable to the introduction of them than the present.


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The Origins of the New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741: Slavery, Racism and Historical Memory in Colonial New York

The following essay is by Michael Brenes of Hunter College, who tied for first place in the 2006 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Michael!

The Origins of the New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741: Slavery, Racism and Historical Memory in Colonial New York

In July of 1763, the attorney general of New York, John Tabor Kempe, wrote a letter to the newly appointed Chief Justice, Daniel Horsmanden, regarding the abduction of a freed African American man.1 For what appeared to be the purposes of profit, the kidnappers were intent on sending the freedman to South Carolina, where he would be sold back into the bonds of slavery.2 Kempe implored Horsmanden to prevent this from occurring, requesting that a warrant be issued to bring those responsible for the man’s capture to justice.3 While Kempe normally would have made it a point to visit Horsmanden in person, being known for his industriousness, he had been “quite undressed having been very much engaged all day.”4

With the disadvantage of not being in person to address Horsmanden, Kempe had to employ vociferous rhetoric to describe the direness of the situation. Kempe exhorted Horsmanden to salvage the destiny of the freeman otherwise “he may never be able to extricate himself” from slavery.5 Hoping that Horsmanden possessed a modicum of humanitarianism, Kempe claimed that Horsmanden should intervene because the man was “so unfortunate as to have a Black Face, and be Friendless and unable to assist himself.”6 Kempe went on to apologize to Horsmanden for “the Trouble of this Letter” but that he was compelled to petition the Chief Justice because of his “Detestation of the cruel practice of infringing the Liberty of a poor Man.”7 If this argument failed to persuade Horsmanden, Kempe also deferred to the unflagging rule of the law when it came to the legal status of blacks, writing that the man “is certainly free and…ought to be protected in his Liberty as much as a White Man.”8

Kempe’s twofold appeal to Horsmanden was most likely grounded in his knowledge of Horsmanden’s racism and his previously harsh treatment of African Americans that had been brought before his court. In 1741, Daniel Horsmanden was the city recorder and the third presiding judge in what became known as the New York Conspiracy trials. After a series of fires had consumed several buildings in New York within a span of weeks, slaves were perceived to be the primary suspects. Based on a collection of circumstantial evidence and on the coerced testimony of one witness, the cadre of New York’s legal elite arrested dozens of supposed criminals, both black and white, and ended up executing the ringleaders of the fires as well as exiling many others.

Whether a conspiracy truly existed is a topic of contention, but the hysteria that led to the mass arrests is undeniable. Many scholars have acknowledged the origins of the conspiracy but they have failed to explore them in detail as they have been shrouded in the broader concerns of whether a conspiracy did in fact occur. While the evidence is available to explore the viable explanations for the mass terror that engendered the executions of slaves, there appears to be no concise monograph on the topic. However, when one reviews the sources of the conspiracy, one finds that the New York Conspiracy of 1741 was due to whites’ racist and conspiratorial fear of African Americans as well as the nature of slavery in New York.

The alleged slave plot that would come to terrorize the residents of New York City for almost a year began with a burglary in the late winter of 1741. On February 26th, a young man named Wilson came into a shop owned by one Mr. Robert Hogg in order to make some purchases.9 Hogg’s wife had been in charge of the shop that morning, and after Wilson had bought his items, Mrs. Hogg produced “a considerable quantity of milled Spanish pieces of eight” when she went to make change.10 The large sum of money appealed to Wilson and he decided to steal the coins.11 To accomplish this, Wilson recruited slaves “of very suspicious character” to confiscate the money from Hogg’s house where it was presumably stored.12 These slaves included Caesar, owned by John Vaarck, Prince, owned by John Auboyneau, and Cuffee, owned by Adolph Philipse.13 The plan was further abetted by business owner John Hughson, who caught notice of the plot and agreed to hold the stolen items at his house.14 Hughson was a tavern owner and alleged sympathizer of enslaved African Americans, as his bar was known to be “a place where numbers of negroes used to resort.”15

Originally, everything went according to plan up until March 1st, when Wilson returned to Mrs. Hogg’s shop. It was then that she told Wilson she had been the victim of theft.16 Earlier in the week, Mrs. Hogg had seen Wilson eyeing the coins, and when they had gone missing, she immediately suspected he was the culprit.17 To deflect the blame from himself, Wilson alerted the authorities to where the money was and claimed that Caesar was the person who had stolen it.18 When the money was reclaimed at Hughson’s, an indentured servant named Mary Burton (who was living at John Hughson’s residence at the time of the robbery) was then questioned by the town clerk.19 Initially, Burton was reticent to reveal what she knew about the robbery, but after being brought before the court, she eventually implicated both the slaves and Hughson in the robbery after she was told that “she might be taken care of” if she confessed.20

Burton would not only become the key witness to the robbery but also the slave conspiracy as it began to unfold. On March 18th, a fire engulfed “his majesty’s house at Fort George” and burned it to the ground.21 A pair of fires then subsequently broke out within the next two weeks. On April 4th, fires erupted at two more residences, one of which was determined to be set “upon examination…whereon a negro slept.”22 The following day, Mrs. Earle spotted three slaves together sauntering down Broadway.23 One was “Mr. Walter’s Quaco” who Mrs. Earle heard exclaim with “a vaporing sort of an air, “Fire, Fire, Scorch, Scorch, A LITTLE, damn it, BY-AND-BY.”24 Again on April 6th, multiple fires broke out, one of which was at a storehouse owned by Adolph Philipse where a witness had seen “a negro leap out at the end window” of the building ablaze.25 The African American man turned out to be Philipse’s own slave Cuffee who “had a great deal of idle time, which…he employed to very ill purposes,” and he was soon hunted down and arrested.26

With Mrs. Earle’s accusations and the seizure of Cuffee, New Yorkers were convinced that the fires had been the effort of slaves who had intended “to burn the town, kill the white men, and take their wives and daughters as mistresses.”27 After Cuffee’s arrest, Burton would implicate Hughson as the person who orchestrated the slave uprising.28 Eventually, he would be one of the first suspects to be hanged.29 Burton continued to accuse greater numbers of slaves in order “to please her patrons” and those she indicted pointed to others with the hopes that it would stave off any attempts at legal retribution.30 When the trials waned down in early 1742, by then, up to 152 blacks had been arrested, eighty one of whom had implicated more slaves that were either burned at the stake or hanged.31

Only a few months after the events had reached their dissolution, people questioned whether the executions were justified. Some began to critically examine whether a slave conspiracy really existed.32 These doubters feared they had unfortunately been captured by “the merciless Flames of an Imaginary Plot.”33 To counteract the criticisms revolving around the vicissitudes of the conspiracy, Daniel Horsmanden wrote a lengthy account of the trials to explicate the actions of the court and finally put to rest these concerns. Relying on his own observations of the events as well as court records, Horsmanden recreated the events of 1741 in his one-sided, subjective version of the plot and the trials.34 However, Horsmanden’s account failed to persuade many people, including historians.

By the nineteenth-century, the notion that the plot had been a fabrication in the harried and panic-stricken minds of New Yorkers was insinuated into popular historiography. In 1839, William Dunlap, a playwright turned historian, published his multivolume history of New York. In his concise treatment of the conspiracy, Dunlap claimed that the conspiracy was indeed invented, and that the “best parallel” to the New York Conspiracy of 1741 was the “popish plot of 1679 in the reign of Charles II.”35 Dunlap’s ostensibly abolitionist leanings also appear in his book as he suggests that the abhorrent nature of slavery created the conditions for the uprising.36

Indeed, Dunlap’s inference that the nature of slavery in New York had exacerbated fears of a plot has merit. In the city, “the free and the slave lived in close proximity” as close to 20,000 people inhabited an area approximately 1.1 square miles.37 Of these twenty thousand, the 1737 census revealed that blacks comprised nearly 25% of the total population in New York.38 The predominant numbers of African American men present in the colony made the white colonists’ uneasy and aroused fears that slaves would overwhelm the whites. William Dunlap wrote that before the conspiracy, “slaves were comparatively small” in number, but their population had increased by 1741, spreading fear of a slave uprising.39 In addition, lawyer William Smith feared that New Yorkers “shall never be quite safe, till that wicked [black] race are under more restraint, or their number greatly reduced within this city.”40

The primary fear among whites was that a gathering of slaves would share collective experiences of oppression, decide that their situation had become intolerable, and foment a revolution. In response to these fears, New York City had promulgated a variety of legal barriers to restrict the autonomy of African Americans. New York’s “Negro Law” was comprised with the intent to discourage “the ability of enslaved people to move at will, and to gather.”41 Slaves were proscribed from social activities that required group participation. Gambling was deemed illegal for slaves as well as drinking in taverns without the presence of their masters.42 To avert slaves from acting in concert under the cover of darkness, those who were “over the age of fourteen had to be off the streets by sunset” unless escorted by their owners.43 Slaves could not even leave “from their Masters Houses or Plantations on the Lords Day” without documented proof that their owners permitted them to be off the premises.44

These laws were legal extensions of New Yorkers’ racist attitudes towards slaves. Because they believed that slaves “were naturally annoying and vexing,” whites thought they had to be consistently vigilant and restrictive with their slaves out of trepidation that they would incite a rebellion.45 Reflecting on the conspiracy in his Journal, Horsmanden wrote that it demonstrated that slave owners should view their slaves as “enemies of their own household, since we know what they are capable of” doing.46 Horsmanden recommended that masters should not provide slaves “with too great liberties” of which they will only “make use of to the worst purposes” including “caballing and confederating together in mischief, [and] in great numbers.”47

Yet despite the multifarious controls on their liberty, slaves did find ways to circumvent such restrictions. Slaves would commit various crimes as acts of opposition to white hegemony, including drinking, stealing and sleeping with white prostitutes.48 However, one of the most popular crimes for slaves in colonial New York was arson. As Edgar McManus writes, “next to theft, arson was the most common crime committed by slaves.”49

Fire was an enduring threat to New York City in the mid 18th century.50 Just the fear of fire alone was disconcerting to the colonists.51 When recalling the burning of Fort George, Horsmanden wrote that the “flames spread so fast, that in about an hour and a quarter’s time the house was burnt down to the ground.”52 Compounding this fear, prior to the conspiracy of 1741, slaves had established a precedent that they would use fire to voice their discontent.53 When the fires in 1741 broke out in such quick succession, the accusations of slaves being involved in their inception was therefore a reflexive conclusion. Indeed, when Cuffee had been spotted in the midst of the storehouse, he was not considered to be the lone culprit, as there were cries that all of “the negroes were rising” throughout the city.54

In addition to being worried about the eruption of fire, colonial New Yorkers were perpetually concerned about slave uprisings. Before March 1741, fears of vast conspiracies pervaded the minds of most American colonists, not just New Yorkers. The British colonists were sensitive to any gossip that intimated that slaves and Native Americans would subvert their way of life. In 1738, inhabitants of Nantucket thought that there was a Native American “conspiracy to destroy all the English, by first setting Fire to their Houses…and then falling upon them with their Fire Arms.”55 Such a plot turned out to be false, as did one in Kingston, New York, where after a group of slaves were involved in a physical scuffle, it was reported by whites as a sign of a nascent rebellion.56 Despite the repudiation of the plots, the American colonists continued to remain suspicious of others and “spotted plotters lurking behind nearly every shadow.”57

However, slave conspiracies were not entirely an illusion by the time fires started to destroy buildings in 1741.58 Slave rebellions were nearly ubiquitous events in the early eighteenth-century. Newspapers invariably brought accounts of slave conspiracies throughout the colonies. Of the most infamous in the prewar era, slave revolts in Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina and Pennsylvania had appeared since the mid 17th century.59 But more recent accounts of slave conspiracies alarmed New Yorkers. In Jamaica, a slave named Cudjoe led a group of slaves who had fled from their owners in the 1730’s and established self-sufficient outposts on the island.60 New Yorkers were also cognitive of the Stono Rebellion in 1739, where one hundred rebel slaves took the lives of over twenty whites before their revolt came to a violent end.61

However, the slave conspiracy that hit closest to home was one that occurred in New York almost thirty years before the conspiracy of 1741. In 1712, a slave insurrection unlike New York had encountered since its settlement by the Dutch shook the attention of the citified elite. A group of slaves on April 6th armed themselves with a variety of weapons and proceeded to unleash a furious attack on the whites of the town.62 Two slaves took revenge upon those slave owners who had continuously reduced them to chattel, personally stabbing and shooting Andrew Beekman, Joris Marschalk and Adrian Hoighlandt.63 By the time the murders were squelched, nine white New Yorkers were killed and a handful more suffered wounds.64

Despite the space of nearly thirty years separating the conspiracies, the happenings in 1712 were still fresh in the minds of many New Yorkers. As Jill Lepore writes, there were indeed “hints that whoever set the fires in 1741…was commemorating 1712,” as there were a great deal of similarities between both.65 To begin with, the two conspiracies occurred on the dates of March 25th and April 6th.66 Both involved fire, as those who rose up against whites in 1712 did so by setting fire to a building and then fleeing.67 Additionally, slaves in 1712 kept their plans for insurrection well-hidden before they struck.68 Whites who were therefore compelled to blame the fires in 1741 on slaves had a founded basis on which to make such a conclusion, as they most likely based their accusations on the affinities the fires shared with the most recent slave uprising in memory.

The events of 1712 were also kept alive because a number of the city’s white leaders who were spectators to the 1712 conspiracy had a vital role in the prosecution of slaves in 1741 as well. Of those involved in the conspiracies of 1741 and 1712 were Adolph Philipse, Rip Van Dam and Gerardus Beekman, who survived the death of his son in 1712 at the hands of slaves.69 These men possessed lucid memories of 1712 and the punishments that were then meted out to slaves. Lawyer William Smith was angered by what he viewed as the slaves’ insubordination, claiming that the conspiracy of 1741 was “the second attempt of the same kind that this brutish and bloody species of mankind have made within one age.”70 He thought it appropriate to invoke the legacy of 1712 to claim that the “Justice that was provoked by Former Fires…should have been a perpetual Terror to the Negroes that survived the Vengeance of that Day, and…a Warning to all that had come after them.”71

In order to understand the origins of the New York Slave Conspiracy, one must examine it within the broader context of the history of slavery in the United States.

The New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741 was the product of several factors: racism, fear of slave rebellion, and the distinct nature of slavery in New York. The reactions of white New Yorkers to the conflagrations, thefts and other crimes that sprouted throughout the city in 1741 are symptomatic of much bigger historical issues. Ultimately, the conspiracy of 1741 takes an important place in the recurrent oppression of African Americans throughout history and is an example of how slavery forever altered American society.


1. John Tabor Kempe to Daniel Horsmanden, July 14, 1763, 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.
2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid. For Kempe’s work ethic see Catherine Snell Crary, “The American Dream: John Tabor Kempe’s Rise from Poverty to Riches,” The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 14 (1957) 176-195. (accessed March 13, 2006), 184.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. My account of the plot is taken directly from Daniel Horsmanden, The New York Conspiracy, or a History of the Negro Plot, with the Journal of the Proceedings Against the Conspirators in the Years 1741-2. Together with Several Interesting Tables (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969) 15-16. The edition I consulted is the reprint of the second edition of Horsmanden’s Journal, printed in 1810.

10. Ibid., 16.

11. Ibid., 16.

12. Ibid., 16.

13. Ibid., 16.

14. Ibid., 16.

15. Ibid., 16.

16. Ibid., 16.

17. Ibid., 16.

18. Ibid., 18-19.

19. Ibid., 21.

20. Ibid., 21.

21. Ibid., 23.

22. Ibid., 26.

23. Ibid., 27.

24. Ibid., 27.

25. Ibid., 28-29.

26. Ibid., 29.

27. Leopold S. Launitz-Schurer, Jr., “Slave Resistance in Colonial New York: An interpretation of Daniel Horsmanden’s New York Conspiracy,” Phylon 41 (1980): 137-152. (accessed March 15, 2006), 138.

28. Ibid., 138.

29. For Hughson’s execution see Lepore, 119-120, and Horsmanden 144.

30. See William Dunlap, History of the New Netherlands, Province of New York, and State of New York, to the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Vol. 1., (New York:, Carter &Thorpe, 1839), 330.

31. Lepore, xvi. See also Appendix B of Lepore’s book, beginning with page 248. Lepore lists the names of the slaves that were arrested, their pleas, their sentences, and whether they confessed to the crimes brought before them. This list is extensive and takes up eleven pages of her book.

32. Ibid., xviii.

33. Quoted in Lepore, xviii.

34. For the sources he used, see Horsmanden, 5.

35. Dunlap, 322.

36. Ibid., 320-322.

37. Hoffer, 33.

38. This figure is disclosed in Appendix A of New York Burning. Lepore, 236.

39. Dunlap, 321. Dunlap’s statement is supported by the table on page 42 of McManus.

40. Horsmanden, 93. Part of this quote from Horsmanden’s Journal also appears in Thomas J Davis “The New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741 as Black Protest,” The Journal of Negro History 56 (1971): 17-30. (accessed March 13, 2006), 22.

41. Lepore, 57.

42. McManus, 80-82.

43. Ibid., 80.

44. Quoted in Lepore, 57.

45. Davis., 19.

46. Horsmanden, 12.

47. Horsmanden, 11-12.

48. Davis., 25-27.

49. McManus, 85.

50. Lepore, 42.

51. Hoffer, 35.

52. Horsmanden, 24.

53. McManus, 85.

54. Ibid., 29.

55. Quoted in Lepore, 55.

56. McManus, 122.

57. Lepore, 51.

58. Lepore, 55.

59. Marion D. deB. Kilson, “Towards Freedom: An Analysis of Slave Revolts in the United States,” Phylon 25 (1964): 175-187. (accessed March 20, 2006). See Table 1 on p. 177 and Table 2 on p. 179.

60. Lepore, 53.

61. Ibid., 53.

62. Ibid., 53.

63. Ibid., 53.

64. Lepore, 53.

65. Ibid., 59.

66. Lepore, 59.

67. McManus., 123.

68. McManus., 123.

69. Ibid., 59.

70. Horsmanden, 93.

71. Ibid., 93. Also quoted in Lepore, 59-60.

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Filed under 1740's, Essay Contest, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt, Slavery

Item of the Day: An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1786)

Full Title: An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation, which was Honoured with the First Prize in the University of Cambridge, for the Year 1785. With Additions. London: Printed by J. Phillips, and sold by T. Cadell and J. Phillips, 1786.[The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 1 of Part Three of Clarkson’s Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species.]


Having confined ourselves wholly, in the second part of this Essay, to the consideration of the commerce, we shall now proceed to the consideration of the slavery that is founded upon it. As this slavery will be conspicuous in the treatment, which the unfortunate Africans uniformly undergo, when they are put into the hands of the receivers, we shall describe the manner in which they are accustomed to be used from this period.To place this in the clearest, and most conspicuous point of view, we shall throw a considerable part of our information on this head into the form of a narrative: we shall suppose ourselves, in short, on the continent of Africa, and relate a scene, which, from its agreement with unquestionable facts, might not unreasonably be presumed to have been presented to our view, had we been really there.

And first, let us turn our eyes to the cloud of dust that is before us. It seems to advance rapidly, and, accompanied with dismal shrieks and yellings, to make the very air, that is above it, tremble as it rolls along. What can possibly be the cause? Let us inquire of that melancholy African, who seems to walk dejected near the shore; whose eyes are stedfastly [sic] fixed on the approaching object, and whose heart, if we can judge from the appearance of his countenance, must be greatly agitated.

“Alas!” says the unhappy African, “the cloud that you see approaching, is a train of wretched slaves. They are going to the ships behind you. They are destined for the English colonies, and, if you will stay here but for a little time, you will see them pass. They were last night drawn up upon the plain which you see before you, where they were branded upon the breast with an hot iron; and when they had undergone the whole of the treatment which is customary on these occasions, and which I am informed that you Englishmen at home use to the cattle which you buy, they were returned to their prison. As I have some dealings with the members of the factory which you see at a little distance, (though thanks to the Great Spirit, I never dealt in the liberty of my fellow creatures) I gained admittance there. I learned the history of some of the unfortunate people, whom I saw confined, and will explain to you, if my eye should catch them as they pass, the real causes of their servitude.”

Scarcely were these words spoken, when they came distinctly into sight. They appeared to advance in a long column, but in a very irregular manner. There were three only in the front, and these were chained together. The rest that followed seemed to be chained by pairs, but by pressing forward, to avoid the lash of the drivers, the breadth of the column began to be greatly extended, and ten or more were observed abreast.

While we were making these remarks, the intelligent African thus resumed his discourse. “The first three whom you observe, at the head of the train, to be chained together, are prisoners of war. As soon as the ships that are behind you arrived, the news was dispatched into the inland country; when one of the petty kings immediately assembled his subjects, and attacked a nearby tribe. The wretched people, though they were surprized, made a formidable resistance, as they resolved, almost all of them, rather to lose their lives, than survive their liberty. The person whom you see in the middle, is the father of the two young men, who are chained to him on each side. His wife and two of his children were killed in the attack, and his father being wounded, and, on account of his age, incapable of servitude, was left bleeding on the spot where this transaction happened.”

“With respect to those who are now passing us, and are immediately behind the former, I can give you no other intelligence, than that some of them, to about the number of thirty, were taken in the same skirmish. Their tribe was said to have been numerous before the attack, these however are all that are left alive. But with respect to the unhappy man, who is now opposite to us, and whom you may distinguish, as he is now looking back and wringing his hands in despair, I can inform you with more precision. He is an unfortunate convict. He lived only about five days journey from the factory. He went out with his king to hunt, and was one of his train; but, through too great an anxiety to afford his royal master diversion, he roused the game from the covert rather sooner than was expected. The king, exasperated at this circumstance, immediately sentenced him to slavery. His wife and children, fearing lest the tyrant should extend the punishment to themselves, which is not unusual, fled directly to the woods, where they were all devoured.”

“The people, whom you see close behind the unhappy convict, form a numerous body, and reach a considerable way. They speak a language, which no person in this part of Africa can understand, and their features, as you perceive, are so different from those of the rest, that they almost appear a distinct race of men. From this circumstance I recollect them. They are the subjects of a very distant prince, who agreed with the slave merchants, for a quantity of spirituous liquors, to furnish him with a stipulated number of slaves. He accordingly surrounded, and set fire to one of his own villages in the night, and seized these people, who were unfortunately the inhabitants, as they were escaping the flames. I first saw them as the merchants were driving them in, about two days ago. They came in a large body, and were tied together at the neck with leather thongs, which permitted them tow walk at the distance of abut a yard from one another. Many of them were loaden with elephants teeth, which had been purchased at the same time. All of them had bags, made of skin, upon their shoulders; for as they were to travel, in their way from the great mountains, through barren sands and inhospitable woods for many days together, they were obliged to carry water and provisions with them. Notwithstanding this, many of them perished, some by hunger, but the greatest number by fatigue, as the place from whence they came, is at such an amazing distance from this, and the obstacles, from the nature of the country, so great, that the journey could scarcely be completed in seven moons.” . . .

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Filed under 1780's, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Slavery

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