The Negro Race in America

FOR the first time, an educated colored man in America has undertaken to write the history of his race. There have been fragmentary books, such as Mr. W. C. Nell’s Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, Dr. William W. Brown’s The Black Man, and The Negro in the Rebellion, besides the work on Emancipation, its Cause and Progress, lately written by Mr. Joseph T. Wilson, and printed at the Hampton school. There is also the encyclopaedic volume called A Tribute to the Negro, and published by an Englishman, Mr. Wilson Armistead, some forty years ago. But none of these can compare in extent of plan or general merit of execution with the elaborate work by Mr. George W. Williams, of which the first volume lies before us.1 If we frankly point out its defects as well as its merits, it is because its author has honestly aimed to place it on that high plane where it can be judged by the standard of its absolute worth, without any sort of reference to “ race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” To criticise it thus impartially is a recognition of its value.

Its author, Mr. George W. Williams, was educated for the ministry, as he states, at the Baptist seminary in Newton, Mass. He has since, as we understand, fought in the war for the Union, practiced law in Ohio, and been a member of the legislature of that State. He has had access to the State Library of Ohio, to the Congressional Library at Washington, and to the library of the New York Historical Society. He has had the friendship and advice of Dr. George H. Moore and Mr. J. Austin Allibone. The seven years bestowed upon his book have in themselves been a liberal education, and have left him far better trained at the end than he was at the beginning. The general plan and arrangement of the work are excellent, and a mere look at the table of contents will show that it is well arranged and methodically worked out. It is carefully annotated, fully indexed, and well printed and bound. It is, in short, in all externals, a most creditable and presentable book.

When we enter on the early chapters, the impression is less encouraging. For the author to base his whole view upon such a frank assumption as “ It is fair to presume that God gave all the races of mankind civilization to start with ” (i. 22) is to place himself on ground quite apart from anything that can be called science. Nor is the detailed treatment any more satisfactory ; it is not apparent that the author at all recognizes the amount of learning now needed to discuss such problems as The Unity of Mankind, or The Negro in the Light of Philology ; and the few authorities he cites — such as Blumenbach, Prichard, Smyth, Nott, Gliddon — are somewhat superseded. His view of the present condition of Africa is better, but still very inadequate. He does not, for instance, make any reference to the extraordinary progress and influence of Mohammedanism among the native tribes. Nor does his information give us all we need to know about those races which he describes most fully. For instance, he mentions the Yorubas, and tells us something about that remarkable man, Rev. Samuel Crowther, but does not so much as mention his Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language (London, 1852), a book whose remarkable collection of native proverbs has given the tribe a place in literature. Some of Mr. Williams’s generalizations, too, are very hasty and sweeping, as when he says, “ The great majority of Negroes in Africa are both orators and logicians ” (p. 75) ; or, “ It is a fact that all uncivilized nations are warlike ” (p. 61) ; or, “ The children [in Africa] are very noble in their relation to their mothers,” to which he presently adds, “ The old are venerated, and when they become sick they are abandoned to die alone ” (p. 83). His unbounded admiration for the Christian humanity of Mr. Henry M. Stanley will not be universally accepted ; and he is occasionally betrayed into such slips of style as to say of Mr. Winwood Reade, “ He is a good writer, but sometimes gets real funny! ” (p. 61).

If we frankly mention these defects, it is to emphasize the fact that Mr. Williams’s book grows better as it goes on. The chapters on Sierra Leone and Liberia are decidedly superior to the more miscellaneous pages which precede them ; and when he comes to his own proper ground, the Negro Race in America, a still further improvement is shown. The chapters on slavery in the colonies represent much original work, and are uniformly, though not equally, valuable.

One sees at a glance that Mr. Williams has built largely on the labors of his predecessors. His treatment of the military services of the negroes is based on the admirable work of the late George Livermore ; but adds to it. His discussion of slavery in Massachusetts is mainly founded on the elaborate work of Dr. G. H. Moore. As a natural consequence, each of these departments is treated on a larger scale than the rest of the book; and the author has been, in some cases, hindered as well as helped by the authority he has followed. This is especially the case with what he has drawn from Dr. Moore, who, while eminent among historical scholars, has a strong controversial tendency, which makes him a dangerous guide for an inexperienced writer. Accordingly, we find this polemic tone exaggerated, not diminished, in his disciple. This is a pity, for the work of Dr. Moore, which called out some controversy in its day, has now been generally accepted as a very important contribution to the theme it treats, and does not gain by having its militant aspect revived and intensified, sixteen years later. Besides, there is a great difference, both in manner and in weight of metal, between the original champion and his imitator. Dr. Moore, though sometimes sharp, was rarely discourteous ; and he was, at any rate, dealing with men who, like himself, , belonged to the guild of mature and experienced scholars, and who, moreover, were still living. Mr. Williams, on the other hand, has to do with men now dead, to whose standing and attainments a young writer owes at least the tribute of respect; and yet it cannot be denied that where Dr. Moore is sharp Mr. Williams is simply pert. To show this a single extract will suffice, premising that the subject under discussion is the date of the introduction of slavery into Massachusetts : —

“ But there is n't the least fragment of history to sustain the hap-hazard statement of Emory Washburn that slavery existed in Massachusetts ' from the time Maverick was found dwelling on Noddle’s Island, in 1630.’ We are sure this assertion lacks the authority of historical data. It is one thing for a historian to think certain events happened at a particular time, but it is quite another thing to be able to cite authority in proof of the assertion. But no doubt Mr. Washburn relies upon Mr. Palfrey, who refers his reader to Mr. Josselyn.

Palfrey says, ‘Before Winthrop’s arrival, there were two negro slaves in Massachusetts, held by Mr. Maverick, on Noddle’s Island’” (i. 175-6).

Now this passage includes a series of unfortunate misstatements, and is marked by the greatest unfairness. The extract from Dr. Palfrey’s history is apparently transferred by Mr. Williams from Dr. Moore’s History of Slavery in Massachusetts, where it is contradicted in the same way. Now Dr. Moore’s history was published in 1866 ; and his citation from Dr. Palfrey’s work, as originally published in 1860, was correctly given. But Dr. Moore accidentally overlooked the fact that no such statement existed in the edition of 1865, which was already before the public when his own book was published. Dr. Palfrey had seen reason to doubt the correctness of his own inference, and had altered the words “ before Winthrop’s arrival ” to the more careful phrase “before the year 1639,” thus disarming Dr. Moore’s criticism in advance. It might fairly be said that Dr. Moore, as a librarian and careful historian, was bound to take note of this correction, though he published his book only a year after the change had been made. No man should make a citation for purposes of controversy without verifying it in the latest edition of his author. But if even Dr. Moore must be convicted of an oversight, how much greater the oversight of Mr. Williams ! He publishes a book in 1883, and selects for severe criticism, in the great work of Palfrey, a sentence which has not stood in its pages for eighteen years; and has, indeed, been twice altered, for the present editions give “1638” instead of “ 1639.”

So much for that part of the passage above quoted which relates to Palfrey; now let us consider that part relating to the other writer criticised. Mr. Williams says that Judge Washburn “ no doubt ” relies upon Dr, Palfrey for his statement as to early slavery. But if he had taken the pains simply to look at the dates of the books he quotes, he would have found that Judge Washburn’s statement was published in 1858, and the second volume of Dr. Palfrey’s history — which is the volume cited — in 1860. The fable of the wolf and the lamb is not clearer than that, under these circumstances, it must rather have been the Doctor who relied upon the Judge. But, beyond this, Mr. Williams here again commits an unfairness, very much like that of which he was before guilty. Judge Washburn’s early work was but preliminary to a much more elaborate lecture on Slavery in Massachusetts, printed in the Historical Society’s Lowell Lectures in 1869. In that lecture — published, be it observed, fourteen years before Mr. Williams’s book — Judge Washburn follows Dr. Palfrey in modifying his original statement, and says only, “ When Josslyn was here in 1638 he found Mr. Maverick the owner of three slaves. He probably acquired them from a ship which brought some slaves from the West Indies in that year” (Lowell Lectures, page 207) ; this being precisely the statement also made by Mr. Williams. It thus appears that Mr. Williams quotes from two eminent authors an early misapprehension, which they themselves had separately corrected, ignores the fact of these alterations, and claims for himself the merit of the revised statement.

It is peculiarly unfortunate for Mr. Williams that he should not have seen this later lecture by Professor Washburn, both because it is one of the most elaborate essays on the subject, and because it traverses some of the most important positions assumed by Dr. Moore and too implicitly followed by Mr. Williams. But this is not the only error of the kind by our author. He not merely ignores some of the most important assertions of others, but he ignores his own. For example, after citing with just praise the bill passed in Connecticut in October, 1774, aimed against the slave-trade, — but not, as Mr. Williams implies, against slavery itself, — he says, —

“ The above bill was brief, but pointed ; and showed that Connecticut was the only one of the New England colonies that had the honesty and courage to legislate against slavery ” (i. 261).

And yet it appears, by his own previous pages, that the Massachusetts legislature had passed three different bills to prohibit the slave-trade, — one in 1771 and two in 1774, — all of which failed only because the royal governor refused to sign them. This is only an instance of the curious feeling of petty hostility to Massachusetts which runs through all Mr. Williams’s colonial chapters. The feeling is curious, because, by his own statement, he owes his education largely to the institutions of Massachusetts, and ought at least to do her common justice ; and the hostility is petty, because he overlooks the result and cavils at the ups and downs of the process. Few will now claim that there was in Massachusetts, at any rate during the provincial period, any very general elevation of tone above the other colonies, upon the slavery question. But after the Revolution the matter can be tested by results; and any question over the phases of the contest becomes trivial, in view of the fact that Massachusetts succeeded where others had failed. By Mr. Williams’s own showing (i. 436) the census of 1790 reported slaves in every State of the Union, save Massachusetts alone. Tho final test of the battle is the victory. The world has never found much time to listen to those who argue that Wellington was, after all, a poor general, and ought not to have happened to conquer at Waterloo. To add on the next page that Vermont, because it came into the Union im 1791 with an antislavery constitution, was therefore “ the first one to abolish and prohibit slavery in North America ” is idle. In 1790 Massachusetts was without a slave, whereas at a previous period she had had some five thousand. Whether the change was brought about by legislation or by custom is a mere matter for Dryasdusts. If to be voluntarily without slaves, after having once held them, is not to have abolished slavery, what is ?

But it is not alone where Mr. Williams has a case to make out that he is tempted to hasty assumptions. Not only does he begin his history with 1619, and make no allusion whatever to the fact that negro slavery was first introduced on what is now United States soil by the Spaniards at St. Augustine in 1565, but he seems to suppose that he is announcing something new in stating that the first slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619. He says that “nearly all ” writers on American history, “ except the laborious and scholarly Bancroft and the erudite Campbell,” have made the mistake of assigning 1620 as the date. But it was, in truth, the laborious and scholarly Bancroft who, by employing the incorrect date in more than a dozen successive editions of his history, did more than anybody else to set later writers on the wrong track. As a matter of fact, the error has long since been thoroughly corrected even by Mr. Bancroft himself, and the current school manuals of American history now give the correct date. Mr. Williams’s own theory, which he says “ we are strangely moved to believe,” that the actual landing may have been, after all, in 1618, is not very clearly stated by him, and seems to have little foundation.

To the chapter on the Military Employment of Negroes we can give hearty praise. Though necessarily founding his work upon the monograph of Mr. Livermore, the present author has greatly amplified that, has followed up references and authorities, and has made faithful use of the new matter which has since accumulated. Where, for instance, Mr. Livermore obtained from the Rhode Island archives manuscript copies of some papers in regard to General Varnum’s project of raising a negro battalion in 1778, Mr. Williams has the whole archives at his command, they having been mainly printed during the twenty years since Livermore wrote. The later chapters of the book are excellent, but it is a little hurried toward the close, and omits much that is important. This is especially true in regard to the literature of the subject. The author does not even mention the books which did most to mould public sentiment and rouse humane feeling toward the negro race. He not only names, but reprints, that noble protest by Samuel Sewall, entitled The Selling of Joseph, published in 1700, which, taken in connection with his unique Diary and his brave self-humiliation after the witchcraft trials, will make him more and more famous as time goes on, as being not merely the Pepys of his generation, but its most heroic figure. Mr. Williams also refers to the antislavery pamphlets of Appleton, Swan, Coleman, and Salisbury. But there were publications far more influential, which he does not mention. He does not speak of John Woolman’s Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (Philadelphia, 1754), or its sequel in 1762. He does not allude to Benjamin Rush’s Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave Keeping (Philadelphia and Boston, 1773) ; or his larger pamphlet, vindicating this from a criticism “ by a West Indian ” in the same year. He does not speak of the Forensic Dispute at Harvard College in 1773, on The Legality of Enslaving the Africans ; or of William Pinckney’s noble speech made before the Maryland House of Delegates in November, 1787 ; or of the sermon by Jonathan Edwards, on The Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave-Trade, preached at New Haven, Ct., September 15, 1791. He might well have mentioned also the remarkable Letter to George Washington on his Continuing to be a Proprietor of Slaves, by Edward Rushton, which appeared at Liverpool in 1797. But with whatever defects of omission and commission, the author has produced a work of great value; one that will be a treasury of facts for future students, and greatly facilitate their work, although it will inevitably be superseded in time by a history prepared with yet fuller research, more careful literary training, and a more judicial spirit.

  1. A History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880. By GEORGE W. WILLIAMS. In two volumes. Vol. I. 1619-1800New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1883.