FROM MUM BET TO OLD BROWN.
Instead of moralising on the old truth of the small beginnings of great revolutions, the insignificance of the movers of mighty changes, let us look at perhaps the most striking illustration of the fact that modern society presents. The story has not yet got into history; but we may feel sure that it will, as soon as the revolution is complete, if not before.
Just a hundred years ago, when colonial society in America was at that stage so pleasantly described by the late Mrs. Grant of Laggan, in her “Memoirs of an American Lady,” the wealthier class of northern citizens lived somewhat more like the planters of the South than they do now. They all held slaves, and talked of the patriarchal character of the institution with more reason than the cotton and sugar producers of a brisk commercial age.
They farmed, in a manner; and they took life very easily, and let their negroes take it easily too. There was nowhere the same pressure on the labourers that there has been since our cotton manufacture arose and spread; and in the northern states especially the driving activity of modern American life was not dreamed of. The negroes were rarely over-worked: they had often too little to do; and the great evil of their condition (after the mighty evil inherent in all slavery, of the forfeiture of manhood itself) was, that they were subject to the humours of their owners.
A hundred years ago, then, when Mrs. Grant’s relative was leading the remarkable country-life exhibited in the memoir, the gentry of the State of New York were always finding that their negroes increased upon their hands when they had not sufficient employment for them; and, in order not to be eaten out of house and home, they sold or gave away the superfluous children born on their estates.
Two young sisters were sold in this way into the State of Massachusetts, being bought by Colonel Ashley of Sheffield, a small country settlement. Their parents had been brought from Africa, and the children had derived no education from them or from anybody else. They had no notion of reading and writing; but they seem to have had notions as clear as the atmosphere of Africa of whatever they did attend to.
This time hundred years Elizabeth was eighteen years old; a strong hearty girl, fond of activity of all sorts, and valuable not only on that account but because of her quietness and silence. As afterwards appeared, her rule of life was “keepin’ still and mindin’ things.” And thus she gave no trouble, made no mischief, and was always up to the occasion. Such was the account which her owners would have given of her a century since; but they were not aware that this quiet girl — Mum Bet, as she was called through life — would be the means of determining the destinies of their great country, after a century or more of its national existence. They did not then suspect that they were about to become a nation; that their government would be a federal republic; that then slaves would be a canker at the core of their republicanism; that the alternative would, in time, be surrendering the liberties of the whites or the slavery of the blacks; and that this alternative was to be decided for them, unconsciously and long in advance, by this black damsel, Mum Bet, whom they did not bestow a thought upon as she waited behind their chairs when they dined with each other. All this was in the future, except the girl and her excellent faculties.
Her use of her faculties may be seen in her behaviour on an occasion which occurred later on in her life, after the country became disturbed by war and the local troubles which attended it. She was nursing, in severe illness, the wife of Judge Sedgwick, in the country — the Judge being at Boston on business. There were nightly apprehensions throughout the State from the visits of the Marauders, as they were called — bands of lawless men, who entered and plundered the houses of country gentlemen by night, on pretence of searching for ammunition and prisoners. Nobody could conjecture when they would come; and the gentlemen were obliged to be in Boston, taking the chance of their homes not being entered in their absence. The valley of the Housatonic depended on Mum Bet for its safety when the heads of families were away. Her common sense was a match for all the powers of evil, in the view of her neighbours; and the administration of the public safety was, by common consent, placed in her hands.
She declared she could have no cowards hanging about her. Anybody that was afraid must be off. She sent children and timid women up into the hills at sunset, to sleep in farm-houses that were secure from attack. She accepted the charge of all the gold watches, rings, and other small valuables which the neighbours wished to preserve. She stowed them all in an iron chest in her garret, and arranged everything for the expected intrusion. The great fear was that the fellows would drink and be riotous: and this was the danger that Mum Bet first addressed herself to. She put all the spirits and wine behind several rows of bottled porter, took out the corks to make the porter flat, and put them in again. She hid away all candles and candle sticks but one, and that she determined to carry herself.
She loaded the pistols, and fully intended to lead the Marauders to believe that the gentlemen were at home, by the number of shots fired at the intruders. To save Mrs. Sedgwick from intrusion was her object: but when the moment came, Mrs. Sedgwick insisted on the people being admitted without a shot. Mum Bet was to the last degree reluctant; but, as she must open the door, she did it with a fire-shovel in one hand, and with the assurance that neither the Judge was there nor any ammunition or prisoners. They said they would ascertain this for themselves, and would have taken the light. She held it back, and said she would light them wherever they chose to go, but would not part with the candlestick. That was the way to the cellars, and this was the way to the chambers. Which did they prefer?
They chose the cellars first, and, as she had anticipated, rushed upon the “liquor.” One broke the neck of a bottle; for which Mum Bet rebuked him, saying she would bring them a corkscrew, if they wished to drink like gentlemen, but that the next who broke a bottle should feel the edge of her shovel. One and another tasted, and made wry faces at the flat porter, saying that gentlemen had odd tastes to like such bitter stuff, and that spirits were infinitely better. The reply to which was, that the sort of gentlemen who lived here did not drink spirits.
The intruders helped themselves to pickled pork out of a barrel which stood at the foot of the cellar-stairs; but they were so stung by Mum Bet’s sarcasm about coming for ammunition and prisoners, and taking up with pickled pork, that they threw back their booty into the barrel. Next followed a pretended search of the chambers, where they thrust their bayonets under the beds. It so happened that there was nothing visible which was worth carrying off; and Mum Bet hoped they were going away when they turned up-stairs to the garret. In here the chest attracted their attention, and some one observed that it looked as if it had something in it.
Mum Bet put down the light, and kneeled on the chest, shovel in hand, saying, “This is my chist, and let any man try to touch it, and see what he will get!” A negro woman’s chest was not thought worth the venture, and the owner had the satisfaction of lighting the party down to the hall door. There they were met by an officious young lady, a visitor in the house, who deprived Mum Bet of the glory of sending them away empty handed. She asked them if they would like to see the stables, which occasioned the loss of one or more horses. Mum Bet was provoked to speech, saying that if she had thought “the pesky fool” would have done such a thing, she would have turned the horses loose in the meadow overnight, knowing that they would come at her call in the morning.
This anecdote — one among many — shows what this woman was made of. The story has been told before: but its significance as an illustration of character, and the further story of what she achieved, appear in a different aspect, under the light of recent events, from that in which her merits and services were inscribed upon the gravestone which covers her remains in the outcast division of the churchyard of the valley which she protected.
Colonel Ashley’s lady was not amiable enough to be trusted with human property. She one day struck at Mum Bet’s sister with a heated shovel, which did not hurt the sister because Mum Bet, always ready, caught the blow upon her arm. She carried to her grave this brand of slavery; but it gave liberty to multitudes. She acted as a free person would have done. She left the house, and refused to return. Colonel Ashley appealed to the law for the recovery of his slave.
The slave opened to Judge Sedgwick, to his infinite astonishment, her purpose of claiming her liberty under the law. Nothing could seem more absurd to the lawyers: but the illiterate woman was right. In the “Bill o’ Rights,” she said, there was no distinction made among the people. To be human was enough: and she claimed to be free and equal with everybody else. Mr. Sedgwick undertook her cause, and gained it. It was tried at Great Barrington: and the result was that she was declared free, and entitled to compensation for her services from the age of twenty one.
This happened in 1772, when she was thirty years old. Her example was followed, with success, by so many slaves that society saw the absurdity of at once maintaining slavery and glorying in their Bill of Rights. They preferred the extension to the contraction of liberty, and soon abolished slavery in the State of Massachusetts.
The wonder was what Mum Bet could know about the “Bill o’ Rights.” She said it was owing to her “keepin’ still and mindin’ things.” She made it all out by listening to the conversation while waiting at table. She gathered the terms of the declaration, and common sense showed her her interest in them. Thus did emancipation begin by an untaught negro woman “keepin’ still and mindin’ things.”
Her lawyer asked her what he was to do with all the money she was now worth. She desired him to fee the lawyers well, and take care of the rest for her. No inducement could prevail on her to return to Colonel Ashley’s. She wanted to escape from the associations of slavery. She lived twenty years with the Sedgwicks, very happily, and married there, and lived to the age of eighty-five, taking care of a host of grandchildren. Her long life was full of good deeds; but the great fact of her having pulled up the first root of slavery is that by which she will be remembered through future generations.
This story is brought to mind just now by the setting in of a new phase in that decline of American slavery which was begun by Mum Bet. She died just before the advent of the most critical period of the fortunes of the great Republic, whose fortunes are, and for a time must be, bound up with the “peculiar institution” which Mum Bet could not tolerate. She died in 1829, when events were ripening for the change which was to come to pass in 1832.
She obtained her freedom, as we have seen, in 1772. The American Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in 1776. One of the provisions of the new law of the infant Republic was, that the slave-trade should cease in 1808; that is, the importation of native Africans: for the trade in slaves between the separate sovereign States of the Union has never been stopped.
During the term of Mum Bet’s free life, the condition of her countrymen in the Southern States was growing worse in proportion to the development of European manufactures and American trade. New tracts of territory were bought — as Louisiana and Florida — over which the praedial negroes were spread, as fast as they had worn out the soil in the older States. Then owners gained power in the Federal Government by allowing the North fiscal advantages in exchange for such power. It was in this way that the planters got leave to reckon three-fifths of all their slaves (women, children and all) as a part of the constituency which sent them to the legislature at Washington: and it was thus that they obtained the one single provision in the constitution of the Republic which recognised slavery: — that by which the citizens of all States were bound to catch and send back fugitive slaves; or, as they were daintily called, “persons held to labour and service, escaping into another State.”
During a course of weary years, the negroes were worked harder, treated less and less like “family retainers,” and more and more like farm stock, till, when Lafayette paid a visit to the country in 1825, he remarked with sorrow the debased condition of the negroes, saying that when he was there before, the negroes used to live in the camp with the white soldiers, and bivouac with them on the march, and fight side by side with them in the field: whereas now they had been pressed down into a more injurious slavery, and were hated, according to the old rule, that men hate those whom they have injured.
Then came the long series of insurrections, at last averaging twelve in a year, including the great and small risings in all the slave States. That series closed with the fearful Southampton massacre of 1831 — two years after Mum Bet was in her grave. In that rising above seventy whites were slain by negroes. Even then, there were planters who believed themselves safe, unaware that the old “patriarchal” feeling had long been worn out, by the increased sufferings of the “retainers.”
A kind-hearted gentleman of Virginia told a guest from the North, at the very time of the Southampton rising, that it was a mistake to suppose that there was not a perfect understanding between masters and slaves; and he proposed to put this to the test on the spot. He summoned his confidential negro — his head manager — asked him if he knew what had happened at Southampton, and that the insurgents were coming that way; found he knew all about it; told him that he should depend on him to defend the house and its inmates; and was startled at the countenance and silence of the man. He proceeded:
“If I arm you, you will protect my family?”
“Do yon mean, that if the Southampton negroes come here, you will join them?”
The master was broken-hearted. The earth had yawned under his feet, and swallowed up all his hope and confidence. A new period, however, was opening, though he and all others were unaware of it. The Southampton rising was the last for a quarter of a century: and the one which occurred in 1857 was induced if not imagined by the slave-holders. Their political orators had expatiated in public on the certainty of abolition if Colonel Fremont became President, so as to excite great agitation among the negroes: but it was not a planned insurrection.
In 1832, four men, citizens of Massachusetts, met in a poor garret, and sat with their feet upon a wood-pile, resolving that slavery, the curse of their country, should be abolished: and to work they went, in a peaceable way, to enlighten public opinion. Their opening appeal, in the first number of their newspaper, is a historical document which will move the souls of future generations. Up to that time, nothing had been done in the direction of emancipation, since the northern States had freed their slaves; though one measure had been attempted for expatriating troublesome negroes to Africa.
From 1832 onwards, there was a manifest improvement in the material treatment of slaves, from the eyes of the nation and the world being directed upon their condition. In some States there were relaxations in their favour; in others, fresh restrictions on their liberties. But hope had now arisen among them: and the immediate consequence was a truce to insurrection. They believed that more could be done for them by their friends in the free States than they could do for themselves, and they waited — except those who could get away.
They brought up their children in the knowledge of the north star, which was to guide them some day to the free land of Canada. More and more escaped every year, till an agency was established — called the Underground Railroad — by which fugitive slaves were succoured and forwarded to Canada. This was not the business of the abolitionist body; because that body contends with the vicious principle of slavery by means of opinion only; but there were always friends along the lines taken by fugitives.
From the increase of escapes, and the growth of opinion, arose legislation in Congress. In 1832, it was said by the leading statesmen there that the subject of slavery would never be heard of in Congress. It was all but excluded from the constitution (entirely so in words), and so it would ever be from Congress. Before twenty years had passed, there was never a debate in Congress which did not issue in some discussion of slavery; and then ensued the passage of laws — the Fugitive Slave Law, for one — which are declared unconstitutional by so many of the citizens that there can be no rest while they are enforced.
Several States have repudiated them by their own legislation — by personal liberty laws irreconcileable with those of Congress. The impending question is, in fact, whether the obnoxious laws which force the defence of slavery on the whole nation shall be nullified by slavery ceasing to be a national institution; or whether the free States shall compel the slave States to abolish slavery altogether.
Of late, however, a great change has been working, opening a new prospect to all parties. While the politicians were busy, the friends of free labour were obtaining a better position for the negro in society. There were always free negroes who were rich and educated, and their number has greatly increased. The common schools of Massachusetts are now open to children of all complexions, without distinction. Many churches, railway carriages, and hotels are now open also. The free blacks hold annual conventions, at which they organise their opposition to all schemes for inducing them to leave their country, on any pretence whatever, while there is a slave of their race on its soil.
While these people have been rising, the slaveholders have been sinking in fortunes. Their whole number, according to the census returns, is 350,000, out of the 27,000,000 of the population. Seven-tenths of the white population of the slave States are persons too poor to hold slaves, and for the most part descendants of old families once prosperous. A most singular conflict has begun between these two classes of white residents.
Various incidents, and particularly the publication of a remarkable book,* have aroused the “poor whites” — or “mean whites,” as they are locally called — to a sense of their wretched condition: and their first idea was, naturally, that it was hard that the possession of slaves should be monopolised by a very few planters — an exceedingly small aristocracy. Hence the recent cry for the re-opening of the African slave-trade. At the same time, it has been found impossible to obtain in any direction the new soil which is necessary to the maintenance of slavery.
* Helper’s “Impending Crisis of the South.”
In the southwest, not only does a desert without water come up to the frontier line of Texas, but in Texas itself the free labour of Germans and other intelligent cultivators is gaining largely on slave labour by being more profitable. The attempt to introduce slavery into Kansas has more than failed: it has prepared Missouri for emancipation. All this makes the slaveholders more tenacious than ever of their monopoly; and to preserve it they are actually joining political forces with Northern parties to obtain an anti-slavery President at the next election. They oppose the slave trade: they give up the idea of new territory; and they desire a President who shall be in favour of confining the institution within its present bounds, as to both space and numbers.
But the frontier States — those which border on the free States — ask what they are to do, now that thousands of slaves are escaping from them and through them, and that they are sure of being the sufferers in any conflict between their neighbours on either hand. Some have long been selling away their negroes to the extreme South; some have tried the plan of oppressing the free blacks, and either expatriating or enslaving them, because their very presence prepares men’s minds for seeing negroes freed. But, on the whole, the inhabitants of that line of country are disposed to cast in their lot with the North, whenever the time comes for a final decision of the question.
Such is the state of affairs when Old Brown — Old Ossawatomie, as he is called at home — appears upon the scene. A little time will show whether he may shake hands with Mum Bet over a lapse of ninety years, as a finisher of her work, or whether he has increased the difficulty of it by a grave mistake.
Brown is a “son of the Puritans” (as New England men call themselves), bearing a thorough likeness to his forefathers. He went forth into Kansas, with his train of sons, to fight for the freedom of the soil: and he, and such men as he, achieved it. Always armed, usually in the saddle, stern, calm, silent, except when he had to say burning words, he baffled and defeated the “Border Ruffians” from over the frontier, with the loss of several sons, and to the confirmation of his interior persuasion that he was the destined liberator of American slaves.
He discovered that in Missouri, whence the “Border Ruffians” came, slavery was becoming unpopular; and that the majority of the inhabitants would be glad to begin, at any moment, paying wages to their negroes, and leaving them free to manage their own affairs. He found these citizens fully aware, too, that the value of slaves as capital is only nominal, — their supposed value passing into the land at the moment of the labourer becoming free. Land is valueless in the slave States, when there are no slaves upon it. The Missouri people showed their opinions and wishes by electing anti-slavery representatives. Then Brown began helping away the slaves of the opponents of a change. By his own account, he enabled a great number to reach Canada.
All this while it was well known that in Western Virginia the landowners, — farmers living on high table-land, — had always found slavery injurious, and had for many years petitioned and struggled for some form of emancipation. It was notorious also that the frontier State of Maryland could no longer retain its slaves, who were always running away: and that the Courts were inflicting the most ferocious punishments on seamen and others who were supposed to have favoured the escape of negroes. This ferocity, and various proposed severities towards free negroes, betrayed the sense of insecurity which existed in Maryland.
Harper’s Ferry is a singularly beautiful spot, at the entrance of the Alleghenies, where the two great rivers, the Potomac and the Shenandoah, form a junction, and treat the traveller with the last chorus of many waters before he enters upon the retreats of the mountain range. Thither come the farmers of Western Virginia, when they have to enter upon the lower world; and thither come the Maryland and Lower Virginian slaveholders when they want to pass westwards, or to seek a cool temperature in summer. It is just within the Virginian frontier, and precisely where Maryland is narrowest, so that Pennsylvania may be reached in a few hours.
Thither came old Brown, a year or more ago, after having buried his sons, and laid low his enemies in Kansas, and seen the soil safe from the intrusion of slavery, and put the Missouri people in the way of getting rid of what remained of the curse in their territory. It appears that he believed it to be the duty of his life to go wherever he could most effectually repeat this kind of effort. So he went to Harper’s Ferry, where, close upon Pennsylvania, where the free blacks are very flourishing, he could operate at once upon Maryland and Virginia.
If he had wished to raise a servile war, he would have gone down into the cotton States: but, as he says, he had no desire to kindle such horrors. He wished to free the slaves without bloodshed; — that is, by running them off. For a year he has lived, with two or three coadjutors, at a farm near Harper’s Ferry, maturing his schemes, and collecting arms and other resources for holding the ground while the negroes ran. If he had consulted the abolitionists (properly so called), they would have tried to dissuade him; for they have never favoured such methods. But Brown is a man who takes his own course, as men who believe themselves heaven-directed must naturally do.
How far he has been deceived by himself, and how far by others, time will perhaps show. It is certain that he expected the negroes to be more ready to start, and many more whites to be at his command, than he actually found. The negroes there were not field-negroes, nor numerous, and they were afraid to stir. So some say; while others believe that the “stampede” has been a very large one.
The great phenomenon in the case is, the intense terror which existed at Washington, eighty miles off, and through the slave States, when twenty-two men took possession of Harper’s Ferry on behalf of the negroes. Wherever there was previous dissatisfaction with the worn-out “peculiar institution,” it will surely be completely discredited now, as a cause of such penalties as the citizens of free States never have to pay.
Between the frantic terror in the whole range of slave States, and the astonishment in the North at the disclosure of so feeble a constitution of society; between the fantastic notions in Virginia of the views and conduct of the leading citizens of New York and New England, and the mingled indignation and amusement of New Yorkers and New Englanders at the imputations thrown out against them, there must be either a better understanding, or a decisive breach.
Either way, the wild and abortive attempt at Harper’s Ferry will probably be the proximate cause of the settlement of the great question of the existence of slavery in a democratic republic. The institution itself may run its chance of existence in the separate States, in competition with the free labour which is entering the field at all points; but, as a national institution, slavery is, in the opinion of all well-judging men, approaching its end.
Old Brown’s enterprise has, most unexpectedly, so affected the elections in the North, as to render the chances of an anti-slavery President stronger than they ever were before. If such a choice should be made, other States may do as Massachusetts did in Mum Bet’s time. If every citizen had leave to do what he would with his own, — to pay his negroes wages, instead of giving them food, clothing, and habitation, he would at once save money, find his fortunes rising, and hope again to keep the first place in the cotton-markets of the world.
Since it was proved by Government returns, that the value of the entire produce of the slave States, — cotton, tobacco, sugar, and everything else that is grown, — is less than the hay-crop alone of the free States, the planters have been as anxious as so small a minority of the nation might well be. If free-labour were made at once more accessible to them by the fall of the restrictive laws under which they live, the course would be open to them once more, and they would themselves free their labourers as fast as the friends of free government could wish. But this is their own affair. The national share in the institution is that which concerns both sections of the Union.
How stands the grey headed old man who has precipitated this question?
Old Brown thought only of freeing as many negroes as he could reach: and he attempted it in a wild sort of way, from which anybody whom he had consulted would have augured nothing but failure and destruction. Destruction to his own life will apparently be the result. He is sentenced to death; and will probably become a martyr, idolised by all negroes. But a failure his scheme is not. This is partly owing to his having applied an unexpected test to the security of a slave-holding society, under the circumstances of the time: and more perhaps to the influence of his personal bearing on all witnesses.
At first, he was with difficulty preserved from death at the hands of the citizens, though he lay on the ground wounded. By degrees, one citizen after another became interested in what he said, and inquisitive about what he thought. In a few hours, the great work was done; — he had opened a new world to a whole community. The Governor, Honourable Senators, chief citizens of every class, approached the old yeoman with deference, with gentleness, with overwhelming interest. They ceased to reproach him, and perhaps to pity him; and people out of doors began to think them bewitched. All this was because of the great discovery he had been the occasion of their making.
What was this discovery?
It was that a robust-minded yeoman, a Godfearing man, reared in the primitive course of Bible-study, who was pure from worldly aims, actually believed the personal freedom of men of any race a cause worth living and dying for. Under the coerced press, and the restricted preaching and literature of the slave States, such a notion had never found entrance to the understandings of the citizens, who had fancied all abolitionists to be thieves and cowards.
Old Brown’s devotedness to his cause, and his indifference to his own fate, at once fascinated every generous-minded man who came near him. His new admirers would have deferred his trial till he could obtain counsel of his own choice, and till he had somewhat recovered from his wounds: — wounds in the head, which at times impaired his memory: but the frightened community would hear of no delay; and Old Brown was carried on his bed into court.
My readers have probably seen some account of his trial; and have registered in their minds his short speech on receiving his sentence of death. The voice and manner of that speech will no more be forgotten on the spot than the matter and the words.
Before what I write is read in print, his fate for life or death will be known. Nothing short of the enthusiasm of his enemies could afford hope of his life (if indeed we may speak of hope when a childless man, so wretched and bereaved, may be abundantly willing to die): but there is obviously an expectation that the few will try their influence to save him against the rage and terror of the many. It will take a longer time to ascertain what he has really done for the cause to which he devoted himself in so desperate a way. The apprehension that he had done mischief, and set back the date of peace and safety, vanished at once. He has done no harm to the negroes. Probably he has rendered the best service possible to the masters, by bringing them to some understanding with their fellow-citizens of the other section. Time will show the rest.
Thus did Mum Bet introduce the remarkable series of periods which were to effect the emancipation of the negroes of North America; — and thus has Old Brown opened what we call the beginning of the end. Whatever the future fortunes of the Great Republic may be, the space begun and ended by these two original personages will be considered the true crisis of the moral fortunes of the community.
[While the above is going to press, the American Mail, which has just arrived, informs us, that the excitement in Virginia, arising out of the Harper’s Ferry affair, seems only abated for the instant, to revive with augmented energy. On the 17th ult. the most alarming accounts were forwarded from Charlestown to Richmond, to the effect that a movement for the liberation of Brown was hourly anticipated, and that various barns and sheds had been fired by confederates of the incarcerated martyr.
This exciting news produced the effect that was to be anticipated. Large bodies of troops were at once placed under arms at Richmond and at Alexandria, with orders to move next morning upon the scene of contemplated hostilities. The panic throughout the State suddenly attained the wildest stage. Indiscriminate arrests were made; the eye of partial justice fixing itself more especially upon the pedlars, who are to be found in every village and upon every road. Several of these were imprisoned; and the pursuit of them appeared to be universal. These incidents are a further disclosure of the importance ascribed to Brown and his attempt by politicians in the United States. While Englishmen, for the most part, look upon it as a desperate and chimerical venture, in the States its political consequences are more fearfully apprehended.
Ed. O. A W, December 1859.]
John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist who believed armed insurrection was the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States.
Elizabeth Freeman (c.1744—December 28, 1829), also known as Bet or Mum Bett, was the first black slave to file and win a freedom suit a in Massachusetts.