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Antislavery Poetry from San Francisco

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The Pacific Appeal was the leading African American newspaper on the West Coast during the early 1860s.  A newly-published set of eight antislavery poems from the journal's inaugural 1862 volume captures the sense of expectancy within the African American community for the imminent end of US slavery.  These poems include the work of James Madison Bell, a San Francisco plasterer, brickmason, and poet.  Read more... 
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John Brown of Harper's Ferry (HTML)

An 1860 tract published after the execution of John Brown, featuring correspondence between abolitionist Lydia Maria Child and proslavery Eliza Mason.

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John Brown of Harper’s Ferry

Interesting Correspondence Between


Mrs. Mason of Virginia and Mrs. Child.


Alton, King George’s Co., Virginia, Nov. 11th, 1859.


Do you read your Bible, Mrs. Child? If you do, read there, “Woe unto hypocrites!” and take to yourself with two-fold damnation that terrible sentence; for, rest assured, in the day of judgment it shall be more tolerable for those thus scathed by the awful denunciation of the Son of God than for you. You would soothe with sisterly and motherly care the hoary-headed murderer of Harper’s Ferry! A man whose aim and intention was to incite the horrors of a servile warto condemn women of your own race, ere death closed their eyes on their sufferings from violence and outrage, to see their husbands and fathers murdered, their children butchered, the ground strewed with the brains of their babes. The antecedents of Brown’s band proved them to have been the offscourings of the earth; and what would have been our fate had they found themselves as many sympathizers in Virginia as they seem to have in Massachusetts?

            Now, compare yourself with those your “sympathy: would devote to such ruthless ruin, and say, on that “word of honour, which has never been broken,” would you stand by the bedside of an old negro, dying of a hopeless disease, to alleviate his sufferings as far as human aid could? Have you ever watched the last, lingering illness of a consumptive, to soothe, as far as in you lay, the inevitable fate? Do you soften the pangs of maternity in those around you by all the care and comfort you can give? Do you grieve with those near you, even though their sorrows resulted from their own misconduct? Do you ever sit up until the “wee” hours to complete a dress for a motherless child, that she might appear on Christmas day in a new one, along with her more fortunate companions? We do these and more for our servants, and why? Because we endeavour to do our duty in that state of life it has pleased God to place us. In his revealed word we read our duties to them—theirs to us are there also—“Not only to the good and gentle, but to the forward.” (Peter ii.18) Go thou and do likewise, and keep away from Charlestown. If the stories read in the public prints be true, of the sufferings of the poor of the North, you need not go far for objects of charity. “Thou hypocrite! Take first the beam out of thine own eye, then shalt thou see clearly to pull the mote out of thy neigh-

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bour’s.” But if, indeed, you do lack objects of sympathy near you, go to Jefferson County, to the family of George Turner, a noble, true-hearted man, whose devotion to his friend (Colonel Washington) causing him to risk his life, was shot down like a dog; or to that of old Beckham, whose grief at the murder of his negro subordinate made him needlessly expose himself to the aim of the assassin Brown. And when you can equal in deeds of love and charity to those around you, what is shown by nine-tenths of the Virginia plantations, then by your “sympathy” whet the knives for our throats, and kindle the torch that fires our homes. You reverence Brown for his clemency to his prisoners! Prisoners! and how taken? Unsuspecting workmen, going to their daily duties; unarmed gentlemen, taken from their beds at the dead hour of the night, by six men doubly and trebly armed. Suppose he had hurt a hair on their heads, do you suppose one of the band of desperadoes would have left the engine-house alive? And did not he know that this treatment of them was his only hope of life then, or of clemency afterward? Of course he did. The United States troops could not have prevented him from being torn limb from limb.

            I will add, in conclusion, no southerner ought, after your letter to Governor Wise and to Brown, to read a line of your composition, or to touch a magazine which bears your name in its list of contributors; and in this we hope for the “sympathy,” at least of those at the North who deserve the name of women.

                                                                                                M.J.C. MASON

Wayland, Mass., Dec. 17, 1859.

Prolonged absence from home has prevented my answering your letter so soon as I intended. I have no disposition to retort upon you the “two-fold damnation” to which you consign me. On the contrary, I sincerely wish you well, both in this world and the next. If the anathema proved a safety-valve to your own boiling spirit, it did some good to you, while it fell harmlessly upon me. Fortunately for all of us, the Heavenly Father rules His universe by laws which the passions of the prejudices of mortals have no power to change. 

            As for John Brown, his reputation may be safely trusted to the impartial pen of history; and his motives may be righteously judged by Him who knoweth the secrets of all hearts. Men, however great they may be, are of small consequence in comparison with principles; and the principle for which John Brown died is the question at issue between us.

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             You refer me to the Bible, from which you quote the favourite text of slaveholders: —

            “Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.” — 1 Peter, ii.18.

            Abolitionists also have favourite texts, to some of which I would call your attention: —

            “Remember those that are in bonds as bound with them.” — Heb. xiii.3.

                “Hide the outcast. Betray him not that wandereth. Let mine outcasts dwell with thee. Be thou a covert to them from the face of the spoiler.” — Isa. Xvi. 3, 4.

                “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee. He shall dwell with thee where it liketh him best. Thou shalt not oppress him.” — Deut. xxiii. 15, 16.

                “Open thy mouth for the dumb, in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction. Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.” — Prov. xxiv. 8, 9.

                “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression, and the house of Israel their sins.” — Isa. lviii. 1.

            I would especially commend to slaveholders the following portions of that volume, wherein you say God has revealed the duty of masters: —

            “Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.” — Col. iv. 1.

                “Neither be ye called masters; for one is your master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.” — Matt. xxiii. 8, 10.

                “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” — Matt. vii. 12.

                “Is not this the fast that I have chosen, to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?” — Isaiah, lviii. 6.

                “They that have given a boy for a harlot, and sold a girl for wine, that they might drink.” — Joel iii. 3.

                “He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker.” — Prov. xiv. 31.

                “Rob not the poor, because he is poor; neither oppress the afflicted. For the Lord will plead their cause, and spoil the soul of those who spoiled them.” — Prov. xxii. 22, 23.

                “Woe unto him that useth his neighbour’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his work.” — Jer. xxii. 13.

            If the appropriatenesss of these texts is not apparent, I will try to make it so, by evidence drawn entirely from Southern sources. The Abolitionists are not such a set of ignorant fanatics as you suppose. They know whereof they affirm. They are familiar with the laws of the slave states, which are alone sufficient to inspire abhorrence in any humane heart or reflecting mind not perverted by the prejudices of education and custom. I might fill many letters with significant extracts from your statute-books; but I have space only to glance at a few, which indicate the leading features of the system you cherish so tenaciously.

             The universal rule of the slave states is that “the child follows the condition of its mother.” This is an index of many things. Marriages between white and coloured people are forbidden by

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law; yet a very large number of the slaves are brown or yellow. When Lafayette visited this country in his old age, he said he was very much struck by the great change in the coloured population of Virginia; that in the time of the Revolution nearly all the household slaves were black; but when he returned to America he found very few of them black. The advertisements in Southern newspapers often describe runaway slaves that “pass themselves for white men.” Sometimes they are described as having “straight, light hair, blue eyes, and clear complexion.” This could not be unless their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers had been white men. But as their mothers were slaves, the law pronounces them slaves, subject to be sold on the auction-block whenever the necessities or convenience of their masters or mistresses require it. The sale of one’s own children, brothers, or sisters, has an ugly aspect to those who are unaccustomed to it; and, obviously, it cannot have a good moral influence that law and custom should render licentiousness a profitable vice.

            Throughout the slave states, the testimony of no coloured person, bond or free, can be received against a white man. You have some laws which, on the face of them, would seem to restrain inhuman men from murdering or mutilating slaves; but they are rendered nearly null by the law I have cited. Any drunken master, overseer, or patrol, may go into the negro cabin and commit what outrage he pleases with perfect impunity, if no white man is present who chooses to witness against him. North Carolina and Georgia have a large loop-hole for escape, even if white persons are present, when murder is committed. A law to punish persons for “maliciously killing a slave” has this remarkable qualification: “Always provided that this act shall not extend to any slave dying of moderate correction.” We at the North find it difficult to understand how moderate punishment can cause death. I have read several of your law books attentively, and I find no cases of punishment for the murder of a slave, except by fines paid to the owner, to indemnify him for the loss of his property; the same as if his horse or cow had been killed. Small indeed is the chance for justice to a slave, when his own colour are not allowed to testify, if they see him maimed, or his children murdered; when he has slaveholders for judges and jurors; when the murderer can exculpate himself by his own oath; and when the law provides that it is no murder to kill a slave by “moderate correction.”

            Your laws uniformly declare that “a slave shall be deemed a chattel personal in the hands of his owner to all intents, constructions, and purposes whatsoever.” This, of course, involves

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the right to sell his children, as if they were pigs; also, to take his wife from him “for any intent or purpose whatsoever.” Your laws also make it death for him to resist a white man, however brutally he may be treated, or however much his family may be outraged before his eyes. If he attempts to run away, your laws allow any man to shoot him.

            By your laws, all a slave’s earnings belong to the master. He can neither receive donations nor transmit property. If his master allows him some hours to work for himself, and by great energy and perseverance he earns enough to buy his own bones and sinews, his master may make him pay two or three times over, and he has no redress. Three such cases have come within my own knowledge. Even a written promise from his master has no legal value, because a slave can make no contracts.

            Your laws also systematically aim at keeping the minds of the coloured people in the most abject state of ignorance. If white people attempt to teach them to read or write, they are punished by imprisonment or fines; if they attempt to teach each other, they are punished with from twenty to thirty-nine lashes each. It cannot be said that the anti-slavery agitation produced such laws, for they date much farther back; many of them from when we were provinces. They are the necessities of the system, which, being itself an outrage on human nature, can be sustained only by perpetual outrages.

             The next reliable source of information is the advertisements in Southern newspapers. I might quote from hundreds of such advertisements, offering rewards for runaways “dead or alive,” and describing them with “ears cut off,” “jaws broken,” “scarred with rifle-balls,” &c. 

            Another source of information is furnished by emancipated slaveholders. Sarah M. Grimk√©, daughter of the late Judge Grimk√©, of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, testifies as follows: “As I left my native state on account of slavery, and deserted the home of my fathers to escape the sound of the lash and the shriek of tortured victims, I would gladly bury in oblivion the recollection of those scenes with which I have been familiar. But this cannot be. They come over my memory like gory specters, and implore me, with resistless power, in the name of a God of mercy, in the name of the crucified Saviour, in the name


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of humanity, for the sake of the slaveholder as well as the slave, to bear witness to the horrors of the Southern prison-house.”

            Mr. Thome of Kentucky, in the course of his eloquent lectures on this subject, said: “I breathed my first breath in an atmosphere of slavery. But though I am heir to a slave inheritance, I am bold to denounce the whole system as an outrage, a complication of crimes, and wrongs, and cruelties, that make angels weep.”

            Miss Mattie Griffith, of Kentucky, whose entire property consisted of slaves, emancipated them all. The noble-hearted girl wrote to me: “I shall go forth into the world penniless; but I shall work with a light heart, and, best of all, I shall live with an easy conscience.” Previous to this generous resolution, she had never read any abolition document, and entertained the common Southern prejudice against them.  But her own observation so deeply impressed her with the enormities of slavery that she was impelled to publish a book, called “The Autobiography of a Female Slave.” I read it with thrilling interest; but some of the scenes made my nerves quiver so painfully that I told her I hoped they were too highly coloured. She shook her head sadly, and replied: “I am sorry to say that every incident in the book has come within my own knowledge.”

            Jefferson said: “One day of American slavery is worse than a thousand years of that which we rose in arms to oppose.” Alluding to insurrections, he said, “The Almighty has no attribute that can take side with us in such a contest.”

            John Randolph declared: “Every planter is a sentinel at his own door. Every Southern mother, when she hears an alarm of fire in the night, instinctively presses her infant closer to her bosom.”

            Looking at the system of slavery in the light of all this evidence, do you candidly think we deserve “two-fold damnation” for detesting it? Can you not truly believe that we may hate the system, and yet be truly your friends? I make allowance for the excited state of your mind, and for the prejudices induced by education. I do not care to change your opinion of me; but I do wish you could be persuaded to examine this subject dispassionately, for the sake of the prosperity of Virginia, and the welfare of unborn generations, both white and coloured. For thirty years abolitionists have been trying to reason with slaveholders, through the press and in the halls of Congress. Their efforts, though directed to the masters only, have been met with violence and abuse almost equal to that poured on the head of John Brown. Yet, surely, we, as a portion of the Union, involved in the expense, the degeneracy, the danger, and the disgrace, of this iniquitous and fatal system, have a right to speak about it, and a right to be

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heard also. At the North we willingly publish pro-slavery arguments, and only ask a fair field and no favour for the other side. But you will not even allow your own citizens a chance to examine this important subject. Your letter to me is published in Northern papers, as well as in Southern; but my reply will not be allowed to appear in any Southern paper. The despotic measures you take to silence investigation, and shut out the light from your own white population, prove how little reliance you have on the strength of your case. In this enlightened age, all despotisms ought to come to an end by the agency of moral and rational means. But if they resist such agencies, it is in the order of Providence that they must come to an end by violence. History is full of such lessons.

            Would that the veil of prejudice could be removed from your eyes. If you would candidly examine the statement of Gov. Hincks of the British West Indies and of the Rev. Mr. Bleby, long time a missionary in these islands, both before and after emancipation, you could not fail to be convinced that Cash is a more powerful incentive to labour than the Lash, and far safer also. One fact in relation to those islands is very significant. While the working-people were slaves, it was always necessary to order out the military during the Christmas holidays; but, since the emancipation, not a soldier is to be seen. A hundred John Browns might land there without exciting the slightest alarm.

            To the personal questions you ask me, I will reply in the name of all the women of New England. It would be extremely difficult to find any woman in our villages who does not sew for the poor, and watch with the sick, whenever occasion requires. We pay our domestics generous wages, with which they can purchase as many Christmas gowns as they please; a process far better for their characters, as well as our own, than to receive their clothing as a charity, after being deprived of just payment for their labour. I have never known an instance where the “pangs of maternity” did not meet with requisite assistance; and here at the North, after we have helped the mothers, we do not sell the babies.

            I readily believe what you state concerning the kindness of many Virginia matrons. It is creditable to their hearts; but, after all, the best that can be done in that way is a poor equivalent for the perpetual wrong done to the slaves, and the terrible liabilities to which they are always subject. Kind masters and mistresses among you are merely lucky accidents. If any one chooses to be a brutal despot, your laws and customs give him complete power to do so. And the lot of those slaves who have the kindest masters is exceedingly precarious. In case of death, or pecuniary difficulties, or marriages in the family, they may at


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any time be suddenly transferred from protection and indulgence to personal degradation, or extreme severity; and if they should try to escape from such sufferings, anybody is authorized to shoot them down like dogs.

            With regard to your declaration that “no Southerner ought henceforth to read a line of my composition,” I reply that I have great satisfaction in the consciousness of having nothing to lose in that quarter. Twenty-seven years ago, I published a book called “An appeal in behalf of that class of Americans called Africans.” It influenced the minds of several young men, afterwards conspicuous in public life, through whose agency the cause was better served than it could have been through me. From that time to this, I have laboured too earnestly for the slave to be agreeable to slaveholders. Literary popularity was never a paramount object with me, even in my youth; and, now that I am old, I am utterly indifferent to it. But, if I cared for the exclusion you threatened, I should at least have the consolation of being exiled with honourable company. Dr. Channing’s writings, mild and candid as they are, breathe what you call arrant treason. Wm. C. Bryant, in his capacity of editor, is openly on our side. The inspired muse of Whittier has incessantly sounded the trumpet for moral warfare with your iniquitous institution; and his stirring tones have been answered, more or less loudly, by Pierpont, Lowell, and Longfellow. Emerson, the Plato of America, leaves the scholastic seclusion he loves so well, and, disliking noise with all his poetic soul, bravely takes his stand among the trumpeters. Geo. W. Curtis, the brilliant writer, the eloquent lecturer, the elegant man of the world, lays the wealth of his talent on the altar of freedom, and makes common cause with rough-shod reformers.

            The genius of Mrs. Stowe carried the outworks of your institution at one dash, and left the citadel open to besiegers, who are pouring in amain. In the church, on the ultra-liberal side, it is assailed by the powerful battering-ram of Theodore Parker’s eloquence. One the extreme orthodox side is set a huge fire, kindled by the burning words of Dr. Cheever. Between them is Henry Ward Beecher, sending a shower of keen arrows into your intrenchments; and with him ride a troop of sharpshooters from all sects. If you turn to the literature of England or France, you will find your institution treated with as little favour. The fact is, the whole civilized world proclaims slavery an outlaw, and the best intellect of the age is active in hunting it down.


                                                                                    LYDIA MARIA CHILD


Reprinted for the Edinburgh Ladies’ Emancipation Society — 4s. 6d. per 100.