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“A common railer and brawler”: Highlights from The American Slavery Collection

Posted on 06/08/2016

The May release of The American Slavery Collection, 1820-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes a document arguing that slavery enslaves the owners as well as the enslaved, written by a woman who had lived in the American South, an account of an abolitionist address that ends when the minister delivering it is arrested, and the affecting address to the court from a man found guilty of assisting a fugitive slave in making an escape. 

Influence of Slavery upon the White Population. By a Former Resident of Slave States (1855) 

This tract, published by American Anti-Slavery Society in 1855, was written by Louisa Jane Whiting Baker. She establishes her position at the outset:

A true understanding of the nature and influences of American slavery forces the conviction that this system renders the master no less a “victim” than the slave. The attractive elegances of social life may deceive the superficial observer; but a deeper insight will discover, under this light drapery, not only a world of secret misery, but of hideous corruption.

Nothing can convey a true idea of the influence of slavery upon the white population but an intimate acquaintance with southern society—not as a guest, to be entertained and flattered, but as a resident year by year, when all reserve is laid aside in the free and natural relations of social and domestic life.

In order to understand the immense power of slavery to shape the character and destiny of the master, we must remember that it has the sole training of his early youth. The men and women of the south are what the slaves have made them. With a knowledge of the influences exerted upon the first eighteen or twenty years of life, almost any biography may be predicted. This is peculiarly true of the characters formed by slavery. In the pulpit, on the plantation, in Congress, we find the promise of the child fulfilled in manhood.

Baker recounts the common circumstance of slave owners’ children being “consigned at once to the care of his colored nurse” including being breastfed by her so that “a bond of affection is formed.” While this maternal relationship is cultivated in the child’s mind, there is no mandate for the nursemaid to discipline the child. Rather, “he must not be thwarted or fretted, for that would ‘spoil his disposition.’” She issues an indictment of the biological mothers of these young charges “[whose] bad temper and the waywardness of childhood are developing, without restraint or correction.”

The life of mental and physical inactivity that southern women lead renders them incapable of a judicious training of their children, and, in general, they seem entirely ignorant of the responsibilities involved in the relation of a mother. They are too essentially indolent to undertake the arduous duty of ‘managing’ any thing or any body; and thus the precious years of infancy are committed to the most ignorant and malicious hands.

The author describes the young masters whose playmates are all slave children whom he is at liberty to treat any manner he likes, including beating them.

Occasionally a mother corrects her son, and begs him not to strike, because it is not ‘pretty.’ But, as a general rule, as soon as the child learns the use of his little fists, he finds it most effectual for his purposes, and in the exercise of ungoverned passion and imperious self-will, the years of childhood prepare the way for the deeper sins of manhood…And by a logical inference from the right of property in man, he argues that a master has a right to do what he will with his own, and even if he choose [sic] to torment his slave, he is accountable to no one therefor.

Not all the condemnations are reserved for the boys. Baker recounts the behavior of one privileged white girl who was in the habit of setting a black girl’s hair afire.

Nature produces the same diversities of temper at the south as at the north. But wherever the elements are bad, slavery fosters them into full and hateful proportions. It has no gentle teachings of self-control and self-sacrifice for the happiness of others; it forms no habits of industry and self-reliance; it cultivates no sense of justice. On the other hand, it exalts self into hateful supremacy over every other consideration. Indolence and imbecility are its inevitable results, and this very idleness and mental vacuity encourage artificial wants, which make extra demands upon the compulsory labor of the slave.

She expounds at length on the lack of real education for both white and black children in the South and on the effect of forced labor on the poor whites.

“A poor white man” is a byword and a reproach. For him there is no future. By degrading the dignity of manual labor, slavery crushes those who are neither slaveholders nor slaves. The poor white man is too proud to associate with him; denied the benefits of education, with a hopeless prospect for himself and children, there is absolutely no sphere for him but to labor for the supply of his animal wants, despised and rejected.

It may be that the issue of slaveholders impregnating their female slaves was a delicate topic for the times as Baker’s words indicate. Still, she sees it as a critical aspect of the shape of the vicious trap into which the South had fallen.

And now I approach a part of my subject from which I would gladly draw back, were I not riveted to the point by my desire to be faithful to my purpose of setting forth the effects of slavery upon the master. It is a painful and delicate office to do justice to this matter; but I speak to the pure in heart, who seek to know and defend eternal truths.

She refers to the abundance of slave children “of the fair skin, smooth and glossy hair, blue eyes, straight nose, delicate foot, and arched instep, which are every where to be met among the slaves”, and she is scathing when speaking of the absence of condemnation.

There is no fear of public opinion, for there is no danger of detection, since the slave is bound to submit in silence.

There is no loss of social position consequent upon the grossest licentiousness.

The most honorable social and political distinctions are awarded without reference to the private character of the individual.

The libertine maintains a high and honored standing in the church.

The law decrees that every child born of a slave shall follow the condition of its mother, and thus not only extends no protection to virtue, but offers a premium to vice. 

Mob, under Pretence of Law, or, The Arrest and Trial of Rev. George Storrs at Northfield, N.H.; with the Circumstances Connected with that Affair and Remarks Thereon (1835) 

George Storrs, born in 1796, was a minister from New Hampshire. In 1835 he was still a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He subsequently experienced a religious conversion and became a leader in Second Advent movement which evolved into the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For 35 years he published the magazine Bible Examiner. The events described in this work occurred in 1835 when Storrs was active in the anti-slavery movement. He received an invitation to deliver a sermon by the Anti-Slavery Society of Sandbornton and Northfield in New Hampshire. The invitation suggests the possibility of trouble. 

Very Dear Br. Storrs, 

It is desired by your Anti-Slavery friends in this vicinity that you should give us an Anti-Slavery Sermon in Northfield Meeting House, as soon as will be convenient for you. We would prefer to have the Discourse in the day time that we may be less liable to disturbance from those who “choose darkness rather than light.” 

I hope you will find it consistent to favor us with an address. Make your own selection as to time. Please write soon, and let us know whether you can come, and if so, when. 

Very respectfully, yours,


In behalf of the Anti-Slavery Society in Sandbornton and Northfield 

Storrs responded favorably, adding: 

The cause advances—the captives MUST go free. God is on our side. “The captive exile hasteneth that he may be loosed, and that he should not die in the pit.” “God pleadeth the cause of his people: Behold I have taken out of their hand the cup of trembling—thou shalt drink of it no more.” See the whole of Isaiah LI. Especially from the seventh verse. 

In a sort of preface to this work an unknown writer marvels at the consequences of Storrs’ attempt to deliver his sermon. 

The case reported in the following pages, is believed to be without precedent in the law annals of New-Hampshire. That a minister of the gospel, of respectable character and standing in the community, having been invited to deliver an address before a philanthropic society, and being in the sacred desk, engaged in the solemn exercise of prayer, should be arrested in the name of the law as “an idler, a vagrant, a brawler,” &c. &c., is probably without a parallel in the records of the Granite State. 

It is a melancholy proof that unhallowed opposition to moral good, to constitutional rights, may exist amidst the light of the nineteenth century, and in this boasted land of freedom. Yes, the rights so dearly purchased and so nobly maintained by our fathers, are now wrested from their sons by the hand of violence under the pretended sanction of law! 

Other than this preface the rest of the work consists of extracts from Storrs’ diary entries relating his unhappy experience. Before his scheduled address Storrs was visited by two local selectmen asking him to forgo his sermon for fear of trouble and promising to hold him responsible if such occurred. He declined their request and spurned the idea that he, in acting on his constitutional right, should in any way be accountable for the actions of a mob. 

Storrs proceeded to the meeting house, and while in the pulpit praying was arrested and taken to court. In part, the Complaint against him stated that since his arrival in town he: 

has been an idle person and disorderly person, and wanton and lascivious in speech and behaviour, a common railer and brawler, and neglects any lawful employment, and misspends his time going about in said town and County disturbing the public peace, contrary to the form of the statute in such case made and provided, and against the peace and dignity of said State… 

Subsequently, Storrs recounts, in detail, the proceeding in his trial. It is compelling, and the outcome in doubt. 

Speech of John Hossack, Convicted of a Violation of the Fugitive Slave Law: before Judge Drummond, of the United States District Chicago, ILL (1860) 

John Hossack emigrated from Scotland to Quebec at age twelve where he worked in an uncle’s confectionary. After a number of different jobs and a marriage he moved to Chicago to work as a contractor working on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. When that enterprise failed he became a farmer and began his active involvement in abolitionist movement, allowing his farm to become a refuge for escaped slaves. After moving to Ottawa, Illinois, Hossack prospered as a dealer in grain and lumber.  

He built an elegant home on the banks of the Illinois River which soon became an important stop on the Underground Railway, sheltering more than a dozen runaway slaves at a time. The house is listed on National Register of Historic Places. His role in the abolitionist movement brought him friendships with such notables as William Lloyd Garrison and John Wentworth.  

In 1859 Hossack helped a fugitive slave escape from a court proceeding by preventing law enforcement officers from apprehending him. He was indicted for violating the Fugitive Slave Law, tried and found guilty, and sentenced to ten days in jail and a $100 fine. This work is the speech he made to the court after his verdict but before his sentence. He begins: 

May it please the Court: 

I have a few words to say why a sentence should not be pronounced against me. I am found guilty of a violation of the Fugitive Slave Law, and it may appear strange to your Honor that I have no sense of guilt. I came, Sir, from the tyranny of the Old World, when but a lad, and landed upon the American shores, having left my kindred and native land in pursuit of some place where men of toil would not be crushed by the property-holding class.  

He addresses the complaint that as a foreigner he is particularly obligated to uphold the law in every instance stating that “I find nothing that should destroy my sympathy for the crushed, struggling children of toil in all lands.” And further: 

It is true, Sir—I am a foreigner. I first saw the light among the rugged but free hills of Scotland; a land, Sir, that never was conquered, and where a slave never breathed. Let a slave set foot on that shore, and his chains fall off for ever, and he becomes what God made him—a man. 

His speech continues in unvarnished eloquence as he argues his case. He refers to the Redeemer 

who came to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, to set at liberty those who were bruised; yea, this very religion binds me to those in bonds as bound with them. Tell me, Sir, with these views, can I be anything but an Abolitionist? Surely, for this I ought not to be sentenced.  

He expounds upon the Constitution in a scholarly argument asserting: 

No, sir; in a Court of the United States, where the Constitution proves for trial by jury, I ought not to be sentenced for raising my hand to rescue a fellow-man from a mob that would strip him of his liberty and life-long toil without due process of law, without trial by jury. Sir, this law tramples so flagrantly upon the spirit and letter of the Constitution, that I ought not be sentenced. 

He concludes his constitutional argument by stating of that document “If slavery is in it, it is ‘a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.’” Finally, he ends his appeal with these words: 

I have, Sir, endeavored to obey the Divine law and all the laws of my country that do not conflict with the laws of my God. My humble wish is, that it may then appear that I have done my duty. All I wish to be written on my tombstone is, “He feared God and loved his fellow-men. 

For more information about The American Slavery Collection, 1820-1922, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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