‘The Vicious Qualities of Mankind’: Highlights from Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922
Found within the March release of Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia are several multi-volume works including a collection of children’s stories, one of which answers, “What makes some people black?”; an American travelogue denouncing slavery by the British author of The Pickwick Papers; and a history of the American Civil War which discusses how “the name negro gave way to the new term contraband.”
Little Truths Better than Great Fables (1800)
By William Darton
William Darton (1755-1819) was a London-based children’s book publisher and author. He introduces his two-volume work of juvenile literature, writing:
It has been observed by some authors, that the minds of children are as white paper, from which erroneous impressions are difficult to erase; and the learned Addison compares them to marble in the quarry, capable of being formed and squared by a gradual process, previous to its being made useful or polished: in this view doth the Author of the following Little Truths behold the minds of infants. Having seen the great hurt of impressing false ideas on their minds, and the loss many are at in riper years, for want of proper information in their childhood, on diverse subjects; has induced him to submit the following sheets to the consideration of parents, for the use of their children in the nursery.
He continues, perhaps muddying his message:
And while the mind is informed on natural subjects, it is hoped they may prove as pointings to the great Creator of them, as the more his works are admired, the greater his omnipotence and wisdom appear.
In Volume II, Darton relays Sir Walter Raleigh’s unfortunate experience with smoking (his servant thought his mouth was aflame and took matters into his own hands) in order to discourage children from using tobacco. Shortly following that good advice, he offers a surprising response to the question, “But what makes some people black, and where do they come from?”
The natives of the south and south-west coasts of Africa are all black; the climate being always very hot, and they having but little or no covering.
There is reason to believe, if some white children were sent to Africa, and to live in the same manner as the natives do, that they would in time become black, or nearly so: this is the case in degree with all white people, who live long in any warm countries; as the south parts of Africa, and in the East or West Indies, where they soon become very brown and tawny. When the natives of any of those warm countries dwell long in England, they frequently become whiter and whiter.
American Notes for General Circulation (1842)
By Charles John Huffam Dickens
Charles Dickens, the renowned English novelist and social critic, visited the United States and Canada in 1842. He describes his impressions of the countryside while traveling by rail between Fredericksburg and Richmond:
The tract of country through which it takes its course was once productive: but the soil has been exhausted by the system of employing a great amount of slave labor in forcing crops, without strengthening the land: and it is now little better than a sandy desert overgrown with trees. Dreary and uninteresting as its aspect is, I was glad to the heart to find anything on which one of the curses of this horrible institution has fallen; and had greater pleasure in contemplating the withered ground, than the richest and most thriving cultivation in the same place could possibly have afforded me.
Later in his work Dickens returns to the subject of America’s peculiar institution and presents the position taken by moderate slave-owners:
The ground most commonly taken by these better men among the advocates of slavery, is this: “It is a bad system; and for myself I would willingly get rid of it, if I could; most willingly. But it is not so bad, as you in England take it to be. You are deceived by the representations of the emancipationists. The greater part of my slaves are much attached to me. You will say that I do not allow them to be severely treated; but I will put it to you whether you believe that it can be a general practice to treat them inhumanely, when it would impair their value, and would be obviously against the interests of their masters.”
He then offers his response to this argument:
Is it the interest of any man to steal, to game, to waste his health and mental faculties by drunkenness, to lie, forswear himself, indulge hatred, seek desperate revenge, or do murder? No. All these are roads to ruin. And why, then, do men tread them? Because such inclinations are among the vicious qualities of mankind. Blot out, ye friends of slavery, from the catalogue of human passions, brutal lust, cruelty, and the abuse of irresponsible power (of all earthly temptations the most difficult to be resisted), and when ye have done so, and not before, we will inquire whether it be the interest of a master to lash and maim the slaves, over whose lives and limbs he has an absolute control.
History of the American War (1865)
By Henry Charles Fletcher
Born in London, Henry Charles Fletcher (1833-1879) was a soldier and author. He fought in the Crimean War with the Scots Fusilier Guards and in 1861 travelled to Canada where he continued to serve with the Guards. Fletcher was present at several battles during the American Civil War and encamped with General George Brinton McClellan. In the first volume of his history of the Civil War, Fletcher observes:
The great flood of desolation which, owing to the war, has spread over the once prosperous territories of the United States, may be likened to the devastation frequently caused by their own mighty rivers. The gradually accumulating materials of strife resemble the masses of trees, brush, and earth that often obstruct the stream—at first apparently trivial in their effect, but which gradually becoming welded together, dam up the waters, until, breaking through a weak place in the embankment by which they have hitherto been confined, they rush over the fields, destroying crops, houses, and villages in their course, and (but seldom returning to the old channel) seeking some fresh outlet to the sea. Possibly even the river separates into many streams, and although losing its former grandeur, yet confers greater benefits to man so subdivided than when united.
Setting metaphors aside, Fletcher goes on to describe one of “the anomalies arising from the slavery question.”
As the institution of slavery was recognized by the Constitution, it did not become the Federal generals, professedly fighting for that Constitution, to advocate abolition, or to encourage the flight of the slaves from their masters. The question then arose, what course should be pursued? Cases frequently occurred when the masters of such fugitive slaves applied to the Federal generals for their restoration, in accordance with the laws of the United States. Viewing the question simply on legal grounds, the slaves ought certainly to have been given up. But this course of proceeding was naturally antagonistic to the abolition sentiments of many of the officers and men….General Butler…received them, and in order to overcome the difficulty of so doing, professed to regard them as contraband of war, basing his argument on the grounds that the slaves were used by the Confederates in building batteries and throwing up works, and therefore became a species of property equally contraband of war as gunpowder and arms. This term was quickly adopted and became popular in the North, and the name negro gave way to the new term contraband. Unfortunate was the lot of the unhappy blacks.