English Serfdom and American Slavery
Proslavery novel set in England that compares British society unfavorably to US slave society, by Lucien Chase (Philadelphia: H. Long & Bro., 1854). Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
This proslavery novel by Lucien Bonaparte Chase (1817-1864) appeared in the wake of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and was one response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s extraordinarily successful antislavery novel. The author was an attorney and Democratic congressman from Tennessee during 1845-1849. He declined to stand for re-election, moved to New York City, and resumed his law practice.
Chase also wrote History of the Polk Administration (available online via subscription: http://www.gale.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/ModernLaw/) and two plays, The Young Man About Town: A Comedy in Three Acts (1854) and The Spirit of ’76 (1855).
The novel, almost entirely set in England, seeks to provide a fictional realization of proslavery arguments that social conditions endured by the English working-class were much worse than those of slaves in the southern United States. It asserts that exhibitions among the English upper classes of philanthropic concern for US slaves is hypocritical, an argument that parallels one made by Karl Marx that “The enemy of British Wage-Slavery has a right to condemn Negro-Slavery; a Duchess of Sutherland, a Duke of Atholl, a Manchester Cotton-lord -- never!” (The Duchess of Sutherland and Slavery,” The People’s Paper, no. 45, March 12, 1853 – available on the Eserver at http://marx.eserver.org/1853-scot.clearings.txt).
Chase extends this observation into the realm of political conspiracy to suggest that English abolitionists are engaged in deliberate efforts to fracture the US federal union and thus secure the preeminence of British imperial and commercial interests. Profoundly anti-British, this novel rounds on Great Britain as an oppressive and unjust society, which the novel contrasts to freedoms enjoyed in the United States. Abolitionism, Chase argues, is the means by which the Old World seeks to stem the influence of this model republic from the New World.
The plot alternates between describing the trials of Christie and Robert Kane, neither of whom know their kinship. Christie Kane is a debt-ridden farmer forced off his land by a malignant member of the local aristocracy, Lord Melville. Events transpire to reveal that he is the true Lord Melville and Christie takes his rival’s place. His mother, whom he re-discovers without pleasure, is the Duchess of Sunderland (i.e. Sutherland), a woman who has adopted the antislavery cause but whose true interest is class status and marriage for money. Christie cannot reconcile his new status with the manifest injustices caused by the aristocracy and the English state it controls, and so leaves to become a republican citizen of the United States.
Robert Kane is a poor laborer in London’s slums who is beaten, press-ganged and separated from his destitute wife and three children. He endures floggings, escapes ship, and returns home aided by an American sailor. Upon return Robert finds that his family was evicted into winter weather by an unscrupulous merchant who employed his son, and that his wife was raped and died of exposure. His young son dies in his arms of overwork and starvation. Robert escapes with his two surviving children to the United States, where in a few short years he becomes a prosperous farmer and state legislator. The novel concludes with the brothers re-united in their new country.
This plot provides a vehicle through which Chase can make extensive comparisons of servitude and oppression in American and English societies; rationalize slavery in the United States as suited to black inaptitude for freedom; and portray slavery as a caring and far preferable institution to life in England. Various didactic chapters present religious and political justifications for slavery, satirize British anti-slavery efforts and figures, and condemn women’s entry into the public sphere. Known for his expansionist views, Chase suggests that the United States will eventually conquer and absorb both Canada and Mexico; he chastises the US for having ended its occupation of Mexico.
The novel argues that a transatlantic white solidarity will provide a new horizon of freedom for oppressed white workers in England. African American slaves do not appear in this novel other than as rhetorical subjects. This transference of national scene in order to re-direct attention away from American slavery highlights through its avoidance the social fears that characterized proslavery fiction. See Dickson D. Bruce, “Racial Fear and the Proslavery Argument: A Rhetorical Approach” (Mississippi Quarterly, 33:4  461-478)
- Joe Lockard