Intensely Human


“ The uttered part of a man’s life, let us always repeat, bears to the unuttered, unconscious part a small unknown proportion. He himself never knows it, much less do others.”— Carlyle’s Essay on Scott.

WHEN Major-General Rufus Saxton, then military governor of South Carolina, was solving triumphantly the original problem of the emancipated slaves, he was frequently interrupted by long lists of questions from Northern philanthropists as to the progress of his enterprise. They inquired especially as to the peculiar tastes, temptations, and perils of the newly emancipated race. After receiving one unusually elaborate catechism of this kind, he said rather impatiently to his secretary, “Draw a line across that whole list of questions about the freedmen, and write at the bottom, ' They are intensely human, ’ ” which was done. In those four words is given, in my opinion, the whole key to that problem perennially reviving, — the so-called “negro question.”

There prevailed, nearly sixty years ago, at the outset of the anti-slavery movement, a curious impression that the only people who understood the negro were those who had seen him in a state of subjection, and that those who advocated his cause at the North knew nothing about him. A similar delusion prevails at the present day, and not alone among those born and bred in the Southern states. I find in a book, otherwise admirable, — the Life of Whittier, by Professor G. R. Carpenter of Columbia College, — that the biographer not only speaks of the original anti-slavery movement as “extravagant and ill-informed ” (page 173), but says of Whittier and his associates, “Of the real negro, his capacities and limitations, he had, like his fellows, only a dim idea, based largely on theoretic speculation ” (page 179). But, as a matter of fact, the whole movement originated with men who had learned by personal observation that the negro was intensely human, and found all necessary knowledge to be included in that fact. They were men and women who had been born in the slave country, or had personally resided there, perhaps for years. Benjamin Lundy in Virginia, Rankin in Tennessee, Garrison in Maryland, Birney in Alabama, Channing in Virginia again, and the Grimké sisters in South Carolina, had gained on the spot that knowledge of slavery and slaves which made them Abolitionists. They had made observations, and some of them — acting on the poet Gray’s maxim that memory is ten times worse than a lead pencil — had written them down.

Added to this, they were constantly in communication with those who had escaped from slavery, and the very closeness of contact into which the two classes were thrown gave them added knowledge of each other. Indeed, the very first anti-slavery book which attained wide attention, known as Walker’s Appeal, published in 1829, was not written by a Northern man, but by one born in Wilmington, South Carolina, of a free mother and a slave father, a man who had traveled widely through the South, expressly to study the degradation of his race, and had read what books of history he could procure bearing upon the subject. His book went through three editions; it advocated insurrection more and more directly. But it was based absolutely on the Declaration of Independence and on the theory that the negro was a man.

It must be borne in mind that there never yet was an oppressed race which was not assumed by its oppressors to be incapable of freedom. In a late volume of diplomatic correspondence compiled from letters of an Englishman (Anthony B. North Peat), written in 1864—69 during the sway of Louis Napoleon, the letter-writer lays it down as a rule (page 38) that “A Frenchman is not fit to be trusted with liberty. . . . A Frenchman is, more or less, born to be rode roughshod over, and he himself is positively happier when ruled with a rod of iron.” Forty years have now passed since this was written, and who now predicts the extinction of the French Republic? It turned out just the same with those who predicted that the colored race in America was fitted only for slavery and would never attain freedom.

If I may refer to my own experience as one of the younger Abolitionists, I can truly say that my discovery of the negro’s essential manhood first came, long before I had heard of the antislavery agitation, from a single remark of a slave made to my mother when she was traveling in Virginia in my childhood. After some efforts on her part to convince him that he was well off, he only replied, “Ah! Missis, free breath is good! ” There spoke, even to my childish ear, the instinctive demand of the human being. To this were afterwards added my own observations when visiting in the same state during a college vacation, at the age of seventeen, and observing the actual slaves on a plantation ; which experience was afterwards followed by years of intimate acquaintance with fugitive slaves in Massachusetts. It was the natural result of all this that, when called upon in maturer life to take military command of freed slaves, it never occurred to me to doubt that they would fight like any other men for their liberty, and so it proved. Yet I scarcely ever met a man or woman of Southern birth, during all that interval, who would not have laughed at the very thought of making them soldiers. They were feared as midnight plotters, as insurrectionists, disciples of Nat Turner, whose outbreak in 1831 filled the South with terror; but it was never believed, for a moment, that they would stand fire in the open field like men. Yet they proved themselves intensely human and did it.

Nor was their humanity recognized by the general public sentiment, even at the North, in earlier days. Even in Massachusetts, law or custom not only forbade any .merchant or respectable mechanic to take a colored apprentice, but any common carrier by land or sea was expected to eject from his conveyance any negro on complaint of any white passenger; and I can myself remember when a case of this occurred in Cambridge in my childhood, within sight of the Washington Elm. Churches still had negro pews, these being sometimes boarded up in front, so that the occupants could only look out through peepholes, as was once done in the old Baptist meeting-house at Hartford, Connecticut, where a negro had bought a pew and refused to leave it. Or the owner might be ejected by a constable, as happened in Park Street Church, Boston; or the floor cut from under the negro’s pew by the church authorities, as happened in Stoughton, Massachusetts. Even in places like the Quaker town of New Bedford, where pupils of both colors were admitted to the public schools, the black boys were seated by themselves, and white offenders were punished by being obliged to sit with them. So far was this carried, that it excited the indignation of the European world, in so much that Heine in his letters from Heligoland (July 1, 1830) gives it as an argument against emigrating to the United States, as Lieber and Follen had done: “Die eigentliche Sklaverei, die in den meisten nordamerikanischen Provinzen abgeschafft, empört mich nicht so sehr wie die Brutalität womit die freien Schwarzen und die Mulatten behandelt werden.” The negro was still regarded, both in the Northern and in the Southern states, as being something imperfectly human. It was only the Abolitionists who saw him as he was. They never doubted that he would have human temptations — to idleness, folly, wastefulness, even sensuality. They knew that he would need, like any abused and neglected race, education, moral instruction, and, above all, high example. They knew, in short, all that we know about him now. They could have predicted the outcome of such half-freedom as has been given him, — a freedom tempered by chain-gangs, lynching, and the lash.

It may be assumed, therefore, that there is no charge more unfounded than that frequently made to the effect that the negro was best understood by his former masters. This principle may be justly borne in mind in forming an opinion upon the very severest charges still brought against him. Thus a Southern negro has only to be suspected of any attempt at assault on a white woman, and the chances are that he will be put to death without trial, and perhaps with fiendish torture. Yet during my two years’ service with colored troops, only one charge of such assault was brought against any soldier, and that was withdrawn in the end and admitted to be false by the very man who made the assertion; and this in a captured town. But even supposing him to have a tendency to such an offense, does any one suppose for a moment that the mob which burns him on suspicion of such crime is doing it in defense of chastity? Not at all; it is in defense of caste. To decide its real character we need only ask what would happen if the facts proved to be the reverse of those at first assumed, — if the woman proved to have, after all, the slightest tinge of negro blood, and the offending man turned out to be a white man. Does anybody doubt that the case would be dismissed by acclamation in an instant, that the criminal would go free, and the victim be forgotten? If I err, then the books of evidence are all wrong, the tales of fugitives in the old days are all false. Was any white man ever lynched, either before or since emancipation, for insulting the modesty of a colored girl ? Look in the autobiographies of slaves, dozens of which are in our public libraries ! Look in the ante-bellum newspapers, or search the memories of those who, like the present writer, were employed on vigilance committees and underground railways before most of the present lynchers were born!

There were, again and again, women known to us who had fled to save their honor, — women so white that, like Ellen Craft, they passed in traveling for Caucasian. One such woman was under my observation for a whole winter in Worcester, who brought away with her the two children of her young master, whose mistress she had been, in spite of herself, and who was believed by many to have been her half-brother. So nearly white were she and her children that they were escorted up from Boston by a Worcester merchant, himself pro-slavery in sympathy, under whose escort they had been skillfully put at the Boston station by the agent of the underground railway. They finally passed into the charge of an honorable man, a white mechanic, who married her with the full approval of the ladies who had her in charge. I never knew or wished to know his name, thinking it better that she and her children should disappear, as they easily could, in the white ranks. Another slave child, habitually passing for white, was known to the public as “ Ida May, ” and was exhibited to audiences as a curiosity by Governor Andrew and others, until that injudicious practice was stopped. She, too, was under my care for a time, went to school, became clerk in a public office, and I willingly lost sight of her also for a similar reason. It must never be forgotten that every instance of slaves almost white, in those days, was not the outcome of legal marriage, but of the ungoverned passions of some white man. The evil was also self-multiplying, since the fairer the complexion of every half-breed girl the greater was her attraction and her perils. Those who have read that remarkable volume of Southern stories, written in New Orleans by Grace King, under the inexpressive title of Tales of a Time and Place, will remember the striking scene where a mob, which had utterly disregarded the danger run by a young girl who had passed for a mere octoroon, is lashed instantly into overpowering tumult when evidence is suddenly advanced at the last moment that she is not octoroon, but white.

Supposing, for the sake of argument, that there is to be found in the colored race, especially in the former slave states, a lower standard of chastity than among whites, it is hard to imagine any reasoning more grotesque than that which often comes from those who claim to represent the white race there. One recent writer from New Orleans in the Boston Herald describes the black race as being “in great part immoral in its sexual relations, whether from centuries of savagery or from nature, as some of the travelers insisted.” This needs only to be compared with the testimony of another Southern witness to show its folly. In a little book entitled Two Addresses on Negro Education in the South, Mr. A. A. Gunby, of the Louisiana bar, makes this simple statement: “Miscegenation in the South has always been and will always be confined to converse between white men and colored women, and the number of mulattoes in the future will depend absolutely on the extent to which white men restrain their immoral dealings with negro females.” This same writer goes on to say, what would seem to be the obvious common sense of the matter, that “ education is the best possible means to fortify negro women against the approaches of libertines.”

For my own part, I have been for many years in the position to know the truth, even on its worst side, upon this subject. Apart from the knowledge derived in college days from Southern students, then very numerous at Harvard, with whom I happened to be much thrown through a Southern relative, my classmate, I have evidence much beyond this. I have in my hands written evidence, unfit for publication, but discovered in a captured town during the civil war, — evidence to show that Rome in its decline was not more utterly degraded, as to the relation between the sexes, than was the intercourse often existing between white men and colored women on American slave plantations. How could it be otherwise where one sex had all the power and the other had no means of escape? Rufus Choate, one of the most conservative Northern men of the time as to the slavery question, is said to have expressed the opinion, as the result of careful study, that he had no reason to think that the industrial condition of the slave, all things considered, was worse than that of the laboring population in most European countries, but that for the colored woman the condition of slavery was “simply hell.” The race of mixed blood in America is the outcome of that condition; and that the colored race has emerged from such subjugation into the comparatively decent moral condition which it now holds proves conclusively that it is human in its virtues as well as in its sins. This I say as one who has been for nearly ten years trustee of a school for freedmen in the heart of the black district. The simple fact, admitted by all candid men and women, that no charges of immorality are ever brought against the graduates of these schools, and that, wherever they go, they are the centre of a healthy influence, is sufficient proof that what the whole nation needs is to deal with the negro race no longer as outcasts, but simply as men and women.

If thus dealt with, why should the very existence of such a race be regarded as an insuperable evil ? The answer is that the tradition lies solely in the associations of slavery. Outside of this country, such insuperable aversion plainly does not exist; not even is it to be found in the land nearest to us in kindred, England. A relative of mine, a Boston lady distinguished in the last generation for beauty and bearing, was staying in London with her husband,fifty years ago, when they received a call at breakfast time from a mulatto of fine appearance, named Prince Sanders, whom they had known well as a steward, or head waiter, in Boston. She felt that she ought to ask him, as a fellow countryman, to sit down at table with them, but she shrank from doing it until he rose to go; and then, in a cowardly manner, as she frankly admitted, stammered out the invitation. To which his reply was, “Thank you, madam, but I am engaged to breakfast with a duke, this morning,” which turned out to be true. No one can watch the carriages in Hyde Park, still less in Continental capitals, without recognizing the merely local quality of all extreme social antagonism between races. In a letter to the Boston Herald, dated September 17, 1903, the writer, Bishop Douet of Jamaica, testifies that there is a large class of colored people who there fill important positions as ministers of religion, doctors, and lawyers. He says : “This element in our society that I have alluded to is the result of miscegenation, which the writers from the South seem to look upon with so much horror. We have not found that the mixing of the races has produced such dire results. I number among my friends many of this mixed race who are as accomplished and intelligent ladies and gentlemen as you can find in any society in Boston or the other great cities of America.”

In connection with this, Bishop Douet claims that the masses of the colored population in all parts of the island are absolutely orderly, and that a white woman may travel from one end of the land to the other with perfect safety. All traces of the terrible period of the Maroon wars seem to have vanished, wars which lasted for nine years, during which martial law prevailed throughout the whole island, and high military authorities said of the Maroons that “their subjugation was more difficult than to obtain a victory over any army in Europe. ” These rebels, or their descendants, are the people who now live in a condition of entire peace and order, in spite of all the predicted perils of freedom. One of these perils, as we know, was supposed to be that of a mixture of blood between the races, but even that is found no longer a source of evil, this witness thinks, when concubinage has been replaced by legal marriage.

Among the ways in which the colored race shows itself intensely human are some faults which it certainly shares with the white race, besides the merely animal temptations. There is the love of fine clothes, for instance; the partiality for multiplying sects in religion, and secret societies in secular life ; the tendency toward weakening forces by too much subdivision; the intolerance shown toward free individual action. It is only the last which takes just now a somewhat serious form. It is a positive calamity that a few indiscretions and exaggerations on each side have developed into a bitter hostility to Booker Washington on the part of some of the most intelligent and even cultivated of his race. Internal feuds among philanthropists are, alas, no new story, and few bodies of reformers have escaped this peril. When we consider the bitter contest fought by Charles Sumner and his opponents in the Prison Discipline Society; the conflicts in the early temperance meetings between Total Abstainers and Teetotalers; those in the Woman Suffrage Movement between Mrs. Woodhull and her opponents, and in the anti-slavery movement itself between the voting and non-voting Abolitionists, we must not censure the warring negro reformer too severely. Nay, consider the subdivisions of the Garrison Abolitionists themselves, after slavery itself was abolished, at a period when I remember to have seen Edmund Quincy walk halfway up a stairway, and turn suddenly round to descend, merely to avoid Wendell Phillips, who was coming downstairs. Having worked side by side together through storm and through calm, denounced, threatened, and even mobbed side by side, the two men had yet separated in bitterness on the mere interpretation of a will made by a fellow laborer, Francis Jackson. When we look, moreover, beyond the circle of moral reformers, and consider simply the feuds of science, we see the same thing: Dr. Gould, the eminent astronomer, locking his own observatory against his own trustees to avoid interference; and Agassiz, in the height of the Darwinian controversy, denying that there was any division on the subject among scientific men, on the ground that any man who accepted the doctrine of evolution ceased thereby to be a man of science. If questions merely intellectual thus divide the leaders of thought, how can we expect points dividing men on the basis of conscience and moral service to be less potent in their influence? In the present case, as in most cases, the trouble seems chiefly due to the difficulty found by every energetic and enthusiastic person, absorbed in his own pursuits, in fully appreciating the equally important pursuits of others. Mr. Washington, in urging the development of the industrial pursuits he represents, has surely gone no farther than Frederick Douglass, the acknowledged leader of his people, who said, “Every colored mechanic is by virtue of circumstances an elevator of his race.” On the other hand, the critics of Mr. Washington are wholly right in holding that it is as important for this race to produce its own physicians, lawyers, preachers, and, above all, teachers, as to rear mechanics. It is infinitely to be regretted that everybody cannot look at every matter all round, but this, unhappily, is a form of human weakness in which there is no distinction of color.

It must always be remembered that all forward movements have their experimental stage. In looking over, at this distance of time, the letters and printed editorials brought out by the original enterprise of arming the blacks in our civil war, I find that it was regarded by most people as a mere experiment. It now seems scarcely credible that I should have received, as I did, one letter from a well-meaning sympathizer in Boston, recalling to my memory that Roman tradition of a body of rebellious slaves who were brought back to subjection, even after taking up arms, by the advance of a body of men armed with whips only. This correspondent anxiously warned me that the same method might be repeated. Yet it seems scarcely more credible that the young hero, Colonel Shaw himself, when I rode out to meet him, on his arrival with his regiment, seriously asked me whether I felt perfectly sure that the negroes would stand fire in line of battle, and suggested that, at the worst, it would at least be possible to drive them forward by having a line of white soldiers advance in their rear, so that they would be between two fires. He admitted the mere matter of individual courage to have been already settled in their case, and only doubted whether they would do as well in line of battle as in skirmishing and on guard duty. Nor do I intend to imply that he had any serious doubt beyond this, but simply that the question had passed through his mind. He did not sufficiently consider that in this, as at all other points, they were simply men.

We must also remember that a common humanity does not by any means exclude individual variety, but rather protects it. At first glance, in a black regiment, the men usually looked to a newly arrived officer just alike, but it proved after a little experience that they varied as much in face as any soldiers. It was the same as to character. Yet at the same time they were on the whole more gregarious and cohesive than the whites; they preferred organization, whereas nothing pleased white American troops so much as to be out skirmishing, each on his own responsibility, without being bothered with officers. There was also a certain tropical element in black troops, a sort of fiery utterance when roused, which seemed more Celtic than Anglo - Saxon. The only point where I was doubtful, though I never had occasion to test it, was that they might show less endurance under prolonged and hopeless resistance, like Napoleon’s men when during the retreat from Russia they simply drooped and died.

As to the general facts of courage and reliability, I think that no officer in our camp ever thought of there being any essential difference between black and white; and surely the judgment of these officers, who were risking their lives at every moment, month after month, on the fidelity of their men, was worth more than the opinion of the world besides. As the negroes were intensely human at these points, they were equally so in pointing out that they had more to fight for than the white soldier. They loved the United States flag, and I remember one zealous corporal, a man of natural eloquence, pointing to it during a meeting on the Fourth of July, and saying with more zeal than statistical accuracy, “Dar’s dat flag, we hab lib under it for eighteen hundred and sixty-two years, and we ’ll lib and die for it now.” But they could never forget that, besides the flag and the Union, they had home and wife and child to fight for. War was a very serious matter to them. They took a grim satisfaction when orders were issued that the officers of colored troops should be put to death on capture. It helped their esprit de corps immensely. Their officers, like themselves, were henceforward to fight with ropes around their necks. Even when the new black regiments began to come down from the North, the Southern blacks pointed out this difference, that in case of ultimate defeat, the Northern troops, black or white, must sooner or later be exchanged and returned to their homes, whereas, they themselves must fight it out or be reënslaved. All this was absolutely correct reasoning, and showed them human.

As all individuals differ, even in the same family, so there must doubtless be variations between different races. It is only that these differences balance one another so that all are human at last. Each race, like each individual, may have its strong point. Compare, for instance, the negroes and the IrishAmericans. So universal among negroes is the possession of a musical ear that I frequently had reason to be grateful for it as a blessing, were it only for the fact that those who saw colored soldiers for the first time always noticed it and exaggerated its importance. Because the negroes kept a better step, after forty-eight hours’ training, than did most white regiments after three or four months, these observers expressed the conviction that the blacks would fight well; which seemed to me, perhaps, a hasty inference. As to the Irish-Americans, I could say truly that a single recruit of that race in my original white company had cost me more trouble in training him to keep step than all my black soldiers put together. On the other hand, it was generally agreed that it was impossible to conceive of an Irish coward; the Irish being, perhaps, as universally brave as any race existing. Now, I am not prepared to say that in the colored race cowardice would be totally impossible, nor could that be claimed, absolutely, for the Anglo-Saxon race. On the other hand, to extend the comparison, it would not have been conceivable to me that a black soldier should be a traitor to his own side, and it is unquestionable that there were sometimes Irish deserters. All this variety is according to the order of nature. The world would be very monotonous if all human beings had precisely the same combination of strong and weak points. It is enough that they should all be human .

In the element of affectionateness and even demonstrativeness, the negroes and the Irish have much in common, and it is an attribute which makes them both attractive. The same may be held true of the religious element. No matter how reckless in bearing they might be, those negroes were almost fatalists in their confidence that God would watch over them; and if they died, it would be because their time had come. “ If each one of us was a praying man, ” said one of my corporals in a speech, “it appears to me that we could fight as well with prayers as with bullets, for the Lord has said that if you have faith even as a grain of mustard seed cut into four parts, you can say to the sycamore tree ‘Arise,’ and it will come up.” And though Corporal Long’s botany may have got a little confused, his faith proved itself by works, for he volunteered to go many miles on a solitary scouting expedition into the enemy’s country in Florida, and got back safe after he had been given up for lost. On the whole, it may be said that the colored and the Irish soldiers were a little nearer to one another than to the white American - born type; and that both were nearer to the Western recruits, among Americans, than to the more reticent and self-controlled New England men. Each type had its characteristics, and all were intensely human.

All these judgments, formed in war, have thus far sustained themselves in peace. The enfranchisement of the negroes, once established, will of course never be undone. They have learned the art, if not of political self-defense, at least of migration from place to place, and those states which are most unjust to them will in time learn to prize their presence and regret their absence. The chances are that the mingling of races will diminish, but whether this is or is not the outcome, it is, of course, better for all that this result should be legal and not voluntary, rather than illegal and perhaps forced. As the memories of the slave period fade away, the mere fetich of color-phobia will cease to control our society ; and marriage may come to be founded, not on the color of the skin, but upon the common courtesies of life, and upon genuine sympathies of heart and mind. To show how high these sympathies might reach even in slavery, I turn back to a letter received by one of my soldiers from his wife, — a letter which I have just unearthed from a chaos of army papers where it has lain untouched for forty years. It is still inclosed in a quaint envelope of a pattern devised in Philadelphia at that day, and greatly in demand among the negroes. It shows a colored print of the tree of liberty bearing in the place of leaves little United States flags, each labeled with the name of some state, while the tree bears the date “1776 ” at its roots. The letter is addressed to “Solomon Steward Company H., 1st S. C. Vols., Beaufort, S. C.,” this being the name of a soldier in my regiment who showed the letter to me and allowed me to keep it. He was one of the Florida men, who were, as a rule, better taught and more intelligent than the South Carolina negroes. They were therefore coveted as recruits by all my captains; and they had commonly been obliged on enlistment to leave their families behind them in Florida, not nearly so well cared for as those under General Saxton’s immediate charge. The pay of my regiment being, moreover, for a long time delayed, these families often suffered in spite of all our efforts. I give the letter verbatim, and it requires no further explanation : —

FERNANDINA, FLORIDA, Feb. the 8 [1864].
MY DEAR HUSBAND, — This Hour I Sit Me Down To write you In a Little world of sweet sounds The Choir In The Chapel near Here are Chanting at The organ and Thair Morning Hymn across The street are sounding and The Dear Little birds are joining Thair voices In Tones sweet and pure as angels whispers. but My Dear all The songs of The birds sounds sweet In My Ear but a sweeter song Than That I now Hear and That Is The song of a administing angel Has Come and borne My Dear Little babe To Join In Tones with Them sweet and pure as angels whispers. My babe only Live one day It was a Little Girl. Her name Is alice Gurtrude steward I am now sick In bed and have Got nothing To Live on The Rashion That They Give for six days I Can Make It Last but 2 days They dont send Me any wood They send The others wood and I Cant Get any I dont Get any Light at all You Must see To That as soon as possible for I am In in want of some Thing To Eat
I have nothing more to say to you but Give my Regards to all the friends all the family send thair love to you
no more at pressant

Does it need any further commentary to prove that the writer of a letter like this was intensely human?

Thomas Wentworth Higginson.