Historical Context

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Slavery was introduced to America in Jamestown, Virgina in 1619, when farmers needed aid in the production of crops. Slavery lasted in America throughout the 17th and 18th century, and was solidified after the production of the cotton gin in 1793. By the mid-19th century, due to a large movement towards abolition in the North, slavery became a hot topic of debate, which lead to the Civil War (1861-65). The Union’s victory helped free over 4 million slaves, but the legacy of slavery still prevails. [1] John Andrew Jackson’s narrative describes the cruel history of slavery, and depicts the inhumanity of many “Christian” masters he encountered throughout his enslavement.

slaves-persons-not-property

Many slaveholders justified slavery through Christianity. They believed that Christianity was a means of liberating Africans from their savage ways, and that both the Old and New Testament give permission to hold others as slaves. Jackson first tells of his family and early experiences of growing up and working as a field-hand in the early 1800s.  He reveals the vicious nature of slavery and how bad some of the masters were that he witnessed (Jackson, 10-12).  He describes the irony of witnessing his masters impose cruelty upon the slaves despite being members of the Christian church, and goes on to recount the brutal beatings he incurred.

Furthermore, many slaveholders did not want their slaves to convert to Christianity, as they did not want to share their religion with barbarians. Many were also afraid that if their slaves received education they would demand their rights as human beings. For slaves to be kept in bondage, they needed to be kept in ignorance. At a church Jackson visited, slaves were told things such as “Servants obey your masters,”—”Thou shalt not steal,”—”He that knew his master’s will and did it not, shall be beaten with many stripes” in order to reinforce obedience within slaves. [2].

Prior to the Christianity of the West Indies, slaves were religious people. They believed in a divine presence. This was not the same Christianity seen practiced by slaveholders in America. The Christianity practiced by the Americans allowed them to cloak their cruelties through this religion. Jackson recounts that at his “American Camp Meetings,” which was a form of church that slaves were able to attend, many masters would drag slaves away for their own vile purposes (Jackson 22). Slaves clung to a different practice of Christianity as a means of salvation. Female slaves in particular faced sexual advances from their masters. Those who had internalized European Christianity’s ideas about sexual purity now had another reason to reject such advances, even at the risk of infuriating violent white men. [2] Christianity sparked a spiritual revival in slaves, and also gave them each common grounds to bond over. Through this bond, slaves were able to rebel against the cruelties of slavery.

The narrative is one of only about twelve to express a slave’s account coming from South Carolina.  Jackson continually addressed the steady increase of oppressive laws placed on slaves.  After uprisings became more regular, states began to enact strict measures to repress them.  South Carolina was especially restrictive on slaves as rebellions occurred mainly in the South.  In addition, manumission laws became ever more difficult.  Jackson noted that times gradually got harder on him and other slaves.  This ultimately leading to his desire to start a new life of freedom.

The most fascinating part of Jackson’s story is that of his escape from slavery beginning in 1846.  He made the decision to flee South Carolina after his family had been sold off.  It was quite the harrowing experience.  During a three day Christmas break he was able to flee his plantation and make it to Charleston.  Once there, he started working as a dockhand on the wharf to make some extra money which was commonplace during that time.  He decided that he would stow away onto a boat headed to Boston.  The Fugitive Slave Laws being enacted at this time sent a fear amongst the enslaved causing for less runaways for fear of death.  Yet it was that same fear which led Jackson to flee his bonds.  A few men saw him and questioned him about who he belonged to.  His answer was that he belonged to South Carolina.  (Jackson, 26).  This satisfied the men and he was able to get on the vessel.  A day after setting sail Jackson revealed himself to the crew who were highly suspicious of him and repeatedly asked him if a white man had stowed him away thus getting them in trouble.  Once in Boston he managed again to sneak away from capture.  He stayed in Boston a few months living in a boarding house and working to earn money.   He eventually made it to Salem where he made his home and worked in the tanning yards.

He recalls the feeling of redemption and becoming his own master by earning this freedom in 1846 (Jackson, 28).  He tries to purchase his family members by corresponding with his former master.  This caused his master to send a slave agent to go to Boston and return him. So, Jackson is forced to go into hiding.  In addition to this, the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted in 1850 which called for any slave which had fled could legally be returned to his master as part of the Compromise of 1850.  This further made Jackson vulnerable to being re-enslaved.  This fear led to Jackson’s decision to move to Canada, ending up in New Brunswick.  Interestingly, he had the assistance of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Stowe worked against the Fugitive Slave Laws and housed fleeing slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. While in Canada, Jackson remarried and then ten years after his successful escape he returns to Boston in another attempt to free his family members.  He goes around trying to gain funds.  He traveled to Britain and Scotland in 1857 where he along with other abolitionists gave lectures on the evils of slavery and telling his story before his narrative was published. [4]  Jackson remains in London until the Civil War and then returns to his home state of South Carolina where he continues his anti-slavery efforts.  This truly exemplifies how obtaining his own freedom was not enough for Jackson.  His actual life’s goal was to witness abolition for all enslaved peoples.

There are several testimonials at the end of the book which speak to Jackson’s character and thus verify the quality and truthfulness of his account (Jackson 45-48).  This was essentially required of all slave narratives to show a mostly white audience that the narrative had been edited and that the author was deemed trustworthy by the community at large.

Jackson’s story continually addresses the oppression he faced and the hypocrisy surrounding him and countless others.  Christianity, he notes throughout the narrative, was always present and used to justify slavery.  However, he used it to escape such harsh conditions and uplift himself and work for abolition the remainder of his life.

1. “Slavery in America.” 2012. The History Channel website. Dec 11 2012,  http://www.history.com/topics/slavery.

2. Padgett, Jeffrey K. “The Slave Trade.” Slave Resistance, A Caribbean Study. Dec 11, 2012, http://scholar.library.miami.edu/slaves/slave_trade/individual_essays/jeffrey.html

3. Jackson, John Andrew. The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1862. Print.

4. Ripley, C. Peter, et al., eds. The Black Abolitionist Papers, Vol. I: The British Isles, 1830-1865, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1985, 427-429.

5. Image 1: http://americanrtl.org/files/images/slaves-persons-not-property.jpg

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