‘This Execrable Commerce….This Assemblage of Horrors’: Highlights from Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922
The May release of Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia includes several editions of Henry Home, Lord Kames’ Sketches of the History of Man, a fictional account of the American South, and an extensive collection of Thomas Jefferson’s writings.
Sketches of the History of Man (1775)
By Henry Home, Lord Kames
Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782) was a Scottish judge, philosopher, and writer. A central figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, he boasts David Hume, Adam Smith, and James Boswell as protegees. Introducing this multi-volume work, Home writes:
Whether there be different races of men, or whether all men be of one race, without any difference but what proceeds from climate or other accident, is a profound question of natural history, which remains still undetermined after all that has been said upon it.
In attempting an answer Home argues against the then speculative idea of evolutionary change over time and Carl Linnaeus’s earlier recognition of the hierarchical nature of species. Home shares with Linnaeus, however, the notion species are fixed according to Providence. Attempting to support his assertion, Home conflates species, breed, and kind before turning to special pleading.
To preserve the different species of animals entire, as far as necessary, Providence is careful to prevent a mixed breed. Few animals of different species copulate together. Some may be brought to copulate, but without effect; and some produce a mongrel, a mule for example, which seldom procreates, if at all. In some few instances, where a mixture of species is harmless, procreation goes on without limitation. All the different species of the dog kind copulate together, and the mongrels produced generate others without end. But dogs are by their nature companions to men; and Providence probably has permitted a mixture, in order that every man may have a dog to his liking.
Later, Home returns to his dog example and ill-defined terminology to draw an analogy with people:
Uniformity and permanency must be a law in [dogs’] nature, for they never can be the production of chance. There are mongrels, it is true, among dogs, from want of choice, or from a depraved appetite: but as all animals prefer their own kind, mongrels are few compared with animals of a true breed. There are mongrels also among men: the several kinds however continue distinct; and probably will so continue for ever.
Home’s chapter “Progress of the Female Sex” also includes curious assertions and logical fallacies but they will be left for the researcher.
The South-West (1835)
By A Yankee
Joseph Holt Ingraham (1809-1860) was an American author and Episcopal clergyman who wrote several biblically themed epistolary novels under the pseudonym F. Clinton Barrington. Ingraham, who was born in Maine, writes this work as an outsider under the penname “A Yankee” to describe aspects of social life and customs of the southern states in the early 19th century. During his account of a slave auction he expresses his opposition to slavery and later attempts to understand America’s peculiar institution through the eyes of the enslaved. However, Ingraham also saw man as a fallen being and adopts a tone that suggests some may have fallen more than others.
After leaving “the noise and bustle of the hotel” and venturing outside “to enjoy the luxuriant beauty of the morning” from atop a cliff, Ingraham writes:
Nature wore her richest garb, and her every feature was eminently beautiful. There was nothing to impair her loveliness, but that fallen, guilty being, who should be a diadem of glory for her brow, and the brightest ornament of her bosom—MAN! proud and sinful man, desecrating all that is fair and pure wherever he treads—he alone defaced the calm and hallowed character of the scene.
From a row of dilapidated yet inhabited dwellings beneath me, at the base of the cliff, sounds of rude merriment, mingled with the tones of loud dispute and blasphemy, rose with appalling distinctness upon the still air, breaking the Sabbath silence of the hour, in harsh discord with its sacredness. The streets of the lower town were alive with boatmen, draymen, buyers and sellers, horsemen and hacks, and scores of negroes, some wrestling, some fighting, others running foot-races, playing quoits or marbles, selling the products of their little gardens, or, with greater probability, their predatory excursions; while from all combined, a confused murmur, not unlike the harmony which floated around Babel, rolled upward to the skies—an incense far from acceptable to Him...
The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1853)
By Thomas Jefferson
This nine-volume collection includes Jefferson’s “autobiography, correspondence, reports, messages, addresses, and other writings, official and private.” His autobiography includes, unsurprisingly, a wide array of interesting anecdotes including a tick-tock of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Congress proceeded the same day to consider the Declaration of Independence, which had been reported and lain on the table on Friday preceding, and on Monday referred to a committee of the whole. The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with, still haunted the minds of many. For this reason, those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offence. The clause too, reprobating the enslaving [of] the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under those censures; for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others. The debates, having taken up the greater parts of the 2d, 3d, and 4th days of July, were, on the evening of the last, closed; the Declaration was reported by the committee, agreed to by the House, and signed by every member present, except Mr. Dickinson.
Jefferson continues, noting since “the sentiments of men are known not only by what they receive, but what they reject also, I will state the form of the Declaration as originally reported.” The following is the clause regarding slavery that was struck from the section enumerating the abuses of the Crown.
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of another.