Why you ain’t march on Selma?
Why you ain’t tell the refugees “please stay with me”?
Why when you take communion, it don’t remind you of your union?
That you too were once undocumented too
Why do you love your guns more than our sons?
Why you patriots first? Why you worshipping the flag?–Propaganda
Today, we celebrate the Fourth of July, America’s independence. We eat hot dogs; we watch baseball; we go on a picnic; we enjoy fireworks; we sing patriotic songs. In essence, we throw a party to commemorate our birth as a country. However, there are issues that should cause us to think about what, in fact, we extol on this summer day. I am not saying we should not celebrate the great things we have achieved as a nation; I am only saying that for all of those great things there are unsavory things that we need to rectify if we ever hope to live up to those ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
The ideals presented in one of our founding documents still have not been realized. Inequality still exists. The “unalienable Rights” that “all men” should enjoy–“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”–do not reach everyone. This was especially the case during the Antebellum period, and it, unfortunately, remains the case today. Rather than looking at the ways that we have still not lived up to these ideals in our current milieu, I want to look at the ways that three authors between about 1850 and 1853 addressed the inequality that the nation continued to practice and the ways that these authors symbolically attacked the government and the American populace for its continued support of the peculiar institution.
For me, one of the most memorable sections of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave (1853) occurs while he is in Washington, and specifically while he is in Williams’ Slave Pen. Northup arrives in Washington with Merril Brown and Abram Hamilton the funeral of William Henry Harrison is underway. Northup sees the “pageant” and watches as the procession “bearing the dead body of Harrison to the grave.” After viewing this, Northup, Brown, and Hamilton walk around Washington for a while, visiting the Capitol and the “President’s House.” Northup does not comment on these edifices at this point, but he returns to these images after his capture.
Waking up after being drugged, Northup finds himself in Williams’ Slave Pen, and his description of his surroundings attacks a government and people that would subject individuals to slavery through his rhetorical comparison of the pen’s facade with the US Capitol.
The building to which the yard was attached, was two stories high, fronting on one of the public streets of Washington. Its outside presented only the appearance of a quiet private residence. A stranger looking at it, would never have dreamed of its execrable uses. Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol!
Williams’ Slave Pen masks its true purpose by appearing like any other “quite private residence” on the street; the inside tells a different story though. Overlooking the pen, the Capitol provides an image of democracy and justice where “patriotic representatives” espouse ideas of “freedom and equality,” but these voices ring false, just as the outside of the slave pen hides its true purpose. As a slave, Northup is not entitled to the ideals that the representatives proclaim just yards away.
As James Burch drives Northup and other enslaved individuals to the docks in the dead of night through the streets of Washington, Northup returns to the image of the government, adding to it the image of Washington’s grave. Passing through the streets, Northup states, “So we passed, hand-cuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington through the Capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we are told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, LIBERTY, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!” Northup ironically invokes the Declaration, as he does at multiple points in the narrative, then drives the point home through false exaltation of a system that seeks to keep him subjugated and unequal.
Walking past Washington’s grave, Northup notes that Burch, the man who violently whipped him in the slave pen and now seeks to profit off his bondage, “no doubt, with uncovered head, bowed reverently before the sacred ashes of the man who devoted his illustrious life to the liberty of his country.” Again, Northup throws into relief the contradictions at the heart of the institution of slavery in America by pointing out that a Burch, while participating in human trafficking, maintains reverence for a Founding Father who himself owned slaves.
One year earlier, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” where he challenged his audience to see the hypocrisy hidden behind America’s egalitarian facade. Speaking of Washington, Douglass points out that the first president freed his slaves: “Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves.” While he did emancipate them, that does not justify the fact that he owed his position partly to the work that those same slaves did for him. Douglass notes the contradiction: “Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men, shout—’We have Washington to our father.’ Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is.” The “traders” espouse the same reverence that Northup attributes to Burch.
William Wells Brown, in Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (1853), uses the same imagery and strategy as Douglass and Northup. Clotel is the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Currer. She remains in slavery, even being sold to Vicksburg, MS. At the end of the novel, she gets placed in a slave pen that “stands midway between the capitol at Washington and the president’s house.” While possibly Williams’ Slave Pen, the narrative does not specify. Here, Clotel escapes, running out of the pen and attempting to get to the forest across the Potomac River. She makes it to Long Bridge, but there she becomes hemmed in by Virginians who work with the guards to retrieve her. Rather than allowing herself to be captured, Clotel commits suicide by jumping into the river: “Thus died Clotel, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, a president of the United States; a man distinguished as the author of the Declaration of American Independence, and one of the first statesmen of that country.”
The scene does not specify that the Capitol overlooked the suicide, but the accompanying illustration brings the description of the slave pen’s position in regards to the Capitol and Clotel’s death into conversation with the hallowed halls of government where “patriotic representatives” speak of liberty and happiness. In the right hand corner of the image, we see the dome of the Capitol. Under the auspices of democracy, an enslaved woman, who also happened to be the daughter of a Founding Father in the narrative, ends her own life because the voices ringing from the halls of government deny her any semblance of person hood. To them, she exists as nothing more than chattel.
What do these images of slavery from the 1850s have to do with us celebrating America’s independence in 2017? Why should we drudge up this past? The time may be different, but the fact still remains that this country does not extend the idea of equality to everyone. Instead, it sacrifices some to maintain its democratic facade; it denies refuge to those who seek it; it denies basic medical assistance to those who need it. This nation has done a lot of great things, but we still have a was to go if we even want to experience equality for all and the ability for everyone to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Let’s think about this as we grill another dog, dive into the pool, or light another firecracker.
What are some that you see in other Antebellum slave narratives? What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.