Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part Seven

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Bible on Slavery, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

Defense of Slavery, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, lieutenant of David Rice Atchison and spokesman for the Platte County Self-Defense Association defended slavery on religious grounds. He went to the 1850 census to find proof that it benefited the slaves, finding there that free blacks suffered all manner of difficulty their enslaved counterparts did not. Then he proceeded to note that slavery brought benefits to the white race in the form of more churches per person. They built those churches for less and to accommodate more than did the holier than thou New England abolitionists, a clear win for slave labor. Furthermore, the slaveholding states built solid, orthodox churches not given to heretical doctrines like Adventism, Mormonism, Unitarianism, or Universalism. One might add Abolitionism to the list, as Stringfellow surely intended his readers to do.

The benefits to whites did not end at the church door:

We find in the census the first great test of the superior condition of our own over other countries, is in the larger proportion of our dwellings, to our families. It needs no argument to show that country the happiest which has most homes for its people. Not only is their physical condition, their mere comfort promoted, but there is nothing which more certainly conduces to health and good morals. The watchful care of the home circle, the cheerful happy fireside, preserve not alone the body from disease, but the mind, the heart from corruption and vice. We turn then to the census, and compare the homes and families of New England with the homes and families of these old slave States.

Me., N. H., Vt., Mass., R. I., Conn., 518,532 Families. 447, 789 Dwellings. Md., Va., N. Ca., S. Ca., Georgia, 506,868 Families. 496,369 Dwellings.

With equal population, New England has 11,564 more families, these Southern States 48,580 more dwellings! New England has 70,743 families without a home! In New England, the land whose “homes” the abolitionists delight to praise, one in every seven of the families is homeless! while in these Southern States but one family of fifty-two is without a home. Taking the average of the number composing a family, and New England has 373,700 of its population thrown upon the world, who have no place for a home!

Not only can those Yankees not church themselves properly, they can’t even manage regular houses. If they do so well without slavery, then why do so many of them lack a roof over their heads? Even with all those big cities, New England comes up short to the plain folk of the south with their humble cabins and opulent plantation houses.

One might argue back that Stringfellow neglects population growth. The North did grow faster than the South and one can’t expect new houses to just pop up on the occasion of every birth. Stringfellow anticipated that and had an answer: The North did not, in fact, grow faster than the South.

Anybody looking at the population aggregates in the census knows otherwise, but Stringfellow zeroes in on natural increase. His measure of the health of society depends on the growth rate of people adding to the population by the hallowed tradition of childbirth. Immigration does not count, as immigrants come from different environments. Their condition has to do with where they came from as well as their current residence. Taking the immigrants out of the equation, Stringfellow finds

With equal population, with 11,564 more families, New England has 16,535 less annual births: the natural increase by birth being 27 per cent. greater in the Southern States than in New England! Estimating the number of families, the proper mode of estimating natural increase, and these Southern States increase by birth more than 29 per cent faster than New England. Here again we find the laws of nature vanquished; the rule reversed: the North, instead of supplying population to the South, is far behind in natural increase.

Those figures include South Carolina and Georgia in the South, two states that many nineteenth century Americans saw as downright toxic, malarial swamps entirely unfit for the white race to inhabit and toil within. Only black people could work safely in such disease-haunted lands.

Samuel R. Walker on Southern Constitutionalism

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

This post draws from Samuel R. Walker’s filibustering advocacy in DeBow’s Review (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), but the passage says at least as much about constitutional thought in the late antebellum South as about filibustering. The simple, popular narrative has Southerners united by an intense localism and a set of shared propositions about the nature of the Union. These include the voluntary nature of the Union, the resting of ultimate sovereignty in state legislatures and conventions, the supremacy of local state law over federal enactments, and a constellation of other ideas variously summed up as nullification, states rights, and ultimately secession. 

Those ideas really did exist in the minds of period Southerners, but they did not live there alone. Nor did they, as one sometimes hears, equally dominate the minds of Northerners. Conflicts over the nature of the state and freedom dominate American history, not happy consensus. That remains true even if one restricts consideration of what Americans thought to what white male Americans thought, as virtually everyone then did. Some Southerners and some Northerners believed those things. Others believed other things.

To whatever degree the antebellum South’s leaders believed the ideology ascribed to them, they spent most of the period acting in almost completely the opposite way. Unless it came to preserving slavery in the face of national movements against it, Southerners searched in vain for a situation where they could happily prefer to let states do as they would. This only makes sense, as the South consistently dominated the federal government and so usually had a de facto veto power on federal policy. Any fair reading of the decade before the Civil War testifies to that. If anything, Southern power in Washington reached a remarkable apex in the 1850s. Had secession not intervened, the Southern-dominated Supreme Court probably would have handed down a second Dred Scott-style ruling which would have eliminated the power of Northern states to forbid slavery within their bounds within a few years.

They knew all of that. The doctrinaire states rights ideology probably did not command a majority of the Southern ruling class until after the war. Even during the Secession Winter, the decisions of many states came contingently and as near things indeed. The Upper South stayed out of the rebellion until Sumter, but even South Carolina’s decision came in part thanks to a railroad opening and running its maiden voyage full of Savannah businessmen into Charleston at just the right time. Those businessmen assured the South’s most doctrinaire radicals that if they bolted the Union, Georgia would surely follow. Complaints about the timidity of moderates enervating the counter-revolution fill the writings of fire-eaters and their more sober but still radical counterparts within the Southern mainstream.

Walker gives us something quite like that:

It was a prevailing feeling when our Colonies had, by their united efforts, achieved their independence, that they should lose their recollection of their former separate positions as individual States in the greatness of the result achieved by their Union. This idea was a natural one: we and our fathers have been educated in it, and we seem to view our federal as a centralized government, rather than a federation of independent States, linked together by a league, offensive and defensive, with a common purpose of free government; a common interest in commercial prosperity; a common protection in war, and advancement in peace. A more enlightened view is beginning to prevail and extend among the people, as its necessity increases, and the philosophy of our system is properly considered.

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Secretary of State, Senator, and the generation's leading secession and slavery booster.

John C. Calhoun

Here we have the complete opposite of the popular narrative. Walker testifies to a nationalist mindset often overlooked in quick glances at the antebellum era. Reading between the lines just a little, he even tells us that nationalist thought generally prevailed and that ideas about states rights, nullification, and all the rest developed as a reaction against the North’s great population growth and increasingly vocal antislavery movement. Its necessity, to safeguard slavery, had increased in the minds of the slaveholding white South. But even in 1854, the ideology had not prevailed. Louisiana, fan of filibustering and home of DeBow’s Review, in particular had a nationalist bent despite its location in otherwise more radical Lower South.

Old Calhoun might have invented a Southern consensus and rooted it back in the foggy mists of the revolution as the official ideology of everyone, but each time he called on the South to join it he found no shortage of uninterested Southerners. Sometimes, as when it came to the Pacific railroad and the Missouri Compromise, he declined to even join himself.

Kansas-Nebraska: The Fight in the House

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO)

Stephen Douglas, with Franklin Pierce’s help, committed the Democracy to passing his KansasNebraska Act despite the House’s delaying tactics. They put the party machinery to work, twisting arms and greasing wheels with patronage. By May 8, Douglas thought he had a majority and opted to dig Kansas-Nebraska out of its legislative grave by bringing up and tabling all fifty bills ahead of it. That dragged on for fifteen days. The speeches meant probably even less in the House than they did in the Senate as the larger body inherently reduces the influence of each ordinary member, but each speech consumed time and every hour spent debating meant one less hour of the session spent voting on the bill. But they spoke anyway. Politicians must register their approval or disapproval and many men considered vital principles at stake.

Thomas Hart Benton, still convinced the agitation on slavery brought no good to either section, proceeded to burn all the bridges he might have taken to regain his Senate seat:

What is the excuse for all this turmoil and mischief? We are told it is to keep the question of slavery out of Congress! Great God! It was out of Congress completely, entirely, and forever out of Congress, unless Congress dragged it in by breaking down the sacred laws which settled it! The question was settled and done with. There was not an inch square in the Union on which it could be raised without a breach of compromise.

Congressional non-interference, to which Douglas and others insisted they aspired, Congress had achieved in 1850. Between the Northwest Ordinance, the Missouri Compromise, the territorial acts for Oregon, Utah, and New Mexico, and California’s statehood, Congress completely settled the matter. Only by breaking past compacts could Congress interfere in slavery. So why did it need to pass this new law touching on slavery, if Congress wanted only to keep its hands off slavery?

Benton had the facts with him and for four hours held forth against the signature issue of his home state, knowing very well that the Missouri legislature would never send him back to the Senate after all of this. But Benton put a bullet into Andrew Jackson back in the day. He could take a frustrated ambition in the twilight of his life. Old Bullion got a bit more than that when his district declined to reelect him and then Missouri at large rejected him for governor in 1856.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens (Former Whig, now Constitutional Unionist-GA)

Douglas himself took the floor on occasion. Georgia’s, and the Georgia Platform’s, Alexander Stephens served as the parliamentary manager and chief debater on his side. Gaunt and bloodless, Georgia planter cut a strange figure. He lacked the eloquence and wit that other politicians of his age reveled in. He replaced it with direct, cold, dry recitations of facts and logical dissections, like Mr. Spock by way of the nineteenth century. The cold exterior hid a bitter partisan who, in his own words, applied whip and spur to force Kansas-Nebraska through.

Stephens informed the House that the South never accepted the Missouri Compromise. Back in 1820 the sections did not have a meeting of the minds; the North plainly defeated the South and forced its will upon the section. When the North would not take that victory for enough in 1850 and extend the 36°30′ line to the Pacific, the South considered the treaty broken and itself free to reopen the issue. Each place should choose for itself, as 1820 and 1850 proved how poorly Congress chose. Furthermore, Stephens pressed, the North, with its immigrant-fattened population twice that of the South, would surely have every advantage in populating new territories. Did Northern men think their constituents too lazy to win such a slanted fight? The South essentially conceded fighting at a great disadvantage and the North would not even accept the contest then. What would it take?

Despite all the screws to which Pierce, Davis, Cushing, and Douglas put to the Northern Democracy, everyone knew they contended over a small number of votes. The tension running so high and a win at least conceivable for both sides, restraint went out the window. A group trying to run a filibuster openly taunted various Southerners. They returned the favor. At one point an angry crowd surrounded the ringleader, Ohio’s Lewis D. Campbell, weapons drawn. Others restrained a Virginia member from playing some chin music on him. The Speaker, Kentucky’s Linn Boyd, intervened just in time to order the arrest of the Virginian by the sergeant-at-arms and adjourn before someone could spill blood.

The States Speak

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase (FS-OH)

Most sectional disputes prior to Kansas-Nebraska involved something like a united South forcing its will on a divided North. The South had its own internal divisions that we should not ignore, but the common interest in preserving slavery usually trumped the North’s indifference to the subject. The South did not always win all that it wanted, and never pleased its radicals, but one can reasonably argue that Southern, proslavery interests prevailed more often than not. That only stands to reason. A committed minority that cares far more about its signature issue than its opposition often prevails in a democratic system. The rickety constitutional structure of the American republic, packed to the gills with anti-democratic measures proved an able accomplice. Had matters involved just what the House of Representatives preferred, the Wilmot Proviso would have sailed into law. The Senate changed all of that.

One might expect, given the reversal of the usual pattern, that the House’s plan to bury the Kansas-Nebraska act would have succeeded. The more united section would prevail over the less united. Probably the men in the House who voted to bury the bill expected something like that. With Nebraska wrapped up in the Missouri Compromise repeal from the get-go, future Congresses would have a far harder time bringing it back than Stephen Douglas had in pushing the bill through the Senate. The South would accept the loss and move on. Maybe Union-minded Southerners would even come around and vote to defeat the bill as one provocation too far and to show themselves Union men first and Southern men second.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas (D-IL)

Politicians with such hopes had good reason to hold them. In early 1854, as the Senate debated, ten free states had their legislatures in session. Only Douglas’ own Illinois could rouse itself to pass a resolution in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska act, and that with considerable pressure from his supporters. Only fifty of the legislature’s hundred members voted on the issue. Rhode Island condemned it unanimously. Maine, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin damned the bill by large margins. The New York legislature instructed its delegation directly to vote against Kansas-Nebraska. In the other five, Democratic majorities made their influence felt through inaction. Pennsylvania and New Jersey contemplated the issue, but refused to take a vote. Salmon Chase’s own Ohio kept the subject tabled, fearing reaction either way. The California Democracy, in firm control of the state, likewise opted for silence.

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

Other states did not have their legislatures in session, but voice their objections by other means. Connecticut, the conservative home of manufacturers with strong Southern business ties, saw its state conventions for both parties vote anti-Nebraska resolutions through. In Pierce’s own New Hampshire, which held the first election after the bill came before the Senate, the Democracy’s majority in the governor’s race dropped by two-thirds and the party lost its House majority of 89. Pierce insisted that Nebraska had nothing to do with the result, which would have surprised the voters. The Pennsylvania Democratic convention let Douglas down too, resisting pressure to toe the administration line. In Detroit, home of Mr. Popular Sovereignty Lewis Cass, elected an anti-Nebraska Whig mayor by the kind of margin that the Democracy customarily enjoyed. The town’s Democratic paper, the Times, insisted that Michigan stood against Nebraska and if the Little Giant’s bill passed, there would be hell to pay.

To answer all of that, and more, the South responded tepidly. Georgia and Mississippi endorsed the bill. The Tennessee Senate came just short, endorsing its principles but not Kansas-Nebraska itself. Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas opted for the same silence that Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California chose.

The Crafts (The Steamer Irony)

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 The Plan Leaving and Literacy Last Minute Fears William’s Close Call Ellen’s close Call Full text of the narrative.

On the steamer, Ellen retired early to minimize the risk of exposure. That aroused suspicion but William deflected it when they questioned him. His master had rheumatism so William needed to tend him, which involved preparing flannels and opodeldoc, a concoction of alcohol, soap, camphor, and rosemary. The delightful smell as William warmed it prompted a passenger insist William finish or he would throw the stuff overboard.

After some time in Ellen’s stateroom, William went out and asked where slaves slept. The steamer had no such place so he paced the deck and then sat down on some cotton bags near the funnel until morning. Then William found Ellen at breakfast:

He was seated at the right hand of the captain, who, together with all the passengers, inquired very kindly after his health. As my master had one hand in a sling, it was my duty to carve his food. But when I went out the captain said, “You have a very attentive boy, sir; but you had better watch him like a hawk when you get on to the North. he seems all very well here, but he may act quite differently there. I know several gentlemen who have lost their valuable niggers among them d—-d cut-throat abolitionists.”

Before my master could speak, a rough slave-dealer, who was sitting opposite, with both elbows on the table, and with a large piece of broiled fowl in his fingers, shook his head with emphasis, and in a deep Yankee tone, forced through his crowded mouth the words, “Sound doctrine, captain, very sound.” he then dropped the chicken into the plate, leant back, placed his thumbs in the armholes of his fancy waistcoat, and continued, “I would not take a nigger to the North under no consideration. I have had a deal to do with niggers in my time, but I never saw one who ever had his heel upon free soil that was worth a d—n.” “Now stranger,” addressing my master, “if you have made up your mind to sell that ere nigger, I am your man; just mention your price, and if it isn’t out of the way, I will pay for him on this board with hard silver dollars. This hard-featured, bristly-bearded, wire-headed, red-eyed monster, staring at my master as the serpent did at Eve, said, “What do you say, stranger?” He replied, “I don’t wish to sell, sir; I cannot get on well without him”.

The slave trader presented his credentials. For ten years he worked for General Wade Hampton, “doing nothing but breaking ‘em in.” That general founded a South Carolina dynasty (his son and grandson shared his name) after making a fortune in land speculation and owned more than three thousand slaves when he died in 1835. One could call Hampton the Bill Gates Carolina slaveholding.

The slave trader insisted that William could not possibly deserve Ellen’s trust:

He will do you no good if you take him across Mason’s and Dixon’s line; he is a keen nigger, and I can see from the cut of his eye that he is certain to run away.

He looked at William and knew right away that William would run. William did. He just happened to run with his wife, the “man” who the slave trader saw fit to warn. One cannot argue with such a well-trained eye. The man knew his slaves top to bottom. Prudence demands we yield to his expert judgment.

If irony had physical weight, the slave trader would have sent the ship straight to the bottom.

The Crafts (Ellen’s Close Call)

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 The Plan Leaving and Literacy Last Minute Fears William’s Close Call Full text of the narrative.

William and Ellen may not have shared space on the train, but they shared the peril and close shaves with discovery. I left off yesterday with William’s close call. His overseer suspected flight and came to the train looking for him, but left before reaching him when the train started out. William’s cabinet maker poked his head into cars looking. He never came all that near to William.

Ellen had her potential discoverer sit down next to her. Remember that at this point the narrative refers to her as William’s master and uses male pronouns for Ellen:

As soon as the train had left the platform, my master looked round in the carriage, and was terror-stricken to find a Mr. Cray–and old friend of my wife’s master, who dined with the family the day before, and knew my wife from childhood–sitting on the same seat. Ellen, looking out the window, didn’t notice him until then.

It must have taken a tremendous act of will not to gape or start. But Ellen kept control of herself.

Then Cray tried to engage her in conversation. Ellen might have looked the part, but she didn’t trust her voice. She ignored Cray’s first effort at small talk, keeping her eyes fixed on the land rolling by. Cray repeated himself, increasing his volume. Ellen ignored him, but now that drew other eyes to her. One laughed.

This, I suppose, annoyed the old gentleman; so he said, “I will make him hear;” and in a loud tone of voice repeated, “It is a very fine morning, sir.”

One of the gentlemen remarked that it was a very great deprivation to be deaf. “Yes,” replied Mr. Cray, “and I shall not trouble that fellow any more.”

Cray left the train before Savannah, bound for Georgia’s then-capital of Milledgeville.

I wish I could watch this on the silver screen. The story has enough drama to suit Hollywood and as a period piece it gives the wardrobe department plenty to do. It even has moments of humor intermixed with the claustrophobic terror and slavery-driven horror. Some of the more pithy narration would make great voice-over material.

Satisfied with Ellen’s deafness:

The gentlemen then turned the conversation upon the three great topics of discussion in first class circles in Georgia, namely Niggers, Cotton, and the Abolitionists.

My master had often heard of abolitionists, but in such a connection as to cause him to think that they were a fearful kind of wild animal. But he was delighted to learn, from the gentlemen’s conversation, that the abolitionists were persons who were opposed to oppression; and therefore, in his opinion, not the lowest, but the very highest of God’s creatures.

I think I have heretofore avoided using that word on this blog, but it will come again. When a source uses the term, my intent is to leave it as it appears there rather than remove it. I hate to read it and I hate, when the occasion calls for it, transcribing it from the original. But they said what they said and wrote what they wrote, however hard we find it to read.

I imagine few black people in America went very long in the 1840s without hearing the word. I have not studied the matter, but it appears to my limited experience with the texts that the more polite substitute, ‘negro,’ only saw consistent use in fairly formal contexts. In a casual social situation, the more offensive term would prevail. At any rate, as I read the words I first thought that Ellen must have struggled to keep her cool and pretend she heard nothing. Then I remembered that her life as a slave probably gave her very frequent practice at pretending to ignore conversations just like those on the train and others she would hear later.

The Crafts (William’s Close Call)

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 Reason to Flee The Perils of Flight The Plan Leaving and Literacy Last Minute Fears Full text of the narrative.

The Crafts stole out of their home, William locking the door behind them, and went out into the dark street where they shook hands and parted. From this point, the narrative calls Ellen William’s master and refers to her as male.

William went straight to the train which would carry them from Macon to Savannah, spanning their first two hundred miles. There he boarded the car reserved for black people. Before reading the Crafts, I had no idea that trains reserved cars for black people prior to the Civil War. After the war, this arrangement in Louisiana gave rise to Plessy vs. Furguson. Therein the Supreme Court affirmed the “separate but equal” doctrine that gave judicial sanction to segregation into the middle of the twentieth century. The Court did more than affirm segregation in Plessy. It  continued part of slavery.

Ellen arrived with the bulk of the passengers, by a longer route. She bought a ticket for herself and one for her slave and stepped into one of the best cars on the train. I have to wonder if she feared someone had already noticed and taken William. The text makes no mention of William seeing Ellen board and they certainly didn’t share a car. Likewise Ellen does not appear to have seen him in his car before boarding. They must not have known they both made it until they disembarked in Savannah.

They might not have:

just before the train moved off I peeped through the window, and to my great astonishment, I saw the cabinet-maker with whom I had worked so long, on the platform. He stepped up to the ticket-seller, and asked some question, and then commenced looking rapidly through the passengers, and into the carriages. Fully believing that we were caught, I shrank into a corner, turned my face from the door, and expected in a moment to be dragged out. The cabinet-maker looked into my master’s carriage, but he did not know him in his new attire, and, as God would have it, before he reached mine the bell rang and the train moved off.

I have since heard that the cabinet-maker had a presentiment that we were about to “make tracks for parts unknown;” but, not seeing me, his suspicions vanished, until he received the startling intelligence that we had arrived freely in a free state.

I imagine that had the man spotted William he would have raised the alarm and a full search of the train would have ensued. Discovery and punishment would naturally await the Crafts. But William survived his close call.

Just after he did, Ellen had her own. That story tomorrow.

The Crafts (Last Minute Fears)

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 The Plan Leaving and Literacy Full text of the narrative.

Eight days after they first hit on their plan to dress Ellen as a white man and for William to pose as her slave valet, the Crafts blew out their lights, prayed, and then had a last moment of delay. What if someone heard them? A white person or a fellow slave, either might betray them. A Southern white had obvious motives, but a slave might inadvertently let the fact of their flight slip or report them in hopes of better treatment. Given all the horrors of slavery, one can’t blame them for wanting some small relief.

The Crafts waited a moment in silence, then:

I took my wife by the hand, stepped softly to the door, raised the latch, drew it open, and peeped out. Though there were trees all around the house, yet the foliage scarcely moved; in fact, everything appeared to be as still as death. I then whispered to my wife, “Come, my dear, let us make a desperate leap for liberty!” But poor thing, she shrank back, in a state of trepidation. I turned and asked what was the matter; she made no reply, but burst into violent sobs, and threw her head upon my breast. This appeared to touch my very heart, it caused me to enter into her feelings more fully than ever. We both saw many mountainous difficulties that rose one after the other before our view, and knew far too well what our sad fate would have been, were we caught and forced back to our slavish den. Therefore on my wife’s fully realizing the solemn fact that we had to take our lives, as it were, in our own hands and contest every inch of the thousand miles of slave territory over which we had to pass, it made her heart almost sink within her

The narrative attributes Ellen’s fear to the dangers of the flight, but they might have sold it a bit short. However horribly it had treated them, the Crafts lived all their lives in Georgia. It housed all their friends, all the familiar sights of their lives. They stood poised to abandon their only home, knowing they could never return. To leave meant abandoning any residual hope to see their scattered family again. I don’t mean to minimize the horrors of slavery or the consequences of capture in the slightest, but human beings do not lightly leave behind all they knew for an unknown, uncertain future. The Crafts proposed, in effect, to mount a high dive a thousand miles in the air and leap off in the hope that, if they passed all the sieves of the white Southern police state, to find a pool full of water at the end of their trip. Who wouldn’t be terrified?

But human desperation, love, and heroism need not yield to human frailty:

However, the sobbing was soon over, and after a few minutes of silent prayer she recovered her self-possession, and said, “Come, William, it is getting late, so let us now venture upon our perilous journey.

The Crafts (Leaving and Literacy)

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 The Plan Full text of the narrative.

With Ellen’s disguise purchased, or made in the case of the trousers, the Crafts had one last hurdle to leap. If they simply vanished one night, their owners would miss them in the morning and raise the alarm. With only a few hours lead time, how far could they hope to get before the local white population came out in force to find them?

Some of the best slaveholders will sometimes give their favourite slaves a few days’ holiday at Christmas time; so, after no little amount of perseverance on my wife’s part, she obtained a pass from her mistress, allowing her to be away for a few days. The cabinet-maker with whom I worked gave me a similar paper, but said that he needed my services very much, and wished me to return as soon as the time granted was up. I thanked him kindly; but somehow I have not been able to make it convenient to return yet; and, as the free air of good old England agrees so well with my wife and our dear little ones, as well as with myself, it is not at all likely that we shall return at present to the “peculiar institution” of chains and stripes.

That line probably got a lot of laughs when the Crafts lectured and I can imagine William delivering it with particular relish. In effect, any black person abroad had to have one of those passes or some other documentation to prove their right to move about. If they lacked it, overzealous whites could assume they caught a fugitive and enact whatever “moderate correction” they cared to. But those passes tell another story: neither William nor Ellen could read them. The law forbade teaching slaves to read, though some slaveholders ignored it and taught them anyway. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson did.

However often ignored, Southern courts could take the law very seriously. The Crafts quote the judge’s speech to a woman convicted of teaching her slave to read the Bible:

Margaret Douglass [the guilty party, no relation to Frederick], stand up. You are guilty of one of the vilest crimes that ever disgraced society; and the jury have found you so. You have taught a slave girl to read in the Bible. No enlightened society can exist where such offences go unpunished. The Court, in your case, do not feel for you one solitary ray of sympathy, and they will inflict on you the utmost penalty of the law. In any other civilized country you would have paid the forfeit of your crime with your life, and the Court have only to regret that such is not the law in this country.

This from a society that went out of its way to make sure whites could ‘accidentally’ kill blacks in the course of ‘moderate correction.’ Autre temps, autre mores simply does not cover it. But then slaves who could read might read abolitionist literature and from it get the idea, which never would otherwise have crossed their minds, to rise up and flee or enact the kind of brutal justice on their masters that their masters enacted on them. So the white South told itself.

The Crafts’ illiteracy presented a new obstacle to flight. They would have to sign their names at the Charleston customs house and also at any hotels where they stopped, and Ellen’s pose as a gentleman of means required hotel stays. But Ellen had the answer:

So sitting in our little room on the verge of despair, all at once my wife raised her head, and with a smile upon her face, which was a moment before bathed in tears, said, “I think I have it!” I asked what it was. She said, “I think I can make a poultice and bind up my right hand in a sling, and with propriety ask the officers to register my name for me.”

To that she added one for her chin, so she could bandage it up and avoid drawing notice for her lack of stubble. At Ellen’s bidding, William went and got her a pair of green spectacles too. Disguise perfected, they set out the next morning.

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.