See Disclaimer Below.

Posts Tagged ‘Frederick Douglass’

Rugged Individualism in Slave Narratives

In American History, Arts & Letters, Emerson, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery on August 1, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The transcendental idealism of Emerson and Thoreau found its most illuminating expression and drew its most ardent followers before the Civil War would temper the spirits of many Americans.  Emerson and Thoreau both advocated for removing oneself from the constraints of society and for realizing an inner drive and power for epistemological, spiritual, and political purposes.  This individualism had more credence in New England than it did in the Southern states, and it is therefore not surprising that 19th century slave narratives would seek to appropriate that discourse of individualism in order to explain and condemn the realities of slavery.  Slavery could be cast as a symptom of the collective mindset, an evil that clearly could be seen as such if only individuals would separate themselves from conformity with the social unit and prevailing ideology.

Frederick Douglass, in both Narrative of the Life and his later work My Bondage and My Freedom, reveals that his childhood in slavery was relatively relaxed compared to that of other slaves, yet as he moved from master to master and was denied education—that is, as he grew into a man—the regulation of his body became harsher and more violent.  Douglass, who, as a lecturer, impressed upon his listeners a sense of rugged masculinity, uses his narratives to show how an individual can stand up to an entire institution.  In both narratives he vividly depicts his battle with Mr. Covey, a vicious overseer who was determined to train Douglass into docile submission by means of overwhelming violence.  It is an inner will as much as brute strength that brings about Douglass’s triumph over Covey, and it is Douglass’s determination to read and to learn that allows him to circumvent white law to achieve the literacy that made both of these works possible.

As an anti-slavery advocate in the North, having attained his freedom, Douglass expressed his individualism in a variety of ways, not least of which in his insistence to remain independent of William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists with whom Douglass had, as it were, a falling out.  Douglass also articulated a desire for blacks to embrace the ideal of personal responsibility and to look to their own personhood as a means for pulling themselves out of their unfortunate condition.  His enabling rhetoric was intended to be inspirational and to imitate the rhetoric and values of New England whites, without whose support neither he nor other slaves could mobilize political action.  Other authors of slave narratives such as William Wells Brown (who, it should be mentioned, had a falling out with Douglass) employ similar tactics and strategies regarding the appeal to individualism.  Brown also promoted himself as a masculine figure who realized his autonomy and drew strength from his own will to deliver himself from bondage.

Harriet Jacobs’s narrative couches individualism in more ambiguous terms.  She gives herself the name Linda Brent in the narrative, which is addressed explicitly to the “women of the North.”  Her narrative is replete with apostrophes to these women readers and, therefore, with signals and coded references meant to gain sympathy and provoke anger at the institution of slavery.  When Linda’s master attempts to take her in as his sex slave, she goes so far as to have an affair with a white man, Mr. Sands, as a form of resistance.  Knowing the decorum of her audience and the precariousness of her status as a freed slave, Linda repeatedly acknowledges the sinfulness of her act but stresses, too, that she cannot be held to the same standards as white women, who enjoy the freedom to make moral choices.  In a system of slavery, Linda suggests, there are no moral choices because one is reduced to selecting between one bad act or another.  Like Douglass, Linda finds freedom in the North, and, like Douglass, she spends time in England, where, she indicates, freedom flourishes, at least in relation to the United States.  Jacobs’s narrative can be taken as an urgent statement on the agency of slaves in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and the image of the strong woman that she cultivates (not just in herself but in the person of her grandmother) resonates as a powerful trope that others would pick up on. Read the rest of this entry »

Outline and Summary of David F. Ericson’s The Debate Over Slavery (New York University Press, 2000)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Communication, History, Humanities, Laws of Slavery, Liberalism, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Slavery on June 7, 2011 at 10:44 am

Allen Mendenhall

Ericson, David F.  The Debate Over Slavery:  Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America.  New York:  New York University Press, 2000.

 “The slavery issue in the antebellum United States was defined centrally by the failure of a people to bear witness to its own liberal principles” (90).

Chapter One

Rhetoric matters, and this book is about the anti- and pro- slavery rhetoric during the antebellum period.  Ericson argues that rhetoric separated a nation that was not so “divided against itself” as people assume.  Both anti- and pro-slavery rhetoric appealed to “liberalism,” according to Ericson, and thus the overall discourse at that time, in this country, under those circumstances, smacked of “liberty” and “equality”: concepts rooted in the mores of Christianity, Republicanism, and discursive pluralism.  Today we might lump these concepts into classical liberalism or neo-liberalism, but Ericson suggests that we should not lump concepts the way “consensus scholars” do; rather, he suggests that we accept that liberalism, in all its manifestations, is a complex and multifarious tradition inherited and adapted in many ways and for many purposes.  He endorses the approach of “multiple-traditions” scholars that reveals how advocates on both sides of the slavery debate attempted to conform their arguments to the tradition of liberalism.

Chapter Two

Ericson spells out liberalism and distinguishes it from “non-liberal” thought:  “I define liberal ideas as a general set of ideas that appeal to personal freedom, equal worth, government by consent, and private ownership of property as core human values.  Conversely, nonliberal ideas appeal to some notion of natural inequality based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or birthright that denies those liberal values to significant numbers of human beings” (14).  The proslavery liberal logic went as follows: “The institution was a just institution because slavery was the status in which African Americans could enjoy the most practical liberty in light of their present circumstances, which rendered them incapable of prospering as free men alongside European Americans” (14-15).  The antislavery liberal logic went as follows:  “The Southern institution of racial slavery was an unjust institution because it effectively denied that African Americans were men with a birthright to freedom equal to that of European Americans” (14).  The antislavery non-liberal logic went as follows:  “The Southern institution of racial slavery was an unjust institution because it effectively denied African Americans the opportunity to work, worship, and learn at the feet of a superior white/Anglo-Saxon/Protestant race” (15).  The proslavery non-liberal logic went as follows:  “The institution was a just institution because African Americans constituted an inferior race consigned by nature or God to be the slaves of a superior white/Anglo-Saxon/Protestant race” (15).  Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: