Volume 13, Issue 1
Speaking Out in Thunder Tones: Black Chosenness and “Our Government” in the Earliest African American Newspapers
Benjamin Fagan, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Auburn University
In the fall of 1836, a fastidiously well-dressed New Yorker was elected President of the United States. One year later, the country was in the midst of a devastating economic depression, the forced removal of Native Americans from the southeastern states was in full swing, and the regime of slavery seemed more secure than ever.
On November 4, 1837, the Colored American, a black newspaper based in New York City, weighed in on the political state of the country. In a letter titled “Our Government,” the paper’s white printer Robert Sears took a dim view of the present and future state of the nation. “It requires but a very superficial acquaintance with the state of ‘men and parties’ in this country,” lamented Sears, “to convince the most unbelieving, that PATRIOTISM among us at the present day, is but an empty name, and that the days of our Republic are numbered.” Lambasting the moral character of the men ostensibly governing the country, Sears wrote that “Swindlers and drunkards are appointed to office” and “Licentiousness exists to a most alarming extent among our men in power.” “Extravagance and speculation seem to be the order of the day,” he continued, “and MONEY—not intellectual and moral worth—is the true standard of character and respectability among us!” Acting as a “sentinel on the walls seeing the enemy approaching,” the Colored American used Sears’s letter to “sound the alarm” and warn its readers, “Our Nation is corrupt to the very core.”
But despite such dire conditions, Sears ended his missive on a resoundingly hopeful note. “Happy are those men among us, that ‘chosen few,’” he wrote, “who remain subject to no change, amid all the changes around them; who love their country from the best and purest motives, and the object of whose labors is, simply, to regenerate our land—to purify it from the curse and disgrace of slavery; to enable us, as a nation, to stand forth before the world, redeemed and disenthralled; and write upon our banners and public edifices, the plain but glorious inscription, ‘AMERICA IS FREE!’” In his closing flourish, Sears depicted America as a country that had been corrupted by its leaders, but that could nevertheless be purified, regenerated, and redeemed by those agitating for the abolition of slavery. Far from anti-American, this fight by a “chosen few” to free the nation from the racist policies of an immoral government constituted, according to Sears and the Colored American, true patriotism.
The Colored American’s patriotic critique of the government of the United States, and the paper’s invocation of a “chosen few,” exemplifies one version of what I term black chosenness. In the decades leading up the Civil War, the idea that God had marked black Americans as His chosen people on Earth became a powerful article of faith in northern black communities, and black newspaper editors carried it into their journals. Theories of black chosenness during this period at times dovetailed with the notion that the United States and its people represented God’s chosen nation. But as that government increased its commitment to the enslavement and oppression of non-white Americans, black Americans debated whether or not the United States most resembled Jerusalem during the time of Jeremiah, a flawed but redeemable civilization, or the Babylon that had enslaved the Israelites and, according to the Bible, been destroyed as a result. If the U.S. was the New Jerusalem, then black Americans could quicken the pace of their own freedom by working to reform the country. But if the United States was instead the New Babylon, black liberation would arrive once God had erased it from the face of the earth. In the pages of black newspapers such as Freedom’s Journal (1827-1829), the Colored American (1837-1841), the North Star (1847-1851), and the Weekly Anglo-African (1859-1865), black men and women debated which biblical parallel seemed most appropriate, and how to act accordingly.
During its first few years of publication, the Colored American consistently imagined the United States as akin to Jerusalem during the time of the biblical prophet Jeremiah, who warned his fellow Israelites to return to the path of God lest they be punished. Contributors to the Colored American routinely cast the newspaper itself as a prophetic medium through which black Americans and their allies could reveal to their fellow countrymen the sins of their most powerful institutions. Samuel Cornish, one of the paper’s two founding editors, devoted considerable ink to exposing American churches that claimed to follow the teachings of Christ yet condoned slavery. The Colored American, he wrote in a March 4, 1837, editorial titled “Why We Should Have A Paper,” would allow black Americans to “speak out in THUNDER TONES, until the nation repent and render to every man that which is just and equal—and until the church possess herself of the mind which was in Christ Jesus, and cease to oppress her poor brother, because God hath dyed him a darker hue.”
In the running column “Prejudice in the Church,” which appeared periodically between March 1837 and February 1838, Cornish chronicled numerous abuses against black men, women and children within supposed houses of worship. By shining a bright light on such sins, the Colored American tried to convince its readers not to abandon the Church, but rather to redouble their efforts to perfect that institution by ridding it of hate and prejudice.
It was in the same spirit that Robert Sears took on the hypocrisy and debauchery of the federal government. Sears’s earlier articles for the newspaper had clearly demonstrated his belief that the United States was worth redeeming. For example, in the first two issues of the Weekly Advocate, the paper that would shortly be renamed the Colored American, Sears compiled “A Brief Description of the United States,” which detailed each state’s demographic and physical information. In his introduction to the piece, which appeared in the paper’s inaugural January 7, 1837, issue, Sears lauded the United States’ governmental structure. The country’s “political system,” he wrote, “has survived the tender period of infancy, and outlived the prophecies of its downfall.” He concluded that the government “has been found serviceable in peace and in war; and may well claim from the nation it has saved and honored, the votive benediction of esto perpetua.”
For Sears, the United States government had the potential to protect and serve all Americans, and as a result become the earthly representative of God’s chosen nation. The Weekly Advocate emphasized its investment in the United States by publishing, on the front page of its second issue, a large illustration of the Capitol Building, the symbolic heart of the federal government. Sears’s later attack on the moral character of the government emerged, then, from his sadness that an institution he so admired had fallen so low.
As a prophetic organ of God’s chosen nation, the Colored American revealed the sins of church and state in order to convince all Americans to join the fight to reform their sacred and secular institutions. Editors like Cornish and contributors like Sears firmly believed that such institutions could be transformed from agents of oppression into vehicles for liberation. Such work would be arduous, and often seem hopeless, but the paper repeatedly reminded its readers that their efforts were divinely supported. After all, God would not allow his chosen people to suffer forever. Like the warnings of Jeremiah to the Israelites, then, the Colored American’s cries that the country’s politicians were ruled by greed, lust, and pride rather than patriotism were not intended to damage or destroy the United States, but rather to save it from the men who were leading it to ruin.