The Crafts (The Plan)

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Previous in this series: Some ContextWhite Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage The Dismemberment of William’s Family Quoting the Slave Codes Reason to Flee The Perils of Flight Full text of the narrative.

Refusing to bear children into slavery, the Crafts decided to flee for freedom. But in the face of the vast distances and very real dangers of a likely failure, they resolved to bide their time until they had a plan with a higher chance of success or circumstances changed. One of them, or both together, got an idea. William credits himself but given the transgression of Victorian social and religious mores it required, he may have claimed it to spare Ellen a scandal. The determination of both Crafts fairly leaps from the page, but most of their concrete examples of slavery’s evils seem to draw from her life and family history.

At any rate:

Knowing that slaveholders have the privilege of taking their slaves to any part of the country they think proper, it occurred to me that, as my wife was nearly white, I might get her to disguise herself as an invalid gentleman, and assume to be my master, while I could attend as his slave, and that in this manner we might effect our escape. After I thought of the plan, I suggested it to my wife, but at first she shrank from the idea. She thought it was almost impossible for her to assume that disguise, and travel a distance of 1,000 miles across the slave States. However, on the other hand, she also thought of her condition. She saw that the laws under which we lived did not recognize her to be a woman, but a mere chattel, to be bought and sold, or otherwise dealt with as her owner might see fit. Therefore the more she contemplated her helpless condition, the more anxious she was to escape from it. So she said, “I think it is almost too much for us to undertake; however, I feel that God is on our side, and with his assistance, notwithstanding all the difficulties, we shall be able to succeed. Therefore, if you will purchase the disguise, I will try to carry out the plan.”

Completely aside the bravery required, one has to admire Ellen’s pluck in turning the slave codes against their authors. The Crafts turned them around in other ways too. William needed clothes for Ellen’s disguise and went about to different places about Macon at different times to buy them piece by piece.

I was afraid to go to any one to ask him to sell me the articles. It is unlawful in Georgia for a white man to trade with slaves without the master’s consent. But, notwithstanding this, many persons will sell a slave any article that he can get the money to buy. Not that they sympathize with the slave, but merely because his testimony is not admitted in court against a free white person.

William hid the clothes away in a cabinet he made for Ellen, who as her owner’s maid had a small room to herself.

Eight days after they had the idea the Crafts started on their way.

Blatant Tariff Lying with a Picture

I forgot to link to it yesterday, but using data a colleague collected Andy Hall made a helpful visualization of the tariff data he put into a previous post. If, like me, you have a little trouble imagining numbers in proportion to each other it’s a great way to see just how incredibly New York (and to a vastly lesser extent, other Northern ports) dominated revenue generation.

It also transpires that Craig Swain had the same numbers a few years ago, and a broader a treatment of the issue.

Update: The previous version of this post mistakenly credited the visualization to Andy’s colleague. Sorry about that.

The Crafts (The Perils of Flight)

A slave hunt, painted by Thomas Moran

A Virginia slave hunt, painted by Thomas Moran

Previous in this series: Some ContextWhite Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage The Dismemberment of William’s Family Quoting the Slave Codes Reason to Flee Full text of the narrative.

For the sake of their children, the Crafts chose to flee. Most successful runaways, however, fled from the Border States. They had abolitionist groups, black and white alike, near at hand to help once they crossed into free soil. The Crafts had half of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland between then and free Pennsylvania, a thousand miles full of bloodhounds, patrols, professional slave catchers, and even everyday white Southerners who might suspect them and leap in the hopes of reward or impelled by their understanding of morality and public safety. But:

My wife was torn from her mother’s embrace in childhood, and taken to a distant part of the country. She had seen so many other children separated from their parents in this cruel manner, that the mere thought of her ever becoming mother of a child, to linger out a miserable existence under the wretched system of American slavery, appeared to fill her very soul with horror; and as she had taken what I felt to be an important view of her condition, I did not, at first, press the marriage, but agreed to assist her in trying to devise some plan by which we might escape from our unhappy condition, and then be married.

The traditional-minded today might still wait for marriage before having children, but for their future children the Crafts decided to abstain from marriage. They knew better than we can the daunting prospects:

We thought of plan after plan, but they all seemed crowded with insurmountable difficulties. We knew it was unlawful for any public conveyance to take us as passengers, without our master’s consent. We were also perfectly aware of the startling fact, that we had left without this consent the professional slave-hunters would have soon had their ferocious bloodhounds baying on our track, and in a short time we should have been dragged back to slavery, not to fill the more favourable situations which we had just left, but to be separated for life, and put to the very meanest and most laborious drudgery; or else have been tortured to death as examples, in order to strike terror into the hearts of others, and thereby prevent them from even attempting to escape from their cruel taskmasters. It is a fact worthy of remark, that nothing seems to give the slaveholders so much pleasure as the catching and torturing of fugitives. They had much rather take the keen and poisonous lash, and with it cut their poor trembling victims to atoms, than allow one of them to escape to a free country, and expose the infamous system from which he fled.

The greatest excitement prevails at a slave-hunt. The slaveholders and their hired ruffians appear to take more pleasure in this inhuman pursuit than English sportsmen do in chasing a fox or stag. Therefore, knowing what we should have been compelled to suffer, if caught and taken back, we were more than anxious to hit upon a plan that would lead us safely to a land of liberty.

But, after puzzling our brains for years, we were reluctantly driven to the sad conclusion, that it was almost impossible to escape from slavery in Georgia, and travel 1,000 miles across the slave States. We therefore resolved to get the consent of our owners, be married, settle down in slavery, and endeavor to make ourselves as comfortable as possible under that system; but at the same time ever to keep our dim eyes steadily fixed upon the glimmering hope of liberty, and earnestly pray God mercifully to assist us to escape from our unjust thraldom.

In this passage, as in many others, the Crafts spoke for four million. Settling down and finding comfort where they could did not mean settling for slavery. It meant they waited and watched, not giving up.

The Crafts (Reason to Flee)

William Craft

William Craft

Previous in this series: Some ContextWhite Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage The Dismemberment of William’s Family Quoting the Slave Codes Full text of the narrative.

As much as the auction block, the unwelcome attentions of masters slaves could not resist, the beating, the threats of beating, and the possibility of murder beggar belief, William and Ellen Craft lived with it all for every day of their lives until 1848.

The horrifying slave codes, the Crafts knew firsthand, actually whitewashed slavery:

From having been myself a slave for nearly twenty-three years, I am quite prepared to say, that the practical working of slavery is worse than the odious laws by which it is governed.

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

In no respect did the laws see them as people. In no way did they grant even the slightest particle of agency. But the Crafts lived with that, William from 1824 and Ellen from 1826. They could see a better life around them every day, reserved for those who had the foresight to choose white mothers. But they survived slavery that long. What moved them to finally run?

Most slaves, at least before the Civil War made running much easier, did not. Many who did could point to particularly harsh treatment spurring them to, in Frederick Douglass’ words, pray for freedom with their feet. William’s great sorrow, seeing his family auctioned away from him, took place during his sixteenth year. He remained a slave for seven more. Ellen, though still facing all the perils of slavery, had relatively kind words for her final owner. The Crafts do not seem like great prospects for flight.

But the Crafts did not ultimately flee for themselves:

At an early age we were taken by the persons who held us as property to Macon, the largest town in the interior of the State of Georgia, at which place we became acquainted with each other for several years before our marriage; in fact, our marriage was postponed for some time simply because one of the unjust and worse than Pagan laws under which we lived compelled all children of slave mothers to follow their condition. That is to say, the father of the slave may be the President of the Republic; but if the mother should be a slave at the infant’s birth, the poor child is ever legally doomed to the same cruel fate.

Their future sons would know toil and brutality to enrich another who saw them as no more than expensive farm tools. Their future daughters might face a different fate:

It is common practice for gentlemen (if I may call them such), moving in the highest circles of society, to be the fathers of children by their slaves, whom they can and do sell with the greatest impunity; and the more pious, beautiful, and virtuous the girls are, the greater the price they bring, and that too for the most infamous purposes.

Any man with money (let him be ever such a rough brute), can buy a beautiful and virtuous girl and force her to live with him in a criminal connexion; and as the law says a slave shall have no higher appeal than the mere will of the master, she cannot escape, unless it be by flight or death.

In endeavouring to reconcile a girl to her fate, the master sometimes says that he would marry her if it was not unlawful  However, he will always consider her to be his wife, and will treat her as such; and she, on the other hand, may regard him as her lawful husband; and if they have any children, they will be free and well educated.

I am in duty bound to add, that while a great majority of such men care nothing for the happiness of the women with whom they live, nor for the children of whom they are the fathers, there are those to be found, even in that heterogeneous mass of licentious monsters, who are true to their pledges. But as the woman and her children are legally the property of the man, who stands in the anomalous relation to them of husband and father, as well as master, they are liable to be seized and sold for his debts, should he become involved.

William’s first owner made no such promises to him, but he arrived at the auction block by just that route. Ellen, of course, knew the other half of the story from her own life as the daughter of her owner. They fled not for their own freedom, but to spare their future children the horrors of slavery.

The Crafts (Quoting the Slave Codes)

"Correction" by the lash

“Correction” by the lash

Previous in this series: Some ContextWhite Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage The Dismemberment of William’s Family Full text of the narrative.

Slavery did not magically appear overnight as a fully developed system threaded through the cultures and economies of the states it came to dominate. Nor did governments impose it by fiat. But a slave society needed systems to govern slavery, most especially a legal framework. Hence states passed slave codes.

Writing for their British audience, the Crafts go beyond telling us about auctions and the destruction of families. They cast their net wide, taking extracts from those codes to show that they tell not only their own story, but part of the story of four million of others. That story also includes what white America did to them and those millions, or stood by and allowed a portion of itself to do.

In their native Georgia, the state constitution read:

Any person who shall maliciously dismember or deprive a slave of life, shall suffer such punishment as would be inflicted in case the like offense had been committed on a free white person, and on the like proof, except in case of insurrection of such slave, and unless SUCH DEATH SHOULD HAPPEN BY ACCIDENT IN GIVING SUCH SLAVE MODERATE CORRECTION. [Emphasis in original.]

Moderate correction included whipping and beating. I can’t imagine many cases where an owner would lack plausible deniability if passion moved him. Accidents happen. The Crafts required no imagination at all:

I have known slaves to be beaten to death, but as they died under “moderate correction,” it was quite lawful; and of course the murderers were not interfered with.

But one need not own the slave in order to commit the murder:

If any slave, who shall be out of the house or plantation where such slave shall live, or shall be usually employed, or without some white person in company with such slave, shall REFUSE TO SUBMIT to undergo the examination of ANY WHITE person, (let him ever be so drunk or crazy), it shall be lawful for such white person to pursue, apprehend, and moderately correct such slave; and if such slave shall assault and strike such a white person, such slave may be LAWFULLY KILLED.

This provision has obvious salience for runaways like the Crafts. Getting caught on the run might mean “moderate correction” and “an accident” even before their captors returned them to their owners. The murder of slaves on the run certainly happened, at least at times, in moments of passion. In practical terms, the law sanctioned it at the discretion of whoever found and caught them.

“Provided always,” says the law, “that such striking be not done by the command and in the defence of the person or property of the owner, or other such person having the government of such slave; in which case the slave shall be wholly excused.

According to this law, if a slave, by the direction of his overseer, strike a white person who is beating said overseer’s pig, “the slave shall be wholly excused.” But, should the bondman, of his own accord, fight to defend his wife, or should his terrified daughter instinctively raise her hand and strike the wretch who attempts to violate her chastity, he or she shall, saith the model republican law, suffer death.

The law comprehends slaves as property, and allows them to defend the property of their owners, unless the threat comes to property in the form of their own lives. There it demands they stand idly by, unless their master authorizes otherwise, and watch the beating, rape, and murder of loved ones. Should they find themselves receiving the wrath of a white person, it demanded they meekly submit.

Blatant Tariff Lying

Over at Dead Confederates, Andy Hall exposes some fairly blatant lying in service to the claim that the Civil War erupted over tariffs. Supposedly the South paid 75% of the nation’s tariff revenue and Lincoln would not let that cash go as it formed the lion’s share of federal revenues. Fair enough, tariffs did in fact make the federal government most of its money. However:

In summary, during that year the Port of New York took in $233.7M, of which $203.4M were subject to tariffs ranging from 4 to 30%. During that same period, all other U.S. ports combined received $128.5M in imports, of which $76.5M was subject to tariff. So the Port of New York, by itself, handled almost two-thirds (64.5%) of the value of all U.S. imports, and almost three-quarters (72.7%) of the value of all tariffed imports


Williams’ assertion that “Southern ports paid 75 percent of tariffs in 1859″ isn’t a case of “lying with statistics,” because the statistics don’t actually say anything remotely like that. It’s a case of lying, period.

Andy has much more. The raw wrongness staggers me a bit. How do these people sleep nights? Are the piles of money they extract from those who don’t think to check that good a pillow?

The Crafts (The Dismemberment of William’s Family)

A slave auction

A slave auction

Previous in this series: Some ContextWhite Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage Full text of the narrative.

His owner sold William and his family at auction, but other owners sold other slaves, sometimes by the hundreds in auctions where the equivalent of millions of dollars changed hands. William’s ordeal remains his, but serves also to portray the ordeal of others who left behind no narratives of their own. Even for those who never faced auction, its prospect always hid just under the horizon. Circumstance could force even the most gentle owners to sell their human property just as it could force them to mortgage their land and homes. Death could transmit slaves from an owner who would not auction them off to one who would. No shortage of owners invested in slaves. They bought women with an eye toward the sale of their future children and, like William’s, invested in teaching slaves trades to increase their value. Whatever else owners thought of slaves, they remained legally livestock with all the implications that carried.

William Craft

William Craft

With all that in mind, I offer the entire account of the auction that tore apart William’s family. Four million slaves lived every day with at least this possibility in their futures:

My poor sister was sold first: she was knocked down to a planter who resided at some distance in the country. Then I was called upon the stand. While the auctioneer was crying the bids, I saw the man that had purchased my sister getting her into a cart, to take her to his home. I at once asked a slave friend who was standing near the platform, to run and ask the gentleman if he would please to wait till I was sold, in order that I might have an opportunity of bidding her good-bye. He sent me word back that he had some distance to go and could not wait.

I then turned to the auctioneer, fell upon my knees, and humbly prayed him to let me just step down and bid my last sister farewell. But, instead of granting me this request, he grasped me by the neck, and in a commanding tone of voice, and with a violent oath, exclaimed, “Get up! You can do the wench no good; therefore there is no use in your seeing her.

On rising, I saw the cart in which she sat moving slowly off; and, as she clasped her hands with a grasp that indicated despair, and looked pitifully round towards me, I also saw the large silent tears trickling down her cheeks. She made a farewell bow, and buried her face in her lap. This seemed more than I could bear. It appeared to swell my heart to its utmost. But before I could fully recover, the poor girl was gone;–gone, and I have never had the good fortune to see her from that day to this! Perhaps I should have never heard of her again, had it not been for the untiring efforts of my good old mother, who became free a few years ago by purchase, and, after a great deal of difficulty, found my sister residing with a family in Mississippi. My mother at once wrote to me, informing me of the fact, and requesting me to do something to get her free; and I am happy to say that, partly by lecturing occasionally, and through the salve of an engraving of my wife in the disguise in which she escaped, together with the extreme kindness and generosity of Miss Burdett Coutts, Mr. George Richardson of Plymouth, and a few other friends, I have nearly accomplished this. It would be to me a great and every-glorious achievement to restore my sister to our dear mother, from whom she was forcibly driven in early life.

I was knocked down to the cashier of the bank to which we were mortgaged, and ordered to return to the cabinet shop where I previously worked.

But the thought of the harsh auctioneer not applying me to bid my dear sister farewell, sent a red-hot indignation darting like lightning through every vein. It quenched my tears, and appeared to set my brain on fire, and made me crave for power to avenge our wrongs! But alas! we were only slaves, and had no legal rights; consequently we were compelled to smother our wounded feelings, and crouch beneath the iron heel of despotism.

Help a Museum Get Back on its Feet

Via Civil War Emancipation, I learned that the African American Military History Museum in Hattiesburg, MS, suffered substantial tornado damage on the 10th. They need donations to help rebuild and reopen. I never heard of the museum before today, but its subject hardly gets much attention from the general public and museums like this can probably reach a lot more average people passing through or in the area than would ever read most books covering the same ground. I can’t even say that I’ve read one myself, though I plan to.

Anyway, if you can help they could use it.

The Crafts (William’s Life in Bondage)

William Craft

William Craft

Previous in this series: Some ContextWhite Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage Full text of the narrative.)

If her owners spared Ellen Craft some of the worst of living as a slave, her husband William did not have quite the same good fortune. While his wife saw at least some benefit in her family being dismantled as it helped her escape a cruel mistress, William had his family more harshly disassembled:

My old master had the reputation of being a very humane and Christian man, but he thought nothing of selling my poor old father, and dear aged mother, at separate times, to different persons, to be dragged off never to behold each other again, till summoned to appear before the great tribunal of heaven. But, oh! what a happy meeting it will be on that day for those faithful souls. I say a happy meeting because I never saw persons more devoted to the service of God than they. But how will the case stand with those reckless traffickers in human flesh and blood, who plunged the poisonous dagger of separation into those living hearts which God had for so many years closely joined together — nay sealed, as it were with his own hands for the eternal courts of heaven?


My old master also sold a dear brother and a sister, in the same manner as he did my father and mother. The reason he assigned for disposing of my parents, as well as of several other aged slaves, was, that “they were getting old and would soon become valueless in the market, and therefore he intended to sell off all the old stock, and buy in a young lot.”

Of course, managing slave property did not just take the form of minimizing losses. To increase their value, William’s owner apprenticed him and a brother out to a blacksmith and cabinet-maker, respectively. Tight times came, however, and

before our time [their apprenticeships] expired, my old master wanted money; so he sold my brother, and then mortgaged my sister, a dear girl about fourteen years of age, and myself, then about sixteen, to one of the banks, to get money to speculate in cotton. This we knew nothing of at the moment; but time rolled on, the money became due, my master was unable to meet his payments; so the bank had us placed upon the auction stand and sold to the highest bidder.

Given the investment in raising their price, one imagines William’s owner planned to sell them off anyway. One fattens the livestock up for the market. Cotton speculation simply advanced that timeline, from his perspective. So William and his remaining family went up on the auction block in precisely the kind of spectacle that the Armistice barred from the District of Columbia.

That part of the narrative deserves extensive quotation. I try to keep these posts short enough to appeal to casual readers, so that story will come tomorrow.

The Crafts (Ellen’s Life in Bondage)

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Previous in this series: Some Context. White Children Sold into Slavery? Full text of the narrative.)

To remove the reminder of her husband’s infidelity, his wife gave Ellen away at age eleven. That separated her from her mother, but Ellen took it as a mixed blessing since it also took her away from the cruelty her family resemblance earned her from that same wife. Ellen had some positive things to say about her second owner, Eliza Cromwell Smith:

My wife’s new mistress was decidedly more human than the majority of her class. My wife has always given her credit for not exposing her to many of the worst features of slavery. For instance, it is a common practice in the slave States for ladies, when angry with their maids, to send them to the calybuce sugar-house, or to some other place established for the purpose of punishing slaves, and have them severely flogged; and I am sorry it is a fact, that the villains to whom those defenceless creatures are sent, not only flog them as they are ordered, but frequently compel them to submit to the greatest indignity. Oh! if there is any one thing under the wide canopy of heaven, horrible enough to stir a man’s soul, and to make his very blood boil, it is the thought of his dear wife, his unprotected sister, or his young and virtuous daughters struggling to save themselves from falling a prey to such demons!

A kind owner? Such creatures populate many slavery apologetics, then and now, but the Crafts count her an exception. It also does well to remember to imagine them complexly: a master or mistress might show a kind face to domestic slaves who live with them in the Big House and share their intimate moments, but quite another to a field slave that lives in a shack and only comes to his or her attention for something like running away or breaking tools. We must also remember that a kind owner still held slaves as property and might use them as collateral to make investments that fall through, requiring the sale of those slaves. Kind owners could also die and leave slaves to cruel owners or, if they manumitted slaves in their will, end up with heirs who have the will overturned in court.

Aware of the possibility that crediting Ellen’s owner might have their British audience too generous an impression of slavery, the Crafts immediately continue:

It always appears strange to me that any one who was not born a slaveholder, and steeped to the very core in the demoralizing atmosphere of the Southern States, can in any way palliate slavery. It is still more surprising to see virtuous ladies looking with patience upon, and remaining indifferent to, the existence of a system that exposes nearly two millions of their own sex in the manner I have mentioned, and that too in a professedly free and Christian country. There is, however, great consolation in knowing that God is just, and will not let the oppressor of the weak, and the spoiler of the virtuous, escape unpunished here and hereafter.

I believe a similar retribution to that which destroyed Sodom is hanging over the slaveholders. My sincere prayer is that they may not provoke God, by persisting in a reckless course of wickedness, to pour out his consuming wrath upon them.

The kind owner in slavery apologetic always ends up with slaves who refuse to take any offered freedom. Neither of their owners made any such offer for them to renounce. Their bold deeds, even in the face of less than maximally horrific slavery, tell us how they would have answered if asked. They wanted freedom enough not to wait on white kindness, but instead to take it for themselves at great risk of life and limb. Furthermore, they believe slaveholders worthy of divine obliteration.

I do not propose to speak for the Crafts’ god; I believe in none myself. But whatever provocations Georgia slaveholders directed Heavenward, those they issued to Washington ultimately brought William Tecumseh Sherman down on them.