Michigan State University

Slavery, African-Americans, Native Americans

In the 1830s, abolitionists began to argue that slavery was a sin. This position created division amongst the Protestant sects. The American Sunday School Union had taken a carefully non-committal position with respect to slavery but as particular groups began to take decisive positions in their children's literature all positions subject to criticism. The American Sunday School Union received criticism from abolitionist Massachusetts church groups and Pro-Slavery church groups in the South, especially after Nat Turner's revolt in 1831. Slavery presented a dilemma for the Sunday School Union in its attempt to forge a national Sunday school culture precisely because it was defined as the central moral issue of the day. Abolitionists forced Protestants to decide whether or not slavery was a sin, and if so, then to judge members' conduct accordingly. In other words, the division over slavery within the country ran through churches and children's books.

Since much of our collection is northern in origin, readers will find a predominantly anti-slavery position worked out largely on theological grounds. But as the issue of slavery came to be a moral touchstone many other issues were discussed in terms of slavery. A homicide case involving a black man, like that found in Black Jacob will discuss his condition in terms of the moral evil of chattel slavery. Even an advice book for girls, Daniel Eddy's The Young Woman's Friend, uses slavery to criticize the unequal relations between men and women in marriage. He points out that enslaved women have less protection than had married women in the Bible. Slavery, Eddy argues, reduced what was 'man's equal' into a station where she has no protection. In a double-edged comment he says that, "Women whiter than yourselves, and fairer too, perchance, are sold at auction to the highest bidder." He also charges a slave-trading society with a general hypocrisy. What does it matter to be saved on Sunday if on Monday one continues to trade in human beings? What does is mean that the Monday morning shouts of the slave auctioneer drown out "the Sabbath words of the Episcopal, Presbyterian and Baptist church of Negro"? One can see how in the context of giving advice to young women Eddy was attempting a broader social critique. The country, he argued, could not long tolerate the hypocrisy of slavery sanctioned by religious authority. Eddy closes with a reminder of how the practice is even sanctioned by religious authorities. He quotes Longfellow's "The Warning" from Poems on Slavery (1842)

    Beware! The Israelite of old, who tore

        The lion in his path, --when, poor and blind,

    He saw the blessed light of heaven no more,

        Shorn of his noble strength, and forced to grind

    In prison, and at last led forth to be

    A pander to Philistine revelry,
    Upon the pillars of the temple laid

        His desperate hands, and in its overthrow

    Destroyed himself, and with him those who made

        A cruel mockery of his sightless woe;

    The poor, blind Slave, the scoff and jest of all,

    Expired, and thousands perished in the fall!
    There is a poor, blind Samson in this land,

        Shorn of his strength, and bound in bonds of steel,

    Who may, in some grim revel, raise his hand,

        And shake the pillars of the Commonweal,

    Till the vast Temple of our liberties

    A shapeless mass of wreck and rubbish lies.

In this way, even in books directed at children, the issue of slavery became the litmus test of religious authority.

Racism was also addressed in this literature and where it was challenged without condescension (however rare) it was done so on scriptural grounds. Jacob Hodges is an outcast redeemed by the bible. In The African Woman, little Mary is instructed not to hate a black woman because "God has told us to love everybody in the world." Racism, of course, was widespread and one will find that through the lens of biblical tolerance, one will perceive racial prejudice and condescension. But in the directive to love everyone, one at least can imagine the possibility of a radical form of fellowship.

The Native American figures marginally in this collection. One text listed below, The Indian Chief and The Little White Boy (1857), appears to be based on an actual account of Indian and White relations in New York State. It is a story of rapprochement, or friendship springing from détente. One can find fault with a number of inaccuracies in the generalizations it makes about native Americans but it is interesting in that it runs counter to the more hostile fantasies of western tribes that would become popular in the dime novels of the 1860s.

— Stephen Rachman, Department of English, Michigan State University

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